I read something a couple of weeks ago that disturbed me. Scientists are experimenting with the concept of “printing” food, using 3D printing technology. The Fab@Home Lab, at Cornell University, is testing the idea of fabricating food on a large scale. The National Aeronautics & Space Administration recently awarded a $125,000 grant to an Austin, Texas company to examine how to use the technology to create nutritious food for astronauts flying deep space missions.
According to an article that appeared on HuffingtonPost.com, Jeffrey Lipton, chief technology officer for a company called Seraph Robotics, posits that not only is the “printing” of food possible, it could be done in such a way that each order could be altered to satisfy the unique dietary needs of particular customers—the ultimate in customization.
Speaking at the Inside 3D Printing conference last month in New York, Lipton reportedly said, “Once you have the automatic collection of what you’re eating and when, you can predict, based off your activity levels, your planned diet and your health records, exactly how much and what types of food you should be eating. That’s really ultimately the long-term potential of food printing.”
NASA’s long-range perspective is to come up with a way to keep astronauts fed on missions that could take years to complete. In a press release, NASA said, “The current food system wouldn’t meet the nutritional needs and five-year shelf life required for a mission to Mars or other long duration missions. Because refrigeration and freezing require significant spacecraft resources, current NASA provisions consist solely of individually packaged shelf stable foods, processed with technologies that degrade the micronutrients in the foods.”
The goal of the NASA project is to determine whether a 3D food printing system would be able to provide a wide variety of shelf-stable items that would retain their nutritional integrity. According to an article on SPACE.com, mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor has printed chocolate and is working on the printing of—you got it—a pizza.
Understand that I am not decrying 3D printing. It is fascinating technology and, as the NASA article pointed out, it could be used to allow astronauts to create parts for spacecraft or even planetary structures such as living quarters. And visions of the future have always intrigued me. As a child, I read science fiction books by the shelf and watched every sci-fi move and show that would come on our TV: "Lost In Space," "Star Trek," even "The Jetsons." I would be awed at all the technology available in the “future” and thought how neat most of that stuff would be to have.
But when it came to food stations, I was simply bemused. The idea of food devolving into vitamin pills and freeze-dried, extruded meals made me sad. To me, food has always been something to be celebrated, and how could anyone get excited about a three-course meal in pill form?
Over time, we have seen many of those fantastic sci-fi gadgets and systems become part of our everyday lives. For the most part, technological advances have made our lives easier. Quite often, however, they have come with a price. Cell phones have made communications easier, but to an annoying degree. Social media have helped connect people all over the world, but with a consequent loss of privacy.
Food would be no different. All of our efforts to promote a local and sustainable lifestyle would come to nothing if the world embraces what Jeffrey Lipton calls “data-driven food.” We might create a more efficient way to sustain human beings, but at the same time we’d be removing from their lives one of life’s quintessential joys.
The good news, at least for my generation, is that this technology will likely not be widely available until after we’ve passed on. I know one thing: I’m not ready for technology that would allow the menu and the meal to become one and the same.