“What do you want to print for dinner?”
Believe it or not, this could be a daily question for many families, if you believe some scientists and futurists. Scientists say the same technology that allows three-dimensional objects to be designed on a computer and physically created on-demand can work similarly for food—and that we may soon be able to “print” entire meals with the click of a button.
At a Cornell University lab, researchers have a printer that can fabricate cakes that, when sliced into, reveal embedded messages. Working from electronic blueprints, “solid freeform fabrication,” as this process is called, uses edible inks to custom-print food.
Chocolates, cookies and cakes are one thing, but would you eat “printed-out” fish or meat? Get ready for it, because scientists are already experimenting with the stuff. Cornell’s lab is making scallop nuggets shaped like miniature rocket ships, and scientists have been working on ways to use solid freeform fabrication to create synthetic meat products. The process involves depositing cultures of living cells from a printer head, one layer at a time, and fusing them into a single, coherent living tissue. In a world where livestock feeding, production and transportation account for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, supporters say the ability to print synthetic meat at home from a few live cells could remove the need to rear and feed and slaughter animals for human consumption. But the process, leading researchers say, is challenging.
“Three-dimensional printing has taken off big time, and printing things such as whipped cream is just another application of it—but it’s no big deal,” Professor Gabor Forgacs, of the University of Missouri, told BBC News recently. “Printing biomaterial is an entirely different ball game.”
Forgacs added that while a prototype for biomaterial printing is complete, the science is not yet suitable for consumption. But even if scientists are able to perfect printable meat, professional futurist Christopher Barnatt—who wrote about this concept in his book Seven Ways to Fix the World—doubts it will catch on. Why? Because essentially humans are cheap and lazy.
“All-in-all, I think the use of synthetic biology to help us grow meat will be massively important as localization takes hold,” says Barnatt, who writes at ExplainingTheFuture.com and serves as Associate Professor of Future Studies at Nottingham University. “But very, very few people will want to significantly increase the cost of synthetic meat by bioprinting it. This would be literally taking a solid lump of meat, breaking it down into tiny bio-meat spheroids, and then sticking them all back together again.”
Still, the Jetsonian vision of a food future three-dimensional printing helps conjure certainly has its supporters. Adherents say the ability to print food could dramatically reduce the amount of time Americans spend preparing food, and that printed meals can meet precise nutritional standards (imagine, for instance, being able to make foods with specific vitamin or calorie content). Some say it could revolutionize the way we get “fast food,” giving us the ability to both design and make restaurant-quality meals without leaving the comfort of our own homes.
But culturing synthetic meats and other bio food consumables in one’s own kitchen presents a host of health concerns that may outweigh any environmental benefits. And philosophically, the simplicity of clicking “print” for a meal would disconnect us even further from our food, some nutritionists say.
“As always, I prefer good old home cooking and natural foods,” says Lisa Young, a nutritional consultant and registered dietitian in New York and author of The Portion Teller Plan. “Engaging in the kitchen helps you feel connected to the food you eat, so that always is my first choice.”
And given the preparation that printing, say, a batch of cookies would involve—mixing the cookie dough, printing, baking, and then cleaning it all up—Barnatt says it’s more likely everyday bakers would skip the machine and do it themselves.
“Will some people have them for making personalized custom foods? Yes,” he says. “But their impact on our food will be about the same as a novelty cookie cutter.”
What do you think about print-your-own food? Would you eat meat printed at home?
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter