Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly

by James E. McWilliams

Reviewed November 2009 by Jennifer Williams, Office Manager

Given the tremendous national interest in local food and farms, it’s not surprising that some naysayers are cropping up.  And with a subtitle like “Where Locavoes Get It Wrong,” we wanted to see what author James McWilliams has to say.  McWilliams describes himself as a former locavore, but now argues that ‘buy local’ advocates “tend to assume that ‘local’ is environmentally superior and enhances community relations, as if the local setting were somehow immune from the disruptive aspects of normal market forces.”  Worse, he’s convinced that no even-handed analysis of the costs and benefits of local production and consumption exist, since “otherwise sober-minded social scientists [have donned] rose-tinted glasses.”

Like many critics of those who support local agriculture, McWilliams assumes an “all or nothing” fervor on the part of those who carry the ‘buy local’ banner.  For example, he argues for a more nuanced understanding of the environmental costs of food production and transportation.

The author does have a few valid critiques of the “eat local” movement. Early on McWilliams tries to debunk the concept of food miles, the 1500 miles that we’ve all heard about and asks what is “local”.  He argues that you can’t think that your tomato has just been transported 2,000 miles. Instead, you need to think about how many tomatoes are on the truck and calculate how many tomatoes per gallon of fuel. [2,000 tomatoes traveling 2,000 miles, using 2,000 gallons of fuel= 1 gallon of fuel/tomato.] He asserts that local produce has higher food miles since we need to take into account food buying habits. Most folks make more than one stop for their food: farm stand, farmers’ market, grocery store, orchard, etc … which add up during the week.

McWilliams’ main point of the book is that we can’t feed the global world the way we are currently producing food. How can we feed an anticipated 10 billion people scattered across the globe as the planet is running out of arable land and clean, fresh water? But he bounces back and forth in the book from how can we feed the world’s population to his opinion that the locavore vision cannot be replicated on a global scale.

While his ideas on the lack of a global food economy make a lot of sense, his problems with organic, slow food, and groups advocating local agriculture seem dispropotionate. McWilliams wonders if consumers could consistently discern the difference in a blind taste test between farmers’ market produce and Wal-Mart produce. Speaking for myself, I would like to think that I could tell the difference between a vegetable that I had just picked up from my CSA and a vegetable that had just spent a week or so traveling across the country in the back of a truck!

At the same time McWilliams claims conventional food production is ruining the planet, but locavores don’t go far enough to solve this problem. According to McWilliams, “Eating local is not, in and of itself, a viable answer to sustainable food production on a global level. What would happen to the nation’s water supply if the entire American Southwest insisted upon pre-industrial, locally produced food? What would happen, for that matter, in New Dehli, New York, Casablanca, Mexico City or Beijing? And how the hell would I get my daily fixes of wine and coffee?” He suggests that a better phrase is “Cook Efficiently” rather than “Buy Local”, but admits it’s not as catchy.

One example that he uses to debunk a global locavore movement is meat consumption — particularly grass-fed beef. . McWilliams explains that the earth needs about 67% more land than it has to raise enough grass-fed cattle to feed the world. He points out that you can get more food out of an acre of land growing vegetables than you can grazing cattle. True. But I think most rational people will agree that we should not be clear-cutting the Amazon’s rain forests to graze cattle destined for a fast food burger!

As an employee of CISA, who belongs to the Riverland Farm CSA, I have spent the past several years appreciating all that the Valley has to offer: fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, maple syrup and even local fiber to knit with. Basically, I was not impressed with this book. McWilliams does have some good points about some fairly important issues on creating a sustainable food system. Yet his anti-locavore rhetoric detracts from his goal.

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