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Editorial: Edible ink? Test-tube burgers? Weird technology has real benefits

They may not become as famous as Clarence Birdseye, the naturalist-entrepreneur who, in 1926, recognized the virtue of fast-freezing foods to preserve their freshness. Nor may they achieve the status of Gilbert and Clarke Swanson, whose Swanson Foods coined the term “TV Dinner” and made the compartmentalized aluminum platter a cultural icon. But history will remember Mark Post, the Dutch scientist who is giving new meaning to the term “mystery meat,” and Jeffrey Lipton and others at a Cornell University lab, who are pioneering the use of 3D printers to print food made from edible ink.

These technologies sound like a collaboration between NASA and Saturday Night Live, creator of the Bass-O-Matic. But both could become the way a more populous world feeds itself. We don’t know whether to cheer, cry, or yell “Beam me up, Scottie.” What we do know is that progress won’t stop, and the new technologies have their benefits.

Post, a scientist at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, takes muscle cells from a cow’s neck and cultures them in a nutrient broth where they grow, multiply, attach themselves to each other and form strands of muscle. He and his team have now produced enough of this “Frankenmeat” to make a hamburger that is expected to make its debut at a taste test conducted in an upscale London restaurant. The tester presumably won’t be charged the full cost of producing the burger, which Post estimated to be $325,000.

By 2050 the world’s population is expected to climb from 7 billion to 9 billion. Meanwhile meat consumption, despite the recent rise in beef prices caused by widespread draught across much of America last year, is on track to double. Raising meat, especially beef, requires vast amounts of land, consumes a great deal of water, and results in plentiful emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. There would be tremendous benefits to the environment if researchers can find a way to reduce the world’s population of 19 billion chickens, 1.4 billion cows and 2 billion sheep and pigs by culturing meat cheaply. So let the experiments continue.

The other development, machines that print food, is already here. The Cornell team and others have been printing food for the past few years. Experts say affordable home models that will allow their owners to print up a batch of cookies or a plate of scallops aren’t far off. One entrepreneur sells a ready-to-print food machine for $3,300, and gadgeteers can make their own food printer using free online plans from Cornell’s The Fab@Home lab. The printers are said to be a whiz at decorating pastries that are more intricate than those that can be done economically by hand. It’s even possible, since the instructions for the machine are digital, to print cakes that are the exact likeness of the birthday boy or girl, a culinary step that may be a bit to macabre for most.

For obvious reasons, NASA is funding some of the food-printing experiments – one proposal calls for the “ink” used to print the food to have a 30-year shelf life. But most of those involved – inventors, food scientists and chefs from among other places the French Culinary Institute – expect the devices to become as common in home kitchens as blenders and coffee pots. Maybe so. But if the price of edible ink is anything like the price of the ink used to print on paper, that home-printed scallop or slice of cake could match the cost of Post’s test tube hamburger.

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