In their continuing mission to provide tasty, space-saving and shelf-stable nutrition for astronauts, NASA gave Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) a $125,000 six-month grant to develop a 3D printer that will print comestibles on-the-go. Anjan Contractor, a mechanical engineer for SMRC (yes, that’s a guy’s name,) hopes that such a printer will eventually be able to feed the world and end the hunger that plagues Planet Earth’s developing nations.
Contractor speaks of envisioning a 3D printer in every kitchen, with cartridges of raw materials – proteins, oils, and carbohydrates, or suchlike compartmentalized components of nutrution – that have a shelf-life of 30 years, so that between that and the additive manufacturing aspect, this innovation will cut down on food waste and the hassle of preparing dishes. Since it’s easiest to work in layers, the idea is to start with making layered foods; to that end, their first project will be to make a pizza printer within the next few weeks.
This technology, while it has definite potential to address world hunger, will also reduce the need to be competent, resourceful, and motivated enough to prepare food, which is a bonus for the (amazingly) still-growing percentage of relatively affluent Earthlings who prefer to have things done without actually working for it. But is this a bonus for the human race, or is this in fact just another step toward the inevitable collapse of of our large-scale modern society? Imagine a future where people just have to speak into a microphone to get their food: won’t this make us even lazier than we already are? Will it relegate cooking and preparing food from real food sources an arcane craft skill like making soap, or driving without a cellphone in hand? Will the aforementioned microphone be fashioned into the mouth of a plastic clown’s head, potentially traumatizing future generations of children who (reasonably) fear clowns and if so, would that help to mitigate the attendant exacerbation of the obesity epidemic?
Personally, I could see a few apocalyptic scenarios unfolding from the food fabrication revolution:
Scenario 1: The collapsing tower – in the longest-term scenario, the world eventually comes to rely on food fabrication to such a large extent that virtually nobody cooks food anymore. Then through some chain of events, this ability is taken away from the world – perhaps a shortage of some ingredient, or a massive extinction-level event leaves few to no people who know how make the confounded contraptions work when they fail, or how to get one to make a proper cup of tea (Earl Grey, hot.) When supplies begin to run low, this leaves practically everyone scraping to get their next meal and eventually the world degenerates into a cannibalistic state that leads to extinction; in the end, there can be only one.
Scenario 2: The Biosphere betrayal – in this scenario, virtually the entire world becomes enamored and hooked on fabricated foods, eventually integrating them into the food industry to such a degree that nobody is untouched by them. Then at some point science finds that some aspect of the fabricated foods is affecting humanity for the worse: slow sterilization, neurodegeneration, a decreasing lifespan for each successive generation, decreasing intellectual abilities a-la Idiocracy; at this point the most logical choice, and what the majority of the population is likely to do, is to stop using fabricated foods altogether – but this cannot reverse the problem, and only causes more issues – the return of world hunger for less-developed nations and the urban poor, food riots, a stock market recession. . . how do we get off this crazy thing?
Now, I’m just as hopeful as anybody else that a pizza printer will eventually make the kids at Domino’s who can’t get my order right as obsolete as 8-track cassettes, but there’s a case for caution and reserve. Can we trust the FDA to regulate the base ingredients going into these devices? Will this stuff even taste good? Who do we call to complain to when the printer keeps forgetting to give us sauce for our bread sticks, and will they give us something for free to keep our business?
Leave your comments below. What are your thoughts on 3D-printed foods?
Check out our 3D food-related gallery on Pinterest for some tasty(ish) pictures and videos!