Printing your own food: a solution to the food crisis?

Summary

Cutting-edge research programs in the United Kingdom and the United States are developing 3D food printers, which are now reaching the marketing phase. But beyond the curiosity, is there something here that could help us change the world?

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In April 2012, straight after Easter, British company Choc Edge launched online sales of the Choc Creator, a “simple, yet versatile desktop 3D chocolate printer”, priced at €3,000. This machine allows the user to create all sorts of shapes and figures out of chocolate, thanks to a computer program where they define the pattern they want to create, and a robot machine that prints it by itself. The first commercial version of an innovation that may soon take over our kitchens – and even the world. But for what purpose?

 

Machines that print objects

 

For a few years now, 3D printers have been causing agitation within an army of genius geeks all over the world, who foresee manufacturing being completely transformed by such machines in the not-so-distant future. The machines act like inkjet printers, but instead of ink, they print layers of material, such as plastic, rubber or even materials that conduct electricity – with the whole process monitored by a computer program. They are now able to print all sorts of objects, including transistors and batteries, and will soon manufacture entire mobile phones. This opens the way to automatic factories, to produce all sorts of goods with minimum effort. The movement has now reached food processing, as a result of years of work on several different programmes. Choc Edge’s printer is an achievement resulting from a group project, started in 2007 led by Exeter University students, and later funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSCR), the main UK agency for funding in this field. Across the Atlantic, two similar projects involving 3D food printers have been developed over the past few years. In the Cornell University Synthesis Lab, in collaboration with the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan, Hod Lipson and his team are building the Fab@Home project, that aims

to create do-it-yourself versions of machines that can manufacture custom objects on-demand.

This “personal fabrication” project is therefore not specifically about food, but started to successfully experiment with foods in 2007. “So far we have printed everything from chocolate, cheese and hummus to scallops, turkey and celery”, says Lipson. Thirdly, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), with the Fluid Interfaces Group, has developed the Cornucopia, a compact 3D food printer that is able to mix, cut, heat and cool foods. Designed by Marcelo Coelho and Amit Zorhan, this domestic printer is still a prototype, but can be expected to make its way to our kitchens in a matter of years.

This is actually the declared aim of all three of the projects: to transform the way people cook, in trendy restaurants as well as in every amateur cook’s home, alongside the microwave and robot kitchenware. For now, the Cornucopia, the Choc Creator and the Fab@Home devices only work with liquid or melted food, as they proceed by building up layers of material using syringes, and the food put into the machine by the user must be in liquid form. But at Cornell, work is underway to create a range of “food inks” made from hydrocolloids (substances that form gels with water). And researchers are working on ways to obtain new textures and widen the cooking possibilities.

The development of these initiatives is proof that 3D printing is definitely has the future potential to turn people into “inventors of technology, rather than consumers of technology”. Or at least this is the view of the Fab@Home team, which is developing the project in open source. But is there anything more to it? 3D printing certainly is going to change the way we cook every day. But what else will it do? Will it create a whole new way of designing breakthrough technologies? And will it upset the food industry and market?

 

Open source is already changing the world

 

3D food printers are innovative in many ways, firstly because of how they were built and at Cornell in particular, where the team promotes a vision of low-cost 3D printers affordable to all thanks to open-source co-creation.

Fab@Home is supported by a global, open-source community of professionals and hobbyists, innovating tomorrow, today,

says their website. All the blueprints for the project can be found for free online, accompanied by a wiki that gathers the input from all the hobbyists around the world who have tried to build their own. It seems to be a trend nowadays: almost every breathtaking invention is the result of fruitful and active collaboration between different actors. “Sharing” and “open-source” are words that are most definitely linked to creating new solutions to the world’s problems, especially in hackers’ labs where innovative ideas flourish. Geeks are addressing mankind’s issues, and often come up with something that no one has thought of before – that they will share for free. But what exactly are the issues that a 3D food printer could tackle?

Homaru Cantu, a chef who has used the Fab@Home printer to make sushi, thinks that it will be a revolution in terms of sustainability: “Imagine being able to grow, cook or prepare foods without the negative industrial impact – from fertilizers to packaging. The production chain for food would come close to being eliminated.” An optimistic view challenged by ecology journalist Michael Ashcroft in The Guardian: « It’s a brave new world of scientific endeavour, but are these technologies sustainable? (…) As Western-style diets become more popular in growing economies, can they help us meet demand without further depleting our resources? And on a practical note, can they be scaled up in an affordable way – enough to make a real difference? »

For the sustainability part, it is today hard to tell when the answers to Ashcroft’s questions will be found. But for starters, chef Cantu’s vision seems quite realistic. The 3D printer will for instance cut the need for processed foods and ready-to-eat meals which have a negative impact both on environment and on health. Even without the ability or willingness to cook, everyone will be able to create custom-made meals from unprocessed materials. This will increase demand for fresh vegetables and good quality meat, and hopefully favour the development of ecologic and sustainable agriculture, on a local scale.

 

How to help solve the food crisis

 

As an answer to Ashcroft’s questions, Dan Crossley, an expert on sustainable food systems at Forum for the Future, says he fears that technology may blind consumers as to where their food comes from.

I’m very open to the idea that some of our ingredients might come from printers in the future, but I’d shy away from believing these sorts of technologies will solve our global food crisis on their own. That’s why I’d like to see technology used to reconnect people with what they eat.

Which brings us back to the last question that Ashcroft was asking: how do we make this technology affordable to those who need it the most? With a price tag of $3,000, the first machine to be commercialized is not exactly accessible to all. And even if the price comes down, which it will, the fact that a computer is needed to run the program will inevitably cut the poorest populations off from this technology. Yet, 3D printers could represent a significant improvement in these people’s lives. Imagine a printer in each village, with the capacity to transform all kinds of foods into healthy snacks or meals, thanks to intelligent programs that know how to make the most of each ingredient. Imagine populations no longer depending on a complex chain of supply to acquire their food, and being able to rely on what is available right next to them. Just like the programmes that aim at providing Internet access to the most remote or poorest places of the world, programmes that make this technology available to as many people as possible should be pursued. With a little effort and long-term vision, social businesses could be created out of this technology. After all, the blueprints for these machines are available free, and soon, we could be able to mass-produce them, so that they do not remain toys for the geeks, or for “desperate housewives” looking for a new way to impress their guests. Who knows, maybe someday everyone in the world can print their own food?

Photo © Shutterstock / Shaiith