Sylvain Charlebois is senior director at the Agri-food Analytics Lab, Dalhousie University, and a professor of food distribution and policy at the Halifax school.
Beanless coffee is a thing now and could hit the market as early as next year, following a trend.
Our summer was marked by key announcements from major food chains that have decided to switch to plant-based alternatives. Meat, particularly beef, was the target of companies including Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, which claimed their plant-based products were more ecologically sound.
But now, Seattle-based Atomo has created coffee grounds in a laboratory, without the use of coffee beans. Unlike plant-based products in which existing food ingredients are used, Atomo’s coffee is, well, created.
It is molecular coffee, which includes quinic acid, dimethyl disulfide, niacin, 2-ethylphenol and a handful of other elements. The company’s process, which remains proprietary, has given the world its first synthetic coffee. It was funded by Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures, which has also backed Impossible Foods and music-streaming service Spotify. This multimillion-dollar project is driven by the will to find sustainable solutions for one of the most popular drinks in the world.
We are at the beginning of an agricultural revolution, which draws acute attention to the true cost of bringing food to our plates. Environmental costs are becoming an increasingly important factor when shopping for food, particularly for the younger generation.
This revolution is the rise of synthetic agriculture, a novel food system that will operate in parallel to our traditional sectors. While seeking affordable, tasty and nutritious food, other holistic factors are becoming key drivers.
The green revolution during the 20th century was about food security. This new revolution is about how we coalesce our food needs with the limited resources of our planet, while making food secure in all countries. With climate change, even if we have seen conflicting reports about meat and about which solution provides a better option for environmental stewards, the debate is on. With coffee, the evidence is even more compelling, and the case for continuing down our current path is weak at best.
A major part of Atomo’s promotion appeals to consumers who are increasingly concerned about the damage coffee growing has caused in natural areas. Coffee growers will continue to harvest coffee in established plantations, but an increasing number of experts are concerned about the continued deforestation to plant new crops.
China and other growing markets are increasingly addicted to java, putting more pressure on growers to increase productivity. Considering the wildfires affecting the Amazon, the “lungs of the Earth,” concerns are now rampant. Intentionally ignited fires are directly related to the level of deforestation witnessed in recent years in order to grow more crops.
It’s not a coincidence that Atomo released its statement about its lab-grown coffee now. While the world is focused on what’s happening to the Amazon, the company wanted to make a point and the world took note. Still, “real” coffee is coffee for the many Canadians who have a long-standing love affair with the beverage.
Coffee is the drink of choice for most of us. In 2018, 72 per cent of Canadians drank coffee every day. Canadians drink, on average, 152 litres a person every year, which is the highest level of consumption in the world, after the Netherlands and Finland. Coffee in Canada is more popular than tap water.
The idea of drinking a lab-produced drink, let alone coffee, does not sit well with Canadians. A recent omnibus survey conducted by Dalhousie University found that 72 per cent of Canadians would not drink lab-grown coffee. So, it is fair to say that most Canadians are not there yet in accepting this new brew.
Nonetheless, what’s refreshing is that we are seeing an influx of new thinkers in agriculture. Agriculture is getting capitalized by non-agricultural stakeholders, who look at food differently.
Billions are poured into analogous agriculture these days, only to offer something traditional that agriculture is unable to produce. While most surveys find that most consumers want companies to be eco-friendly, growing, processing, and distributing food using traditional methods has its limitations.
Synthetic agriculture is getting more attention because of its unequivocal stance on producing food with fewer resources. Whether these methods are more sustainable remains to be seen.
This view is obviously confronted by old-style agricultural practices, followed by producers who have prided themselves as being the best caretakers of the environment. Farmers are indeed great environmental stewards themselves, but things have changed, the planet has changed and our view of the world has changed.
Growing coffee requires a lot of water and land. Given how little resources are involved, cultured food in general is becoming more of a conceivable option instead of something you would normally see in a science-fiction movie. But to give these products a chance to succeed, certain fundamentals must be met. Affordability, nutrition and taste will continue to be key, no matter where the food is coming from.
Coffee is just the beginning. Chicken, beef, pork, kangaroo, ice cream, foie gras and bacon are now the focus of well-funded projects in the private sector for which the goal is to recreate a synthetic product in an urban, high-tech setting. These technologies are disruptive to traditional farming, but can add value to our global food systems.
Royal Bank of Canada researchers and economists recently released a report about seizing on a “fourth agricultural revolution” in Canada that accentuates data over manual labour. This is quite true, but this phase of our agricultural journey is more than just simply feeding the world by producing more with less.
Supply-side economics in agriculture are slowly leaving some space for a model that produces demand-focused products that satisfy the needs of a different, urban consumer. It’s no longer just about dirt, animals, land and hard work. It’s about molecules. Even though it will have its fair share of regulatory challenges, the rise of synthetic agriculture is very much a part of that revolution.