With over 1 billion daily consumers, coffee is one of the world’s most popular beverages.
The crop has two main breeds, Arabica and Robusta.
There are a variety of coffee flavors with different methods of preparation, including latte, espresso, macchiato, and ristretto.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, over 63 percent of Americans agree that tighter environmental laws are worthwhile. Source-1
The increase in climate change awareness has spilled over to almost all industries, including coffee.
More and more people are coming up with initiatives to address the climate change crisis.
But where does a cup of hot java fit into all of this?
Effects of the coffee industry on the environment 1.
Research shows that, among other food products, the coffee industry is the sixth highest producer of greenhouse gases.
The sources include transportation, burning fossil fuels when processing, and preparation of coffee at home or in cafes.
- When separating coffee beans from cherries during processing, massive amounts of organic waste are left in pulp, parchment, and residual matter.
- The wastes are usually dumped in rivers and oceans.
A research study conducted for six months by Leeds Beckett University revealed that 547,000 tons of coffee cultivated in Central America contaminated over 110,000 cubic meters of water and produced over 1.1 million tons of pulp every day. Source-2
- Coffee is a tropical crop, and originally, it grew in tropical forests under a shaded canopy of trees.
- Due to high demand, there was a transition to sun-grown coffee plantations in the 1970s, where farmers cleared trees and grew coffee in rows on plantations. The heavy deforestation of forests reduced water catchment areas.
- It also reduced biodiversity as the animals, birds, and insects staying in those trees were scattered.
- To date, coffee farming has cleared more than 2.5 million trees in Central America.
- The processing of coffee beans and the use of pesticides are major sources of water pollution, leading to the death of marine life and deterioration of human health.
- Modern coffee farming leads to soil degradation.
- Due to the massive dumping of waste and excessive use of chemicals in coffee farming, experts say that by 2100, 50% of land used to grow coffee won’t be suitable for farming.
- Plastic coffee cups and waste caffeine are major pollutants of both land and sea, endangering both marine and human life.
- Experts say that 2% to 3% of the caffeine we take in leaves our body intact and goes into the sewers.
Unstable production Aside from its impact on the environment, there is a growing shortage of coffee in the world even as demand for it continues to increase due to various reasons, including:
- Twenty-five million small-scale farmers produce 80% of the coffee in the world, but they often receive only 10% of the $70 billion industry due to unfair trade practices and corruption.
- Consequently, countries that rely on coffee as the main export remains in poverty, thus having poor infrastructure and little automation.
- This greatly hinders shipping and reduces the quality of their produce.
- The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced the number of coffee farmers and greatly affected the shipping of coffee from producing countries to the importing countries.
- Extreme weather conditions around the tropics have greatly hampered production.
- Where temperatures are rising, the coffee plants become more prone to diseases like stem rust and pests like nematodes.
- Where temperatures are decreasing rapidly, the plants wither or die due to frost.
For instance, a severe drought followed by frost in Brazil, the leading coffee exporter, led to serious shortages in the world.
Furthermore, heavy rains in Colombia have greatly reduced harvests.
The trend combined with high freight costs led to the 60% hike in Arabica coffee prices seen in recent weeks.
We can now see that more strain goes to mother nature with every cup of coffee you buy.
Moreover, the normal production methods of the crop cannot hope to satisfy the growing demand for coffee in the world.
Therefore, a sustainable solution to the problem needs to be found, or else we risk losing this beloved beverage.
Lab-grown foods The resistance to genetically modified foods has gradually reduced in favor of saving the planet.
In December 2020, for instance, the Singapore Food Agency was the first regulatory authority to approve lab-grown meat for general consumption. Source-3
It was a welcome move as the meat industry produces the most greenhouse gases among all other food products.
The landmark decision is expected to ripple across food industries and other countries in the world.
Furthermore, lab-grown food startups have seen a sharp increase in funding over recent years as entrepreneurs seek to capitalize on the growing gap between the demand and supply of food.
Several companies have already embarked on producing coffee without the destructive effects of traditional processes.
VTT Technical Research Centre: Lab-grown Coffee Finland's state-owned research company, VTT, focuses on solving global challenges for the sustainable growth of businesses and society. Source-4
Consequently, they embarked on a project to sustainably and scalably produce coffee in the lab to address its global shortage while reducing its environmental impact.
In September 2022, the company unveiled the world’s first batch of lab-grown coffee.
The researchers at VTT employed a technique known as cellular agriculture to remove cells from a part of a real coffee plant, such as a leaf.
The scientists then combine these cells with a nutrient medium for multiplication.
They then transfer the multiplied cells to a bioreactor to grow their biomass.
After that, they harvest the coffee and then proceed to dry, roast, and brew it just like regular coffee.
VTT submitted the batch to their trained sensory panel, which reported that it was very similar to ordinary coffee.
Dr. Heiko Rischer, the head of biotechnology at the company, said that tasting the breakthrough cup was exciting.
Furthermore, he noted that it required a team of experts from several fields to make the achievement a reality.
Moreover, they would also need to conduct more iterations to perfect and scale the process.
However, he was optimistic that it would take just four years for them to perfect it, receive regulatory approval, and bring it to market. Interestingly, the project developed from research done by scientist P.M.
Townsley in the 1970s, culminating in his 1974 paper.
Their mission is to molecularly reverse-engineer the coffee bean using organic wastes.
Atomo’s ingredients, which are 98% upcycled, include caffeine, inulin, natural flavors, water, and extracts of chicory root, date seed, and grape skin.
Atomo comes in two flavors: Ultra Smooth and Classic.
What’s more, they are also planning to release latte and mocha flavors. The company has so far raised $11.5 million in funding.
In September 2022, the company launched a one-day online pop-up selling their molecular coffee at $5.99 per can.
In February 2019, they did an informal taste test with students from the University of Washington.
They reported that 70% of students preferred Atomo over an unnamed but well-known coffee brand.
Similarly, they interviewed with GeekWire in 2022, and upon tasting the two flavors, they reported that Atomo tasted distinctly similar to ordinary coffee. It is said to use 94% less water and produce 93% fewer carbon emissions when compared to traditional coffee brewing. Moreover, they've spent the better part of the last year scaling their patented processes and formula for mass production. The company's factory is in Seattle, just six blocks from the Starbucks headquarters, and it employs 25 people. Atomo's facility now can produce 1,000 cups of coffee each day. They aim to grow that to 10,000 servings each day in the next 12 months. Source-4
They also want to move into a facility that can manufacture 30 million servings of coffee per year in the next two years.
Compound Foods: Synthesizing Coffee with Microbes Maricel Saenz, originally from Costa Rica, is the founder and CEO of Compound Foods.
She started the company out of concern for the future of the coffee industry, the product, and its producers.
The company has the vision to recreate the natural chemical processes of making coffee inside the lab.
The company spent a lot of time figuring out the biological components of coffee.
They then use food science and fermentation to recreate a base formula using sustainably grown microbes that don’t use a lot of water.
Compound Foods is also working on adding in choice aromas and flavors that you would get from different areas of the world.
Moreover, Saenz said the company had found a way to vary the level of caffeine in your coffee to suit every situation.
According to preliminary results from a carbon life cycle assessment, the company's coffee emits a tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions and water that traditional coffee does. Source-5
Compound Foods plans to introduce its products to market by late 2022 at prices similar to specialty coffees.
However, they expect to lower their prices once they scale their production.
The company has raised $5.3 million in seed funding to date.
It has a broad portfolio of investors, including SVLC, Lowercarbon Capital, Humboldt Fund, Collaborative Fund, Petri Bio, Maple VC, and Nick Greene, CEO of Thrive Market.
With the interest of coffee farmers at heart, Saenz has partnered with NGOs to help small coffee growers to change to more sustainable farming practices, including training and crop insurance.
Finnish Scientists Create Lab-Grown ‘Coffee’ -Youtube
Technological advancements have enabled us to grow coffee in a lab or synthesize it from biological components.
With investors pouring more dollars into research, it’s exciting to imagine what might come next.
Who knows? We might even get to enjoy exotic flavors without paying a premium.