Scientists in Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre are developing coffee from cell cultures in a laboratory and say that it has a much lesser climatic impact than regular coffee. The ‘eco-friendly’ coffee may get regulatory approval in the US and Europe in four years, paving the way for commercialisation of the product.
However, growing coffee in a laboratory may affect the livelihoods of millions of workers in countries like Ethiopia, where traditional coffee is a primary source of income in the economy.
Climate impact of traditional coffee
The traditional coffee industry is vulnerable to the effects of climate change as well as a contributor to it. According to science and technology publication New Atlas, about 10 billion kg of coffee is produced annually around the world. With rising demand, it is only expected that more space will need to be created through deforestation to raise coffee plants. Deforestation will lead to damage of biodiversity and increase carbon emissions.
At the same time, coffee is highly susceptible to extreme weather conditions such as frost and drought. Rising temperatures not just make way for pests and diseases, but also significantly reduce cultivable land. According to The Guardian, half the land used to grow coffee is estimated to become unproductive by 2050 due to the climate crisis.
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In response to the challenges of the traditional coffee industry, scientists are developing coffee without using coffee beans.
VTT Technical Research Centre is creating the coffee by floating cell cultures in bioreactors filled with a nutrient. The process of developing this kind of coffee requires less water and no pesticides. The coffee can be produced in the local markets, thereby reducing transport emissions. At present, VTT is working on a life cycle analysis of the process.
“Once we have those figures, we will be able to show that the environmental impact will be much lower than what we have with conventional cultivation,” Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at VTT, told The Guardian.
Apart from VTT, some startups in the US are also working on bean-less coffee. Seattle-based Atomo Coffee has raised $11.5 million to make molecular coffee by converting the compounds from plant waste into those found in green coffee. The process results in 93 percent lower carbon emissions and no deforestation. It also uses 94 percent less water than traditional coffee production, according to Atomo.
Impact on livelihoods
Producing lab-grown coffee could impact the livelihoods of workers in the traditional coffee industry in developing countries. In countries like Ethiopia, coffee is one of the primary contributors to the economy. According to a report by independent think tank International Institute for Sustainable Development, around 125 million people worked in traditional coffee industry in 2017.
“What’s going to happen to all these people? What are they going to do, because this is a key cash crop?” Daniele Giovannucci, President of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, told The Guardian.
Giovannucci believes moving away from traditional coffee production could create socio-economic problems that could worsen global sustainability.
(Edited by : Shoma Bhattacharjee)
First Published: IST