MEGATech Moment - Could 3D Printing Produce Edible Steaks?

Technology is not so much moving as galloping forward these days. In the field of IT and computers, in particular, new technologies are emerging like flowers in springtime. One of the trendiest developments is that of 3D printing, which may just become the next everyday appliance in the near future. What few could have foreseen, however, was that it could be married to another emerging trend the development of synthetic, eco-friendly meat.

A Mooving Proposition

Enter Modern Meadow, an American firm dedicated precisely to the study of alternative solutions in the field of meat farming. Their latest novelty relates to the possibility of using the conceptual technology developed for 3D printers to produce synthetic meat. Of course, there are some important differences in the science. The idea behind 3D printers is to translate, as faithfully as possible, a virtual shape into a physical object. It is, in essence, a high-tech sculpture. Modern Meadow is looking for something considerably more ambitious: they would like to replicate not just the appearance of red meat, but also its flavour and its nutritional properties.

Like 3D printers, their systems would be super-imposing strata of raw material onto each other according to a virtual design. The difference is that they would be using organically synthesised cells for their final product, and not dead matter. If this were to work, it could spare us the environmental damage caused by intensive farming, not to mention the hardships undergone by the animals themselves.

The cause is very noble, but it is too early to celebrate yet. While the technology behind 3D printing is sound, finalised, and ready, that of synthetic meat production still has many questions to answer. Yes, in theory one can reproduce the organic qualities of raw meat, and perhaps even the appearance. But there are many factors that go into giving a particular meat its particular flavour which is the tricky bit. There are the eating habits of the animals, their lifestyle, and their good health in general, and even the way that the meat is cut and butchered. Making the meat for a basic hamburger may just be possible, but reproducing a genuine prime steak will take a great deal of research.

Genuine Progress or Gimmick?

The technological possibilities aside, the greater question is whether cellular 3D printing may be called genuine progress, or whether it will end up being a gimmick. The tech world is full of ideas that were great in principle, but that failed to move the industry forward in truly significant ways, and ultimately failed for that. Think of Google Wave, the application developed by Google for instant multiple communication (similar to a great chat room, but with far more applications). It was a fun little notion, but it did little that was new enough to really capture the imagination of people already using Messenger or other chats, and now the project has been aborted.

On the other hand, the world of computers has many genuine, influential examples of progress and innovation. There are the physical face cloning techniques developed by Disneys high tech research lab, which are moving 3D animation forwards. Also, the latestall in one computers produced by companies like Apple, Dell, and Sony, aim to give you high performance in form factors that are so much smaller, driven mainly by the innovations from the smartphone industry and now, the tablet computing industry like the iPad and now, the upcoming Windows 8 tablets. These are not simply changes in fashion, but examples of genuine progress.

The real question surrounding the type of bio-modelling that Modern Meadow is trying to develop, thus, is not only whether it is possible technically but also whether it is progressive conceptually. This, more than anything else, will determine whether the idea will sink or swim. But most importantly, are people’spalatesand brains ready to accept it? Just look at the stir caused by the Japanese Scientist that created meat from reclaimed proteins in human waste.


On the bright side, it seems that some people are already willing to believe in the ideas value. Peter Thiel, one of the founders of PayPal, recently decided to donate more than $200,000 to Modern Meadow. If that is not what you would call a meaty contribution, then nothing is. There’s even information on the project on the USDA website for something more to “chew on”.

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