In this episode I dive deeper into synthetic coffee and what impacts it might have on smallholder coffee producers who are already struggling in a challenging, globalized coffee industry.
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Read the original article here: Transitioning Coffee Farmers Out of Coffee
Main argument in favor of lab-coffee
[coffee production] has posed a myriad of threats to the environment, according to the International Coffee Organization.(Jacob, 2021)
- wet-milling process that uses significant amounts of freshwater
- drying, roasting, shipping, and brewing uses significant energy
- Mentions deforestation, but does not correlate coffee production with deforestation. Misleadingly mentions Brazil’s total deforestation without any mention of the amount of deforestation attributed to coffee production.
- It’s also worth noting that the coffee plant is a tree capable of carbon capture, storage, and utilization. (Sharma et al., 2021)
Carbon sequestration of fruit trees
- follows a performance curve with tree age. i.e. apples peak at 18yo and declines from there
- dependent on cultivation methods, I.e. fertilizer used (manure = ameliorating), water used, tilling/no-till, etc.
- dependent on terroir (altitude, soil type and composition, etc)
Fruit orchards might play an important role in climate change via the sequestration of carbon, biological growth (increasing biomass), and deforestation (increasing carbon emissions).(Sharma et al., 2021)
Fruit trees (woody, leaf, fruit, and roots) represent a valuable portion of land use in various areas and have an important role in capturing net carbon dioxide sink and storing carbon compounds in the permanent woody parts of the fruit tree.(Sharma et al., 2021)
Net ecosystem carbon balance (NECB)
NECB, ranging 0.6–5.9 t C ha−1year−1, indicates potential carbon capturing through long residence woody, leaf, fruit, and roots and storage of the carbon.(Sharma et al., 2021)
Most carbon stored in fruit as opposed to woody structures
Bhatnagar et al. (2016) have reported that carbon accumulation values in fruits ranged 32–41%, whereas the other structural organs like twigs, branches, and stems stored ∼25% of the total carbon.(Sharma et al., 2021)
Fertilizing with N improves carbon sequestration
Khalsa et al. (2020) have shown that the application of nitrogen (N) supplement an orchard enhanced the capturing of more C, thus lowering the net global warming potential (GWP) in a California almond orchard.(Sharma et al., 2021)
Synthetic coffee is not from a plant
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.(Jacob, 2021)
Also doesn’t involve a roaster
We are not working with coffee beans as a starting material, but instead with a freeze dried powder that we produce in the lab.(Jacob, 2021)
—Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology, VTT.
Circumvents traceability problems
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,”(Jacob, 2021)
—Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology, VTT.
Why do we care about traceability? Because we want to create more value in the farmers’ products in an attempt to get more revenue to the farmer. Traceability highlights the work a farmer has done to produce a specialty coffee and contributes to the symbolic value of the product.
See also: In Defense of Tastemakers
Fixing the traceability problem by producing coffee in a lab defeats the purpose because it is directly competing with smallholder farmers.
Genetically modified product
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.(Jacob, 2021)
—Heiko Rischer, head of plant biotechnology, VTT.
Deforestation vs agroforesty
[Researchers] hypothesized that the presence of coffee (Coffea arabica) decreases deforestation rates because of coffee’s importance to local economies and its widespread occurrence in forests and forest margins.(Hylander et al., 2013)
- Coffee trees are indigenous to Ethiopia
- Farmers capitalize on existing coffee trees within the native forest and forest margins while leaving native forest intact
- This is agroforestry by default
As Rappole et al. (2003b) noted, one potential problem with certification programs is that they can create incentives for producers to convert an existing primary forest area into an area that produces shade coffee. Although a shaded coffee system represents an important refuge for biodiversity (Estrada et al., 1993), it cannot provide an ecosystem that is comparable with that of a native forest (Perfecto et al., 2003). Therefore, a certification program may instead encourage forest degradation.(Takahashi & Todo, 2013)
- Unintended consequences
- This implies areas where coffee is non-native (new world coffee). In Ethiopia, coffee is native, therefore may have different impacts on native fauna.
- Jacob, C. (2021). Coffee production hurts the planet. Scientists think they may have another way. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/12/16/climate-change-lab-grown-coffee-and-sustainable-ways-growing-coffee.html
- Sharma, S., Rana, V. S., Prasad, H., Lakra, J., & Sharma, U. (2021). Appraisal of Carbon Capture, Storage, and Utilization Through Fruit Crops. Frontiers in Environmental Science, 9, 700768. https://doi.org/10.3389/fenvs.2021.700768
- Hylander, K., Nemomissa, S., Delrue, J., & Enkosa, W. (2013). Effects of Coffee Management on Deforestation Rates and Forest Integrity. Conservation Biology, 27(5), 1031–1040. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.12079
- Takahashi, R., & Todo, Y. (2013). The impact of a shade coffee certification program on forest conservation: A case study from a wild coffee forest in Ethiopia. Journal of Environmental Management, 130, 48–54. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvman.2013.08.025
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Michael: I wrote the article in response to an article I read at cnbc.com titled "Coffee production hurts the planet. Scientists think they may have another way."
The gist of the article is that scientists in Finland are pursuing a lab-developed or synthetic coffee-like beverage. The main goal of the research is to reduce coffee’s negative impact on the environment.
According to the argument coffee’s negative impacts on the environment include the wet milling process uses significant amounts of fresh water. The process of drying, roasting, shipping and brewing uses significant energy. And then the article mentions deforestation. But it does not correlate coffee’s production with deforestation. It misleadingly mentions Brazil’s total deforestation without any mention of the amount of net deforestation attributed to coffee production.
I emphasize net deforestation because the coffee tree is a tree capable of carbon capture, storage, and utilization. In fact intensive cropping systems that effectively utilize nitrogen fertilizer can actually improve coffee sequestration. That according to a recent review published in Frontiers in, in Environmental Science titled. "Appraisal of Carbon Capture, Storage, and Utilization Through Fruit Crops" by Sharma et al published July 29th, 2021.
Quote: "Researchers have shown that the application of nitrogen supplement to an orchard enhance the capturing of more carbon, thus lowering the net global warming potential in a California almond orchard."
The key point I want to make in regards to the review is to think about coffee crop as a perennial plant, as opposed to a field crop.
The distinction is important. Here’s another quote from the paper. "Perennial plants and forests, fruit orchards, and grasslands are efficient sinks of atmospheric carbon. Whereas field crops are a great source of greenhouse gases due to soil disturbance, emissions of methane and nitrogen dioxide from burning straw and field management involving direct or indirect emissions from fossil fuels."
And again, that was a quote from Sharma et al, 2021.
It’s also important to understand that there’s a lot of nuance in the argument of deforestation as it relates to coffee production. For example. Coffee trees are native to Ethiopia, and some research indicates that where coffee exists in forest near farms the forest is preserved. Whereas elevations above where coffee is economically viable, forests are removed in favor of field crops. This happens because the coffee that’s in the forest at lower elevations is economically viable. They, farmers can use those coffee trees to produce coffee.
The next point I want to make is that coffee production provides livelihoods for an estimated 2.5 to 25 million farms or farming households worldwide according to the International Coffee Organization’s, 2019 Coffee Development Report. Lab-developed or synthetic coffee represents a direct challenge to the coffee farmers existence.
One of the points I made in the article is that now it’s time to up-skill, re-skill, or transition, struggling coffee farmers out of coffee. It’s not because of the single revelation of scientists pursuing synthetic coffee. It’s because synthetic coffee represents another in a long line of challenges to coffee production, such as advancements in robotics, machine learning models AKA artificial intelligence, et cetera. Small holders need to either keep up with technological and informational revolutions or they need to transition out of coffee to other more suitable ways to make a living. I’ve written a few articles about this.
My third and final point is that those developing synthetic coffee expressly hope to address the traceability problem of coffee. Here’s another quote from the article. This quote is from —Heiko Rischer head of Plant Biotechnology at the research Institute quote.
" The innovation [synthetic coffee] has an impact on traceability and transparency of the process. This is often also a big problem in the coffee supply chain."
So why do we care about traceability? We care because we want to create more value in the farmers’ products, in an attempt to get more revenue to the farmer. This is a bedrock of specialty coffee. Traceability highlights the specific farmer’s role in producing a specialty coffee and thus contributes to the symbolic value of the product. This is one of the specialty coffee superpowers, and one of the ways it benefits smallholders.
In Ted Fischer’s book titled Making Better Coffee published in 2022, he quoted Bill Hampstead as saying specialty coffee has quote "the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the country." The country being Guatemala.
Ted goes on to say that small holding farmers increase their incomes and expanded their land holdings, leveraging specialty coffee. So fixing the traceability problem by producing synthetic coffee in a lab defeats the purpose because it directly competes with small holder farmers. It fixes the traceability to smallholder farmers by replacing them.
Will lab coffee takeoff? I don’t know but one market we can look at to get an idea is the growing synthetic meat market. Researchers at VTT aren’t the only ones looking into synthetic coffee. In 2021 Seattle-based Atomo Coffee released a synthetic coffee as a ready to drink canned beverage they call a molecular coffee. Atomo has raised 11 and a half million dollars to fund its research and development of synthetic coffee. There is clearly a demand for it.
Oil Slick Coffee is soon going to restart online sales of roasted coffee. If you are interested in buying coffee online from me, please let me know by completing a brief three question survey. Your answers will help me understand what you are looking for in a coffee. A link to the survey is in the show notes. I look forward to your feedback.
If you’re interested in more interesting quotes from as well as links to articles i referenced for this episode Please see the episode homepage which has lengthy notes available.
Now for the article
This is an adapted version of a post I made on LinkedIn.
Quote; "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."
Now is the time to start transitioning farmers who simply can’t make ends meet through coffee production into a different product commodity. Even if lab coffee never catches on those marginal producers will be better off producing something that can make a living from rather than sticking with an unsuccessful product.
The following is audio from an interview I conducted with Johan Kwe who manages a coffee mill in the Karo Regency of Sumatra. In the interview, Johan discusses his focus on improving quality as a means to improve revenue. Johanne works directly with farmers who are impacted by the coffee price crisis and sees firsthand how they are reacting to it. Including farmers who are choosing to transition out of coffee.
Conversations like these are invaluable in understanding the complexity and nuance of such problems.
One of the farmers, and you already talked to her, she kind of switched from coffee to carrots and she was saying like, you know, uh, call for coffee. She’s kind of like downsizing her coffee farms, right? And focus more on carrots. And one of the things, one of my goals, uh, through this training and through this, uh, maybe perhaps this, uh, this Lalcafe is that I’m hoping that I can somehow kind of trigger interest again. You know, in like, okay, let’s produce better quality coffee.
Okay. Because I. See if we have farmers who are kind like downsizing farms here in Karo, imagine what’s going to happen in 10 years. The supply is gonna keep going down, you know, supply and demand thing, right? I mean, you, you have lower supply then you, you can sell for higher price. Think about it. Well, if you, if your supply is low, but the kind of coffee that, that you produce is like a 78 point coffee, do you think that’s gonna generate a good price?
Of course, it would be great if there is a coffee solution that works for them. But transitioning out of coffee should be on the table. Fewer coffee farmers may be a good thing because coffee production is too often unsustainable from incredibly high water and energy usage at both ends of the supply chain, global transportation and shipping, agrochemical abuse and so on.
The CNBC article doesn’t explicitly mention it, but part of the agricultural investment package should include re-skilling some coffee farmers out of coffee. Transitioning farmers out of poverty into a sustainable mode of production, regardless of the product is the goal. Farmers who are already having a hard time participating in the coffee market will have an even harder time competing with lab coffee that will likely be cheaper than their grown coffee.
I spoke about transitioning coffee farmers out of coffee first and the article titled Improving Farm Gate Coffee Prices. This is a quote from that article:
" Not all impoverished farmers can succeed in integrating into globalized value chains. In those cases where they can’t, they should focus on local markets or they should be assisted in alternative pathways out of poverty, from shifting out of the coffee industry entirely or even migration where possible. As a coffee professional, I don’t necessarily want to see someone leave the industry entirely. But if it also means leaving poverty behind, then it’s the right choice."
In that article i discussed the difference in value between the raw product produced by coffee farmers and the finished product produced by coffee roasters But the underlying premise is the same; if the producer is unable to make a good enough profit from producing coffee the option to transition out of coffee should be considered.
That was me, Michael Wright, reading my article titled transitioning coffee farmers out of coffee. If you’re interested in reading more about the topic check out the episode webpage for lengthy notes from various scientific articles I used Thank you for listening