While many people are still debating the merits of lab-grown meat—aka meat grown in a lab through cultured cells from animals—most experts agree on one point: anything that cuts down on factory farming is a win in the sustainability department. So logically, it would make sense to apply the “lab-grown” methods to other products we consume, right?
Seattle-based coffee startup Atomo thinks so. Atomo is the first company to make coffee without using coffee beans—instead, they create versions of coffee’s chemical compounds in a lab. The end result is a beverage that looks, tastes, and has the same caffeinated effects as a traditional cup of coffee.
“The first step was identifying what was actually in coffee,” Atomo CEO and co-founder Andy Kleitsch says. “We discovered that there were over 1,000 [chemical] compounds in coffee, so the next question we asked, was ‘where can we find these compounds in natural ingredients, and up-cycled materials?'” Kleitsch says that because sustainability is one of the company’s pillars, it was important for them that all the ingredients were environmentally ethical. While the ingredients list is still being kept under wraps because the patenting process isn’t complete, Kleitsch says some of the ingredients Atomo experimented with include watermelon seeds and the husks of sunflower seeds.
Finding the perfect ingredients wasn’t the only hurdle. “You can’t just take all the chemical components, put them together, and expect them to react a certain way; coffee is a very complicated beverage that goes through different reactions,” Kleitsch says. Replicating and recreating these reactions in a lab took months of experimentation. But he’s proud to say the team has done it and they now have a coffee that tastes consistently good every time.
Check out everything on the nutritional side that goes into coffee:
But to Kleitsh, molecular coffee is more than a cool science experiment. He sees it as solving a major sustainability problem. A report released in March estimated that by 2050, climate change will make up to 50 percent of the land currently used to grow coffee unusable. Rising temperatures around the globe could damage crops as well. Arabica coffee beans (the most common type of coffee) can handle average yearly temperatures of 73 degrees—as the Earth heats up, the rising temperature could impact yields and the quality of coffee beans, making it harder to grow and more expensive to buy. This forces coffee farmers to deforest more land to produce more coffee, argues the company, which is ultimately damaging to the environment. By going “lab grown,” so to speak, one can theoretically mitigate these risks and still enjoy quality coffee.
Sustainability experts are not convinced. “The concerns related to climate change and coffee is that producers may have to move to higher altitudes due to lack of suitable land or risk of pests and disease at lower elevations, which could be a risk in the next five to ten years,” says Sara Young, a strategic accounts manager at the Rainforest Alliance. Organizations like Young’s are working with coffee growers to mitigate impacts of climate change so that they don’t have to move their farms and encroach on forested areas. Kleitsh claims farmers will be forced to relocate and that this type of “up-farming” leads to deforestation.
“This is frankly ignorant and bordering on deceit,” says Daniele Giovannucci, the president for the Committee on Sustainability Assessment. “Coffee is not a significant cause of deforestation.” Giovannucci says that while there are certainly places where this occurs, the demand for timber or grazing land for animals (to then kill and eat) are the major culprits. Young agrees. “Currently, we have not seen coffee as a major driver of deforestation. The major issue is when cattle ranchers and agricultural producers clear land to expand their production.”
Kleitsh maintains that while coffee up-farming may not be a significant contributor to deforestation right now, it will become one in the future. “It may not have an impact today, but in the next 30 years this will have a major impact,” he says—especially if climate change continues to go unchecked.
He also argues that the volatility of the existing industry is extremely detrimental to farmers. “What we’ve seen in the coffee industry is that coffee farmers will get into coffee farming when the price is good but leave when the price is poor, and coffee farmers have actually not been making money for the past five years,” he says. “So what you’re seeing is small family farms leaving coffee farming because they’re not making a living wage.”
Giovannucci, meanwhile, worries that if lab-grown coffee takes off, it could put millions of people out of work. “Coffee provides the most important cash income of any agricultural crop in the world, to somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 million to 20 million people,” he says. “Coffee is the most important contributor to small farmers around the world. So if you take beans out of the equation, you’re taking away the livelihood of millions of families—not just the growers, but also the people who transport and mill the beans, and are involved in other parts of the supply process.”
All three experts we spoke to agree that coffee has a major sustainability problem. To Kleitsh, the answer is not using coffee beans. Giovannucci says there are better ways to go about it. Large coffee producers, like Starbucks, are working with local farmers in countries like Costa Rica to help them adapt to climate change and find more sustainable growing solutions. On the consumer side, Giovannucci says you can ensure the coffee you buy is ethically and environmentally sound by looking for brands with credible seals demonstrating that they were grown and harvested through environmentally friendly means, such as USDA Organic, Fair Trade, and Rainforest Alliance.
At least right now, these labels have power. In 30 years they likely still will. Or maybe we’ll all be drinking chemical coffee. Either way, here’s hoping that we won’t have a future without coffee.
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