New Delhi: When it was first noticed some years back that the traditional sources of coffee were vanishing, thanks to climate change, a need was felt to find the genes that could help develop varieties of coffee that can grow on a warming planet that is getting drier by the day.
But breeding new varieties of coffee is a slow process. The coffee crop takes 2-3 years to mature and it can take at least 20 years to bring a new variety to market.
However, even as efforts are on to grow new varieties, scientists in Finland claim to have produced coffee in their lab — from cell cultures. And its aroma and taste apparently resemble the real coffee, news agency Reuters reported.
Also, the coffee produced by the scientists at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland could be “more sustainable”, according to the report.
Quoting Heikki Aisala, who is the researcher at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland and is in charge of evaluating the process, the report said cups of cellular coffee may not pass standard taste tests just yet, but they do have “lots of potential for a multi-billion-dollar global industry”.
“It tastes like a combination of different types of coffees. We’re not there yet with the commercial variety, but it certainly does resemble coffee at the moment,” Aisala was quoted as saying.
The coffee produced by the Finnish scientists, according to the Reuters report, could be a “more sustainable alternative to growing coffee beans by floating cell cultures in bio-reactors filled with a nutrient medium used to make various animal- and plant-based products”.
With coffee-growing countries in the world bringing more and more land under the crop because of high demand, this is leading to deforestation. The lab-grown cell cultures, hence, offer a more sustainable way to produce coffee, VTT Research Team Leader Heiko Rischer told Reuters.
Rischer also listed the environmental benefits of lab-grown coffee, which include “reduced use of pesticides and fertilizer and less need to ship coffee beans long distances to markets”.
In Europe, the report said, lab-grown coffee would need to be approved as ‘Novel Food’ before it could be marketed.
Why Natural Coffee Sources Are Drying Up
In 2017, a study published in Nature journal had highlighted how global warming was making it difficult to grow coffee in Ethiopia and other traditional coffee-producing regions.
Aaron P. Davis, a British botanist who was part of the team that conducted the study, had chronicled the fate of coffee for 30 years.
A 2019 report in The New York Times said how Davis trekked across forests and mapped where coffee can be grown next — in places that are cooler.
His research found that the wild coffee varieties found in at least three continents are at risk of vanishing forever, all due to climate change and deforestation.
According to the NYT report, Davis’s team concluded that 60 per cent of the world’s 124 wild coffee species are at risk of extinction.
This study was published in Global Change Biology in January 2019.
The 124 species included arabica, the world’s most popular coffee bean that has been farmed in East Africa for hundreds of years, and robusta, another variety that has been vastly popular for the past 100 years. Most of the other wild varieties are not cultivated or consumed.
The Crop Trust, which runs a global seed bank, had also in a 2018 report called for preserving the genetic diversity of coffee, including the wild varieties, to stop them from disappearing.