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Food, the City, and Innovation

Rethinking the global food system
Anna Toon, 10:30am, Tue. Feb. 5, 2013

As the "Food, the City, and Innovation” two-day roundtable conference kicked off over the weekend, attendees were asked to suspend their assumptions about how the food system works.

Indeed, this was necessary as we were introduced to everything from breathable food (Parmesan cloud, anyone?) to producing and harvesting algae for fertilizer. The ambitious program featured a veritable brain trust of food scholars, historians, architects, innovators, and entrepreneurs in the local and global food system. Cohosted by the Food Lab at the University of Texas and Boston

University, the exploration of the food system began with keynote address by Dr. David Edwards, founder of Le Laboratoire in Paris, France, and lecturer at Harvard University.

Cabrito over hardwood at the LongHouse Revival dinner hosted by the Food Lab
Photo by Anna Toon

Edwards, a leader in what he calls the “experimental food revolution,” has combined logic with creativity to develop new innovations with the potential to profoundly alter the way we eat. Take, for instance, Le Whif, a lipstick-like device that utilizes particle engineering to deliver breathable chocolate and inhaled caffeine, or WikiCell food packaging, a nutritionally rich edible skin which would essentially encapsulate food eliminating the need for paper and plastic. While certainly innovative and provocative, I couldn’t help but think, “Is this food?” For me, at least, the answer is unclear, but it does raise a host of interesting questions. For instance, what issues are raised by the commodification and mass marketing of food technologies that could potentially be used in more purposeful pursuits such as feeding our hungry? What are the irrevocable consequences of diminishing the interconnectedness of food to place and regional identity?

These are the kinds of questions the conference sought to address. Jake Stewart, program manager of the Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Community Garden program with the City of Austin, suggested critically examining food systems the same way we assess energy and the environment, envisioning food systems as ecosystems instead of factories in the industrialized food complex we know and love to hate. Robyn Metcalfe, former heritage pig farmer and the professor and pioneer behind the Food Lab and conference, has created a space to foster the dialogue integral to, not only understanding the way our food system works, but also connecting the community in order to change it.

Panelists discussing innovation and entrepreneurship
Photo by Anna Toon

Conference-goers also had the opportunity to attend the LongHouse Food Revival dinner, a one-time multimedia presentation exploring the art and entrepreneurial challenge of telling food stories. Housed in East Austin’s Pine Street Station, the event was part storytelling, part performance art, and featured an indomitable ensemble of food thought leaders. The evening was a celebration of food, reinforcing its sacredness to our identities, traditions, and tables.

So the question remains: how do we keep the conversation going, and what’s next? The architecture and logistics of food are not separate from the farmers, producers, and consumers, just as we are not separate from the history and policies that created our present food dilemma. If the goal is to be a part of the innovations, conversations, and enterprises that elicit change, the inevitable next step, as William Hurley, cofounder of Chaotic Moon, so eloquently suggested is to, “get off your ass.”

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