Today’s Solutions: October 19, 2021

From meat to milk to chocolate, lab-grown products have increased in popularity in recent years, as people look for alternatives with a minimal impact on the environment as well as the welfare of workers and animals. Now, coffee is about to join in on the lab-grown movement thanks to Finnish researchers who are working to grow coffee from plant cells in bioreactors.

As mountains in places like Colombia get hotter as a result of climate change, the amount of land that’s suitable to grow high-quality coffee is getting smaller. That’s exactly what has driven a Finnish lab more than 5,000 miles from Colombia to try to create an alternative.

“Conventional coffee production is notoriously associated with several problematic issues, such as unsustainable farming methods, exploitation, and land rights,” says Heiko Rischer, a lead researcher at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the state-owned organization behind the project. “Growing demand and climate change add to the problems.”

To make the coffee, the researchers are following a process similar to that of lab-grown meat. Coffee plants are cultured in the lab and then placed in bioreactors, where they grow in a nutrient-filled medium.

Growing coffee, however, is slightly easier than something like beef. “The nutrient media for plant-cell cultures are much less complex, i.e., cheaper, than those for animal cells,” Rischer explains. “Scaling up is also easier because plant cells grow freely, suspended in the medium, while animal cells grow attached to surfaces.”

The end product is whitish biomass that’s dried into a powder, then roasted to a dark brown color much like actual coffee grounds. According to the team, who recently brewed their first cup of lab-grown coffee, the brew tastes and smells like the real thing. What’s more, they say it’s also possible to make different varieties.

Next, the lab plans to partner up with companies to commercialize the new process. High-quality coffee from places like Ethiopia, Costa Rica, and Brazil isn’t likely to disappear. But as demand for coffee is on the rise, cell-based coffee could be one way to minimize the industry’s impact — while enabling places like Finland, which can’t naturally grow coffee, to have a local coffee supply.

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