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Friday, May 24, 2013

3-D printing for food -- it's what could be for dinner

by Jamie Lutton

Sometimes, there are stories in the news about technological advances that are so unbelievable, they are not credited. The story of '3-D Printers' making food from plant waste is one of them. 
NASA has just given a $125,000 grant to a company to develop a '3-D printer' that would make food out of plant waste.  The scientists demonstrated the machine using mealworms, but, according to the article, the technology might be able to use lawn clippings, algae or any kind of plant waste. The inventor  has made the extravagant claim that 3D food Printers, could one day eliminate world hunger.
 The first use would be to preserve food for long voyages into space, to Mars, and at the proposed Mars colony, because present forms of preservation, such as rations now fed to Astronauts (think TANG)  do not produce food that ''keeps'' for long enough. And if food can be grown from waste, it is not inconceivable that an algae tank on a long voyage could recycle human waste back into food, adding a few vitamins and other nutrients, plus some flavorings. (!)
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When I emailed an distinguished scientist/engineer  I know and told him about it, he insisted that this idea was not possible, demonstrating Arthur C. Clarke's First Law of Impossibility :
 "When a distinguished but elderly scientist declares something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he declares something is impossible, he is very probably wrong"
I directed his attention the NASA article. He still did not believe it.   . I think it sounded like a 'perpetual motion' machine to him, as the claim that edible tasty food could be made out of plant waste is, on the surface, incredible. But this is what the Earth itself does; miniaturizing and shortening the process is what this machine is supposed to do.(Not a perpetual motion machine, of course, since it's powered by the energy of the sun.)
I believe. this invention, one  related to it, may be the inventions of the century. 
    
There are a lot of  justified worry about famine and food shortages in the world today. At any one time, some part of the world, or another, is on the verge of famine.  In many countries that have "enough" food, children are stunted from not getting enough protein or vitamins in their diet. Some insist that there is enough food for everyone, only it is poorly distributed. Others protest the development of 'Franken foods', or genetically altered foods like corn or tomatoes, or rice that has been altered to have more vitamins in it, called 'golden rice'. Yet while the arguments go on, poor people suffer from malnutrition on every continent.
            
We forget that a lot of the food we love, and is common,  is ''artificial'.  Ice cream is my favorite example, plus frozen vegetables and TV dinners, and in particular  fresh milk and juice. These foods only possible because of home refrigeration and factories that process food for huge numbers of people; this allows people to have fresh green vegetables in the middle of the winter, even if the  local produce is poor. 
 I have been in grocery stores where the fresh produce was terrible, in small towns or in bad neighborhoods, but there always were frozen peas and broccoli available in the freezers. Americans don't eat green vegetables as much as they should because of the marketing of junk food. 
The idea is that delicious food that is tasty could be 'printed' on the long voyage to Mars, on in the Mars colony after it arrival. Food such as pizza, Mexican and Italian dishes could be fabricated.  Real 'meat' dishes could also be fabricated in the future, using a different technique.
Dutch scientists a few months ago, have successfully grown meat, that is, muscle tissue, in the lab:
The cost of producing 'hamburger' looks to be $200,000 for one patty, but the scientists claim when the process is perfected, the price would quickly drop.  There is a huge demand for meat, as countries Westernize and develop the taste for red meat, chicken and fish.  
Another force driving this is that 'meat' of this type would not damage the environment or be cruel to animals grown in less than humane ways for food. . France M. Lappe in her book, Diet for a Small Planet back in 1972; pointed out that feeding grain to cattle and eating the cattle was terribly inefficient, and bad for the environment. As the Earth's population Westernizes, the demand for meat only goes up, straining the environment. 
My thought is that both these technologies could be used to make dog and cat food first, and free up the fish, chicken, beef, etc, that is diverted into making pet food, and so it could be available as human food. . Pet food companies compete vigorously  with companies that make, say, sausage or stew, driving the prices up for these food byproduct. There have been complaints that the pet food companies worldwide outbid the poor nations who try to buy food for their people, as  cheap protein that is diverted into pet food.
     
There might be a lot of resistance to eating manufactured food at first, but this is a good first step...the cats and dogs will have less sales resistance. When this idea is discussed online, the first reaction is to mention Soylent Green, a 1970's SF film based on Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! in which, in the overpopulated future, people were turned into 'soylent green' after they died, and served as food.There was such a thing as 'soylent brown', a powdered soy product you could at one time buy (I shudder to think it may still be in production.) My brother Jon proudly kept an (unused) jar of it in his vegetarian kitchen, just for notoriety and laughs.

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