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Food Routes: by Robyn Metcalfe

Food Routes: by Robyn Metcalfe

Metcalfe’s intentional lack of depth means that everyone but the uninitiated will glean little from the book.

Food Routes: by Robyn Metcalfe

1 / 5

Over 100 pages in, a patient, too-generous reader will finally discover why Food Routes seems so out of touch: author Robyn Metcalfe’s target audience constitutes a tiny swath of the US public, so most readers are necessarily excluded. Her ideal reader is very wealthy, likely young and has certainly never met a farmer and likely also never met a blue-collar worker of any sort. Metcalfe takes it for granted that her readers accept the delusional parameters of the tech-bro libertarian capitalist utopian as the ideal principles for shaping our shared future. Readers for whom such a future is instead a ridiculous, dystopian nightmare will find each subsequent page of Food Routes ever more infuriating.

Nominally, Food Routes is a book offering a surface-level explanation of the way the global food system operates; in other words, it shows how food gets from the farm to the table, with all the stops along the way. To a reader who does not know much about the global food system, there is quite a bit of useful information, but Metcalfe’s intentional lack of depth means that everyone but the uninitiated will glean little from the book.

Much more damning for the book than its skin-deep approach to its material is Metcalfe’s patronizing tone and overt right-wing political agenda, which she seems to think is subtle, because her tone is patronizing and she seems to believe her readers are stupid. Most of the chapters begin with Joe-Biden-on-the-campaign-trail level anecdotes about aw-shucks-ordinary-working-people that seem intentioned both to connect the expertise of Metcalfe with her ignorant reader in a relatable, unintimidating way, as well as to ensure that readers think food is complicated (and that the book, therefore, is necessary). But like Biden’s failing campaign, these attempts to connect with the plebs just make Metcalfe come off as a jerk who writes to adults as if she is speaking to 11-year-olds.

It is the politics of Food Routes that ultimately sink it. It would be one thing if the book merely had a right-wing, libertarian capitalist point of view. The US is a diverse country with citizens who hold a wide variety of political opinions and there are some who believe that the soylent-swilling billionaires of Silicon Valley and their digitized, robot-saturated future are the answers to all of our problems. If Metcalfe wants to side with our coming robot overlords, well, there are worse sins for a book, though her implication that any reader would believe he needs an app in order to grow a sprig or two of lettuce should be enough to convince that reader to toss the book in a recycling bin.

But Food Routes does not just lay out a libertarian agenda; rather, it is insidious and its pages are littered with tangential asides and biting one-off remarks sniping at unions, workers, conscientious shoppers and supporters of government oversight and involvement in daily life. Rarely does Metcalfe make it 10 pages before she insults unions or workers. She repeatedly critiques “traditional farmers” (whatever that term means) and calls out their lack of diversity (never mind that farming has the most diverse workforce in the world) when such jibes are not needed for her claims. When writing about the future, she carefully specifies that we will be taking “private” trains, because, you know, the government should stay out of transportation; the point here is that it makes no difference to the message of that paragraph whether the trains are private or public, yet she goes out of her way to ensure us that they will be the former, for…reasons.

In the last chapter, Metcalfe writes about a nonsensical future—the one she wants—and it is telling that climate change has magically been fixed, robots do all our menial tasks, food is only ever healthful while still retaining all the flavors of sugar, fat and salt, farmers (those stubborn bastards) have been abolished (they are now employed to build and repair robots, naturally) and humans live 150 years without ever getting sick, yet poverty remains a fundamental part of society. Even in her wildest-dream fantasia about the most deliriously wonderful future, Metcalfe still keeps the poor, presumably for her tech-bro wannabe billionaire readers to have someone to laugh at.

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