Print yourself a salmon fillet
On printing in three dimensions, eating for your health, and what could make bioprinted meat catch on
A new technology often gets a jump-start when it finds itself applied not to its intended use, but to a less obvious but non-trivial alternative.
■ Some attention has rightly been paid to the prospect of raising meats outside of their original animals. The "lab-cultivated" or "bio-printed" food technology has been hailed by many of its advocates as a way to satisfy consumer demand for meat products while exacting fewer environmental externalities than conventional animal husbandry.
■ Early test cases have already made their debuts. In 2021, scientists in Japan printed a piece of Wagyu beef that wasn't cut from a cow. A firm in Israel has touted its successful printing of a 3.67-oz. steak in the same year. And already, people have begun to ask ethical questions, like "Could lab-cultivated meat be kosher?" or "Would it be ethical to eat cultivated meat from endangered species?".
■ While well-intended, efforts to promote laboratory-grown meats on their environmental benefits aren't likely to catch fire. Those will be interesting benefits down the road, but as long as prices are still very high and the volume of production is very low, it will be quite some time before grocery shoppers will even be offered the option. Environmental advantages are a classic case of diffuse benefits and concentrated costs, and those don't activate a whole lot of behavior.
■ The breakthrough application could be found in seafood. The tuna is an apex predator, which of course makes it environmentally significant. But that status also makes it prone to concentrating harmful substances otherwise found only in traces in the environment, like mercury. These concentrated contaminants are why the FDA has produced a detailed chart depicting just how much fish is safe for children to eat.
■ Under a laboratory-cultivation process, though, (synthetic) fish could be produced and harvested without the same hazards. And that could be the breakthrough for the technology at large, because it would shift the focus from diffuse environmental benefits to concentrated health benefits for the individual. Concentrated benefits open wallets.
■ Synthetic production really ought to appeal more to seafood restaurants -- and to sushi lovers, in particular -- than to any other sector. Nobody's actively clamoring to nibble on endangered-species burgers yet, and the scale of production already in place worldwide makes it hard for any new process to compete with raising chickens, hogs, and cattle on foot (even if the FDA just gave the nod to lab-produced chicken in November).
■ But countless inland restaurants advertise that their fish is flown in daily for freshness. Air freighting and all of its associated preparation processes add a lot to the cost of production and delivery. If synthetic alternatives could permit them to grow their own fresh "catch" in a facility next door, that could be a much more economically competitive arrangement.
■ Maybe all of this technology remains too speculative and far-fetched to catch on, either soon or even some time into the future. But the incentives are such that if and when "meat" (such as we might define it) from a laboratory-like setting really breaks through, it will be in the form of seafood rather than anything that originated with wings, legs, or a snout.