Will Food Save the Day?
3D-printed food and lab-grown meatballs: welcome to the new food revolution
BY TONINA ALOMAR
Every once in a while, food innovations shake up society. During the Napoleonic wars in the early 17th century, canned food was created as a cheap and effective method to preserve food for soldiers. In 1950s, the pre-packaged meal, the so called “TV dinner”, allowed Americans to prepare a whole meal in a blink of an eye. These breakthroughs reinvented our relationship with food, introducing new possibilities and attitudes on what and how we ate; they allowed us to cut down the time we spend making a Sunday roast or helped us preserve meals for years. We are currently undergoing a food revolution. One that promises to combine biotechnology, big data, engineering, chemistry and physics to fight animal cruelty and climate change, while producing a world of new and re-invented flavours.
Last year, an American start-up made headlines with the creation of the world’s first lab-grown meatball. Lab-grown meat is made from pieces of in-vitro muscle tissue, instead of living animals. This means that no living animal is killed, transported or even raised.
After the meatball breakthrough, the company has subsequently cultured chicken and duck. Despite the advances, clean meat still does not exist as a consumer product and will only hit the supermarket aisles once its price falls, something that should happen sooner rather than later. This hasn’t prevented it from already generating a lot of buzz, with a recent survey showing that 65% of people would give it a try.
Another futuristic development, one which we might be more familiar with, are the 3D food printers: the machines are turning into culinary game changers capable of printing, cooking, and serving meals. They work like a 3D printer, but instead of using plastics, it uses edible ingredients squeezed out of stainless steel capsules...a bit like the coffee capsules but with food in them!
Users just need to supply base ingredients and the machine makes the magic. Although the appliances are currently available on the market, its prohibitive price means that it is reserved mostly for restaurants. However, John Coupland, food science professor at Pennsylvania State University, told CNN recently that the success of 3D food printers will “depend on whether they can create food that isn't easily made with other kitchen gadgets”...And on how tasty they can make stainless steel capsules look like.
Yet, technology is not only giving birth to new products, but also allowing us to re-invent old practices. Traditional farmers are increasingly using smart devices and robots to collect data on the wellbeing of their cattle, or the humidity and temperature of their soil. Computers are able to forecast weather patterns, or show live information about the crop, such as blossom count, leaf colour or size comparison.
The farmer of the future will be sitting down in his office, controlling his produce and animals from a touchscreen and a live feed loop mechanism. Romantics might hate the sound of this, but experts think that this will allow farmers to increase productivity and reduce costs, as well as arm them with unprecedented decision-making capabilities.
The benefits of the food revolution are clear: to begin with, we could combat animal cruelty. If technology finally does trickle down to the people, it might helps us deal with feeding the swelling population figures. By streamlining agricultural practices, developing meat without animals, or printing our own food, we are able to provide food at source and reduce transport and packaging.
These developments could help slow down climate change, as livestock and food transportation are the second largest emission polluters in the world. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates agriculture is responsible for 18% of the total release of greenhouse gases worldwide. So, for instance, if the US were to switch to clean meat, we would expect a greenhouse gas reduction equivalent to removing almost 23 million cars from the road.
If technology keeps developing at its current rate, our future could be a green utopia, where our favourite snacks are abundant, we’ve successfully reduced animal and human suffering and averted the melting of the polar ice. However, history has taught us to be careful of being too optimistic with technology. In the 1960 - 70s the Green Revolution promised to feed the world by developing high-yield seeds, fertilisers and mechanisation of farming.
According to Gregg Easterbrooks’ groundbreaking 1997 article, it did save 1 billion people from starving. Others, like Harvard Professor Amartya Sen, claim that in the long run it did not solve the problem of famines. For Sen, there is no shortage of food in the world, but a problem of distribution; while some people go hungry, others throw food away. This is due to our socio-economic system which creates inequalities as it primes market-economy over the planet and population needs.
Although this food revolution has the potential to help reduce human and animal suffering and slow down climate change, it is not a silver bullet. By developing futuristic kitchen gadgets and making robots streamline processes we are not dealing with the structures and behaviours, such as consumerism or individualism, that are the seed to this time-ticking issues.
For example, as freelance journalist Ryan Mandelbaum rightly points if cultured meat is to help heal environmental woes, it “require the world around it to change in order to sustain it”, so products should be shipped with green energy or not to be shipped at all. Technology is well-meaning but does not come with a normative shift on how we relate to our environment. So, rather than relying on our scientists to make magic, we need to engage in a societal discussion on our socio-economic system, without beating about the bush. If anything, technology will allow us to buy more time but will not solve the pressing challenges we are facing.
TONINA ALOMAR is a researcher and editor based in Brussels. Her work explores issues in EU politics, especially the effect climate change has on our social reality. She is really looking forward to when she can afford a 3D food printer.