Love local and sustainable food? In the future data will drive more decisions than desire

Our only hope is knowing how much tech is too much tech, says futurist and author of "Food Routes," Robyn Metcalfe

Published July 21, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)


At a professional gathering the other day I was speaking with a colleague who was momentarily struggling to describe how it was that she was attending the event. She paused and then explained: “I’m in the food space.”

I hear it more and more. It’s a phrase that locates an individual in the business of thinking about food, about its scarcity, or its nutritive value, its profitability or scarcity, equity or ingenuity. Cooking off the ideas that are generated here, there's often more smoke than fire. Salon Talks guest Professor Robyn Metcalfe found her place as a futurist in the food space the hard way. In the 1990s, Metcalfe had a family sheep farm in Maine and struggled to get nearby restaurants to serve her very local lamb. The chefs, not the least bit tempted by the offer, already had a purveyor, they assured Metcalfe. They were perfectly happy with the fresh product they were getting from sheep farmers in New Zealand. How could lamb from the other side of the world be more attractive to a restaurant than the lamb she raised just down the road? Metcalfe’s business failed, and when it did, she returned to academia and became entirely focused on trying to answer that question.

In a world where local and sustainable as a stated preference for food at the table is in direct conflict with the imperative that there will be nine billion people to feed by 2050, Metcalfe now knows that the truth about how we get our food is not pretty.

More food will be engineered, and more and more of that work will be done by robots. Data will drive more decisions than desire. Metcalfe argues that technological advances create opportunities for innovations that can get better food to more people in an increasingly urbanized world. Still, the dramatic tension that propels her book, “Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales from the Logistics of Eating,” is: when it comes to something as intimate as food, how much technology is too much? Metcalfe joined us on Salon Talks to share what she has learned about the central role that the food supply chain plays in all of our lives.

Robyn Metcalfe is a food historian, a food futurist, a professor at the University of Texas in Austin, and the author of “Food Routes.” The book is about the logistics of delivering food from creator to consumer. And it's an often overlooked and vital central part of all the food questions that we're asking ourselves these days. What got you interested in food supply chains?

Well, that's an interesting question because it relates to my experience running a farm. And on this farm we raised Heritage sheep, lamb, really in the 90s before people were really talking about it. And I tried to sell it to a local restaurant, high-end restaurant, who certainly would be interested in buying from our farm, a mere three miles away. But they turned me down because they were buying these lamb chops from New Zealand. 

And we were, it really was shocking to me, because it was just so paradoxical, didn't seem logical to me at all why they would do that. But it turns out that New Zealand is darn good at making and shipping lamb chops. They've perfected the supply chain, they've perfected growing it, each of them is the right size, and from a restaurateur's point of view that's perfect for pricing. 

Right, portion control.

Portion control. So we find this in other things, in avocados, we find this in bananas, it's a function really of, as economists would say, specialization, and highly optimized supply chain. They really figure out how to control, optimally, one supply chain from production, which is optimized, through the system. Which means you get a consistent quality you can trust, reliability and a low cost. Which is the sweet spot for anybody buying food. 

I mean this is the contradiction. Because people think, "Oh, you're going to spend all that money sending those items from all the way from New Zealand," but if you are sending a lot of those things from New Zealand together, the cost per calorie or per unit is really, really low, much lower than three lamb chops from the local farm, driven in a truck.

Right. And so you followed that story, as the creation of that product designed to fill a hole in the market.

And others, because it just opened up this whole sort of Pandora's box, whoa, oh my gosh, I didn't know any of this was here. This is how the supply chain works, I discovered it over and over again, from sesame seeds in Turkey, and a bunch of places where you think, logically, this country can get their things right over here, but they don't, they get them thousands of miles away. And a lot of it has to do simply even with just pure trust. Because these buyers and sellers, the movers of our food, over time have built trust. And that matters more than anything, really. I mean cost is in there, but the trust is, am I going to open this box and get the items that I need? Nothing's broken, nothing's missing, and they aren't going to overcharge me? I'm going with that guy.

Why'd you write the book?

I felt really compelled to write this book because all the conversations about food, focusing on the latest way to grow food, putting food on rooftops, whether we should eat insects or not, it was all this activity happening on the ground about how and where we should make our food, and also all the conversations about the latest and greatest food product itself.

But, at the end of the day, none of those ideas are really going to go anywhere until they can figure out a way to scale it through the movement of ingredients and the delivery of food. So all these ideas were breaking down, or at least struggling, because of this dark area that no one wants to talk about. 

People were concerned about small food versus big food, and what was left out of the conversation was how do we even get food.

Right. How do we even get it from place to place? 

And unless you can do that, unless you can manage the flow of food from the farm to the plate, really game over, there's really not much we can do to improve it. So I wrote it because I really felt that we should shine some light on that area so we could figure out where the friction spots are. And therefore, where we could apply some new thinking, some innovation, in order to resolve that. And there's just a lot of issues about it that we just don't know anything about, and we don't even know who those people are that do it.

So let's take it out of the dark a little bit. What is a food supply chain, and how has it changed to where we are now, and what's going to happen now that we are not in the industrial age anymore, but we're in the data age? 

Food has moved around the world since the Romans, since a really long time ago. When the early traders started moving food throughout the Roman Empire, on roads, and on ships, and even before them, the Sumerians. I mean that's where trade was, where the was food. And the moment you could make more food than your family or your village could consume, you began to sell it and figure out where to send it. 

So it's sort of logistics, which implies optimizing and being logical about that process. This was centrally important for he military. Like in the Punic Wars, I mean early on wars were thought to be fought over the food supply. This is the strategy. If you ran out of food you lost the war, so being logistical about it was very much about winning wars in the early period, and that's when people began to calculate how much land your horses would need to be able to feed the horses, so that you could move on to the next stage of the battle.

Right, right. So the war was being fought over food, and also won or lost by whether or not you could feed your army while you were doing it.

Right. Well and that came out of, you remember, Napoleon's army relies on, crawls on their stomach, so it really has to have its food supply, and of course that was a real defeat in the war.

Right, the quote is, "An army marches on its stomach."

Yeah, and so, you know it's tied to that really early on. And of course now that's expanded way beyond the military, and so now we have all kinds of computer programs and things today that help solve for how, what's the optimal way to move food from place to place. 

Right, before the Industrial Revolution cities had Greenbelts around them that supplied them, right? And then industrialization made it, the cities grew so big that the food had to come from further and further away.

A lot of things changed as well that enabled that. I mean, first of all, no one wanted to grow food in cities because the land costs were so high. Put people in houses and get rents from houses and things like that, don't put grazing pastures. And also technology has occurred. When you had the railroad appearing that's really the first time, you could now go really far away and get your food. 

And straight into the heart of the city.

And right into the city as well. So you have combinations of what's going on in the city, the land values and people, and also technologies that are bringing it in from far away. 

And refrigeration was one of those great marks in the food technology timeline.

Right, and it all happened in that wonderful 19th Century period, which I believe that's everything that's really worth having been invented happened in the 19th Century. And we're sort of adding little frills and twills along, except for this whole digital period. 

Which is the idea of optimization of the food, of all industries, including the one, editorial, the one I'm in, through data.  And that it's being able to track or anticipate route, a course that has always been, Point A to B that has always been made, a journey that's always been made, but along the way break it up into a thousand pieces and know where it is, and make it more efficient. What are some of the examples that -

That’s the problem, what's really sort of inhibited this discovery of what goes on in the food supply chain comes from the fact that this all feels very industrial. It feels very nonhuman. I mean you're just looking at the numbers of speed, value, how do you get it there. And people have this very human connection with food, know your farmer, who are these people? And I think there's this resistance towards this very sort of technical, industrial area, where you're calculating the number of minutes it will take to have food loaded on the dock so that you don't burn X amount of gasoline. So the humans get left out of the equation, and it's very off-putting for people who really feel humanly connected to how the food is transported.

You make a great point in the book, which is that people are always looking for stories about their food as a way of understanding themselves, or understanding the group, and that these really are not the kind of stories that people want to tell.

Food is your identity, right? And who wants to optimize your identity? I mean, I think this is the thing that really came out of this book for me at the very end of it, was we have all this technology now, we're trying to optimize it, which is a good thing, by the way. This is not an anti-tech book, this is a problematic but pro-technology one. Meaning we can't possibly know the impact and the consequences of going this far and this fast into technology. 

But when I got done with this book there was this feeling that here we are, bring it on. We're going to cut down waste, we're going to deliver personalized diets, we're going to cut down on fuel use, I mean all of these good things, but where are the humans in the equation? 

And so you have a big displacement of the workforce coming up, just about to happen. 

To the extent that there are people still working on farms, there will be even fewer very soon?

The whole food supply, food processing is very much a process thing, optimizers love to optimize processes, right? So you could make food processing faster, increase food safety by taking humans out, so already robots, as you know, are coming in to feed us, deliver us, cut the celery in the field and everything like that. So these are huge job classes that are about to be made redundant. And even though people feel, "Well you know, this is for the better because they will find, they'll either find a coding job, or they'll be absorbed in our new technology," I spend a lot of time talking to those people, and I don't think they're ready to sign up to be coders.

And so these are makers too, these are people who work with their hands. And so there's also, I mean I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but there is an impact that we're going to be seeing when you replace people that are used to making things with their hands, and they're not. We're not making as many things with our hands in the future, right?

There's a great example, a conversation I was having last week, somebody was talking about a field robot that addresses each lettuce and fertilizes each individual plant, and it's a great, net/net it's a very positive development for fertilizer runoff, and the environment, and all those things. But the first thing you think is, do I really want that lettuce? 

I think of it as a dial that we have here, and we have no optimization, maximum optimization here, and we have an infusion of really low-tech here, and super high AI personalized drone, autonomous robots over here, right? And I think it will be interesting for us to watch where on the dial the relationship between ourselves and food breaks down by the insertion of technology. At what point do we say, to the robot who comes up to the table with our burger that's been made in a lab, do we say, "Nah,"? Bring it on, I want the cow back now, and I want to chat with somebody. 

I mean there's going to be some sort of negotiation there between saving waste, cutting down on waste, and my freedom to eat what I want to eat. We can optimize the heck out of this, but at some point, we may say we'd rather have a little bit more -

But we've already done that, haven't we? I mean Slow Food and all those, the fascination we have with Slow Food and locally grown and all those things is a demonstrated desire to want a human story of food, right?

But the trade-offs are really interesting. I mean if we say, "Oh we want total transparency. I want to see ...", because I can do this with technology, "I want to track every little step of my grape through the food supply chain, step by step." And you will eventually be able to do that. "I want total transparency. But you know what? I'm really okay with having my burger made inside a lab with a man or woman in a lab coat behind closed doors." 

Right, growing it on a hook.

And that's minimal transparency from that standpoint. But you might be able to say I'm willing to save the planet over here and have less visibility over here. So I think we're seeing a real negotiation across what was before sort of like, "No technology in my food, I don't like Monsanto, do not engineer my food. I'm okay with using CRISPR gene-editing technology whenever they want if it uses less water and I can grow more sustainably." 

It's an interesting moment in the book where you say people were hellbent, just completely opposed to the idea of genetic modification, and then one technological development changed all of those concerns because they were no longer introducing foreign genes, right? You were manipulating the genes within the plant. 

You're still editing, you're still engineering though. 

Yeah. It feels like a completely irrational response, right?

That's the period we're entering, which is, there are so many moving things now, our landscape is changing so much that it's hard to anticipate where you're going to go with some of these trade-offs. And there's a generational thing, I have to say. People mostly my age are only going to live in the Monsanto is an evil company and engineering's a bad thing, and the people who were born with cellphones in their hands feel not quite so.

Yeah, we talk about that a lot here. There really is a new permissiveness, the younger generation, millennials, do permit people to manipulate their food in a way that certainly I would rather not know about. I'm sure I consume it all the time, but I operate on the fantasy that it's all not manipulated that way.

Right. But you know it is.

I think I do.


We do know, yeah.

We'll all have choices too. I'm sure that meat will not go away, and plants will be coming on. And I'm sure that people will negotiate differently, I think what people want more than anything these days is a sense of control of anything of their lives, food being one of them. And so if you can control your experience with your food, nutrition, and your health by making choices, depending upon the circumstances and the situation you're in, and your health, then that is, I think that's the ultimate goal there.

It's not surprising to me that food would be the place where we all draw the line. Maybe our privacy, our device privacy is negotiable, but so many of us draw a line at food, it makes perfect sense to me.

Yeah, I've been asking a question, when I give talks, how many of the people in the room would be willing to give up all of their personal data about themselves. Everything, genetics, biome, what you did last night, whatever, in return for a food company who could make your breakfast cereal extend your life for 10 years of quality awesome living. And three-quarters of the hands go up, yes. 

Yeah. Doesn't matter what those 10 years are going to be like because everybody's going to know everything about me, but I'll take them. 

Right. Or maybe I'll get to see my grandkids and I wouldn't, you know what I mean? I think there's also a feeling that most of your data's already out there. So I'll be giving an incremental amount up, but I think we're past that line.

They're going to get it somehow, I might as well trade for it.

Ten years, hey. I'm here in New York at a conference, a Future Food Tech Conference, and I just left a session on personalized nutrition. And that will impact everything on this whole movement of food. 

Can you just describe what that is?

It's basically saying each of us have our own genetics, we have our own food tolerance, we have our own activity level, our own health issues, and for the first time this will be the merging of basically healthcare, the medical world, and the food world. Food as medicine. And if I can basically know everything about you, and create a personal diet for you, personal food actually -

Delivered to me from Amazon?

And it could be delivered to you, you know they're going into your house now, they're allowing Amazon directly into your home, have access to your home, that's pretty personal. And this is the convenience factor that everybody wants right now, and so you'll have basically a personal, highly personalized diet that will be crafted through AI and Big Data, so that you'll be able to eat things that are suited to your own metabolism and your own health needs.

And what's the response at the conference? What are people's concerns? 

None, they really had very few concerns. Well this conference, as you can know from the name, Future Food Tech, they're in it.

They're into it. 

And I think they're trying to figure out how do we make the most of it, and how can we break down the barriers, and what are the implications, and how can we deal with those?

Right. You address a lot of the state of play right now in the food logistics world, and also the food that's being produced that is then being moved around. You talk about urban farming, and you talk about training, bringing farmers to farms that are not generational farmers, programs that do that stuff. And you sort of conclude with a, "So here we are, going forward we're either going to ... " and then you do offer the possibility that it's a third way, but you offer two routes. One is evolutionary, which is that we take the tech that we have now and we build it, and we apply it to the food system we have now with all its flaws. Or revolutionary, which is that we strip it all away and we start again. And I'm not clear in the book if you take a side. 

I think it's more of a teaser than anything. 

Yeah, that's right.

Because I actually think no one knows, I mean really, sitting in that conference, you know, no one knows. It's so many things moving right now. And if you talk to the people in Impossible Meats it's revolutionary, right? We're going, this is a game-changer, we're going to change the landscape of our food production, and look at fast how we're doing. I mean this is a phenomenal sort of, maybe bubble? But it looks revolutionary to many people through that kind of lens.

And then you talk to somebody on the ground or someone in the farming community, or someone who's looking on the shipping dock, I go down and talk to people unloading containers of bananas, you talk to those people and that is low-tech, no-tech, tough-tech, they have stickies, they have clipboards. And you've got people on the other end, the revolutionary end, saying, "We're going to take all of that and put it on a block chain." 

So I think that's where the evolutionary idea becomes more of a check on some of this. That we're going to say, "Yeah, we really want to get it all transparent, it's a revolutionary change that we're making that right now." And you've got people saying, "I don't necessarily want to share all my data." Transparency has a dark side as well, especially for bad actors. And there's some people who say, "I've worked really hard to develop this optimized system that I have, it's my system."

Trade secrets, right?

Yeah, so do I want to just basically hand that over to somebody who's going to make that public?

Who's already told you they're going to tear it down?

You've got some friction points there that are legitimate from the standpoint of reality on the ground, and it's not a slam dunk that all of that is just going to be digitized. I think we're going there, I also don't think the revolutionary folks necessarily, this is why I don't commit in the book, is really realistic, because no one's really talking about the long-term implications. Let's just say, what does success look like for them? We have to come up with a lot more plant material.

Right, you're talking about the Impossible Burger?

Yeah, when you're doing plant burgers. Okay, what does success look like, and who's going to produce all that plant material? Are you going to produce that in a lab? Well, let's talk about that. And if you take animals off the ground, and you talk to the people in regenerative agriculture, who are saying, "We need manure to keep our soils healthy," then what happens when that doesn't happen anymore? 

So I think because it's a huge system, and anything that happens anywhere in the system has a ripple effect all around it, then that's where the bubble, or basically the revolutionary piece gets much more complicated. Unless we really look at these unintended consequences.

Right. The question we ask ourselves at Salon all the time, who benefits from this, and who's being left out? And the revolutionary types, and I'm not limiting this observation to the Impossible Meat Company, but they're also looking for that next round of funding, right? And so, and people always make this mistake at this moment in the cycle, this is going to last forever, right? So, all this stuff gets funded, and then the attention is on those things and we lose focus on, the little things that we can all do to mitigate some of the costs of both food production and -

And remember, our farmers are no longer farmers from agriculture colleges in agronomy, they're engineers, software/hardware engineers. 

And that's an interesting development as well. Just in terms of developing an item for us that has the five senses involved. I'm married to an engineer so I can disparage them, it’s in the contract, but it has to taste good, okay?

Soylent's awesome, but I don't know if you've had Soylent?

No. Is it awesome?

Ugh, no. Well I mean, you know, you don't have any -

It's like a Clif Bar, right?

Well, it has a purpose, I've tasted it, it's pretty good tasting for what it is, but I think if we leave it to the engineers to develop this future system also -

We're going to get a very efficient hockey puck.

Yeah. You know?

Yeah, it's a puzzle. 

And 3-D printed food, for example. I had a sample over there at the conference, and it's, yeah, it's definitely 3-D printed. It's not for everybody. But it has applications, all these things have some sort of promising application, but not in a revolutionary sort of way. They just solve all these little problems along the way.

I love this subject, I think more people ought to talk about it, I think it's hardly explored, and I think the revolutionary part of it is the movement from analog to digital. And the fact that this is really following the pathway of what happened to computing, from big centralized computing, Big Blue, and IBM, and a bunch of dumb terminals, to distributed intelligence from big centralized food producers and distributors to distribute, smart micro-warehouses and personalized food.

Hundreds of thousands of creative people who can take their own personal experience on the ground and use the computer every day.

Right, so if you're a network geek you're going from big centralized computing to distributed, networked. 

That's the new meaning of Food Network.


By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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