At a time when the meat and livestock industry is faced with a whole range of environmental issues, technological initiatives based on 3D printing techniques may be the answer to some of the problems.
Food production has undergone a profound transformation over the last few decades, which has changed the entire face of the farm sector. Today this is an industrialized business which in the space of a half century has abandoned many of its traditions in search of higher productivity. In the United States in particular, rural scenery has receded to make way for intensive agriculture, resulting in environmental fallout which in the long term could be colossal. Meanwhile worldwide meat production has increased fivefold in the last fifty years. Raising cattle and other livestock, whether by intensive or more extensive methods, is one of the areas of farming that has the greatest environmental impact in terms of both the space required and water consumption, plus the greenhouse gases emitted directly or indirectly. And with overall demand rising and pressure on productivity becoming ever higher, the meat industry will need to find solutions for the long term.
3D printing: new approach, partial solution?
At first glance the food sector hardly seems a likely candidate for 3D printing. However, in recent months this has been a growing topic for debate. A number of innovations in this field were on show at the recent CES 2014 event in Las Vegas and it appears that a good deal of research is being carried out into what is more precisely known as ‘additive layer manufacturing’ for foodstuffs. For instance the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is working towards a system for ‘printing’ food for astronauts on long space missions. At this stage many food products are in fact ‘printable’, but the main constraint is that they might need to be reduced to a powder before printing. Chocolate and sugar are the two most-used raw materials in 3D foodstuff printing today – two examples being the work done by UK-based ChocEdge and California company Sugar Lab. Progress is clearly being made in this field, but if we could actually print out meat products, that would have a real impact on the food industry. In fact producing a beef steak currently requires large quantities of water – around 200 liters – plus ground space, energy for transport and for the production of foodstuffs needed to raise the animal, estimated at around 300 watts. Producing one steak also leads to the emission of some 6kg of CO2 equivalent. Whenyou multiply these figures by the exponential rise in world meat consumption the results are alarming. Starting out from these observations, US startup Modern Meadow embarked on the development of an additive layer machine capable of ‘printing’ raw meat. The technicians first need to obtain stem cells or other specialized cells from an animal.Once the cells have multiplied to sufficient numbers, they are placed in a cartridge. This ‘bio-ink’, made up of hundreds of thousands of live cells, is then squirted through the nozzle of the ‘bio-printer’ into a mold to create the desired shape. The ‘bio-ink’ particles naturally fuse to form real living tissue similar to natural raw meat.
Specific challenges of ‘printing’ meat
At this stage of the research, the Modern Meadow team have not yet addressed quality or food safety issues. However, this technological breakthrough could turn out to be a means of producing meat in high enough quantities to meet the increasing demand from consumers without creating an environmental catastrophe. The Food and Agriculture Organization is forecasting that meat consumption is likely to double by 2050, but the world will almost certainly not be able to produce that amount with the resources currently available. Techniques such as those which Modern Meadow are trying to perfect would consume 96% less water and 45% less energy than the meat production methods we know today, and would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from this sector by 96%. Of course we still have a very long way to go before way these new kind of steaks appear in our supermarket freezers at affordable prices. Research also needs to be carried out into their nutritional value and food safety questions will have to be settled. However, amazing as it might seem, it is not unreasonable to envisage even today that this type of technology might provide a partial solution to the environmental challenges of intensive food production.