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Sylvain CharleboisBean-less coffee could hit the market as early as next year.

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 like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, who claimed their plant-based products were more ecologically sound.

And 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 created. It’s molecular and includes quinic acid, dimethyl disulfide, niacin, 2-ethylphenol and a handful of other elements.

The process, which remains proprietary, has given the world its first synthetic coffee. It was funded by Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures, which also backed Impossible Foods and Spotify.

This multimillion-dollar project is driven by the desire to find sustainable solutions for one of the most popular drinks in the world.

We are at the dawn of an agricultural revolution that’s drawing acute attention to the true cost of bringing food to our plates.

Environmental costs are increasingly important when shopping for food, particularly for the younger generation. Thus the rise in synthetic agriculture, a novel food system operating parallel to our traditional sectors.

While seeking affordable, tasty and nutritious food, other holistic factors are becoming key drivers.

The green revolution of the 20th century was about food security. This new revolution is about how we coalesce our food needs with the planet’s limited resources, while making all nations food secure.

When it comes to climate change and meat and which solutions are better, the debate is on.

But with coffee, the evidence is even more compelling and the case for continuing down our current path is weak at best.

Atomo’s promotion appeals to consumers increasingly concerned about the damage growing coffee causes. Many experts are concerned about continued deforestation to plant new crops. China and other markets are getting more addicted to java, putting more pressure on growers to increase productivity.

And with the wildfires in the Amazon, concerns are ramping up. Intentionally ignited fires are part of a deforestation campaign to grow more crops.

It’s no 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.

The world took note.

But Canadians don’t appear to be quite ready for lab-grown coffee.

Canadians have a deep relationship with coffee. In 2018, 72 percent of us drank coffee every day. In fact, Canadians drink an average of 152 litres per person per year – the highest consumption level in the world after the Netherlands and Finland. Coffee in Canada is more popular than tap water.

The idea of drinking any lab-produced drink, let alone coffee, doesn’t sit well with Canadians. A recent omnibus survey conducted by Dalhousie University found that 72 percent of Canadians wouldn’t drink lab-grown coffee.

Nonetheless, it’s refreshing that we’re seeing an influx of new thinkers in agriculture. The sector is being capitalized by non-agricultural stakeholders who really look at food differently. Billions are being poured into agriculture to create something that traditional agriculture can’t produce.

While surveys find that most consumers want companies to be eco-friendly, growing, processing and distributing food using traditional methods has its limitations.

So synthetic agriculture is getting more attention due to 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 and producers who pride themselves on being the best caretakers of the environment. Farmers are indeed great environmental stewards. But things have changed, the planet has changed, and our view of the world has changed.

And growing coffee in particular requires a lot of water and land.

Given how few resources are involved, cultured food is becoming a more viable option. But for these products to succeed, certain fundamentals must be met, including affordability, nutrition and taste.

Coffee is just the beginning. Chicken, beef, pork, kangaroo, ice cream, foie gras, bacon – all these products are the focus of well-funded private-sector projects seeking to create high-tech, synthetic alternatives.

This technological advancement may be disruptive to traditional farming but it can add value to global food systems.

RBC researchers and economists recently released a report about seizing on a “fourth agricultural revolution” in Canada that accentuates data over manual labour. But this next phase of agriculture is more than just feeding the world by producing more with less. We’re slowly producing demand-focused products to satisfy the needs of a very different, very urban consumer.

It’s no longer just about dirt, animals, land and hard work. It’s also about molecules. Even though it will have its share of regulatory challenges, the rise of synthetic agriculture is very much part of that revolution.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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