Many people have been sending me news stories about ‘Atomo’ or ‘molecular Coffee’. No standard ‘Ask Lee’ questions per se, but I figure it is worth exploring given its prevalence in the current coffee news cycle. So, allow me to ask this question: what is coffee?

I know, I know, that might be a tad tough, so maybe let us start with the more direct: what is molecular coffee? Atomo is one of several current start-ups who are seeking to make a ‘coffee-less coffee’. This is the same vein as meatless burgers, like the plant-based ‘beyond meat’ or ‘impossible burger’. The idea is to produce a bean, which looks like a coffee bean, smells like a coffee bean, and tastes like a coffee bean but is not a coffee bean. To cite their press talking points, “we looked at green beans, roasted beans and extracted (brewed) coffee samples and through advanced analytical procedures studied the volatile and non-volatile compounds present” and then “by evaluating the individual compounds in coffee we were able to map the most significant ones contributing to the characteristic aroma and flavor of coffee”. The idea is to then map this flavour onto a “carrier matrix” like “watermelon seeds or sunflower seeds husks”. 

You might be asking, why tho? According to Atomo, “We want to relieve the demand for the bean” and thus “save the environment”. They connect climate change to producers moving to high altitudes and make the further link to deforestation. Again, to quote their press, “Other factors such as population expansion, leaf rust and rising demands are putting pressure on farmers to keep increasing production” and through this non-coffee coffee they would be “reducing the need for new coffee plantations” and thus “save the remaining forest lands”. They further claim that as a result of “rising temperatures in coffee growing regions, the fruit of coffee trees ripen too quickly” which does “not fully allowing the beans inside to develop all their wonderful flavors and aromas”. Can you pick up a slight incredulous tone in my citations here? Well, let’s just explore a couple of these points and then ask the more fun: what is coffee?

Point one: climate change is a threat to coffee. Yes, one-hundred percent true. If you care about coffee, you care about climate change as it endangers every single producer, in every single region. Point two: demand for coffee is causing deforestation at high altitudes. In 2014, Peter Baker presented a paper on Global Coffee Production and Land Use Change; he states, “global coffee production is growing by about 2% annually since 1989”. Yet, “production is falling in many counties, with a group of 14 countries estimated to be losing production”. The areas of growth are most prominent in Brazil, Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Peru, Vietnam, and China. 

Within this group, production growth is thanks to increased yields (i.e. more cherries per harvest) or new production (i.e. newly established farms/larger farms). The later requires land and the data supports the link to deforestation in Vietnam, Indonesia, Ethiopia, India, Honduras, and Peru. Obviously a problem, but not necessarily one targeted at high altitudes. The coffee markets in Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Honduras are overwhelmingly commodity based. In other words, the increase is not accurately associated with small-scale farms but rather with larger agri-businesses and the expansion of low-altitude growth robusta.

What I am digging at here is that those select countries in which there is growth rather than decline, the driving force correlates specifically to the increased production of cheap commodity coffee. Furthermore, there is not much support for the idea that climate change means farms move to higher areas and, consequently, destroy existing forests in favour of agricultural use. As studies like Towards a climate change adaptation strategy for coffee communities and ecosystems in the Sierra Madre de Chiapas demonstrate, the notion that small-scale producers have enough resources to simply move their operation is outlandish. Instead, a weak coffee market translates to attempts to increase yields on existing farms, through decreased bio-diversity and mono-cropping.

Point three: growing population and rising demands are putting pressure on farmers to keep increasing production. According to Coffee Markets New Paradigms in Global Supply and Demand, the expansion in Brazil and Vietnam eluded to above has been so significant that “along with Colombia, these countries now account for 61% of total production”. The outcome has been a “market oversupply”. Moreover, the current market demand is not for all coffee but only “low-cost coffee”. All of this is made possible through systematic structural changes by large trading companies who are “concentrated” at key points in the supply chain. Troster and Staritz illuminate the point in Global Commodity Chains, Financial Markets and Local Market Structures: they write, “Neuman Kaffee Group and Ecom handled 28%” of all coffee, and equally distressing, “the largest eight traders comprised more than two-thirds of global green coffee exports”. In other words, monopolization and concentration have flooded the market and fostered weak prices. 

As to rising customer level demand, that same study isolates the main growth markets “in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet Union, which are not traditional coffee consumers” and it is “primarily for inexpensive, soluble coffees”. While the specialty market share may be swelling and the cheap soluble market might be intensifying, the majority of coffee or the “undifferentiated commercial coffees” are “stagnant and, in some cases, eroding growth”. Are those farmers feeling the “pressure” Atomo claims? According to the data, it is increasingly “uneconomic to grow these coffees in competition with the lower production costs” and “producers at this level will continue to exit the market”. In other words, the great majority of farmers contributing to total global volume is not escalating and, in fact, is disappearing due to lowering prices.

To Atomo’s final point: saving “the wonderful flavors and aromas” of coffee from the plague of over-ripening. This really gets my hackles up. When they start listing all of the volatile compounds that contribute to a delicious cup, they are citing those originating in the roast process. Granted, a great roast always requires incredible green and the best cups will be those that maintain all the hallmarks flavours of origin. However, roasting is a destructive process that eliminates and then creates new flavour and aroma compounds. To blame farmers for having overripe cherries and use it as a rationale to create lab coffee from roast-specific volatiles is disingenuous and enraging. 

The shape that emerges from this shifting global landscape is a triangle. On the pointy top, a small section of specialty farms. On the bottom, a medium segment built upon a huge base of cheap, robusta coffee grown for soluble or flavoured applications. And in the middle, the farmers who are losing ground – literally and figuratively. The truly terrible thing in Atomo’s pitch is they are targeting the market share of those on the top (to quote them: “We will definitely be targeting high end flavor profiles”) by blaming those on the bottom. They refuse to deal with the real issues and cause of the environmental crisis: coffee prices forcing small scale farms into an impossible situation in which yields or production must increase. 

As of last Friday, the commodity price was 0.98 USD per pound; with fair trade certified coffee floating roughly 0.40 cents above that. The SCA launched an economic study in Guatemala and concluded that the point of viability for farmers would demand 2.50 USD per pound. To grapple with the environmental crisis, the solution thus starts with labour not labwork. Creating a living wage for farmers lessens the need to move toward mono-cultures, decreased biodiversity, high-yield fertilizers and all of the ensuing issues with erosion, deforestation, and water pollution. The very notion that a proprietary (yes Atomo is a restricted technology) non-coffee would help with any of this is absurd and backwards thinking.

Ultimately, I think the ‘what is coffee’ question becomes extraordinarily salient and not just between a coffee bean and a coffee-style carrier matrix. By lumping all green producers, roasters and brewers under the same umbrella, the huge systematic changes to coffee become monolithic. I like to cite Jacques Rancière notion that we focus in on the sites in which equality is erased. For coffee, this mean disentangling all of the forces that contribute to a commodity market that exploits the labour of producers and directly lead to catastrophic environmental crisis, not creating new ways to further erase equality and strengthen a broken system.

The solution is removing these massive gatekeepers (i.e. traders who control 2/3 of the exports, agribusiness whose models demand cheap prices, shops who profit from cheap cups) and paying producers a living wage so that they can produce better coffee – not higher yields or production quotas. Molecular coffee eliminates the producers themselves, despite the fact they were never the issue; it has always been the willing and purposeful destruction of an industry from the ground-up. We need to recognize that not all coffee is created equal but that we can reconfigure that triangle and help producers out of unimaginable circumstances, which demand harmful environmental practices and the exploitation of labour. We do not need a seedless beverage, we need to cultivate real seeds of change and brew real coffee that is grown and harvested by real people.  


Trust the Process,  
Lee Knuttila