“What if you could extend your life five years by giving up personal health information to a nutrition company that could design a health plan based on your personalized risk factors? Would you do it?” Judging from an informal tally of raised hands, about half of those gathered for this packed panel session would disclose.

“What if you couldn’t eat your favorite food for the rest of your life? No more chocolate cake!” prodded Max Elder of The Institute of The Future, a think tank and consulting group dedicated to identifying sustainable food systems. About half of the raised hands quickly fell.

Max Elder was one of three panelists who shared their views at SXSW on the topic of The Future of Eating.

At the outset of the discussion, moderator Robyn Metcalfe was quick to draw a distinction between food and eating. This would not be a panel that focused on the future of food (i.e. forthcoming trends or whether bug protein would really ever catch on in the US) but rather how our experience of eating and health might change over time. The speakers touched on a number of complex topics. They considered how technology can bring us closer and, paradoxically, remove us further from the food production process. Technology enables far greater transparency than ever before—giving us the ability to access ingredients, nutritional information and even where our foods come from—but are we really able to process and evaluate all of this information in a meaningful way? The panelists seemed quite skeptical. “[Consumers] claim to want more transparency,” said Elder. “But then we typically make a decision about what to purchase in two seconds.”

The panel also challenged some of our current understanding of what should be prioritized in shaping sustainable food systems of the future. Spurred by a question from the audience related to how we ought to define local and other words that have become commonplace when discussing food, the panel considered whether we should be dedicating significant resources to reducing the distance our food travels. “The truth is, when we’re talking in terms of environmental impact, distance traveled is a very small percentage of the overall carbon footprint,” explained Elder. “We need to complicate these types of narratives—there are many myths sold as rules.”

As the panel drew to a close, Art Markman, a professor of psychology at University of Texas at Austin, cautioned against embracing technological change for its own sake. “Twitter came to SXSW about a decade ago to talk about [the concept of] micro-blogging, but they didn’t discuss the implications for politics and culture more broadly. Food is a deeply human and social experience and we should make sure that we’re creating technologies to support it, not the other way around. If we take that approach, we’ll have fewer unintended consequences.”

SXSW 2019
Panel: The Future of Eating
March 13, 12:30 pm – 1:30 pm

Robyn Metcalfe, Moderator – Food+City
Max Elder – Institute for the Future
Henry Gordon-Smith – Agritecture Consulting
Art Markman – The University of Texas at Austin