There are a bunch of news stories and interesting new-science factoids I’ve learned from friends recently all related to food. Fascinating stuff. Again, as it’s been a while since I’ve blogged, I feel more than a bit blocked – pressure to make this an awesome, stellar, better-than-ever, award-winning kinda entry. It will be what it is. This is interesting stuff. Process as you will. (LOTS of cool videos below, too).
A real end to world hunger? Maybe? Think again…
Last week the New York Times published an article by Andrew Rice about Plumpy’nut, a new peanut-based food product that has already saved the lives of many severely malnourished children in Africa, Haiti, Asia, and who knows where else. It’s basically a peanut butter packed with lots of other nutrients that can very quickly bring people back from the brink of death. This is not a small feat, and I am certain of the fact that this is a great invention. The issues as I can see it are these: the patent, the cost, the actual (long term) effectiveness.
- Patent: can one company brand and profit off of this kind of product and its recipe? Pumpy’nut is a trademark owned by Nutriset, a French company. The inventor, French pediatrician Andre Briend apparently never meant to create a brand and profit off of this product. AND there are two other companies trying to do similar work. In my eyes, can such an important product be “owned”? Can you patent peanut butter?
- Cost: it’s not cheap. A two-month supply of Plumpy’nut for one child costs $60. That’s a dollar a day — pretty steep in the food world, especially for such a simply product. AND the main customer of Plumpy’nut (90%) is UNICEF. Sucks. Essentially our tax dollars going to a private company. We need to feed the world. But it’s jacked up miracle peanut butter, folks. It echoes the situation with AIDS medicine going to poor countries — they need it desperately, but do companies want to let go of their product at prices much closer to cost? Nope. But people are dying…how do put a price on life? Tricky. But should it be?
- The long term: the company has marketed Plumpy’nut as a cure for hunger. But is it? The problem is that the vast majority of “hunger” in the world is not acute malnutrition, the kind we see on the news and celebrity TV appeals – results of famines, war, major ecological disaster. Most people afflicted by hunger suffer chronically. They are not on the very edge of death’s doorstep. They suffer daily, whether a condition of their poverty, agriculture failure, lack of certain essential nutrients in the food they do have, etc.
Replicator: Star Trek‘s solution to world Hunger
Ever heard of 3D printing? I have for a while, but it was difficult for me to picture. Well, I found some videos, and I’ll post one below for your viewing pleasure. Basically, there are printers that make objects – and they work just like real paper printers. It’s fascinating.
Ever heard of a food replicator? This is a technology that is used in the invented scifi world of Star Trek. Much like a 3D printer but working on super-futuristic advanced-science principles, this machine can create objects (including food) from any type of other matter by recombining its subatomic particles. If it has the recipe on file, that is, whether it be for a cup of Earl Gray tea, the Klingon favorite Gagh, a ray gun, a dry martini, or a clarinet. Scientists over at MIT (in a project called Cornucopia) have been trying to create a real life food replicator. So far, it doesn’t work on such an advanced level (this futuristic contraption is really just as complex, if not much more complex than the Star Trek transporter). As far as I can tell, MIT’s Digital Fabricator works by arranging an array of raw ingredients that are designed to print out 3D food to the sub millimeter level. But no steak dinners here. They’re working on chocolates and pastries – things that can be assembled, not whipped up out of thin air by recombining protons. Goodness, I would kill to eat a real hot steak – faux beef that is exactly like real beef – without the killing…can you imagine that???
Still, it’s interesting (and in my opinion, important) that this kind of technology is being seriously thought about. It’s another example of contemporary science being influenced by scifi, our imagining of our better future where hunger is unimaginable. Take a look at a clip of one of my favorite Star Trek episodes, including a demonstration of a replicator:
Here is a video on 3D printing. Pretty cool stuff. I like that everything is reusable. Much like a real replicator.