Printing Food…

NASA is funding the development of a printer for food:


Of course, its immediate application is as an experimental technology to feed hungry astronauts in space.

This is getting interestingly close to the fantasies of a Star Trek-style food replicator. Consumers go to the store, buy cartridges of nutrients and flavourings, load them into their printer, download some recipes from the internet, print, and eat.

It may be early to hypothesise about costs, but I hypothesise that 3-D printing foodstuffs may massively lower the costs — both in material inputs and in monetary inputs — of producing food.

For instance, today 70% of water usage is for food-related irrigation. Today it takes 1000 to 3000 litres of water to produce one kilo of rice, and it takes 13000 to 15000 litres of water to produce one kilo of grain-fed beef. So crops and animals take lots and lots of water to rear to the time they go onto human plates. Manufacturing food directly in a 3-D printer cuts out all the resources and energy involved in rearing animals and growing irrigating crops — so could massively cut down on water and resource usage.

Unfortunately, in this era of 2-D printing inks for inkjet printers are more expensive than fine wines. It has been jokingly said that the first thing many of those who experiment with 3-D printing will do is a print a 2-D printer that isn’t such an infuriating moneysucker. So printing at home is by no means guaranteed to lower costs or increase convenience. The technology is still in its nascency, and ultimately the results may be very poor, at least to begin with.

But in the long run, the cost-saving and resource-saving potential may win out. Perhaps 3-D food printing could be the innovation that does for human demand for agriculture what petrochemical fertilisers did in the 20th Century. At the time of Malthus, it was widely recognised that humans were oversaturating the land, that population was growing unsustainably and that it all had to end in starvation, cataclysm. This Malthusian fire and brimstone is once again popular today, with many true believers “doing the math” and declaring that human population growth is unsustainable, and some even suggesting forcible measures to prevent excessive population growth. But the first Malthusians failed to factor human innovation into their calculations. Fertilisers and other innovations in agriculture were black swans that derailed their predictions. In the long run, an innovation like food printing that massively reduces land use, water use and resource use could be the black swan that derails the predictions of modern Malthusians.

And with enough practice, recipes designed for 3-D food printers may turn into as much of an artform as recipes designed for regular ingredients and human labour. There will most likely aways be a niche for human-prepared and naturally-grown food. But music, video, books, etc, distributed via the internet are now of sufficient quality for widespread acceptance. With sufficient innovation, care, thought and experimentation it is possible that food (alongside various other 3-D printed goods) distributed digitally can reach acceptable standards.

33 thoughts on “Printing Food…

  1. Well the replicator is near, now it’s time for the teleportation beam. Finally! This 3D printing technology does look promising, but I don’t think it will be able to replace real food. But for the astronauts, why not, better this than nothing. What’s great is the idea of this invention and the possibilities it offers. Can’t wait to see some real results..

  2. No need to re-invent the wheel. The problem isn’t [necessarily] how food is produced, but instead, it’s consumption [like everything else].

    If people ate for nutrition instead of pleasure, and, if money was real, a great deal of balance would be restored and this problem would resolve itself through the natural course of things.

    All of the problems we face are due to tremendous imbalances in the system.

    • By “if money was real” are you referring to restoring the gold standard? Why do you think that that would make a difference in terms of food consumption?

      • This orgy of counterfeiting has led to imbalances in EVERYTHING! Keep in mind that most farming is corporate, which could not happen without funny money/loans/subsidies involved.

        Population/food, in nature, is perhaps, that relationship that has the most positive correlation. There’s nothing like a little starvation to keep the population in check.

        • Isn’t a society’s means the amount it can produce, rather than the amount it could potentially produce without credit expansion? If credit expansion is the thing that allows us to live closer to our means then that may be a good thing. I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate the irrational exuberance of credit expansion. I think the best thing we can do is ease the irrational exuberance of the slump when industries operate far below capacity and mass unemployment becomes rife.

          Personally, I think all currencies are fiat, because they are all based upon the confidence and belief of participants. There are cool things about gold as an asset, but anything can be money so long as a society wants to use it as money.

        • “Isn’t a society’s means the amount it can produce, rather than the amount it could potentially produce without credit expansion? If credit expansion is the thing that allows us to live closer to our means then that may be a good thing.”

          John, I am not exactly sure what you mean by, “means,” but the use of credit is NEVER acceptable. How can a credit cycle end in any fashion except the way it has ALWAYS ended…with a trillion tears?

  3. 3D to substitute real food with printed one.
    What a brilliant idea, indeed!
    I would like to propose something much better: why don’t we try to print a human brain to substitute the old, worn-out one?
    That will undoubtedly restore the balance.

  4. You eat the printed food, I will have a homegrown roasted Southdown lamb instead.

    Farm land is by far the best investment :0……………………

    You can’t print good soil.

  5. People are looking in the wrong places for solutions. We have [and have always had] EVERYTHING we need. How could it be any other way?

    When technology does change things, then [in that moment], you still have EVERYTHING you need. If you choose to look at life as you need more of this, more of that, and more the other thing, then you never have enough, it is never good enough, and you will ALWAYS been unsatisfied.

    This is what Madison Avenue wants you to believe. These people are fools.

    • I always compare my situation with that poor family I saw living in a cardboard structure under a bridge in New Deli and I consider myself a rich man. King Solomon never lived like me so I feel blessed, fortunate and on Cloud 9.

      Billionaires still sleep the same way as me for 8 hours of the day, and never feel hunger like I don’t. They just drive cars that can only do the speed limit like I do, only a new Rolls Royce has a little more wood, but I have a better stereo, so we never hear squeaks.

      Billionaires can’t settle, always looking for the next deal. My mind is calmer and contented.

      NASA can print food. I will nurture and grow my fruit trees. They will taste sweet and reward me in my golden years. I will meditate under them in the heat of summer, pondering the other side.

      I will plant a seed and leave written instructions for the next generation.

      • Somewhere along the line, the most unbalanced among us took control and changed the definitions of nearly every word that holds any significant meaning.

        For example, “wealth.” Wealth is not [necessarily] a lot, but only an amount over and able what you need to sustain yourself.

        If you choose to make obtaining wealth you life’s work, then you have two options; do what they tell you to do, that is, increase your assets to infinity, or, do what sane people do, decrease your needs.

        The second option is the wisdom that has been passed down for thousands of years and is the path followed by all great men and women throughout the ages.

  6. What about those nutrients? How are those made? Perhaps they put rice into a blender and that’s it. You still can’t print food from nothing…

  7. Where does the cannister of Nutrients come from. It is going to be some grown slurry of animal and vegetable protien no doubt. Just because you use the printer to give the gruel a shape, does not mean you don’t need something to make the gruel out of.

    • Yes but it doesn’t take thousands of gallons water to “grow” basic chemical elements. In the short term, it will take a factory to make a supply of chemicals to run a 3-D food printer, but in the longer term you may be able to manufacture at home from soil, wood, household waste, etc, using a disassembler.

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  10. I would like to suggest an alternative method to # 10. I start my rice with no water at all, just a little bit of warmed oil or butter (depends on what I’m making) on the bottom of the pan. I pour the measured rice in the pot and stir until every grain is coated and glistening. ash jo

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