Coffee production hurts the planet. Scientists think they may have another way
A worker separates coffee cherries during a harvest on a farm in Guaxupe, located in the southwest of the state of Minas Gerais in Brazil, on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.
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Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world — but the surge in demand is threatening the planet, prompting environmentalists and scientists to look for sustainable ways to produce coffee.
“Most coffee goes through a wet-milling process that uses significant amounts of freshwater to de-pulp and wash the coffee. Then the coffee is dried, roasted, shipped and brewed — each of which uses energy,” said Bambi Semroc, senior vice president of the Center for Sustainable Lands and Waters at Conservation International.
In the last 30 years, growing demand for coffee has led to a 60% increase in production, according to the International Coffee Organization.
From deforestation to a high usage of water and energy resources, research shows that increased coffee production is destroying the planet.
Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer, saw deforestation of its Amazon rainforest reach a 15-year high, according to a report published by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research.
An estimated 13,235 square kilometers — equivalent to 2,429 football fields — was lost between August 2020 and July 2021, representing a 22% increase from the previous year.
Coffee production also leaves a large water and energy footprint, with 140 liters of water needed to produce just 125 millimeters of coffee, according to the Water Footprint Network.
But at the same time, the coffee industry is also vulnerable to climate change.
Just this year, Brazil experienced waves of frost and drought in June, which pushed Arabica coffee prices to hit a seven-year high.
Commodity experts predict that prices will continue to rise “given the current instability of global markets as well as uncertainties around next year’s outputs of dominant coffee producers — Brazil, Vietnam, and Colombia,” said Semroc, from the Center for Sustainable Lands and Waters at Conservation International.
Lab-grown coffee, anyone?
Scientists in Finland are trying to come up with a sustainable, lab-grown alternative for the next cup of coffee — but the technology for producing it is still very costly.
The VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland successfully produced coffee cells in a bioreactor through cellular agriculture, in a bid to make coffee production more environmentally friendly.
The research center’s lab-grown coffee eliminates the need for deforestation and the process has a much lower water footprint as scientists are able to use recycled water to generate their bioreactors.
Coffee is a luxury product and people want to be able to purchase it with a good conscience.
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
Another advantage is that coffee can be produced at all times under controlled temperature, light and oxygen conditions, removing the supply volatility in the industry.
“We’re not a coffee producer but would want to collaborate and work with parties that have the expertise and vision to bring something like this to the market,” said Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at the research institute.
“It also requires significant investment because the whole approval process… doesn’t only need time, but it’s of course also a costly exercise,” he added.
The innovation also removes the long transportation process of coffee from the country of origin to the consumer country, and “has an impact on traceability and transparency of the process… this is often also a big problem in the coffee supply chain,” Rischer said.
Coffee cell cultures (right) and roasted coffee produced by VTT’s cellular agriculture method.
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland
“We are not working with coffee beans as a starting material, but instead with a freeze dried powder that we produce in the lab,” he told CNBC.
Once the powder is roasted, it can be brewed the same way as a conventional cup of coffee.
Although Heiko forecasted it could take a minimum of four years before VTT’s lab-grown coffee receives regulatory approval, there has already been a strong interest surrounding the product in Finland, the world’s largest coffee consumer.
“In the past, we used to see a big resistance against genetically modified food, so we were positively surprised when people showed an interest to buy and taste the product… Coffee is a luxury product and people want to be able to purchase it with a good conscience,” Heiko said.
Lack of investments
Programs such as those by World Coffee Research and Conservation International also aim to help meet growing global demand for coffee by increasing production of small-scale farmers and improving increasing investments on existing farms.
“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,” said Jennifer Long, CEO of World Coffee Research.
Investments in agricultural development, with a focused dedication to agricultural research and technology, are the most important singular investments you can make.
CEO, World Coffee Research
More than 100 world leaders at Cop26, the United Nations global climate summit, pledged in November to collectively end deforestation by 2030. They are also seeking to redesign agricultural policies to incentivize sustainable farming.
However, a lack of investment in agricultural research and development could lead to more volatile prices ahead, experts warned.
Coffee production makes up a large share of export revenues for many developing countries — if investments in research and innovation are not made, “the consequence of the volatility in the coffee market can be very pronounced for farmers,” she added.
Of the 12.5 million smallholder coffee farmers, at least 5.5 million people live below the international poverty line of $3.20 a day, according to Enveritas, a non-profit that helps small-scale coffee farmers find sustainable solutions.
“Investments in agricultural development, with a focused dedication to agricultural research and technology, are the most important singular investments you can make,” said Long, pointing out that agricultural-specific challenges often leave small-scale farmers vulnerable.
Agricultural investments are important to ensure food security goals can be achieved despite global challenges impeding production today, Long said.
“Trees are a wonderful place to start because they absorb and hold so much carbon,” she added, implying that agricultural production systems need to be modified to integrate more trees through agroforestry.