Coffee produced in a lab sounds sustainable and (apparently) tastes good. But what does it mean for farmers, asks David Burrows?
Can you create coffee in a laboratory? It is a question I asked in an article for Caffeine magazine in November 2016. Synthetic wines had just been developed, so why not coffees?
There is “no particular reason that we couldn’t create a coffee from the ground up”, Christopher Hendon, a postdoctoral associate in the Chemistry Department at the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told me. (He had previously worked with UK barista champion Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood to determine the best type of water to use in coffee).
But it wouldn’t be easy. “You would need to perform a very complex series of molecular isolations to determine each component in, for example, the Reko from Ethiopia after it was brewed to taste ‘good’”, Hendon explained.
Coffee also goes through processing, storage, transportation, roasting and brewing before it’s tasted, any one of which will change the potential flavour in that coffee. And whilst mimicking a £300 bottle of wine but selling it for only £50 may have merits commercially, with coffee there wasn’t such a commercial lure.
Still, five years on and scientists have managed to crack it. Unsurprisingly, they are based in Finland, a country claiming to drink the most coffee per capita – 180g per person per week, according to Statista. The EU average is around 100g, whilst for Brits it’s just under 56g.
The state-owned VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland claimed it has “successfully produced coffee cells in a bioreactor through cellular agriculture”. An expert panel, “found the profile of the brew to bear similarity to ordinary coffee”.
It’s all very exciting, and timely. Coffee prices have soared in recent months. The Robusta futures benchmark hit a high in August thanks to a strict lockdown in Vietnam, a major producer, and growing concerns about export supplies. Last week, The Guardian reported that Arabica bean prices could reach $4.44/kg this year (more than double the futures price in July, which marked a seven-year high).
The Arabica market also faces freighting issues but the other factor is climate change. Earlier this year, Brazil faced the worst drought in almost a century. Now frosts, sudden and severe ones, are wiping out entire crops on some farms, according to reports.
Experts predicted these climate challenges for commodities like coffee some time ago, but that doesn’t ease the shocks in the here and now. “Climate change, a few years back, was something to be discussed by higher management and politics,” coffee merchant and Brazilian expat Andre Selga told The Guardian. “But it seems now it’s come down to our level and ordinary people are having to deal with those things.”
Producing coffee in the comfort of a laboratory has suddenly become even more appealing. “These solutions have a lower water footprint and less transport is needed due to local production,” Heiko Rischer, VTT head of plant biotechnology, told New Atlas. “There isn’t any seasonal dependency or the need for pesticides either."
He reckons they are “four years away” from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place (In the EU, the lab-grown coffee should first be approved under the novel food regulations before being marketed). “The true impact of this scientific work will happen through companies who are willing to re-think food ingredient production and start driving commercial applications,” he said.
Some businesses are a step ahead. US-based ‘molecular coffee company’ Atomo last month launched “the first ever molecular cold brew”. CEO Andy Kleitsch told GeekWire: “It is crazy to think that we started this journey three years ago in a garage, and here we are with a factory, actually producing coffee and getting it into the hands of consumers.”
His process converts “compounds in upcycled ingredients […] into the same compounds found within green coffee. As a result, the start-up claims, the process produces 93% fewer carbon emissions and uses 94% less water than conventional coffee. “No beans means no deforestation,” as a press release notes.
But no beans means no farmers. They are already competing with climate change (not to mention unfair trading). Chuck in a cellular competitor that might achieve price parity and many thousands more could go out of business.
Coffees produced in a lab may well boast lower footprints (at least according to their inventors) but how about the labour and love that goes into them? “The whole delight in experiencing coffee is knowing that many people, from many cultures have come together over many processes to produce a cup of coffee,” specialility coffee expert Thomas Haigh told me five years ago. “Why should we want to bypass all of that?”
The debate on the wider environmental, social and economic benefits and costs of these cellular technologies – which are attracting millions in investment to create everything from coffee to chicken – has only just begun.