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Is Lab-Grown Coffee the Sustainable Brew of the Future?

A coffee bean between tweezers.
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Read time: 6 minutes

A global coffee crisis is looming. Traditional cultivation countries like Colombia and Brazil are experiencing higher temperatures and unpredictable rainfall, leaving coffee farmers with fewer viable crops. It’s been estimated by 2050, half of the global land used to grow coffee could be unproductive due to climate change.

Yet, as supply dries up, demand is only getting higher. Europe’s appetite for the brewed bean is still growing, all the while international coffee companies are heavily investing in burgeoning Asian markets. If current trends continue, global consumption is expected to double to 6 billion cups of coffee every day by 2050.

So, how can this global thirst be quenched? Some intrepid scientists say they have the answer: by going bean-less.


“This domain is termed cellular agriculture,” says Dr. Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. “Basically, you use cells rather than differentiated organisms or plants in fields – cells in bioreactors to produce your material of interest. And the material can be the biomass itself, like, in our case, with coffee.”

Rischer and his team at VTT weren’t the first to cell culture coffee; that honor goes to Canadian scientist P.M. Townsley, who grew coffee plant cuttings on agar plates back in 1974. The VTT team have since supercharged this rudimentary technique by incubating their cuttings in a steel bioreactor. They recently published their full method in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry in a bid to encourage other cultured coffee entrepreneurs.

“There are a lot of small startups springing up all over the place, in all corners, in the US, in Asia, Singapore and Israel. It’s really a tremendous speed now,” Rischer tells Technology Networks. “We know some of those companies and we work with them, but I don’t have a clear idea at what stage all are.”

According to Rischer, this business interest in cultured coffee goes beyond the need for alternative caffeine production methods in the face of climate change; there are, he says, several good reasons to invest in bioreactor brews.

“Of course, since it’s electricity we’re using, we can work with renewables,” he says. “In the farm, usually, it’s all fossil-based. There is no renewable energy normally in the picture. That’s one big difference.”

“Then, another factor we should not forget is that we can compare [the] water footprint we use,” he adds. “In the open field, this is usually not even monitored. There are some calculations, like, 1 cup of coffee requires 140 liters of water. This is massive, and it needs 4.3 square meters of land, or something like that. These are really huge numbers. Now, when we work in a contained situation, we can actually re-use the water, we can re-circulate it. There is no flow-off if we don’t want it, so we can keep it completely in our hands.”

By working with slices of actual coffee plants – and not, say, bacteria engineered to churn out caffeine – the VTT method also avoids any regulatory or consumer issues with genetically modified (GM) foods.

“We’re using native coffee cells, they’re unaltered,” Rischer says. “The only difference is that we take the cell out of the context of the plant, and we grow [them] in an artificial medium. But it’s 100% coffee; it’s a non-GM.”

“It’s quite a sensitive topic,” he adds. “There is, in Europe, still resistance against GM approaches.”

Many Europeans and other coffee slurpers across the world are also concerned about the ethical impact of their morning java. In a 2021 survey of UK coffee drinkers, 71% of consumers said fair wages and good conditions for coffee farmers were important factors behind their choice of coffee café. Yet these ideals are rarely met on many coffee plantations.

According to a Fairtrade report published in 2012, coffee farmers can expect to receive between 7–10% of the retail price of coffee. In Brazil – the world’s largest exporter of coffee – this profit falls to less than two percent of the retail price. The South American country has become notorious in recent decades for the poor working conditions reported on its many plantations. A 2007 study found that the country’s child labor rates were approximately 37% higher than average in regions where coffee is produced. Worse still, in recent years Brazilian authorities have rescued several hundred people, forced into slave labor, from coffee farms. Many more workers are still thought to be trapped in servitude.

VTT’s cultured coffee method may not directly address these kinds of exploitation, but it could help the global coffee industry reduce its reliance on such abuses and give consumers cleaner consciousnesses.

“We know that conventional coffee production is not always fair,” says Rischer. “There is, of course, fair trade coffee, but that’s [been] a stagnant market for many years. So, there’s not really any development.”

“Now, in our case, we know exactly what we put into the bioreactor; we don’t put pesticides or other problematic compounds. We don’t even have to look for them. I think those are major benefits.”


Despite these benefits, cell cultured coffee hasn’t quite evolved past the qualms that can be associated with agriculture. For one, if commercialized and adopted by international companies, there’s no guarantee bioreactors like VTT’s would be powered by renewable electricity. For another, the method still partly relies on crop farming.

“Of course, the cells grow in a nutrient medium, and the nutrient medium needs an energy source, usually it’s a form of sugar,” says Rischer. “This sugar has to be produced somewhere. Normally, it comes from a field production. So, this [cell culture method] is not completely without agriculture. And then there are some minerals in the medium, growth regulators and stuff like that. But the major input is, I would say, the sugar.”

Beyond these quibbles, the technology has a larger problem: viability.

“It’s still a long way to the product,” Rischer concedes. “This whole roasting exercise is not defined, because we’re working with very different material; it’s a powder rather than a solid object like a bean, so very different in terms of roasting needs. But they’re [roasting solutions] coming up.”

“Now,” he adds, “in the current economic environment, it’s not so easy anymore to get VC [venture capital] funding. So I don’t know how many of those [start-up companies] will actually survive. But there is considerable interest there. It could become something relevant in some time. We haven’t even touched the issue of regulatory approval.”

To iron out these kinks of coffee culturing and get vat-brewed lattes on café menus, Rischer says the nascent sector will need more collaboration. Except, transparency and cooperation aren’t exactly the core values of most start-ups.

“We are covering some bits and pieces of that process,” says Rischer, “and then we do more research on it and so forth. But this will always be done in collaboration with a company or companies.”

“It must be a collaborative exercise because it's too complex for any individual player to cover. That’s how I see it. And maybe sometimes that’s a little bit forgotten, or at least it’s not very prominent, say, in those marketing slides of newcomer companies. It’s not emphasized. So I would say that's the major task here. And that makes it so complicated,” he adds.

Finally, even if every start-up worked together to crack the cultured coffee code, there’s still one hurdle to getting the mimicked ground beans into every trendy café’s portafilters: taste.

“Coffee is all about the taste,” Rischer says. “That’s where it all boils down to. I mean, if the consumers wouldn’t be willing to go for such a product, there’s no point in actually developing it.”

Although Rischer is unsure how his beanless brew actually tastes: “We cannot [taste] because of the regulatory issues,” he says, he’s at least confident that, when it comes to attitudes toward cropless coffee, consumers are pretty keen. 

“Early on in our work we did some non-representative surveys here in Finland, because we were very much wondering, [if attitudes would] go in the same direction as GM, which is still very much rejected. But, to our surprise, we found that there is actually rather large acceptance, and even you can say that, the younger the audience, the bigger the acceptance. So it made us very optimistic to work further in this field,” Rischer says. “I’m not aware of any representative surveys on a larger scale, but our feeling is that there is very much openness and interest.”

“I get tons of requests,” he adds. “‘When can we test this?’ And so on and so forth. People would definitely, voluntarily come to be the first ones. It's interesting. I don’t know where the drive necessarily comes from, whether it’s just curiosity, whether it’s driven by the sustainability issues, the ethical issues, or whatever it is, but at least I don’t see general objections here. So that’s positive.”

Dr. Heiko Rischer was speaking to Leo Bear-McGuinness, Science Writer and Editor for Technology Networks.

About the interviewee

Dr. Rischer is a principal scientist and Head of Plant Biotechnology at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, the largest research and technology company conducting applied research in the country.