“Context is everything. Breastfeeding is almost universally beneficial in infants, but in an elderly cardiac patient, it can be fatal.” – Spider Robinson

Quite a number of readers suggested I respond to James McWilliams’ piece in the New York Times “The Myth of Sustainable Meat.” McWilliams has garnered quite a bit of attention by critiquing the idea of local food, and in some cases, some of his analyses, as far as they go, are right. For example, McWilliams is quite right that if everyone in America eats as much beef as they always have, but converts to grassfed beef his figures are roughly correct.

“… If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs).”

In this case, the call for sustainable egg production I made last week (in response to a rather better New York Times article, in fact) would seem to be insanely misguided. After all, as several readers pointed out, eggs would be more expensive, and we probably couldn’t eat as many of them. Woah – so that means eggs are totally unsustainable, right?

Well, no, it doesn’t – because while backyard and small scale egg production can’t produce as many eggs as cheaply, we don’t need them to – we need to eat fewer eggs and better ones..

Neither McWilliams absolutism nor Kristoff’s are an appropriate response to the problem of an unsustainable agriculture – any more than “hey, we can’t raise billions of eggs easily in backyards and we couldn’t possibly adjust our diets, so hey, factory farms it is.”

Neither one of these responses represents a viable or useful solution – eliminating animals from agriculture means eliminating all the work animals do, their manure production, their tillage (despite McWilliams’ words about preventing pigs from rooting, most of the small farmers I know use their pigs’ rooting instinct for tillage and to root out intractable weeds) value, pest reduction value, and other abilities. Without petroleum based and industrial fertilizers (the mining and manufacture of which has industrial consequences McWilliams conveniently leaves of the discussion, as he also leaves out the non-infinite availability of some of them), there is no such thing as a viable agriculture without animal production. David Montgomery’s wonderful book _Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization_ will give anyone a clear overview of the radical difference between societies that manure ground and those that didn’t – such an agriculture has a long and important history.

But rather than a point-by-point debate with someone who has already cherry picked his statistics, I think the larger point is this – it is impossible to talk about a sustainable agriculture by making tiny refinements and speaking of broad overviews. Consider, for example, the simple fact of the impact of a cow on grass in different places.

First, we’ll put a cow on my pasture. I live on a steep, rocky hillside in upstate NY, in a place that gets more than 60 inches of rainfall per year. The thin, rocky soil and steep grade on my property is virtually impossible to till, and it would be stupid to do so. What my piece of property can do successfully is grow grass. It grows lots of it, too. The soil won’t support corn, soybeans or anything else that you might want to use to feed human beings – with a buttload of work, I could probably grow a really crappy crop of potatoes, but ultimately, no one would ever bother. The ground is too wet most of the year anyway. So the choice here is between this land going unused, or it being grazed.

If I don’t graze it, I have to mow it a couple of times a year, and since I would rather not mow 8 acres with a scythe myself, that’s a bunch of fossil fuels burned that we’re never getting back. If I graze it, however, land that was unproductive can produce quite a lot of calories – four cows and their calves could live there, producing, annually (this is quite a conservative estimate even for grass alone), about 600lbs of beef and 6-8 gallons of milk daily for human consumption in a six month grazing season.

The northeast and some other parts of the country are filled with land like this – the choice is not between “vegetables vs. meat” but between “unused land grown up to brush or developed” and “the production of meat and milk on grass.”

Land and water averages for the entire country simply aren’t applicable to actual regions in some cases – they may require much more land (20 acres of range or even more in the dryest places) or they may require much, much less (2 acres in mine), Calling it an “average of 10 acres” ignores the fact that the first underlying premise of a local diet is that it is truly local and emphasize appropriate foods for the region. Just because I CAN technically grow rice in upstate NY does not mean it is the best use of time, resources and land. Neither is all land well suited for grazing. Context, as they say, is everything.

Are there places where cows are being raised right this minute that shouldn’t have cows on them? Absolutely. Are there places right now that are being tilled to grow corn and soybeans that shouldn’t be tilled? Absolutely. It is impossible to speak in general terms about what one should do with each piece of arable land – in fact, the difficult and emergent task is to do WHAT IS BEST on each one – best for the land, best for the people who depend on it, best for the wildlife and other creatures who inhabit it.

Setting up strawmen to knock over is ultimately a waste of our time – which is why I don’t think that highly of McWilliams’ enterprise. There is much to be said, and taught by those who choose a vegan diet – that’s one possible response to the question of how to eat well in a society that has overdrawn many of its reserves. It is not a viable answer as a universal response, however – not only is not going to happen for many human beings, but it shouldn’t, since in some places we can produce more good human food by including small scale animal agriculture.

Does that mean, as some would argue, that veganism is a bad response to our food crisis? Absolutely not – I absolutely respect those who make that choice. The problem lies in the attempt to universalize a single diet for all human beings on the planet, or in a nation – that’s just not viable. Instead, the concentration should be on impacts, and on place-specific diets that are appropriate. Is this more complex than simply prescribing what everyone on earth should eat? Absolutely. Does it require more knowledge, more involvement in your food system, more engagement? Entirely. Is it necessary for a good outcome – absolutely.

Consider egg and small animal production. For most of human history, concentrated human settlements have included small animals in them, because the animals effectively made use of human food wastes. Urban areas in the global south, for example, usually produce a significant portion of animal foods and high value vegetables within city limits or just outside them – and historically the global north did the same until the modern era. This allows the use of food wastes to feed small animals which produce eggs and meat on almost no imported food, and then their manures feed small scale vegetable and fruit production within the city or right around it. Chickens, rabbits and pigs are excellent examples of animals that grow well in cities, and this kind of urban agriculture has a long history.

McWilliams rightly points out that Joel Salatin imports some grain to feed his chickens. In rural areas, poultry production aside from geese does come with a grain dependency in general, and this is a real concern, although pastured poultry generally consumes VASTLY less grain than confinement animals. It isn’t perfect. In urban areas, however, this need not be true. It is perfectly possible to raise chickens, rabbits and pigs pretty much wholly on human food wastes in small scale, backyard production. Even were those wastes composted (which the vast majority of them are not in any city, but instead become major methane producers in landfills, something McWilliams purports to be concerned about), the quality of the compost would be higher if they were first fed to small livestock and the manure composted instead.

Could you produce as many cows, chickens, eggs, milk and everything else as we eat now? No, of course not – but I don’t know any serious advocate of local eating who suggests that the obscene amounts of meat most Americans consume are a good idea. So listing off parallels “if we converted all the cows to grass…” doesn’t really make sense. The question is in an appropriate context, how can you optimize the production of FOOD – animal, vegetable and fungal and NUTRITION. Then we can talk about what an appropriate diet looks like.

McWilliams can do what he does because he doesn’t grasp that the local eating movement is no more talking about perfect equivalence than vegans are.. No more McDonald’s hamburgers and pink slime? Well, no big deal, just go to the locavore drive through and get your burgers grass fed as often as before makes as much sense as saying “hey, let’s just go through the veggie-burger drive-thru.”. But that, of course, is not the reality. Eating locally, as anyone who does it discovers, is about dietary change. So, of course, is McWilliams’s prescription for total veganism. Ultimately all sustainable diets depend heavily on dietary change, and on the emergence of knowledge and CONTEXT for your food system.

Local food is regional food – and it differs from region to region. Sustainable food is regional food and is dramatically different from place to place. Recognizing, for example, that geese, who live on grass entirely, are a better poultry option in some places than chickens is a process. Making sustainable chickens an integrated part of urban and suburban backyards, where they can be fed on neighborhood food wastes, rather mostly on feed grains is a process. Learning to love what grows well in your place, whether corn and chiles or potatoes and milk, and learning to accustom yourself to treating foods from far away as luxury items, rather than the basis of your diet is an ongoing process.

The reality is that midwesterners with no forest should not get woodstoves. People with inadequate water for grazing livestock shouldn’t raise them. People in cold climates shouldn’t put up heated greenhouses to eat tomatoes in February. Some people should eat less beef and more rabbit. Other people should eat less chicken and more beef. Everyone should eat fewer animal products, and understand how they grow, that milk and eggs have seasons too, that natural cycles are real and that some things are simply not possible in some places and at some times.

Again, it is a process, however. Am I shocked to learn that not all local food uses less energy currently than would be used in a different system. Only in the Casablanca sense, “Shocked, yes, shocked!” Of course, it isn’t. Of course we haven’t figured it all out – the locavore movement is barely school-aged, having just fully emerged 7 or 8 years ago. Local farmers are still experimenting, and they are still dealing with customers who don’t grasp fully the depth of the necessary dietary shift they are undergoing. At the same time, speaking as someone who will have been farming for a decade shortly, the difference in customer awareness and commitment, and number of emergent farms trying to work these issues out, however, is night and day – the food system is changing radically for the better. But it isn’t perfect and it isn’t instant.

Context is everything here – it is a fundamental misprision of the locavore movement to imply, as McWilliams does, that it is simply about substituting one thing for another. Ultimately, sustainable food is about a fundamental dietary change however, as almost anyone who has ever eaten locally will admit. The answer to “how much of your diet should come from animal products, and what kinds’ is not answerable in terms of whole countries, or even whole regions. It depends on what kind of place you live in, how much rainfall you have, what kind of land you have, who your local farmers are, what they are trying to do, etc… It is place and context specific in ways that simply can’t be generalized. Or maybe it can, as Michael Pollan has done. Eat Food. Mostly plants. Not too much. The specifics of how that works, however, vary widely.

The good news is that place and context specific diets have a long history – many of us before we understood our environmental impact travelled a long way to experience local diets with amazing food – to Tuscany, the French Countryside, regional China, etc… Or we travelled shorter distances to eat the peasant foods of various places because they were so glorious and delicious. The emergence of a glorious and delicious local diet is already underway in thousands of places – and we need not worry that we are not creative enough cooks to make them good. We can enjoy the occasional luxury of foods from far away, and delight in the glory of what we produce locally every day. This will produce a wide range of sustainable diets – something that will require enormous thought, creativity and energy. That this cannot be pigeonholed into an 800 word editorial is not surprising – very few important things can be.