To the possible — and odd-sounding — sources of our future beef, add this one: your printer. In the future, you might be able to print yourself a hamburger.
A U.S. start-up company called Modern Meadow, based in Columbia, Mo., is hoping to create meat with a 3D bioprinter. It is gathering venture capital now.
For those unfamiliar with 3D printing — also called additive layer manufacturing — it describes a method of creating a solid object from a digital model, using a printer that adds layers of materials (whatever is loaded in the printer) shaped to the model’s specifications. People have already created all kinds of things with 3D printers, from guitars to swimsuits to furniture to toys. More controversially, handgun parts have been made with a 3D printer.
Some foods have been printed as well, such as chocolate; in fact, you can already buy your own chocolate printer, and prices are coming down. A desktop 3D printer can cost less than $1,000.
Of course, printing biomaterial, which requires living cells, is much more complicated. Gabor and Andras Forgacs, the father and son team behind Modern Meadow, already have some practice in this. Gabor is a co-founder of Organovo, which is bioprinting medical-grade tissue that can be used for drug testing and has bioprinted blood vessels. Their plan, which is still in the trial stage, is to make organs for use in transplants,.
On the difficulty scale, organs are far higher up than hamburger. The process of printing it starts with a punch biopsy that gathers cells from a donor animal. These cells multiply and create bio-ink; then the living cells in this “ink” will join together to form living tissue in a process called bioassembly. Voila — hamburger.
The Modern Meadow website enumerates the advantages the company expects to accrue from printing meat, which include:
• 99 percent less land required
• 96 percent less water consumed
• 96 percent fewer greenhouse gases emitted.
Even easier than growing hamburger is growing skin, which is why the first product Modern Meadow expects to release will be leather. Leather products could be available within five years, the company predicts.
Meat is further off than that, but other foods may become more common in the near future. According to a post on Discovery.com on Feb. 20, “While it may be as little as five to 10 years for a single food printer to be able to create a good selection of foods which both look and taste right, lots of foods are still too complex to be created this way. Fruit or vegetables are much more difficult to mimic than cheese or chocolate, and chances are we’re at least a couple of decades away from creating something like a steak from scratch.”
When that day comes, as with the ongoing attempts to grow meat in laboratories, the biggest challenges will likely lie in scale (though some predict that printing food at home will be adopted before mass production is worked out; consumers will just print out one hamburger at a time at home), and consumer acceptance is always a wild card.