AUSTIN, TX — The recent hype around 3D printing has revolved mostly around the capacity for these printers to make guns, but could this new, futuristic technology also be used for such good as addressing global food scarcity and security?
A SXSW Eco Conference panel in Austin, Texas addressed the question of whether this path-breaking technology holds the potential to produce nutrient-rich food that can be produced locally and on-demand, amongst other benefits. This could present certain solutions to increasing global food demand that don’t put so much strain on natural resources and also significantly reduce food waste. Both elements could lead to reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as well.
“We have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000,” Jason Clay, Senior Vice President for Market Transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, said. “By 2050 we’re going to have to produce twice as much food as we do today. We need to find a way to do this more sustainably. The biggest threat to the planet is to continue producing food in a business-as-usual fashion.”
Clay was one of three panelists, including Hod Lipson, Associate Professor of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and Computing & Information Science at Cornell University, and Jed Davis, Director of Sustainability at Cabot Creamery.
None of the three panelists saw 3D food printing as a silver bullet to the problem of global food supply, but more as an interesting development that could be helpful in certain cases. “3D printing is not alchemy — food products go in and food products come out,” Clay said. “I don’t think 3D printing is the answer to food scarcity, it won’t achieve scale fast enough. And it’s also too expensive to help most of the 800 million people or so who are food insecure.”
Lipson explained the history of 3D printing in brief as well as the emergence of 3D food printing. He said that the technology for 3D printing has been around for a long time and has been used to make things like electric parts, circuits, and batteries. His goal has always been to print a 3D robot that will walk out of the printer, batteries included.
In the last decade or so the technology for 3D printers was made open source, meaning that blueprints and software were made available for all to use in building their own 3D printers at a much lower cost than manufacturers charge.
“One thing everybody made with these printers wasn’t robots or machine parts, it was food,” Lipson said. “If you think about it, it makes sense because most peoples’ experiments in making things at home involve food.”
Lipton sees this as a new and interesting blend of information technology and cooking that has already led to a lot of ideas.
“3D printers give us a new angle to see if we can be more efficient with food, make healthier diets, make more types of food with fewer ingredients, or make food on-demand as needed so we don’t end up wasting so much,” Lipton said. “Or some stranger things, like making airplane-shaped broccoli so kids are more likely to eat it.”
Davis added to the implications of the convergence of food and information technology. “As technology develops some interesting prospects for the human race many of the ones that have been most readily embraced have been in medicine,” he said. “Meanwhile, many that create the most uproar or controversy are in the food industry. What we do to keep our bodies healthy in terms of technology seems to supersede what we’re willing to do to the food that we put in our bodies.”
Davis gave the example that maybe one day delicious cheese could be printed with an extra supply of vitamins or minerals. “Is this acceptable? And what’s it going to taste like?,” he said.
Clay offered a few more possibilities for 3D food printing. He said that one-third of calories produced go to waste in either in the production process or the waste process. If we could figure out how to put those nutrients toward 3D printing that could make a big impact on production and sustainability measures.
Another option would be to produce food at places like refugee camps where often the foods shipped in are quite different from what the refugees are accustomed to eating.
Last month Lipson was featured in a New York Times‘ article where the reporter was fed a 3D-printed dinner on 3D printed dish ware. The meal included a pizza shaped like Italy and noodles in the shapes of the author’s initials.
The author calls it, “the strangest and most memorable meal of my life,” but remains skeptical about the broader implications of 3D printed food. However, he is convinced that 3D printing will play a large role in the future of technology and production. The panelists and him seem to see this as just another extension of society’s migration to online and digital platforms, technologies, and now, food.