Wednesday, September 16, 2009

He's on our side! Sort of.

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.


  1. Very good, balanced, and well written article.
    GMOs have been around for about 20 years, yet GMOs have not proven themselves as you pointed out. The only profit has been into the pockets of Monsanto, Public Enemy #1.

  2. I'm intrigued by "very aware." Please do explain. I acquired my awareness from visiting family in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia--places where Borlaug's experiments facilitated hundreds of millions of births, prevented hundreds of millions of deaths and banished the racist fulminations of Paul Ehrlich to the shadows. We should hang out--it's much harder to abstract away potential life when it's serving you quiche--impending 'population boom' or not (that kind of claim should be substantiated)

    GM crop efficacy has to be determined by individual trials--and not kangaroo courts conducted by the likes of Vandana Shiva.

    As for meat, I can only speak as a lacto-veg for 24 years and an eat-anything-not-companion-animal for close to 2--the healthiest animal protein comes from the sea and many of the signature high omega-3 varieties have been fished into relative and perhaps terminal scarcity. Who will trade their t-bone for a nice piece of mackerel or herring?

    Much of the increase in demand for meat is being driven by BRIC countries where people have earned meaningful sums for the first time and wish to use it for consumption that signals upward mobility and ensures their children will be better able to study, larger and healthier overall.

  3. I would be happy to hang out with you sometime. Clearly you have a strong perspective on these issues. Feel free to contact me through the email address.

    No, I have never been to India, Sri Lanka or Indonesia, and in that sense I am much less aware than you are of the day-to-day problems people deal with who live in these (and other) countries. If, as a priveleged white American who has not been to much of Asia, I am not allowed to say I am aware of these these issues at all, then I do sincerely apologize, especially if I have taken a tone that sounds paternalistic and uninformed. Still, however removed I am from this kind of reality, I do understand in some way that people continue to suffer and starve.

    So I stand by my argument, uneducated or not: basically, I am not and never will be a proponent of the 'more food at all costs' idea. Now, I do not believe, for goodness sakes, that people should starve so that we may banish GMOs or pesticides from the planet. However, I do not believe these institutions are the right solution to starvation. Temporary solutions to hunger issues, like food banks and advances in artificial agricultural technology, are important ways of getting food immediately to people who need it, but the unsustainability of these institutions in the long run, I believe, may lead to more starvation and suffering, rather than eliminating it. Refer to this article: and countless others on the gradual sterilization of agricultural lands by heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

    It's a complicated issue. People must eat, and we can't deny that conventional agriculture and high yield crops have provided food for people for those who had gone without. My argument is that we need to put time into understanding the root cause of starvation: social stratification, uneven distribution of resources, corrupt government, lack of agricultural knowledge, trade problems, economic issues, etc. I'm not qualified to speak on countries other than my own, but I think I can confidently say starvation can't be blamed solely on scrappy agricultural land.

    As for the 'population boom' claim...I have not substatiated this claim because I'm not sure of it myself. It is an argument used by proponents of GMOs and conventional agriculture to advocate for their use, not my own prediction.

    And finally, meat...all I'm saying here is that it is unrealistic for people in any country to eat meat 2-3 times a day. The whole 'bacon for breakfast, ham sandwich for lunch, steak for dinner' thing is an Amerian problem -- I have no real idea how often those in BRIC countries consume meat.

    Thanks for your comments. This continues to be an interesting discussion.