UT Professors Discuss the “Fourth Agricultural Revolution” at SXSW

Predicting the future of food

UT professors Robyn Metcalfe and Art Markman (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Humans' genetic makeup has recently become a playground for scientists and doctors to experiment with individualized solutions for diseases. This concept, known as personalized medicine, is changing the way we solve problems. Robyn Metcalfe, director of the nonprofit Food+City and lecturer at UT, says the future of our food will be personalized, too.

"How would you feel if you gave up all your personal information – forget privacy – and someone could make the perfect food for you that could extend your life by five to 10 years?" Metcalfe asked. "Would you do it?"

Just as smartphones and Twitter completely transformed the way society communicates, recent technological advancements in the food industry – deemed the "Fourth Agricultural Revolution" – will change the way food is produced and consumed. Plants growing without soil, meat produced in a lab, and artificial intelligence measuring peak harvest times are the future realities of eating. And Metcalfe says although she is pro-technology, we need to be aware of the changes that are happening so we can be mindful about the consequences of these advancements.

"I bring these sort of issues up not like I think everybody's being screwed over by technology or anything, it's much more [than that]," Metcalfe said. "Let's be smart about it. We can make choices that will determine what we eat in the future if we're paying attention."

The exact pros and cons of the "Fourth Agricultural Revolution" are undetermined, Metcalfe said, but she is worried the dehumanization of the food system will receive pushback from those who value "meaningful work you can see your own fingerprint on." She says at some point, people will place a limit on the technological advancements they are okay with.

"When we replace so much of the human workforce in our food system with machines, robots, drones, or AI, will we lose some of our humanity? Because food is so personal, so human," Metcalfe said.

Art Markman, UT psychology and marketing professor who has previously written about changing habits, says changes in food production will influence people's food rituals and beliefs. Despite being created in a mechanized environment, Markman says advertisers will decorate food packaging with images of natural farms, building a mythology around our food that provides a certain amount of comfort about where it comes from.

Markman questions whether we will embrace this "Jetsons-style, futuristic food model" or still idealize traditional agricultural practices. "Some of that may just have to do with what kinds of things make people comfortable," Markman said.

When you walk into a restaurant today, you will see people sitting in groups, most eating while on their phones, Markman said. Instead of functioning as a way to connect with a community, eating has become a solitary act due partly to technological advancements.

"Whether it's people sitting at home and watching television while eating, or going to the Alamo Drafthouse and sitting and eating, we're seeing these shifts and this separation of the social component of food from the need to feed," Markman said. "We have lost some of that connection."

Metcalfe's newest book, Food Routes: Growing Bananas in Iceland and Other Tales From the Logistics of Eating, comes out this month. Metcalfe says her book discusses the effects of bringing this much technology into a human-based need and subject.

"[Technology is] here – it's happening faster than you've ever imagined," Metcalfe said. "But it is super frickin' complicated, so let's wake up and pay attention."

The Future of Eating

Wednesday, March 13, 12:30pm, JW Marriott Salon AB

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