UT Lecturer talks food technology at Austin forum

Sara Johnson

Food technology and the future of humanity are linked, especially in cities like Austin, said Robyn Metcalfe, UT Food Lab director and ecology lecturer.

Metcalfe led a public presentation at the Austin Public Library on Tuesday. The presentation focused on the ways advances in food technology are changing the landscape of food in cities. 

“I want to suggest that we as consumers, as engineers and as entrepreneurs may not be prepared for the full impact of the intended and unintended consequences of technology in our future food system,” Metcalfe said. “We need to pay extra special attention to the trade-offs.”

Some of the advances Metcalfe mentioned were a portable planter for growing food indoors and 3D printed pizza.


The event was hosted by the Austin Forum on Technology and Society, a nonprofit that has been hosting public lectures since 2006.

“You can think of it as like SXSW Interactive, where they have lots of different topics over the course of a few days,” director Jay Boisseau said. “We just do that, one topic every month, and over the course of the year, we cover tons of different topics.”

According to 2018 Forbes data, Austin is the eighth fastest-growing city in the U.S. Attendee Jenn Brown said food technology is something that can make sure growing cities stay well-fed.

“When you talk about getting to the source of the food, there are so many different ways that you can potentially do that as an individual, as a startup,” Brown said. “If you can do it in places you don’t expect to do it, even better.”

The Food Lab, founded in 2011, began as a space for brainstorming innovations in food production. Since then, it has grown into the UT partner organization Food+City, which hosts an annual startup competition and publishes a semiannual magazine.

“We’re really interested in how cities are fed,” Metcalfe said. “It’s about the movement of food — specifically, about food systems. So many people — really, the students — were really interested in doing something about the future food system, and we started encouraging entrepreneurs to gather and come up with ideas.”

While Metcalfe admits the future of food technology is not perfectly defined, she said the future of food systems will be designed around not just the apps and algorithms, but the humans who use them.

“We can design our own food future,” Metcalfe said. “It will be personalized.”