Soon, 3D printing that's fit for the table

Peter Kammerer says the advent of 3D printing may just provide the answer to our search for food that is plentiful and safe to eat

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 May, 2013, 1:21am

A video of rats having a party on a basket of fresh pork being delivered to a supermarket in Sai Wan Ho has put me off one of my food staples. So disturbing was the sight that, days later, my dreams continue to be haunted by the creatures pawing, Disney-like, at the delivery baskets before disco dancing in delight and then chowing down in an orgy of gluttony. About the same time as the images were going viral last week, reports of Hunan-produced rice tainted with the cancer-causing metal cadmium were boiling over in Guangdong. Coupled with pestering advice from my nutrition-and-fitness-minded son, increasing numbers of friends going vegan and ever-rising prices, I've no difficulty declaring that eating in Hong Kong is no longer fun.

I hate to be pessimistic, but without significant innovation, it's only going to get worse. There's no end of research showing that the more people who inhabit poor old earth, the greater the difficulty in feeding them. The wealthier they get, the more meat, seafood and fresh vegetables they want to eat. Science and greed step in to make more from less. A peak population of 12 billion will be reached towards the end of this century - that's when the experts reckon a crisis will hit.

There are two ways to look at this. The first involves ignoring what the media churns out, pretending that YouTube, Twitter and text messages don't exist and being deaf and blind to advice. As I was telling my son at the weekend as he admonished me for smuggling ice-cream into the house, my grandfather knew nothing about nutrition and everything about steak, sausages and beer, yet lived to a fulfilling 90 years. I will be the first to admit that this approach is about good genes and being selfish.

So, with fellow humanity and future generations in mind, we turn to the other option: 3D food printing. There has been far too much hype about 3D printing of late, centred on replica guns, models for science fiction movies like Star Trek and figure-hugging dresses. More practical, though, is the vision of Anjan Contractor, an engineer at Systems and Materials Research Corporation in the US, who has been awarded a Nasa grant to produce a food printing system for astronauts. He can see the day when every kitchen has a 3D printer that produces customised, nutritionally appropriate meals, a layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oil.

Contractor's first gastronomic aim is pizza, although it won't be pioneering: Cornell University's Fab@Home project has been experimenting with cookies, a Japanese firm makes chocolates in face shapes, a company in the Netherlands has microwave pancakes on the market and shrimp paste, Cheez Whiz, Nutella and frosting feature in a wide variety of concoctions. Scientists are well advanced in working on meat and grain substitutes. Hampering progress is the high cost of production and coming up with acceptable flavours.

With time, 3D printing offers a way out of our food dilemma. There will be less waste, all manner of menus can be conveniently created to fit individual dietary needs and it will be safe. The downside is that it won't be fresh. Here, I suggest my grandfather's philosophy: enjoy what you've got while it's there.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post