Food printing may eventually replicate nature's diversity - but only after we've lost it

by Nicolas Gülzow

When I decided to write my next blog post about the future of food, the first thing that came to my mind was synthesised food for astronauts. Once we understand how any flavour can be replicated, we’ll just squeeze a daily nutrition gel in a plastic bottle, add a fancy flavour like “duck breast in a raspberry-honey sauce” and a cool neon colour, and than consume it everyday because we’re too busy to sit down and eat. Sounds convenient, right? Not really. And that’s one of the reasons why this is very unlikely to happen. People don’t just eat to keep their bodies alive. They eat for pleasure, identity and communality. It explains our very conservative attitude when it comes to food.

Most of us will only enjoy or even try food that is very similar to what we’ve eaten before. In addition, our requirements from food are much more complex than you might think. We still haven’t learnt enough about nutrition to synthesise a meal that not only fuels our bodies but also keeps us healthy and vital in the long run. Take baby formula for example. Although we’ve been working on this for almost two centuries, the recipe isn’t even close to mother’s milk. There is still a substantial amount of work ahead. 

But after we’ve mastered the task of making sure synthetic foods give us the right kind of nutrition, couldn’t 3D food printers be used to make Soylent-style foods look or feel more appetising? Yes, probably. Many experts believe that 3D food printing will revolutionise food production by boosting culinary creativity and nutritional customisability while minimising food waste. Liz von Hasseln, a Director at 3D Systems, recently predicted that food printers “will become a part of the culinary fabric” and that creative experiments, such as the sugar-based creation of garnishes, are just the beginning. Some manufacturers are already dreaming of the customisation of nutrition, allowing fitness junkies and dieticians to individualise the amounts of protein and carbohydrates. But these people expect too much from the near future. Even a simple food item like a tomato would still require millions of different ingredient cartridges to replicate.

Of course, increasing culinary creativity and nutritional customisability is both interesting and beneficial. However, it doesn’t solve the biggest problems that matter today. In fact, modern food production is a major source of the challenges we face. In the US, livestock alone is responsible for half of our antibiotic use, one third of the loads of nitrogen and phosphorus into freshwater resources, and 55% of erosion and sediment. Our planet is being harmed in a way that has negative impacts on people’s health as well as threatening our food security. To put it another way, our food system is both the agent and victim of environmental damages and needs to change as soon as possible. Our society has to focus on rescuing biodiversity rather than on technologies that might be able to replicate what we will otherwise lose.

Our world population is unlikely to stabilise and will probably hit 11 billion by the end of the century. Conventional methods to increase food production can only serve more demand by generating even more social and environmental harm as well as greenhouse gases, further undermining our capability to grow food. According to Helen Browning, the head of the Soil Association, global soils have already been degraded by about 40%. "If we don't take care of our soils, we won't be able to feed people in 50 years." We have to work out a new type of agriculture that is capable of feeding more people in an ethical and social way and at the same time protects the ecosystem upon which we ultimately depend.

Sustainable intensification is one way to do it. It aims to increase food production from existing farmland in a way that can be continued indefinitely into the future. The term describes what needs to be achieved based on the existing environmental, social and cultural context rather than recommending specific methods. Let me give you two reasons why many experts think this is the only way forward. First of all, we need to increase our future outputs through higher yields rather than increases in area of farming land. Although additional land exists, which could be used for agriculture, it consists mainly of forests, wetlands, or grasslands, whose conversion would greatly harm ecosystem services and biodiversity. Secondly, food security requires as much attention to sustainability as to productivity. Business-as-usual will lead to nothing. We need to radically rethink food production to achieve significant reductions in environmental and social impact. 

A lot can be done with well-known methods and technologies, but there is also a great need for more research and innovation. Solum, a Californian based startup that builds software tools to improve agriculture through data analysis, has recently raised $17 million in funding by venture capitalist Andreessen Horowitz. Their platform enables farmers to correlate nutrient measurements and fertiliser application to actual yields, in a constantly improving feedback loop. Over time, the result for farmers should be a circle of increasing crop yields driven by ever-smarter and environmentally sustainable use of fertiliser, water and other resources. Such high-tech approaches should be seen not as a substitute for, but as a complement to existing methods of sustainable agriculture such as permaculture and organic agriculture. No single method on its own is able to achieve sustainability and security in the food system. But combined under the common goal of sustainable intensification, they might enable us to turn the table before our planet cannot recover anymore.