The Problem With ‘Eat Local’

Jesse Bogan, Forbes
With the world population headed toward 9 billion by 2050, Texas author James McWilliams wants more genetically modified organisms and more subsidies to feed people, not cattle.

His new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, is sure to irritate organic food fundamentalists. He recently talked to Forbes.

Forbes: What is wrong and right about locavores striving to fill their diet with local sources of food?

James McWilliams: There are a lot of things right with this. Encouraging us to ask where our food comes from and how it’s produced; turning the farmers market into a civic space to bring the community together; trying to preserve agricultural space around cities.

At the same time, in the 21st century, we face a genuine agricultural dilemma, and that is to produce more healthy food on less land with fewer resources. I see the locavore response just as one response, and in the grand scheme of things it’s a fairly small response. When we look at how a crop is grown or how a certain food is produced, transportation is really a small amount of energy used to produce that particular food. It’s about 10%, according to several studies. What that means is the energy sink is elsewhere, how that particular crop is produced…
(31 August 2009)

James McWilliams’ over-hyped and undercooked anti-locavore polemic

Stephanie Ogburn, Grist
What is just food? One might answer: food produced without causing undue ecological damage, food grown under production systems that allow workers and farmers to earn livable wages, food that’s healthy, accessible, and affordable to everyone who eats.

To James E. McWilliams, author of the new book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, just food is certainly much more than food produced and purchased locally, and his book wags a contrarian finger at the “locavores” who believe purchasing food grown close to home somehow makes it more just, fair, or better for society and the planet.

“The locavore approach to reforming our broken food system has serious limits-limits that our exuberant acceptance of eating local has obscured,” McWilliams writes. In their application of a simplistic valuing methodology (judging food purely by how far away from one’s plate it originated), he claims, these 100-mile dieters could potentially do more harm than good, if they succeeded in their apparent mission to force the entire world’s eaters to choose food grown within a short drive of their kitchen table…
(8 Sept 2009)

Just Food

Rebekah Denn, Christian Science Monitor
It isn’t hard to agree with James McWilliams, in his deliberately provocative Just Food, when he compares challenging people’s ideas about what they eat to challenging ideas about their religion. But some of the other pronouncements in his book, subtitled “Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly,” are harder to swallow.

McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, spends much of the book’s early chapters attacking the trend of eating locally grown food, arguing that it is a form of “green lite” rather than a meaningful practice. He is attempting a valuable service – challenging pat assumptions, digging beneath slogans and oversimplifications – but starts the process in such a goading, patronizing way that he alienates the very audience that should be most receptive to his message.

He sets up a straw man – the idea that smug, elitist “locavores” believe locally grown food is the only solution to the world’s food woes – and proceeds, not surprisingly, to easily knock it down. McWilliams, himself a disillusioned former locavore, writes that he hopes to “expand the dialogue about sustainable food without causing yet another tawdry food fight between radicalized perspectives and opposing interest groups.” Unfortunately, his charged language sets up just the sort of parsnip-slinging he claims to oppose.
(2 Sept 2009)