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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Lab-Grown Coffee:
Sustainable Brew of the Future?

If researchers can bridge the gap in taste between coffee that was cultivated in the field and that cultivated in a lab, it could eventually be a win-win for coffee lovers and biodiversity alike.

Over the past century, the world has fallen in love with coffee. In fact, a significant percentage of the global population now relies on it every single morning.

Culturally ingrained in daily ritual for centuries in both ancient Mecca and Constantinople, the Ottoman Empire helped spread the caffeinated beverage throughout the Middle East and Europe. By the 20th century, the greatest concentration of coffee cultivation was in the Western Hemisphere — especially Brazil and Colombia — while Vietnam became the main supplier for those in the far east and much of the globe.

For many today, coffee is perceived as equally essential as water.

A 2021 report by National Coffee Data Trends found that 60 percent of US consumers drink more coffee than water (or any other beverage for that matter). According to the Food Institute, younger generations are also drinking more coffee than in the past — with 65 percent of millennials in their twenties and thirties drinking coffee within the past 24 hours — setting a record for that age group.

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Coffee consumption has also increased among younger Gen Zers; and while this is great news for the coffee industry, it’s problematic for the planet.

The planetary impacts of coffee production

To understand the environmental consequences of coffee, it’s important to understand its lifecycle — by way of a lifecycle assessment (LCA). This looks at everything from its initial production and processing on the farm to subsequent distribution, roasting, packaging, brewing, and everything else; all the way to disposal, which includes packaging waste.

Here we’ll focus on the early stages, such as cultivation, which has some of the heaviest impacts.

Coffee production is in the list of top-five foods that emit the highest amount of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.

One of the key factors in this commodity’s environmental impact is that it requires land — lots of it — and mostly from some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet: the world’s rainforests. In fact, for every cup of coffee consumed, approximately one square inch of rainforest is destroyed.

Not only does this ultimately leave countless species of fauna without a habitat, it also destroys valuable carbon sinks — ecosystems that absorb carbon from the atmosphere. Tropical forests can hold up to 247 gigatons of carbon — over seven times the amount human activities emit every year. When they are cut or burned to make room for coffee plantations, these trees release the carbon they stored during their lifetime instead of absorbing it.

And, as with a host of other popular commodities, their biodiverse growing regions are already feeling the effects of climate change — many coffee farmers around the world are now at the mercy of irregular weather conditions that can severely impact their crops.

Cultivating a solution

One potential remedy to the environmental problem of coffee production — one that doesn’t ask billions around the world to quit their favorite caffeinated drink — is coffee made from plant cells.

Many of us are already familiar with the idea of cell-based, or cultivated, meat, dairy and even egg products — which are produced from animal and dairy cells — and are growing in popularity as potentially sustainable alternatives to the conventional versions of those foods produced through land- and resource-intensive animal agriculture. Cell-based coffee is produced in a similar fashion.

It starts with the extraction of DNA from the coffee leaf. The cells are then bio-printed onto scaffolds, which can then be made into coffee without the need for growing more coffee plants in places that would otherwise be covered in rainforest.

VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland has been producing coffee cells in a bioreactor by way of cellular agriculture and says it has successfully made lab-grown coffee that actually smells and tastes like coffee.

“We help companies innovate and come up with new solutions,” Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at VTT, told Sustainable Brands®.

He explained that they “generate biomass using the coffee plant cells — growing them in bioreactors in a contained vessel — and then make the beverage out of that.”

With regard to taste, Rischer admitted that VTT “is using undifferentiated cells” and how “this is one type of cell in the bioreactor — whereas a coffee bean has multiple cell types which have different functions.” In layman's terms, the taste may not be a 100 percent match, due to the nature of coffee plants.

Those involved in the creation of cellular coffee admit it still has a way to go before it can be produced at scale. Then, there’s the need to obtain the necessary approvals by governments to distribute it at a commercial level — not to mention the continued fine-tuning needed before the resulting beverage would please the palates of coffee connoisseurs.

“This is just the initial testing exercise. What we could see from both chemical analyses and sensory evaluations is that you have hundreds of compounds in a normal roasted coffee — and in our material you have a certain fraction of that; but nevertheless, you can recognize it as coffee — even though it’s not yet an optimized product,” the Finnish researcher explained. “Either way, when you buy a coffee at a shop, it’s usually a blended material. Brands always make sure they have a consistent flavor.”

If researchers can bridge the gap in taste between coffee that was cultivated in the field and that cultivated in a lab, it could eventually be a win-win for coffee lovers and biodiversity alike.