In this editorial in Forbes, James McWilliams (author of Just Food: How Locavores Get it Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, a book whose cover you want desperately to judge because looks exactly like every other paperback bestseller containing your newfound food philosophy) clarifies his position on locavorism (locavoreness? locavoraciousness? okay sorry.) And that is basically, not eating meat is more environmentally responsible by a large margin than the perceived virtuousness of eating strictly locally grown, locally sourced. Real talk.
This is topical because it’s not the first time in recent history a mainstream media outlet has published an editorial outright advocating a vegetarian diet to a rather unlikely target audience. Also, it’s significant that the science behind the assertion that meat production and consumption is environmentally the shittiest worst is so unequivocal it’s now fit for FORBES and the WASHINGTON POST. I mean, dang.
But this is also topical because it brings up other issues. Issues we Bay Area liberals hold very dear, like how amazing and righteous and change-making we are for supporting our local coffee roasteries and community gardens, turning up our noses at restaurant servers who can’t tell us what cutely named farm in the Santa Cruz mountains our dinner came from, and riding our bikes to our many farmer’s markets, eco-friendly cotton shopping bags from Etsy.com (OMG stop it so cute someone buy me this) in tow.
I am making fun of you, but I am also making fun of me, and many of my friends. And this is what is so important about James McWilliams’ editorial. There is a disparity between the common wisdom of “slow food” and the idea that eating meat can be at all “green” or sympatico with reforming a broken food system. It simply can’t. Not when the inputs of production (water, energy, land, processing) so far outstrip plant foods in terms of resource usage. Choosing veg over meat is the “green” equivalent of choosing bike over Hummer. If you believe in the science of climate change, if you are an advocate for reducing carbon emissions and saving energy and composting, then meat consumption is inherently illogical.
And let’s be real: “locavore” is an ideal more than a reality for most of the people who subscribe to it. For every Novella Carpenter who is walking the walk by ACTUALLY consuming what she grows in her own backyard in Oakland, there are 100 people in San Francisco who feel good because they belong to a CSA and compost their leftovers, but are still driving to Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for packaged food from nowhere close by, and Niman Ranch meat. And this is a good illustration of food marketing and the powers of obfuscation, but also a disturbing cultural adherence to a status quo regardless of rational conclusions. In a recent New Yorker article, James Surowiecki (who is my total hero and did you know is also surprisingly young and attractive??) highlights this annoying tendency to ignore rational conclusions in favor of the status quo as it relates to the healthcare debate. And logically, this is very related: despite clear evidence of systemic failure of the health insurance system, Americans are so afraid of change they’ll waver in their support for reforms (even if their own coverage is inadequate or tenuous!)
Likewise, the blind refusal of the Slow Food movement to consider vegetarian and/or veganism the course of action most in-line with their values is totally illogical. And this is what I believe is bothering people about James McWilliams’ message. There have been some interesting criticisms, which make me more interested in reading Just Food. The Christian Science Monitor is having a really hard time with the Real Talk. But the primary opposition seems to center around his delivery, not that the message itself is off the mark.
And a lot of points he raises won’t be received kindly on the ears of the CSA set: locavorism is not scientifically a viable solution to feeding a growing world population. Even foodie darling Michael Pollan, in his address to the Long Now Foundation, acknowledged that it would be impossible to feed the growing world using strictly traditional farming techniques. Yes, reforming the fucked up agricultural system in the U.S. is a paramount need, but in order to ensure equal access to nutrition worldwide, we will also need to leverage new production technologies and realize massive economies of scale. I very much appreciated McWilliams’ mention of economies of scale, which is a key issue that locavorism either misses the mark on, or is viewing from a fundamental place of privilege.
If you are able to source all of your food from small producers, and you can afford to pay the premium associated with that (assuming you aren’t growing all your own food yourself), then you are a member of a privileged class. If you are doing this in a metropolitan area, where there are still dense groups of people living without access to any fresh vegetables at all, then you are still more privileged. (Novella Carpenter described her neighbors in Oakland’s Ghost Town neighborhood covertly “stealing” from her garden, and instead of being resentful or territorial, feeling glad to be able to provide fresh foods to a population whose other food procurement option was the corner liquor store.) By simple fact of resource allocation, there is no way that meat production and consumption can ever be egalitarian, on a national or global scale.
And I don’t mean to entirely villify the locavore ideal, which has admirable aspirations, to most of which I personally subscribe. I do think it’s excellent that people with resources have chosen to try to eat subversively and outside the framework of the awful agribusiness supply chain. I am not going to stop shopping at my favorite farmer’s market, because I am lucky to have access to fresh, seasonal foods and I’ve chosen to spend more of my food budget on them than I might otherwise at a mainstream grocery chain. But, I also owe a debt of gratitude to my life circumstances, and feel like it’s important to expand awareness and access to populations who are more reliant on traditional food delivery systems than I am.
Moving to a plant-based diet (vegan is obvs best!) is such a fundamental, important aspect of leveling food inequity and being environmentally responsible, and it’s both frustrating to unnecessarily divide efforts between vegetarians and locavores, and encouraging to see it gaining traction in mainstream media. While I think a media outlet like Forbes probably has sinister intentions of undermining pesky liberal objectors to agribusiness by publishing an anti-locavore editorial, McWilliams is able to make a big statement to a group of people who may not otherwise be receptive, and that’s exciting.
"If you want to make a statement, ride your bike to the farmer’s market. If you want to reduce greenhouse gases, become a vegetarian."