Inflammatory New Book Attacking Local Food Movement Has One Grain of Truth Buried Under Heaps of Manure


The book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly is the literary equivalent of a turd blossom, the Texan term for a flower that pops up out of a cow patty.

James McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, has written a cogent critique of America's unsustainable addiction to meat and then buried it in a mound of manure about 100-mile diet diehards who want to take us all out to the foodshed and paddle us senseless with fresh, local, organically grown produce.

Just Food is framed as the lament of a lapsed locavore, a simple, sustainably minded guy who has been driven into the arms of Agribiz by food-mile militants who, according to McWilliams, number in the millions.

These legions of rabid locavores are abusing their purchasing superpowers in a diabolical plot to deprive the world of out-of-season strawberries, genetically modified monocrops and other wonders of industrial agriculture. In fact, the original subtitle of McWilliams' book was How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

The new subtitle is still a bit inflammatory, as McWilliams even acknowledged on NPR's Science Friday last week.

McWilliams's contrived contrarian take on the eat local movement won't surprise anyone who followed the flap over his disingenuous op-ed in the New York Times alleging that free-range pork poses greater health risks than pork from factory farms.

After it was pointed out by Marion Nestle and others that the study McWilliams relied on to bolster his argument was funded by the National Pork Board, the Times amended the op-ed with an "oops, we goofed" editor's note saying that McWilliams should have revealed his source.

McWilliams does nothing to repair his credibility with Just Food, which contains enough straw men to build a straw-bale house. He trots out a tiresome twist on the mythic Cadillac-driving welfare queen: the SUV driver with the self-righteous hemp shopping bag who routinely drives miles out of her way to purchase locally grown heirloom tomatoes. Just Food also poses hilariously boneheaded questions such as:

What would happen to local traffic patterns if every consumer in Austin made daily trips in their SUVs to visit small local farms to buy locally produced food?

When he's not scratching his head over such pointless ponderings, McWilliams is busy bending over backwards, and then some, to advance his contrarian schtick.

Folks like Michael Pollan are fond of noting that the farmers market is the new town square, where eaters and farmers meet up and have meaningful exchanges, as opposed to the soulless commerce of the supermarket.

But things are not so sunny in the parallel universe where McWilliams researched his book; according to him, farmers markets are potential hotbeds of civic unrest where a shortage of gourmet produce is liable to spark ugly disputes between haute chefs and home cooks.

I've been going to New York City's Union Square Greenmarket several times a week for, literally, decades, and I have yet to see Greenmarket regulars/celebrity chefs Dan Barber or Peter Hoffman come to blows with other buyers over who will get the last bunch of baby fennel or Japanese turnips.

Moreover, I don't know anyone who actually attempts to adhere to a strictly local diet, unless you count Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, who limited his family's diet to local foods for a year as part of his experiment to minimize their carbon footprints.

But food miles were only one part of the equation for Beavan, as the film about his endeavor makes clear; of equal importance were the relationships he formed with the farmers and other vendors at the Greenmarket and his desire to eliminate excess packaging from his food purchases.

McWilliams ignores both these aspects of buying local and dwells obsessively on food miles, presumably because he couldn't acknowledge these benefits of shopping at farmers markets without undermining his own arguments.

This pattern is repeated throughout the book; McWilliams selectively cites the facts that support his claims and omits those that don't. The valid points that he does make -- organic doesn't necessarily mean toxin-free, biotech could be a boon in noncorporate hands, aquaponics offers a sustainable source of protein -- get lost in this cynical, sales-grabbing shuffle -- collateral damage in his war on locavores.

It's too bad, because, sandwiched between the caricatures of loco locavores and McWilliams's hey-ho-GMO cheerleading, lies the meat of the matter: we can't go on eating animals at our current consumption levels, regardless of whether they're raised in factory farms or on grass.

In Chapter 4 of Just Food, "Meat -- The New Caviar," McWilliams tallies up the cost of our unprecedented appetite for animal products and concludes:

Environmentalists who ignore the ecological costs of producing meat are in denial of one of the greatest threats to the world's ecosystems and to the prospect of eating ethically. As responsible consumers, we really have no choice but to confront the reality bluntly articulated by World Watch:

"It has become apparent that the human appetite for animal flesh is a driving force behind virtually every major category of environmental damage now threatening the human future.

"Unlike so many other environmental issues, our response here can be direct and personal. As Gidon Eshel, a geographer at Bard College, writes, "However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet."

And therein lies the needle in McWilliams' hyperbolic, straw-man-stuffed haystack: If you want to eat ethically, ease up on the meat, dairy and other animal products.

McWilliams evidently made the calculus that it would be more lucrative to demonize farmers market fanatics than mindless meat eaters, but his opportunistic posturing ultimately overwhelms the more thoughtful analyses contained in this book. Just Food is a tedious, tendentious read that doesn't compel and probably won't sell.

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