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The 3D protein printer: will we all eat printed steak?

“Honey, the chicken cartridge is empty. Do you feel like printing a beef steak instead?” 

It’s decision time in the kitchen of 2060. Our ovens and fridges will have to make way for the ultimate household appliance of the future: the gourmet 3D printer. No more animal suffering or pollution from mass livestock. Goodbye deforestation, hello meat created from scratch. Hand over your plate: you are going to be hungry for synthetic chops.

Printed steaks, lamb chops, or even kidneys and tripe for offal lovers? Why not? After all, we can already print houses in record time. Just swap ink and cement cartridges for beef or turkey protein made in a lab. Not only is it entirely feasible, it is a major industrial project.

What’s more expensive than Kobe beef? Cultured meat

A laboratory-“grown” steak has already been served to two privileged tasters, during a London happening broadcast over the internet in August 2013. As far as taste is concerned, the “Frankenburger” clearly has some way to go: the two guests were unable to finish their meal (which came with a $330,000 price tag!) all in the presence of Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who footed the bill.

Ungrateful as the guests may have been, they were very polite nonetheless: both left the table commending the meat’s texture and its “great culinary potential”. This view is shared by Mark Post, the researcher and developer of this protein born in a lab, who believes effective synthetic meat production is 15 to 20 years away. Our mouths are already watering.

Program A for rare sirloin, program B for sweetbreads

Brooklyn, New York. No livestock truck ever enters the premises of the biotechnology startup Modern Meadow. The leather they produce comes from animal stem cells. And that’s not all. With their ambitions boosted by a $350,000 round of fundraising, the company is now officially embarking on the development of a 3D printer that can create meat.

The recipe for future-steak is simple: develop a pinch of cow stem cells, leave them to grow into muscular cells, multiply them, inject them into cartridges, and voilà, into the printer they go. All you need to do then is program the machine to assemble the cells into organic, edible tissue. You may want to activate the “beetroot juice” option to win over your guests, however. Hemoglobin-free synthetic meat has a dull, greyish color. The technique, though still in the planning stage, seems promising. The project has major arguments in its favor. It represents a great economic and environmental opportunity.

From gadget to vital necessity

In today’s world, cattle-breeding becomes an unsustainable environmental folly if everyone includes meat in their diet. Billions of gallons of water are squandered with massive greenhouse gas emissions, and 70% of agricultural lands are taken over by pastures -- not to mention animal suffering. And yet, demand for meat keeps booming. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) even expects it to double by 2050. Synthetic meat, along with insects, is one of the best options to feed people without further smothering the planet.

We just need to convince consumers—and solve some thorny ethical questions. Is non-farmed synthetic meat compatible with a vegetarian diet? Is printed steak organic? And what about dietary restrictions: is synthetic pork compatible with Islam? Is synthetic beef acceptable to Hindus?

In other words, we will have to come up with a specific status for this non-animal meat, this living tissue that was never really alive. In all this uncertainty, at least one thing is clear: we will also need to think of 3D printers for mustard and ketchup.

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