Heiko Rischer isn’t quite sure how to describe the taste of lab-grown coffee. This summer he sampled one of the first batches in the world produced from cell cultures rather than coffee beans.
“To describe it is difficult but, for me, it was in between a coffee and a black tea,” said Rischer, head of plant biotechnology at the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, which developed the coffee. “It depends really on the roasting grade, and this was a bit of a lighter roast, so it had a little bit more of a tea-like sensation.”
Rischer couldn’t swallow the coffee, as this cellular agriculture innovation is not yet approved for public consumption. Instead, he swirled the liquid around in his mouth and spit it out. He predicts that VTT’s lab-grown coffee could get regulatory approval in Europe and the US in about four years’ time, paving the way for a commercialized product that could have a much lower climate impact than conventional coffee.
The coffee industry is both a contributor to the climate crisis and very vulnerable to its effects. Rising demand for coffee has been linked to deforestation in developing nations, damaging biodiversity and releasing carbon emissions. At the same time, coffee producers are struggling with the impacts of more extreme weather, from frosts to droughts. It’s estimated that half of the land used to grow coffee could be unproductive by 2050 due to the climate crisis.
In response to the industry’s challenges, companies and scientists are trying to develop and commercialize coffee made without coffee beans.
VTT’s coffee is grown by floating cell cultures in bioreactors filled with a nutrient. The process requires no pesticides and has a much lower water footprint, said Rischer, and because the coffee can be produced in local markets, it cuts transport emissions. The company is working on a life cycle analysis of the process. “Once we have those figures, we will be able to show that the environmental impact will be much lower than what we have with conventional cultivation,” Rischer said.
American startups are also working on beanless coffee. In September, Seattle-based Atomo Coffee released what it called the world’s first “molecular coffee” in a one-day online pop-up, charging $5.99 a can.
The startup, which has raised $11.5m, makes its coffee by converting the compounds from plant waste into the same compounds contained in green coffee. Ingredients, including date seed extracts, chicory root, grape skin as well as caffeine, are roasted, ground and brewed. This method results in 93% lower carbon emissions and 94% less water use than conventional coffee production, as well as no deforestation, according to Atomo.
“The industry has known about the deleterious effects of coffee farming for a long time, whether we’re talking deforestation or major water usage,” said Atomo’s co-founder Jarret Stopforth. “[Before starting Atomo] I was thinking to myself, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this.’”
Atomo’s facility can produce about 1,000 servings of coffee a day. The goal is to increase that to 10,000 servings a day over the next 12 months, said Stopforth, and in two years to move into a facility that can produce 30m servings of coffee a year. Stopforth says that Atomo will start the initial phase of the new factory build within the next three months.
Alternative coffee companies like Atomo not only have the potential to help tackle the climate crisis but to benefit the industry generally, said Sylvain Charlebois, a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Take arabica beans, said Charlebois. “You need specific climatic patterns, and it’s much better if you’re more in control in a laboratory environment than just trying to rely on Mother Nature.” Technology can help stabilize production and make it more predictable, he said.
But it’s unclear how many people would be willing to give up conventional coffee for one of its beanless counterparts. A 2019 survey by Dalhousie University found that 72% of Canadians say they would not drink lab-grown coffee.
Maricel Saenz, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Compound Foods said she was working to “reinvent” coffee and to show people why doing so matters. Compound Foods, which has secured $4.5m in seed funding, says it recreates coffee farm production in the lab. The startup uses microbes and fermentation technology to grow a variety of flavors and aromas, Saenz said.
Preliminary results from a carbon life cycle analysis indicate that the company’s coffee produces a tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions and water use of traditional coffee, Saenz said. She plans to introduce her product by late 2022 and expects pricing to be similar to specialty coffees. “As we improve our processes, we aim to decrease our prices,” she said.
As the population grows and pressure increases on natural resources, Saenz said, “we need to be producing food in more efficient ways, using a lot of the biotechnology and fermentation tools that are now at our disposal.”
But Daniele Giovannucci, president and co-founder of the Committee on Sustainability Assessment, a consortium that focuses on agricultural sustainability, is concerned that scaling up lab-grown coffee could affect the livelihoods of the millions of workers in the traditional coffee industry, especially in countries such as Ethiopia where coffee is central to the economy. “What’s going to happen to all these people?” Giovannucci asked. “What are they going to do, because this is a key cash crop?”
There’s a risk, he said, that lab-grown coffee could create significant socio-economic problems that could drive even greater climate change effects. “It is not clear if, in the end, its net effect may worsen global sustainability, along with many millions of lives.”
Saenz, who is from Costa Rica, a coffee-exporting country, said, “I know many coffee producers, so it’s something that I definitely worry about.” But, she added, “the number one threat that coffee farmers have today is climate change” – whether that’s heat that disrupts ripening times, or unexpected frosts as Brazil experienced in the summer, which severely damaged crops.
Saenz said her company will collaborate with non-profits to support small coffee farmers transitioning to more sustainable agricultural practices, including providing training and crop insurance.
While lab-grown coffee shows real promise, said Charlebois, the politics should not be underestimated, especially as so many farmers depend on conventional methods of producing crops and many of them live in developing economies. “Scalability is not an issue for lab-grown coffee,” he said, “but regulations and general acceptance of the technology will be greater challenges.”
The 3D-printed implants were shown to speed up the healing of wounds and could be adapted to regenerate different tissues in the body.
A new study led by researchers at the RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences indicates that wound healing could be improved by replicating a key component of our blood.
Researchers focused on platelet-rich plasma (PRP), which is a natural healing substance in our blood. They extracted PRP from the blood of patients with complex skin wounds and manipulated the PRP through 3D-printing to create a tissue-repair implant.
This implant could be administered to a difficult-to-treat skin wound in a single surgical procedure.
Results suggested that the implant could help to speed up wound healing by improving the development of new blood vessels and inhibiting the formation of scarring, which are both essential for a wound to heal effectively.
This indicates an improvement over the PRP already present in our blood, according to Prof Fergal O’Brien of RCSI, as natural PRP helps wounds to heal but scarring can still occur.
“By 3D-printing PRP into a biomaterial scaffold, we can increase the formation of blood vessels while also avoiding the formation of scars, leading to more successful wound healing.”
O’Brien, who is professor of bioengineering and regenerative medicine at RCSI, believes there are applications for this technology beyond skin wounds.
“This technology can potentially be used to regenerate different tissues, therefore dramatically influencing the ever-growing regenerative medicine, 3D printing and personalised medicine markets.”
The study was led by researchers at the Tissue Engineering Research Group and Science Foundation Ireland’s Advanced Materials and Bioengineering Research Centre (AMBER), based at RCSI’s Department of Anatomy and Regenerative Medicine.
The team also collaborated with researchers at the University of Minho in Portugal and at Trinity College Dublin’s Centre for Biomedical Engineering.
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On an industrial estate outside Swindon, it’s the busiest time of year at Amazon’s newest warehouse in Britain. Black boxes rattle along miles of conveyor belt, carrying everything from toys to painkillers amid a cacophony of alarms and the faint hum of Christmas songs.
“I’m looking around here at anything that might not be right, but it’s actually running very smoothly,” says David Tindal, the general manager of the Swindon fulfilment centre. “The team has been fantastic. We spend the whole year preparing for this peak time, like a good football club preparing for the cup final.”
Known internally as BRS2 – using a naming system based on the nearest big airport (in this case, Bristol) – the warehouse is a vision in gleaming concrete, steel and glass landed on the Wiltshire countryside.
The vast site is a stark reminder of Amazon’s might. As well as upending consumer habits and standing accused of gaining an unfair advantage by paying too little in tax and hollowing out high streets, the company is creating huge distortions in the jobs market. The new depot has created its own gravitational force sucking staff away from other businesses such as care homes.
The latest outpost of Jeff Bezos’s empire also illustrates the shifting economic sands in the western world. In July, the nearby Honda car factory closed – a decision blamed partly on Brexit – with the loss of about 3,000 direct jobs plus thousands more in the supply chain, many of which were high-paying, skilled roles.
Amazon has hired 2,000 staff in a matter of months in Swindon, opening the site earlier than planned at the start of November to exploit the online shopping boom in Britain, and advertising roles as “a job for life, not just for Christmas”.
With hiring bonuses of up to £3,000 at some of its 150 UK warehouses, and starting pay of £11.10 an hour – more than £2 higher than the legal minimum, and above the £9.90 real living wage – the firm is aiming to shake a reputation as one of Britain’s worst employers, notorious for low-paid jobs and bleak working conditions.
For Sue Houldey, the operations director at Coate Water Care, which runs three care homes in the town and six others across the west country, Amazon’s arrival in the area coincides with the toughest hiring challenges of her career.
“We’re competing with Amazon and the big warehouses, as well as hospitality, for the same people. It can be very frustrating,” she says, sitting in the cafe of the Church View nursing home in a quiet residential area of the town.
Coate Water hasn’t lost staff directly to Amazon, but competition for a slim pool of candidates is fierce. Insufficient funding for social care and soaring fixed costs make it difficult to raise pay much higher than the £8.91-per-hour legal minimum, making a job at the nearby Amazon depot 25% more lucrative.
With more than 100,000 vacancies in the care sector nationwide, many staff are leaving to work for Amazon and other higher-paying jobs across the country. “Nobody wants to discuss it because it’s unpalatable. But the funding that we get doesn’t allow us to pay probably what we want to pay for our staff,” says Houldey.
As with retail, winter is peak time for the care sector, except the stakes are far higher than the rush for Christmas presents. Houldey must meet Care Quality Commission requirements for sufficient staff numbers. “If [you are Amazon and] one of your workers doesn’t turn up, it’s like: hey ho, everyone else can just work a bit harder, or we might not get stuff done. Those rules don’t apply in care. It’s not an equal playing field.”
Official figures show a record 1.2m job vacancies across Britain, with shortages of lorry drivers in particular attracting national attention amid panic-buying of petrol and gaps on supermarket shelves this autumn.
Approaching Christmas, there are many reasons for the employee drought. Britain’s workforce has shrunk since the onset of Covid-19, with more than half a million more people out of work and not looking for a job. as Some have taken early retirement and young people have pushed back the start of their working lives. More than 200,000 EU citizens have left the workforce, and Covid restrictions and Brexit migration rules are limiting arrivals.
With more than a million furloughed workers leaving the scheme after it closed at the end of September, and others looking for a new job in the so-called “great resignation”, job switching has hit record levels.
The arrival of a new warehouse might be hailed by local politicians for “creating jobs”, but switching from an old employer is more likely, in a form of labour market creative destruction with winners and losers.
“When you drop a stone like Amazon into the local labour pool, it makes quite big waves,” says Tony Wilson, the director of the Institute for Employment Studies.
He says the company is following a similar path to McDonald’s two decades ago, when negative media coverage pushed the fast-food chain to clean up its act.
“They have to have good employment practices because there’s so much attention on them. As a consequence, a misconception can form relatively quickly that this is all crap work, and the reality is it isn’t.”
In the ripple effect of Amazon coming to town, Domingos Dias has seen more than 100 of his colleagues leave the Marks & Spencer warehouse (run on an outsourced basis by DHL) where he works. The departures have left resources stretched.
“Where you would have 10 people, 20 people, they now try to do it with five,” he says. “Since Amazon came, they had these opportunities and people went for the better prospects for higher salary.”
The GMB trade union shop steward is pushing for higher pay for employees and agency staff, who are paid less than at Amazon on £9.45 an hour. “Suddenly there was a thing that this new warehouse is coming. The guys who were working for 20 long years on agency contracts, they didn’t have any loyalty for Marks & Spencer and DHL, so they saw this and grabbed the opportunity.”
Pay is rising fast in warehousing work, according to figures from the jobs website Indeed, with the median hourly wage up 11% this year from £9.25 to £10.27. Pay in other sectors is rising more slowly, and failing to keep pace with soaring living costs.
The prospect of higher pay is enticing workers to the warehouse, contrary to the reputation of Amazon as a poverty employer. Still, critics argue that Bezos – among the world’s richest people, with a fortune of more than $200bn (£150bn) – could easily afford to pay more, rather than launching a space tourism business. Hours are still long and the company does not recognise trade unions.
The timing of Amazon’s arrival could prove helpful, however, after Honda gave up on its factory after more than three decades in Swindon. Tindal bumps into former Honda employees on a regular basis at BRS2, including an engineer with 30 years’ experience maintaining robotic arms – used for spraying cars with paint – who now looks after the army of blue robots that scuttle goods around a vast cage of consumer goods in the Amazon warehouse.
Jay Colsell, who worked on the final shift at Swindon after five years with Honda, is another. He says pay was higher and hours shorter in his old job, but there are more opportunities for career progression at Amazon. “Honda was busy. It was hard work; good money but you worked for it. Amazon is also good but you don’t have to run around lots, you just have to be proactive.”
A modern-day equivalent of a Victorian factory, only on a dual carriageway rather than the railway that put Swindon on the map two centuries ago, the new warehouse covers an area the size of nearly seven football pitches.
Tindal recruited about 600 staff ahead of time and trained them at Amazon’s older Bristol fulfilment centre in order to launch as smoothly as possible at the start of November. The general manager, who has opened three other sites for the firm from scratch – at Daventry, Rugby and Milton Keynes – says even more expansion is expected after the Christmas rush.
“We’re probably still advertising, I haven’t checked. We’re going to pause for now until the new year, but then we’ll be hiring some more.”
A Briton has lost an appeal bid to claim copyright over software he wrote for his employer while being handsomely paid for doing so – despite saying he wrote parts of it in his spare time.
Michael Penhallurick had his case thrown out by Court of Appeal judges in London yesterday following his failed attempt to assert copyright over his Virtual Forensic Computing (VFC) suite in the High Court last year.
The former South Yorkshire police worker had claimed VFC was licensed to MD5 Ltd and the company infringed that licence when it stopped paying him sums of money he described as licensing fees, two years after he left MD5.
“The parties’ subjective intentions are not relevant to interpretation,” observed judge Sir Christopher Floyd. “As a consequence, it can often happen that the objective construction of an agreement does not align perfectly with the subjective intention of either party.”
Thus, said Sir Christopher, the words “the software developed at MD5 Ltd by yourself and sold as VFC” in a 2008 agreement between the developer and the company legally meant that copyright over VFC was owned by MD5.
As previously reported, Penhallurick had been paid 7.5 per cent of VFC’s annual sales, with those payments continuing for two years after his 2016 resignation. MD5 successfully argued in the High Court that the money was paid for ongoing support rather than royalties or licensing fees. The lack of a single clear contract resulted in the dispute going to court.
Discussing the 2008 agreement’s mention of a “bonus”, the Court of Appeal judge ruled: “I see no reason why that bonus should not be taken as valid consideration for the agreement to assign the copyright in such works as vested in the appellant as a result of his continuing work until the appellant left the respondent’s employment. Section 91 of the CDPA 1988 would then treat such copyrights as vesting in the respondent by operation of law.”
Praising barrister Nicholas Caddick QC’s “ingenious” arguments on Penhallurick’s behalf, Sir Christopher rejected them anyway and ruled in MD5’s favour, with fellow judges Lord Justice Arnold and Mrs Justice Falk agreeing.
His Honour Judge Hacon, sitting in the High Court, had previously found that everyone at MD5 knew Penhallurick was writing VFC for the company, including creating multiple versions of it, and paying him a cut of the sales as compensation for his work.
As we said previously: if you’re a dev working on something of your own, double check your contract of employment. Even if you’re doing it mostly in your spare time. ®