Sustainable coffee grown in Finland with help of ‘cellular agriculture’

22/09/2021 – Sustainability / Coffee / Cellular Agriculture / Finland / VTT / Technology

Sustainable coffee grown in Finland with help of ‘cellular agriculture’

Finland – the world's top coffee consuming nation per capita – has produced its first batch of coffee cells with the help of cellular agriculture. 


VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland successfully produced the coffee cells – which smell and taste like conventional coffee – in a lab bioreactor through the use of cellular agriculture. The innovative process could have strong potential for making the production of coffee more sustainable.


With increasing demand and numerous sustainability challenges concerning traditional coffee cultivation, there is a pressing need for alternative ways of producing coffee. Due to the ever-rising demand for coffee, more acreage is required to produce enough coffee beans, leading to deforestation – particularly in sensitive rainforest areas.


In response, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is developing coffee production through plant cells in its laboratory in Finland. In the process, cell cultures floating in bioreactors filled with nutrient medium are used to produce various animal- and plant-based products.


Microbes and plant cells used for biotechnological production


“At VTT, this project has been part of our overall endeavour to develop the biotechnological production of daily and familiar commodities that are conventionally produced by agriculture,” advised Research Team Leader, Dr Heiko Rischer. “For this, we use many different hosts, such as microbes, but also plant cells.” 


The work was started by initiating coffee cell cultures, establishing respective cell lines in the laboratory, and transferring them to bioreactors to begin producing biomass. After analyses of the biomass, a roasting process was developed, and the new coffee was finally evaluated by VTT’s trained sensory panel.


The whole procedure required input from several disciplines and experts in the fields of plant biotechnology, chemistry, and food science. 


“In terms of smell and taste, our trained sensory panel and analytical examination found the profile of the brew to bear similarity to ordinary coffee. However, coffee-making is an art and involves iterative optimisation under the supervision of specialists with dedicated equipment. Our work marks the basis for such work,” noted Dr Rischer.


Towards more sustainable coffee production


Currently all coffee material produced in laboratory conditions represents experimental food and would require regulatory approval by the FDA to be marketed and sold to consumers in the United States. In Europe, the lab-grown coffee should first be approved as Novel Food before being marketed. 


Technically the production process is based on existing and established technology such as conventional bioreactor operation. In fact, the idea that coffee cells could be used to make coffee was initially presented back in the 1970s by P.M. Townsley.

 

“The experience of drinking the very first cup was exciting. I estimate we are only four years away from ramping up production and having regulatory approval in place. Growing plant cells requires specific expertise when it is time to scale and optimize the process. Downstream processing and product formulation together with regulatory approval and market introduction are additional steps on the way to a commercial product. That said, we have now proved that lab-grown coffee can be a reality” says Rischer.


The project links to VTT’s strategic research targets to solve the world's biggest challenges. Cellular agriculture is one of the routes towards more sustainable food production.


“The true impact of this scientific work will happen through companies who are willing to re-think food ingredient production and start driving commercial applications,” remarked Dr Rischer in closing. “VTT collaborates and supports large enterprises and small companies in adopting opportunities in their product development. Ultimately, all efforts should result in more sustainable and healthy food for the benefit of the consumer and the planet.”

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