No, 3-D printed food will not end world hunger

My colleague Ty McCormick links to an article over at Quartz by Christopher Mims on the development of new technologies for the 3-D printing of food.  The technology's developers have some pretty bold claims for its potential:

He sees a day when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and the earth’s 12 billion people feed themselves customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store. Contractor’s vision would mean the end of food waste, because the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so that each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store.

Ubiquitous food synthesizers would also create new ways of producing the basic calories on which we all rely. Since a powder is a powder, the inputs could be anything that contain the right organic molecules. We already know that eating meat is environmentally unsustainable, so why not get all our protein from insects?

If eating something spat out by the same kind of 3D printers that are currently being used to make everything from jet engine parts to fine art doesn’t sound too appetizing, that’s only because you can currently afford the good stuff, says Contractor. That might not be the case once the world’s population reaches its peak size, probably sometime near the end of this century.

“I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” says Contractor. “So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

That last sentence may very well be true, but I'm not really sure what problem the printer is solving. 3-D printing of other objects is exciting and potentially transformative because it takes all the difficulty out of manufacturing -- you won't need any skill or specialized equipment other than the printer itself to turn raw materials into useful household goods. 

But using chemical reactions to turn plant matter into food isn't a revolutionary idea -- homo erectus may have had it figured out. By this standard, the oven in my kitchen is a 3-D printer: If I put in special powders called flour and yeast, it will print me out a loaf of bread.

The powder in these cartridges still has to be made of stuff that someone has to grow. The Quartz article identifies some possible sources:

  • algae
  • duckweed
  • grass
  • lupine seeds
  • beet leafs
  • insects

Great! Algae-as-food has its advocates. So do insects. People in many countries already eat insects. Why don't we just make these things into food instead of making them into raw materials for food printing?

I find a certain level of arrogance in the idea that global hunger is just a technology problem.   There's already enough food in the world for everyone to eat enough to survive, yet poor people still starve. How will this change if we're buying food cartridges at the store instead of just food? 

Somalia's famine didn't happen because Somalis can't make food, it happened because it was too dry to grow it, they were too poor to buy it, and other people were stealing it. If they had shiny new 3-D food printers, they would still have been too poor to buy it. If anything, it would only make the global poor more dependent on the companies producing the food. 

Maybe -- in the name of sustainability -- we could all get used to eating synthesized glop squirted onto our plates by a machine. Or maybe we could all just try eating less meat and more vegetables first and see how that works out.

Uber-nerdy sidenote: Mims' article compares 3-D food printers to the replicators on Star Trek, an obvious comparison since the first (and more logical) application of this may be for long spaceflights. As Matt Yglesias points out, replicator technology seems to have been essential in creating the post-scarcity, post-monetary, quasi-socialist utopia in which the various Star Trek shows and movies take place. 

But as far as we know, the replicators worked by "rearranging subatomic particles, which are abundant everywhere in the universe," using technology similar to the transporter beam. There's no indication that the Enterprise had to restock on powders and food goops for the replicators every time it docked at a starbase.  

If that were the case, rather than asking the replicator for "Tea, Earl Grey, Hot," Captain Picard might just as easily have brought a big box of Lipton on board with him.

Photo: Memory Alpha

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