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3D Printing: Feeding the future of the Indo-Pacific

Image Credit: CIAT (Flickr: Creative Commons)

In the Indo-Pacific today, there are nearly 500 million people who suffer from food insecurity. Food security is fundamentally defined by the availability and stable access of nutritious food to live a healthy life. Within the Indo-Pacific, countries are afflicted by both the existence of malnutrition and over-nutrition—commonly referred to as the double nutrition burden. With over 60% of the world’s population residing within the Indo-Pacific, the challenges of food security will be increasingly difficult to face, especially with the projected rapid population growth and mass urbanisation within powerhouse economies such as India and China. The future of 3D printing may address contemporary food crises within the region and the world, however, consequently reducing the threat multiplier for potential conflict and fraught diplomatic relations, thus enhancing peace and prosperity within the Indo-Pacific region.

Over the past several decades, technological and scientific developments have empowered the global food production system in which the world produces more than enough food for everybody today. Throughout the 1960s to the 1980s, the Green Revolution significantly reduced hunger through the utilisation of hybrid seed varieties and irrigation initiatives. The Green Revolution resulted in the tripling of rice and grain production in Asia, and countries such as Indonesia and China recorded an average of nearly 4% per annum in increased yield productivity, lifting millions out of poverty. Despite massive improvements in overall hunger reduction, however, countries such as Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Philippines and Indonesia still have ‘serious’ cases of undernourishment. In fact, Timor-Leste, less than an hour away from Australia’s northern shores, is ranked as the fourth hungriest country in the world with roughly 38% of its population undernourished.

Existing academic literature suggests that failing to address food insecurity within these fragile countries can be conducive to a potential flashpoint for conflict and instability. This reality was recognised in October 2016, when the Myanmar military blocked the delivery of United Nations food aid destined for more than 80,000 people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state due to ‘ongoing security operations’ in response to an armed assault allegedly committed by the Rohingya, which left nine police officers dead. This inevitably exacerbated volatile tensions, especially between the Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingyas. International humanitarian agencies feared that the blockage of food aid to the Rakhine state would spark an escalation of sectarian conflict and another refugee crisis, as witnessed in 2015. The Myanmar military has since resumed the delivery of food aid to the Rakhine state, but food insecurity remains a potential threat multiplier and has been closely monitored since 2013.

Furthermore, the complexity of the Rohingya issue in Myanmar has had regional repercussions. Due to ongoing pro-Rohingya protests, Aung San Suu Kyi cancelled her planned visit to Indonesia and has soured relations with Malaysia.

Evidently, food security has national and regional security implications, and 3D printing may revolutionise how we respond to these challenges. The 3D printing of food refers to the process whereby a three-dimensional object is created through layering of edible materials. Although still in early development, the US military is currently developing this technology to create customised nutritional rations for its soldiers in the coming decades. The opportunities with 3D printing are thus endless, offering an alternative solution to producing and feeding populations in accordance to their dynamic nutritional needs. 3D printing can also synthesise nutritious food that’s more easily storable and economically cheaper, by converting readily accessible ingredients, such as algae and insects, into acceptable foods. Additionally, as the Indo-Pacific remains extremely vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly increased tropical cyclonic activity within Southeast Asia, 3D printing can produce nutritious food in times of emergency crises.

While the technological and scientific revolutions of the global food system have unquestionably reduced hunger within the Indo-Pacific, technological innovations remain at the forefront of addressing food crises in the Indo-Pacific. The 3D printing of food can undercut many traditional challenges such as declining land arability, financial costs and logistics delivery. Though still in its early stages of development, this may be the key to safeguarding regional peace and prosperity for millions of people within the Indo-Pacific region.

​Reginald Ramos is the Indo-Pacific Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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