The students in my younger son’s middle school class have a new favorite pastime: Making little plastic parts on the STEM Lab’s 3-D printer. To the teens and tweens it’s simply another cool, modern gadget, and programming a $9,000 printer to make miniature rocket parts is a lot more fun than struggling to find the solutions to a bunch of algebraic equations.

They don’t quite understand (yet) that 3-D printing is a wave of the future, and that lots of new technology just beginning to emerge will soon rock their adult world, and maybe ours, as well, if we’re still kicking.

The business community gets it, of course. Tyson Foods, for example, has launched a $150 million venture fund to “develop new food technologies,” according to the Chicago Tribune. The initiative, Tyson New Ventures, will “invest in ag-tech startups creating alternative forms of protein, eliminating food waste,” and — attention shareholders; this is going to sound really cool — “tapping the ‘internet of food’ to promote efficiencies in the food chain.”

Tyson’s new unit has already taken a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, the Bill Gates-backed start-up that manufactures a plant-based veggie burger marketed in Chicagoland Whole Foods stores.

The move makes perfect sense. The prevailing meme that ground beef, though delicious, is bad for you has become so widespread that even dedicated carnivores — well, their wives, anyway — are intrigued enough to pick up a box of frozen, good-for-you vegetarian “burger” patties.

Which, note to meat-hating activists, are mass-manufactured in factories by profit-loving corporations selling an edible product as far removed from the clean, green, natural foods you pretend to prefer, as 3-D printing is from those Play-Doh toys that allow two-year-olds to punch out little pink and blue stars and triangles.

So the issue now is not whether “biofabricated” foods will soon be commercially available, nor whether consumers will be persuaded to sample them, but a much larger question: Will 3-D-printed “meat” someday replace animal agriculture?

According to a report from The Wall Street Daily, a new breed of “chef-scientists” at the Culinary Institute of America is already using 3-D printers to “reimagine classic dishes, such as Peach Melba, in three dimensions,” including “a sprinkling of crunchy sugar feathers so lifelike that they appeared to ruffle when the dish was set down.”

Just what America needs: Sophisticated new technology being used by our most talented culinary experts to create a new generation of elaborate desserts loaded with empty calories that will only worsen our national obesity problem.


Brave New Future
But artificial 3-D meat production would potentially have more far-reaching effects than printed Peach Melba ever could. Science is on the brink of using proteins, enzymes and other biomaterials to engineer alt-meat protein products as palatable as conventional beef, pork and chicken. In fact, the day’s not far away when consumers will be able to 3-D print their own “meat products” right in their own kitchens.

We applaud applications of biofabrication when they’re used in medicine to regenerate tissues and organs to combat the impact of disease, injuries or other traumas.

Will the broad majority of people who currently enjoy the consumption of animal foods be as sanguine about eating bioengineered, test-tube-created, 3-D printed, beef-like substances marketed as “healthier” alternatives to conventional hamburgers?

Will they — us — react the way that my sons and his classmates do, ie, “3-D printing? Cool!”

Will anybody care? Or will the question, “What’s the downside of high-tech laboratories and computerized production systems replacing animal husbandry and meat processing?” be merely a rhetorical speed bump on the way to a lifestyle in which our collective sustenance comes not from farms, but from factories?

Not factory farms, but actual factories.

I’m not looking forward to the answer to that query.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and columnist.