Finnish scientists create 'sustainable' lab-grown coffee

Heiko Rischer, pointing out a dish made of light brown powder, says that it is really coffee.
Scientists behind a new method to grow sustainable coffee in a laboratory suggest that latte drinkers could soon be consuming java from a petri plate rather than a plantation.

Heiko Rischer, pointing out a dish made of light brown powder, says that it is really coffee.

The Finnish technical research institute VTT, led by his team of researchers, believes that their coffee will avoid many of the environmental pitfalls of mass production.

Coffee is not made from beans but rather from coffee plants grown in clusters under controlled light, temperature and oxygen conditions in a bioreactor.

The powder can be used in the exact same way as regular coffee once it has been roasted.

Rischer's team employed the same principles of cell agriculture as are used to make lab-grown meat. This does not require the slaughter of animals and was approved by Singapore authorities last year to be sold for the first time.

Rischer stated that coffee is a problem product because of rising global temperatures. This has caused existing plantations to become less productive and forced farmers to clear more rainforest for new crops.

Heikki Aisala, a researcher, said that they are allowed to "taste and spit" but not to swallow the food for the moment.

Rischer stated, "There's the transport issue and the fossil fuel use... it makes total sense to search for alternatives."

While the team is analyzing how sustainable their product would be on large-scale production, they believe that it would require less labor and use fewer resources than traditional coffee.

Rischer stated, "We already know that our water footprint is much lower than what is required for field growth."

Taste test

The key to the success for the lab-grown coffee variety will be its taste. However, only a select group of sensory analysts has been allowed to test the new brew due to its status as a "novel foods" product.

They are allowed to "taste and spit but not swallow it" for the moment, according to Heikki Aisala (research scientist in sensory perception) who is leading the testing.

"Compared to regular coffee," Aisala said to AFP that cellular coffee is less bitter than regular coffee. She also explained that the lab-produced powder has less fruitiness.

Rischer believes it will take at least four years for the team's coffee-grown in the lab to be approved by the FDA and sold commercially to allow it to compete with its traditional counterpart on the shelves.

Rischer stated, "But that being said we have to admit we aren't professional coffee roasters and that a lot of flavour generation actually occurs in the roasting process."

In search of a more sustainable coffee alternative, other initiatives are underway.

In September, Seattle startup Atomo announced that it had raised $11.5million in funding for its "molecular espresso", which is a type of coffee made from organic material other than coffee plants.

However, surveys done in Canada and the USA have shown that there is a widespread distrust of lab-grown food replacements. This is even more evident among younger consumers.

Some food policy experts warn that, despite the environmental benefits, coffee producers could lose their livelihoods if they shift to lab-produced coffee.

Rischer in Helsinki estimates that it will take at least four years for the team's coffee-grown in the lab to be approved by the FDA and sold commercially to allow it to compete with its regular counterpart on the shelves.

This project is of special importance in Finland, where according to Statista, Finland ranks among the top coffee consumers worldwide. They consume an average of 10 kilos (22 lbs) each year.

Aisala stated, "There's certainly a lot of enthusiasm,"

Further information about coffee cells grown in a bioreactor using cellular agriculture

2021 AFP

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