If ‘eco-anxiety’ – the existential, chronic fear of environmental doom – hasn’t got you after COP26, then maybe the fear of going without your morning coffee might. Lab grown coffee is here, but will it catch on?
Because seemingly we can’t have anything nice, beanless brews look to be a thing of the future. There’s no denying that the production of coffee has a marked impact upon the environment, from deforestation to make way for bean cultivation, to the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its production. Combined with rising demand for it, and the fact that its cultivation is also vulnerable to climate change – it’s estimated that half of the land used to grow coffee could be unproductive by 2050 due to changes in the weather – then looking for a more sustainable alternative begins to look like a good idea.
The development of lab-grown alternatives for commercial sale has begun in earnest. One such offering comes from the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Their work has produced from cell cultures, not the beans themselves. The cells are floated in bioreactors filled with a nutrient. There’s no pesticides, much less water used, and because it can be grown close to markets that consume it, much less impact from transportation. The product is not yet commercially available, and is waiting for regulatory approval in Europe and the US.
Global coffee hubs
In the US, efforts aptly centre in Seattle. The city’s Atomo Coffee start-up has already launched a coffee made by converting compounds from plant waste – namely date seed extracts, grape skin, chicory root, and caffeine – to the compounds found in green coffee. The ingredients are roasted, ground, and then brewed. The brand says this method of production produces 93% less carbon emissions, and
usedsuses 94% less water than standard coffee production. Though it can currently produce 1,000 servings of coffee a day, it has plans to scale up production to 30 million servings of coffee a year within the next two years.
Further down the coast in San Francisco Compound Foods, uses synthetic biology to create coffee. A base formula is created using sustainable ingredients that don’t require much water. Molecules are extracted from beans, and microbe and fermentation technology used to create the flavours and aromas. The company said it wants to create coffee products that match the variation and unique flavour of beans grown across the world. Having received $5.3m in funding, the company plans to commercially launch its coffee in late 2022.
Lab grown milks
What’s more, it seems like lovers of cappuccinos, lattes and other milky, frothy coffees will soon be able to make their entire brew completely sustainable. Stand back oat milk, almond milk, and all other non-dairy derivatives. Lab grown milk looks to be the new milk in town. A process called microbial fermentation is meant to mimic cow’s milk exactly. Though of course its vegan, and much more eco-friendly to produce, the resulting milk is also nutritionally identical to dairy milk, offering consumers a feel-good ethical option, that doesn’t feel like a compromise.
So, will our brews of the future be derived from a lab and not mother nature? Consumers have been wary of GMO foods in the past, even plant-based ones. Much will depend on how it is marketed to consumers. And of course, taste is king. Lab-grown, molecular coffees will first and foremost have to taste good if they are to go mainstream and receive buy in not just from dedicated, eco-aware shoppers (though they are growing in number), but your average coffee-loving consumer.
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