So after I posted about James McWilliams' new book Just Food, I happened to listen to a podcast of the radio show Think on KERA, during which McWilliams was featured in an hour-long interview including call-in questions. I still haven't had a chance to read the book, but I realized McWilliams' views parallel my own in many ways.
Contrary to the hype, McWilliams is not against locavorism in all ways, shapes and forms. Instead, it seems that his primary argument for what locavores have 'got wrong' is the practice of buying unsustainable produce or meats locally, instead of more sustainably produced items from afar. He points out that buying local industrial beef makes a much larger carbon footprint than ordering a grass-fed steak from some distant locale. Food miles, he says, are not the only factor we should take into consideration when determining how to eat an ethical diet. I myself also espouse this view, and this season I have been disillusioned by all the 'EAT LOCAL!' hype surrounding produce at both Ukrops and Ellwood Thompson's from a local farm that uses plenty of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and other (in my mind) suspicious and unsustainable practices. I would like to join McWilliams in stating the importance of really knowing where your food comes from, and not taking local food at face value.
I admit, McWilliams also won me over by espousing one of my most strongly held views: that, in order for our food system to become more sustainable, we must point-blank stop eating so much meat. I believe that the quanity of meat consumed by Americans on a daily, weekly or monthly basis is outrageous, unhealthy, and completely unsustainable. Industrial beef is one of the biggest American institutions contributing to carbon emissions. I'd like to quote Bill Maher here: "It's better to eat a salad in a Hummer than a hamburger in a Prius."
Third, McWilliams also addresses some of the propaganda surrounding organic agriculture. He rightly identifies the fact that many organic farms are not even close to using sustainable practices, and are flying under the radar as they contribute to carbon emissions, nitrogen runoff and soil erosion, looking pretty as they complete USDA requirements but ignore the moral dictates of conscientious farmers. I will say I had a major departure with McWilliams when he made the statement here that he believes crop yields are lower in organic agriculture than in conventional. The subject of crop yields is much more complicated than the picture painted in the interview I listened to. A snapshot in a given year of an organic farm versus a conventional one may indeed yield a picture favorable to conventional agriculture. However, a study that stretches over a much longer period of time will show that crop yield in conventional agriculture declines sharply without a drastic increase in fertilizer applications. In comparison, organic yields on a sustainably managed farm maintain or grow, as soil fertility increases in response to wise management practices. Now, even over ten years, it may be possible to get consistently higher yields from conventional fields, by adding increasing amounts of fertilizer, but there will eventually come a tipping point when these fields are simply, like it or not, utterly barren and incapable of growing plants. So it's not a simple choice between medium and high yields. It's a choice between an endless source of medium yields or a temporary source of high yields that ultimately burns itself out. And once again, I have to go back to the original point and say this only applies to those farms that are managed conscientiously.
McWilliams also effectively said that we are not going to just transform agriculture overnight, and so we should be, instead of just 'jumping on the organic bandwagon,' encouraging conventional growers to use better practices. Some of his suggestions were kind of vague here, and again I'd probably be served well by reading the book. Now, regardless of what anyone says, I believe sustainable organic practices can and will feed the world, once we have experienced a radical shift in our understanding of what we like and want to eat. I do believe we need to negotiate with conventional farmers, but I think negotiations should be pointing them in the direction of organic and sustainable practices, not encouraging them to use weird new technologies. USDA just put out an organic initiative to provide funding to farmers who agree to put into place organic practices, and research is ongoing in no-till and other agricultural concepts that are beneficial to soil erosion and fertility (two concepts that will become increasingly important as we are approaching the limit of available agricultural land on the planet). This is not to say USDA is a reliable champion for these issues, but that we should be doing more of this kind of thing.
I did feel a major departure when the discussion arrived at the subject of GMOs. McWilliams supports the idea of using 'humanitarian' GMO crops, those that are developed to be drought tolerant or high-yielding, to provide extra food for starving populations in places like Africa. Now, I am very aware of the plight of some of these rural peoples, but I must say I am very wary of the effects of such crops on the global ecosystem. We need to put grant money and research efforts into solving food distribution problems, not creating fantasy crops that will solve inevitable farming problems like variations in weather and pests. By that same virtue, the coming population spike necessitates a major reevaluation of the world's food distribution system along with its system of production. We also need to, as McWilliams mentions, take back the American Midwest from CAFOs and feed crops and put it into food production for all these new humans.
Based on this interview, I felt that McWilliams has taken a very intense and realistic look at modern agriculture and global food distribution. I didn't agree with all of the conclusions he drew, but I did agree with many of them. He is clearly applying critical thinking to many of these problems and is, as I am, wary of absolutes. Look for another rant-happy post on this once I have actually read the book.