I used to be a journalist and one of the first lessons I learned was that if you have to ask a question in the headline, the answer is probably “no.”
That’s why it pissed me right off the other day when I saw this headline on Yahoo News:
“NASA awards grant for 3-D food printer; could it end world hunger?”
I mean, even without reading the article, any semi intelligent person would be able to proffer a resounding “no!” to that one, right? I mean, yes, 3-D printing is wonderful, the best thing since sliced (or even printed) bread. But it’s not about creating MORE food, it’s about solving distribution, duh!
According to the article, NASA gave a six-month grant to the company developing the food printer, with the project developer grandiosely projecting that it would do away with world hunger for good. How? Oh, well, that he doesn’t say. But apparently it has something to do with being able to print cylindrical shapes that look mildly less appetizing than dog food, made out of crushed meal worms and other insects.
Because poor people will apparently eat insects that are printed into a circle, instead of their icky raw form?
I mean, I don’t get it, it’s not creating something out of nothing… it’s simply taking food material and printing it into shapes. How is that adding value to the food chain?
No offence to mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor who built it. It’s doubtless a paragon of engineering and a very clever idea, but let’s examine the concept of world hunger a bit more clearly before we pat ourselves on the back, pop open a bottle of chardonnay and promptly forget about the poor all around us. I mean, we step over them when they’re sleeping in bus shelters, so why not, eh?
Because the truth of the matter is that it’s not about food scarcity, it’s about distribution. A recent study by the The Institution of Mechanical Engineers found between 1.2 – 2 billion of the four billion metric tons of food produced globally goes uneaten every year for lack of adequate infrastructure and irresponsible consumer behavior. In case you suck at math, that’s almost 50 percent.
In the UK alone, about seven million tons of food – valued at about 10 billion pounds — or about $16 billion — is thrown away every year. Isn’t the saying, “waste not, want not”?
And don’t get me wrong, there is starvation in the developed world as well as the developing one. In the west, most of the waste happens on the consumer side, because capitalism is nothing if not uber efficient at squeezing every last ounce of productivity out of its already overworked and underpaid farmers, who barely make enough money to buy the food they grow.
In some Third World countries, inefficient farming, harvesting, shoddy infrastructure and inadequate local transportation mean there may not be an awful lot of food, and what there is is hard to distribute properly. As are other resources like clean water and electricity. And those are not problems fixed with a 3-D printer, which, by the way, would require electricity. And whose yummy crushed bug food would still face the same distribution problem of regular food.
I’ll go a step further and say that it may actually impoverish local populations further, by flooding the market with cheap moderately edible crap, replacing locally grown “real” food and subsequently taking away from what little local farmers already made in terms of income. I saw that happen in Haiti after the earthquake. The U.S. dumped bags and bags of (surplus) grains and rice on Haiti, putting almost all local farmers out of business. Gee thanks, Uncle Sam.
If you’re skeptical, consider that in 1998 Amartya Sen was given the Nobel Prize in Economics, largely for his work in demonstrating that famines are rarely caused by food shortages. They are usually an effect of either political strife or economic inequality.
Those who can buy food, do so, and they can also have it transported to where they are, because they have the means to pay. Governments don’t actually really care about stamping out inequality, they mostly just care about staying in power and exercising control over their territory. Attempts by foreign powers to come in and feed other countries’ poor is often perceived as an invasion of that territory, and has a destabilizing effect.
There is enough food produced to feed the world 4 times over yet 42,000 a day starve and 14% of the world population has malnutrition. That’s not because we’ve been waiting for the advent of the 3-D printing messiah. It’s because of difficulties with distribution, wonton waste, corruption and lack of monetary incentive to transport food to people who can’t really pay for it.
So, forgive me if I’m stomping on the utopian ideal that people will one day share their algae, duckweed, grass and insect printer recipes “via an open source coding system” like the developers want. I imagine we have a fair few more flaming hoops of logic to jump through before that happens amongst the world’s poor, don’t you think?
I love 3-D printing, but let’s focus more on waste minimization and proper infrastructure first.