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A conversation with food historian — and futurist — Robyn Metcalfe

Many books have been written about food’s ability to transform and transport in a metaphorical sense. Food historian and futurist Robyn Metcalfe tells a different kind of story. She focuses on the literal transformation and transportation of food and how that affects our lives. In her new book, “Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating,” Metcalfe takes a detailed look at behind-the-scenes issues of the food supply chain: how food is grown, processed, transported, and consumed. Metcalfe examines how these processes are being changed by technology and their impact on how we eat today and in the future.

Metcalfe, who previously lived in New England, is a lecturer and research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin and director of Food+City, an organization that focuses on the future of food systems in urban areas.


Q. You have some personal experience that led you to begin researching the food supply chain. Could you talk about it?

A. In the ’90s, I ran a farm for 10 years up in Maine. I went around trying to sell my wonderful local lamb to people and they would say, “Well that’s really great, but we got a good deal in New Zealand so, well, go away.” It was like, what is that? I realized that’s just the tip of the iceberg of a gazillion ways in which food is moved around the world in ways that are not straight lines and aren’t the least expensive, necessarily.

Q. You also write about fish that are caught in New England, exported to Japan, then shipped back again as sushi. How can that make logistical sense?

A. I learned about this from talking to Jared Auerbach, the founder of Red’s Best. The reason it goes to Tokyo is they have a wholesale market that works. It’s a global market, so you have critical mass of buyers and dealers and trusted relationships. In this case, there is real deep knowledge and expertise and scale. You combine scale with people who really know how to take high-end fish and keep them at optimum temperatures and it works out net-net to be better for everybody in the supply chain. What you really need to have a good supply chain are four things: trust, technology, reliability, and adaptability. So those trusted relationships are what often will make something paradoxical.


Q. Were there other paradoxes that you found particularly interesting or confounding?

A. We’ve gone through several decades now of real aversion to genetic modification. It’s a big divisive argument about manipulating food. Well, now we’re doing gene editing and we’re doing lab meat. So what’s going on in people’s thinking about their food that enables them to think that that is good? It’s big food. It’s not very transparent. You’re talking about your protein being made in secure (intellectual property) labs, people in white suits with masks over their faces.

Q. Do you think consumer preferences drive this kind of rapid interest in new technologies or is technology driving preference?

A. The market is what’s pushing things. They want trust. They want it now. They want it fresh. They want it accessible. They want it at a reasonable price. They want it with good nutrition. Ultimately it’s all about you. It’s also about the planet. We’ve now got these moral filters that need to run through these things. I think that’s different than the last technological revolution where we were doing mass food production.


Q. Does increasing reliance on technology and data risk changing our relationship with food?

A. So here’s what’s really different about food, and other things that are being moved into a digital world, food is really connected to our humanity and I imagine there is a tipping point, a little point on a dial where too much technology is lethal to our connection with food. There’s a point where it won’t tolerate it. And I keep wondering if I’m seeing it. I was at a smart-kitchen conference and watching robots moving around. Then there is this whole idea of going to a restaurant and a robot is serving you. And yet I can go to the airport and I can get robot-made coffee that’s awesome and get it in half the time when all I really want is coffee and not a conversation. I think that there’s a limit to it and a lot of it will be determined by whether or not we as humans push back on it or inform all those wonderful engineers about the art of food and the senses.

Q. Are you optimistic about technology in the food system?

A. I am very optimistic and enthusiastic about it. I really don’t see how we’re going to feed 9 billion people by 2050 unless we utilize all the tools available in various modulated ways, carefully, smartly. When you look at the limited resources that we have in terms of land and change in climate, we will need to get that much more food out of it. But we’ve got to be aware of the fact that systems go down. This is not going to be an easy path and we have to be very careful about some of these technologies. They are so powerful that if we misuse them it will put us behind, not ahead.


Michael Floreak can be reached at