Every day, millions of people around the world wake up and engage in a ritual that’s nearly as old as mankind itself: drinking coffee. In the U.S. alone, Americans consume 656 million cups of java juice on the daily, and 35% of us keep right on pouring long past breakfast.
Although we may drink locally, the International Coffee Organization projects that global coffee consumption will hit more than 167 million (60 kg) bags by the end of this year, a nearly 2% increase over the previous year. That’s a mighty big hill of beans which, unfortunately, brings us to climate change.
Yes, our beloved coffee, like so many other living organisms on this planet, is threatened by climate change. Coffee requires very specific, temperate growing conditions found only in the very narrow equatorial region known as the coffee belt.
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Studies indicate that Latin America — the planet’s largest coffee producing region — could lose up to 90% of its coffee lands by 2050. Unless we wake up to the urgent realities of climate change, we may no longer “wake up and smell the coffee” — or anything else for that matter.
This article cannot possibly address all the effects of climate change on our planet. It will take myriad solutions on all fronts to address it — using every tool in humanity’s sustainability toolbox — to course-correct. Instead, this story addresses an unusual effort underway to keep coffee showing up in your morning mug.
Developing more sustainable foods for a world that’s heating up
Enter Compound Foods, a San Francisco-based food-tech startup founded in 2020 by Maricel Saenz, a biotech entrepreneur. Her company joins the ranks of agtech and foodtech companies, like Bov Control, Finless Foods and many others seeking to feed the world, despite the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. They stand on the cutting edge of creating more sustainable ways to feed a global population that’s projected to hit 9.9 billion by 2050 — an increase of more than 25% over our current population.
A native Costa Rican and enthusiastic coffee consumer, Saenz is determined to recreate the morning-ritual drink — without coffee beans. Whatever you do, don’t call it synthetic coffee. She prefers the more accurate term “bean-less” coffee and Saenz is quick to point out there’s nothing synthetic about it.
That sounds relatively reassuring, but it raises two questions (at least). First, if there’s no coffee in your coffee, how can you call it coffee? Unlike many consumables, such as chocolate, bread or even mayonnaise, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require a standard of identity for coffee: the “Wild West” of beverages.
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Second, if Compound Foods doesn’t use coffee beans, or any part of the coffee plant, what does it use to make its brew? Saenz won’t identify the specific mix of ingredients other than to say they use agricultural substrates, which is a scientific way of saying plants without giving away the secret sauce.
“We use low carbon-emitting plants that don’t require a lot of water and can be easily, locally and ethically sourced,” said Saenz.
Crisis in Latin America’s coffee belt
A lower carbon footprint matters in the race to sustainability, because although climate change threatens the global coffee crop, the way we grow, ship and consume coffee also contributes to climate change. It’s a vicious, caffeinated circle. Consider just some of the environmental costs of growing coffee.
- Producing 1 kilogram of coffee creates 17 kilograms of carbon
- It takes 140 liters of water to produce one cup of coffee
- Coffee’s carbon footprint is larger than shrimp, poultry, pork, fish or eggs
Creating a bean-less coffee is one way to reduce the carbon impact of growing coffee plants while offering an alternative in the face of diminishing coffee crops due to climate-change. Case in point: Last July, frigid temperatures in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee exporter, damaged 495,000 acres of coffee fields.
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Unchecked, climate change will have a devastating effect on millions of coffee farmers and their families. In Latin America alone, more than 14 million people work in the coffee industry. And in 2013, soaring temperatures across Central America caused a major outbreak of a fungus called coffee rust. It destroyed more than half of the region’s coffee crop and cost 350,000 people their jobs.
Even if bean-less coffee takes off in a huge way, it won’t be the force that drives coffee growers out of business. Their main competitor is climate change, and it’s a reality that Saenz takes seriously. Her homeland, Costa Rica, is a leading coffee-belt nation.
“We’re working on different initiatives, and we’ll partner with organizations to help affected growers transition into a climate-resilient future and find other ways of replacing revenue,” said Saenz.
Changing coffee lovers’ hearts and minds
But for many people, their coffee rituals border on the semi-sacred. And human nature being what it is, people make choices every day despite the adverse environmental impact. How do you get people to try coffee that, while not synthetic, is certainly not of the bean itself?
In the world of coffee, there are certainly more unusual choices that people make. We’re talking coffees made from beans that have been eaten, digested and then eliminated by elephants and cats. By comparison, creating a tasty, bean-less and eco-friendly coffee that meets consumer expectations — without traveling through a mammal’s digestive tract — doesn’t seem so far-fetched.
Furthermore, Saenz describes herself as a “stubborn optimist,” a term she discovered in “The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis,” a book co-authored by Christiana Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat, that was published last year.
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“I believe there are people who care. We’re looking at consumers who are already making conscious decisions based on how their choices affect the environment. That’s our initial market and where our product fits,” said Saenz.
The big business potential of bean-less coffee
An early-stage startup, Compound Foods raised $4.5 million in seed funding this year from a range of forward-thinking, early-stage VC firms including Collaborative Fund, Humboldt Fund, Lowercarbon Capital, Maple VC, Petri Bio, SVLC (SV Latam Capital) and angel investors.
How soon will the eco-adventurous be able to pour a cup of bean-less brew from Compound Foods? Saenz is currently establishing partnerships and organizing distribution partnerships for a soft launch slated for the end of 2022.
“It will be small-scale at first, because of our production capacity, but we will have some product in the U.S. market,” said Saenz. “Then we’ll raise our series A to scale up production and increase our distribution points.”
The first as-yet unnamed product will be a cold brew offering. Ground coffee — for brewing a hot cup — will follow. That’s due, in part, to the complexity of recreating the coffee grounds experience. But Saenz said it also reflects a growing taste for cold coffee in the U.S. Cold brew is ranked third in the top preparation methods behind drip and single-cup brewers, and Americans drink 60% more cold coffee then they did in 2014.
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At time when climate change news is exhausting, climate anxiety is real, and people just want to enjoy a freaking cup of coffee without inducing an existential guilt-trip, Compound Foods’ mission is straightforward and spot-on. “Our goal is to build an empowering brand that gives people easy, delicious choices that are better for the planet.”