The Future of Food?
It’s not quite replicator technology from Star Trek, but NASA today awarded a 6 month grant to a company to develop the world’s first food printer. The technology, still in very early stages, would use proteins, carbohydrates and sugars to “print” edible food. The company is currently working on a prototype for a “3-D pizza printer,” which it believes will be easier because of the layered nature of pizza. As Anjan Contractor, the mechanical engineer working on the project described it, will print “a layer of dough, which is baked at the same time it’s printed, by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, ‘which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil.” Last comes the “protein layer.”
From NASA’s perspective, the technology will enable long-distance space travel. If you can simply transport carbohydrates, proteins, and macro and micronutrients in powdered form, shelf-life can be increased while weight is decreased—both major concerns for NASA.
But the company responsible for the “food printer” envisions uses closer to home. Believing that food will become dramatically more expensive in the near future, and the food printer will provide the average consumer with cheaper sources of food that might include algae, duckweed, grass, beet leaves, or insects as protein sources.
Of course, such solutions posit that hunger (read as a lack of access to food) is primarily a technical problem that can be overcome through the application of new technological fixes. However, as a long string of research has consistently demonstrated hunger is in fact a social problem. While food printers seem like an interesting solution to the problems faced by NASA as it explores the possibility of long-term space missions, it seems unlikely that food printers will address the problems faced by rural villages in the developing world anytime in the near future. They’ll have to wait for their “Tea. Early Grey. Hot.” a bit longer.