According to the US National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends 2030 report, the earth’s population will be pushing 8.3 billion (up from 7.1 billion in 2012) by 2030. This population growth, combined with ongoing urbanization and rising incomes, will increase the world’s demand for food.

Urban agriculture promises to relieve some of the demand for fresh produce in the future’s megacities, but meat poses a different challenge. Scaling some types of animal husbandry down for urban space has been successful – such as with chicken coops that can be quite productive sources of eggs – but raising animals for slaughter is another matter. A single egg laying chicken can produce an egg every 24-26 hours; a roasted chicken can be consumed once.

Meat, in particular, is a resource-intensive food.  For example, producing a single quarter-pound hamburger using traditional methods requires a substantial amount of grain, water, and land.

Moreover, these resources will themselves be under greater strain in the future. Most alarming is the water situation, estimates used by the NIC in the Global Trends 2030 report indicate that global water requirements will reach 6,900 billion cubic meters (BCM) in 2030, forty percent above current sustainable water supplies. Food supplies in the future will be heavily influenced by the availability of land and water, which will come under greater strain due to climate change and poor resource management. 

Part of the Solution
Bioprinting may be part of the solution to these problems.  A bioprinter prints out biological material in the same way a 3D printer may produce a replica Eiffel Tower. The use of 3D printing technology in the biological sciences made its debut in the field of regenerative medicine. Organovo, a firm spearheading the use of printed biomaterial for medical uses, successfully bioprinted functional blood vessels from the cells of an individual in 2010. Trials using bioprinted material have only been conducted in animals, but the results are exciting for the medical field.

Modern Meadow, an upstart biotech firm located in Silicon Valley, aims to pioneer bioprinting raw meat as an economic and ethical solution to the looming global problems associated with meat production.

In order to engineer meat, Gabor and Andras Forgacs, the father and son founders of Modern Meadow (also the founders of Organovo), plan to deliver bioink into a support structure with a computer-controlled delivery device, the bioprinter.  To create the bioink scientists retrieve stem cells – cells which are able to replicate and differentiate – from an animal. Once the cells have multiplied they are placed into a bio-cartridge. Just as an inkjet printer lays down dots of ink, stem cells will be printed into molds and matured into muscle tissue.

This attempt to marry bioprinting and food science differs from efforts already underway around the world to synthesize food products. The Forgacs’ plan is to print living tissue. “Three-dimensional printing has taken off big time, and printing things such as whipped cream is just another application of it – but it’s no big deal,” said Gabor Forgacs. “Printing biomaterial is an entirely different ball game.”

The potential savings in terms of food, water, and energy could be enormous. A study published in Environmental Science & Technology by Hanna Tuomisto and M. Joost Teixeira de Mattos concluded that the overall environmental impact of cultured meat production is substantially lower than that of conventionally produced meat. According to the study, cultured meat production uses 99% less land and between 82 to 96% less water, depending on the specific product. To put the savings in water alone in perspective, keep in mind that while the Earth is seventy percent water, ninety-seven percent of the Earth’s water is undrinkable salty sea water and two percent is trapped in icecaps. Only one percent is both potable and accessible. Every drop counts.

The funding of research and commercialization of the process and product will prove to be significant challenges. Last year researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands attempted to produce strips of muscle tissue using a similar technique called biofabrication. Project leader Mark Post estimated that a hamburger produced using their method would cost over $300,000. Post commented that the price would plummet as the technology advances.

The commercialization of manufactured meat may also encounter various difficulties. Public opposition to bioprinted meats may take the same tone as opposition to genetically modified (GM) crops. But this is not an insurmountable obstacle. As the technology is perfected and promoted, and the price of meat rises because supply cannot match growing demand, opposition would likely decline in the face of necessity.

We will not be ordering printed meat any time soon, but bioprinting may eventually provide a solution to a number of negative trends. Global demand for meat is projected to rise, but meat remains one of the most resource-intense food sources. By 2030, nearly half of the world’s population will be living in areas with severe water scarcity issues – and will be faced with deciding how to use this most precious of all substances.

Innovative, targeted solutions such as bioprinting may assist in alleviating the pressure created by urbanization, the rise of the global middle class, and population growth on the world’s food supply and resources. Human ingenuity is our greatest hope.

Catherine Putz is with the Council’s Strategic Foresight Initiative.