Industries in Depth

Where can you find the world’s most sustainable coffee? In a lab in Finland, of course...

this is coffee in a cup. Coffee production is responsible for vast deforestation, so scientists are making a lab-grown alternative

Lab-grown coffee could significantly reduce the environmental impact of this very popular beverage. Image: UNSPLASH/karl chor

Emma Charlton
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • We drink more than 600 billion cups of coffee a year.
  • But the industry is facing sustainability challenges including water pollution, biodiversity loss and deforestation.
  • Now a lab in Finland says it can grow coffee using cellular agriculture, and other companies in the US are exploring similar concepts.

Coffee – it’s likely an integral part of your daily routine. Indeed, 25 million people depend on it for their well-being while, globally, we get through 600 billion cups of coffee each year, according to the Sustainable Coffee Challenge.

But it’s also a globally traded commodity and a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s facing sustainability issues on a grand scale.

Challenges include water pollution, biodiversity loss, soil erosion, agrochemical use, deforestation, waste generation and labour exploitation, according to research published in Business Strategy and the Environment.


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about deforestation?

Since coffee is typically cultivated in tropical or subtropical areas, plantations often sit side by side with some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems – raising the risk of potential damage to the environment.

a map showing coffee is typically cultivated in some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems.
Coffee is typically cultivated in some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems. Image: Our World in Data

With that in mind, scientists are asking a new question: would you buy and drink coffee that’s been grown in a lab rather than on a plantation?

Coffee from cells

The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland uses cellular agriculture to create coffee cells – a process that they say could be scaled up in the future. The first batches produced by a laboratory in Finland smell and taste like conventional coffee, according to the company, although “not 100%” admits a researcher.

a photo showing how coffee cell cultures become roasted coffee
Coffee cell cultures (right) become roasted coffee (left). Image: VTT Research

“We skip the farming part and we use plant cell cultures instead,” Dr Heiko Rischer, Research Team Leader at VTT told Reuters in an interview. “So actually real coffee cell cultures, but they’re not generated in the field ... instead we’re growing them in bioreactors.”

Finding an alternative matters because coffee is big business – and growing: global demand is expected to triple production by 2050, according to a report from Conservation International.

Rischer says getting regulatory approval and being ready to ramp up production could be just four years away. The research centre would also need to think about processing, product formulation and preparing the market for its new product.

The result could mean your morning coffee has less of an environmental footprint.

“Climate change is front and centre for the coffee industry,” Rischer says. “We’re seeing, throughout the tropical coffee belt, farmers being impacted by climate change, increasing temperatures, but also more erratic rainfall and increased drought.”

Have you read?

Coffee without beans

Other groups are also exploring the possibility of coffee without beans. US-based Compound Foods has raised $4.5 million in seed funding, giving it total funding of $5.3 million to pursue its aim of using synthetic biology to create coffee by extracting molecules.

Seattle-based Atomo Coffee aims to “hack the coffee bean” and create a molecular coffee.

And elsewhere, cellular agriculture is being seen as one of the key routes towards more sustainable food production – for example in the production of meat-free burgers. These products – created using cell cultures rather than actual animals or plants – involve using far less energy and water, and generate much fewer carbon emissions.

Even so, there’s probably some work to be done convincing people to give up their daily brew – and the cultivation of coffee is an important source of income for much of the developing world.

There’s also a human angle. Coffee is grown on 12.5 million farms around the world and up to 80% of those are smallholder farms located in developing countries, according to a report from the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

Livelihoods at risk

Lab-grown coffee on a grand scale risks the livelihoods of workers in the coffee industry, Daniele Giovannucci, president and co-founder of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, told The Guardian.

More broadly, there is a need for common coffee sustainability indicators consistent with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as a mandatory reporting framework, according to research led by Simon L Bager for the Earth and Life Institute.

His research showed room for improvement in the coffee industry and potential for greenwashing that needs to be addressed.

a diagram showing the four key areas of how we can make coffee more sustainable.
Making coffee more sustainable. Image: The Sustainable Coffee Challenge

For the Sustainable Coffee Challenge, what is needed is a collaborative effort between companies, governments, non-governmental organizations, research institutions and others to transition the coffee sector to full sustainability.

“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,” concludes Rischer. “Ultimately, all efforts should result in more sustainable and healthy food for the benefit of the consumer and the planet.”


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Related topics:
Industries in DepthClimate ActionSustainable DevelopmentNature and Biodiversity
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