03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Miles from Nowhere: Why Does James McWilliams Hate Local Food?

Earlier this week, the NY Times Freakonomics blog ran a guest post by author and historian James McWilliams, in which he attempts to weaken the case that the Times made in August regarding farmers' markets: namely, that they strengthen communities.

Before I start boring you with stories about my favorite farmers, or statistics about how farmers' market shoppers "have as many as 10 times more conversations, greetings, and other social interactions than people in supermarkets" (this from World Watch Institute's 2007 "State of the World" report -- hat tip to The Ethicurean's Marc Rumminger), let's take a step back.

McWilliams is clearly trying to deepen his argument against local food, which up until now, has centered on the fact that buying it doesn't always lower our carbon footprint. This is not a new point, nor is it without merit, but neither is it particularly well-argued. No locavore worth his/her imported salt is going to argue against the obvious -- that is, a local tomato from a hothouse likely carries a larger carbon footprint than a tomato from Florida, even if you're in Maine. But McWilliams insists on comparing locally-grown apples to imported oranges. Just because the industrial food complex is better equipped to move food around, doesn't mean that we can't or shouldn't build local distribution systems to compete with agribiz. And just because our local food systems have been decimated over the years doesn't mean that they have no value and can't be made to grow again.

It's hard to believe that such a seemingly intelligent guy doesn't recognize the specious, hole-ridden nature of his own arguments, but let's assume he doesn't. In fact, let's assume he's right, that local food is perhaps worse for the environment than its well-traveled counterpart and that people having conversations in the course of gathering their food is not inherently valuable and may be just a fad. What about keeping food safe from bioterrorism? What about knowing the practices by which your food was produced? Being able to trace food-born illness back to its source before dozens of people are crippled or dead and millions in tax dollars are spent tracking it down?

What about supporting local economies?

Amongst many of the people he would call "agro-intellectuals," James McWilliams is known simply as a "contrarian," but not in the positive sense of the word, as someone who thinks independently. No, he seems to be one of the more garden variety -- someone who takes a contrary position simply to raise their own profile.

I first became aware of McWilliams last spring when the New York Times published his provocative but poorly supported op-ed, making the case that pasture-raised pork is more likely to harbor dangerous pathogens than its industrially raised counterparts. Of course, he neglected to acknowledge that the study he cited was funded by the Pork Board, the industry's lobbying association, forcing the Times to print a correction, reflected here. Nor did he mention that the more naturally raised hogs in question tested positive for antibodies against trichinosis, rather than the disease itself -- which, in essence, means that the immune systems of the pigs in questions have developed protections against the disease. But, hey, no need to let a few pesky facts get in the way. And, in that spirit, McWilliams also declined to point out that industrial animal "husbandry" has likely resulted in other public health issues, most notably (at the time) MRSA bacterial infections.

Then, within weeks of publication, the current swine flu pandemic broke out.

It turned out that the pork op-ed was something of a prelude to another, larger attack on the local/sustainable food movement: his recently published book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, in which he warns the reader of legions of rabid locavores who would build up irresponsible local food systems and disserve global ecology through their uber-local diets.

So. First off, the local food movement, while it has gained a lot of traction in recent years, is no army. Nor do most local food enthusiasts adhere to - or expect anyone else to adhere to - a strict 100 mile diet. In many ways, "local," as it relates to food, is metaphorical - for many people, the act of questioning where their carrots were grown leads to more questions - about who grew it, who profited it from its sale, what kinds of chemicals were used (or not used) and so forth, thus creating an intimacy -- a closeness, if you will, that wasn't there before.

The book raises some good points, but making your way past the army of straw men he raises and fells throughout, frankly, just isn't worth the time when there are so many more coherent and informative books on the subject. I do give him props for his willingness to present a complex argument, something many mainstream reporters haven't deigned to do. By and large, the mainstream media oversimplifies, as Time magazine's John Cloud did back in 2006 when he announced that "local" trumped "organic," as if one had to choose between the two.

However, McWilliams's reasoning, even when nuanced, lacks freshness, as evidenced by the local hothouse tomato argument mentioned earlier. These are not new ideas, and the way in which he uses them -- as multiple and discrete arguments against an unfairly oversimplified caricature of an emerging social movement -- foolishly throws the locally-fed baby out with the proverbial bathwater.

It also disrespects not only those who would question what we're being fed by agribiz, but also those who would feed us a meal we could trust -- namely, the farmers who, against drastically stacked odds, manage to survive in a system ever-increasingly designed to put them out of business and reduce them to mere serfs in a feudal farming system. In one particularly condescending section (I should note that the copy I have is a galley and for all I know, this quote has been changed or edited out completely) McWilliams wrote:

The supply chain is significantly demystified when Local Farmer hands over local peaches from a dusty box with his dirt-encrusted hands. We know where the farms are, we know what the farmers look like, we know when they picked their produce, we think we know how they grew it, and we know that big corporate interests have been left out in the cold, all of which lends our decision to pay extra or make extra trips for locally grown food an air of virtue and a sense of environmental altruism. It just feels right to buy local produce at the farmers' market, and one reason it feels so good is that we think it is, ipso facto, a small act in the larger drama of saving the planet. It's at the farmer's market that we thumb our noses at 1500. [1,500 being the commonly sited number of miles the "average" food item travels from field -- or confinement lot -- to plate.]

It's been pointed out, even by the staunchest sustainable food advocates, that McWilliams does make one inarguable point: without a doubt, Americans (and, increasingly, others around the world) are gulping down meat at an unsustainable pace. Again, this is not a new point -- most of the people whose work he denounces have been saying this for years -- but it's a point that deserves to be hammered home repeatedly, even if he argues it weakly.

But McWilliams also presents an awkward and disjointed grouping of facts about meat production. For example, he suggests that pasture-raising cattle for beef is more harmful than confinement, due to desertification caused by "manure, fertilizers, pesticides, and repetitive pounding underfoot," ignoring the fact that sustainable producers don't overload pastures, don't commonly use pesticides or fertilizers and don't mismanage waste. He also notes that manure siphoned into "lagoons" on CAFOs emits more methane than waste dropped on pasture, but in the next paragraph suggests that pastured cows create more greenhouse gases (because they emit more methane than their grain-fed counterparts). However, he ignores here the vast amounts of fossil fuels used in the production and shipping of grains for factory farms, as well as those used to produce and ship the pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers that go into that grains production. He doesn't skirt these facts per se, but never factors them into the grassfed v. CAFO equation.

Why not, instead of pointing to enclosed manure lagoons (his temporary solution) as we somehow convince Americans and others in developing nations to drastically cut back their meat consumption, encourage people to support local producers? Why not eat less meat, but pay more for it, while supporting your local economy and improving your personal health? The price of locally produced, pastured meat is often twice that of its industrially-raised counterpart, but in this instance, couldn't the cost increase act as a healthy inhibiting factor -- similar to taxes on cigarettes -- that would encourage people to decrease their meat consumption, as he and so many others agree is needed?

In the end, McWilliams comes off as a bitter and snarky outsider. His strategy of outlining his own foray into the local food world, rather than convince the reader that he has been there too but has since become enlightened, instead paints a picture of him, unable to fit in after forgetting to bring his reusable tote to the farmers' market, cast out of potlucks perhaps, and turning against the entire movement out of spite. One can see him scowling, plotting his revenge ("I know! I'll paint them as hypocrites who drive all over town in SUVs in search of this local food!"). His argument is weakened by his obvious bitterness and cheapened by its lopsidedness.

Originally published on The Green Fork.