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The surging demand for coffee affects the world, and environmentalists and scientists are researching more sustainable methods of coffee production

In just the last three decades alone, there was a 60% increase in production due to the rising demand for coffee, according to the International Coffee Organisation. However, the increase in output also means an increase in the resources required to support that production, which impacts the environment, notably increasing the risk of further deforestation and using large quantities of fresh water.

As stated by the Water Footprint Network, 140 litres of water is needed to produce 125 millimetres of coffee. Deforestation in Brazil, the world’s biggest coffee-growing country, reached its 15-year high in the Amazon rainforest, according to a report by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Between August 2020 and July 2021, it lost 13,235 square kilometres, which is 22% more than the previous year.

This is one of the premises used by scientists who want to research alternative ways to make coffee. In Finland, scientists are researching sustainable, lab-grown coffee as others are doing, like Atomo in the US. 

Finland’s BTT Technical Research Centre successfully produced coffee cells in a bioreactor through cellular agriculture. Instead of starting with coffee beans, coffee is made through frozen, dried powder produced in the lab. After roasting the powder, it is brewed, similar to a regular cup of coffee.

The scientists say they are looking for ways to augment rather than replace the coffee farmers. So speciality coffee will stay special, but they hope one day to reduce the amount of resources required to create the large-scale commercial and lower grade coffees, used for example, in instant coffee.

This innovation has potential one day to remove a few of the issues the coffee industry is currently facing. For example, deforestation is not required for production, nor the usage of significant amounts of freshwater, since these bioreactors can recycle the water used.

On top of using this bioreactor means coffee can be produced at any time with temperatures and weather conditions being controlled. Not only can this solve the supply volatility, but it also eliminates the transportation process, traceability and transparency issues.

Even though it could take at least four years to get regulatory approval for this lab-grown coffee, there is already interest surrounding the product in just Finland, which is the world’s largest coffee consumer.

However, technology for this innovation is costly. Despite its overwhelming benefits, according to CEO of World Coffee Research Jennifer Long, priority for investments is given to more urgent humanitarian issues in the coffee industry: 

Coffee research is a distant priority when you have more pressing humanitarian priorities … Many low-income countries are responsible for delivering coffee to the world but haven’t been able to invest in ways that would enable their farmers to reduce risks.

Jennifer Long, CEO of World Coffee Research

Currently, there are programs like those by World Coffee Research, and Conservation International who help the industry through practical research projects that are used to impact the wider industry today.

Innovation such as this one however, are a long way from making a difference to the global production landscape, although even projects with distant horizons need to start somewhere.

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