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Is 3-D printing the answer to global food shortages?

I don't know what it is about 3-D printing, but the nifty new technology seems to reliably bring out the Internet's silly side. There's Cody Wilson, the Camus-loving anarchist and his electronic gun-making blueprints. Then there are the awesome 3-D printed Christmas cookies that, according to Gizmodo, "kick the crap out of sugar cookie snowmen." There's even the iSwattr, a "radical new" iPhone case that brings the "latest smart phone technology to bear on the killing of menaces such as disease carrying flies, icky cockroaches, and scary spiders," according to the contraption's designers. O, wonder! What other marvels await us in this brave new world?

Apparently, however, the buck stops at Quartz, which abandoned these frivolities in favor of an earnest story on the potential for 3-D printing technology to feed astronauts on multi-year missions and even support a planet inhabited by 12 billion people. I almost couldn't believe the article wasn't killed in favor of something on mini 3-D printed "you" action figures -- or maybe the nexus beetween 3-D printing and high fashion. But here it is nonetheless: Anjan Contractor, an engineer at the Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Corporation, has been awarded a $125,000 grant from NASA to create a 3-D food printing system that enables long-distance space travel. Here's more from QZ:

His initial grant from NASA, under its Small Business Innovation Research program, is for a system that can print food for astronauts on very long space missions. For example, all the way to Mars.

'Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,' says Contractor. 'The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.'

But Contractor has his eye on a more terrestrial application for his 3-D printing design:

He sees a day when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and the earth's 12 billion people feed themselves customized, nutritionally-appropriate meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store. Contractor's vision would mean the end of food waste, because the powder his system will use is shelf-stable for up to 30 years, so that each cartridge, whether it contains sugars, complex carbohydrates, protein or some other basic building block, would be fully exhausted before being returned to the store.

Ubiquitous food synthesizers would also create new ways of producing the basic calories on which we all rely. Since a powder is a powder, the inputs could be anything that contain the right organic molecules. We already know that eating meat is environmentally unsustainable, so why not get all our protein from insects?

If eating something spat out by the same kind of 3D printers that are currently being used to make everything from jet engine parts to fine art doesn't sound too appetizing, that's only because you can currently afford the good stuff, says Contractor. That might not be the case once the world's population reaches its peak size, probably sometime near the end of this century.

'I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can't supply 12 billion people sufficiently,' says Contractor. 'So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.'

Fittingly, Contractor plans to start with pizza "because it can be printed in distinct layers, so it only requires the print head to extrude one substance at a time." Thank goodness QZ could get the term "pizza printer" in there somewhere. 

AFP/Getty Images

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