Someone needed to give Michael Pollan a noogie.

Author tackles logic of 'locally grown'

Chuck Robinson
Media Watch

James McWilliams, in his book “Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly” published in August by Little, Brown & Co., figures he’s the one to administer the punishment.

McWilliams goes to great lengths to emphasize that he generally appreciates the intent of well-meaning locavores, such as the best-selling author Pollan and others.

However, “buy local” is just too simplistic to really work. For one, the phrase can be easily co-opted by entities not sharing the outlook of locavores, much like what has happened to the term “organic,” he says.

A recent e-mail I received from Redwood City, Calif.-based YottaMark Inc., which produces HarvestMark traceability systems, echoed some of McWilliams’ arguments: that measuring food miles alone is misleading, though the industry should embrace the consumer preferences that the local movement holds dear, such as fostering environmentally conscious production practices, promoting variety and seasonality and nurturing local producers and a connection to them.

In the longer format of his book, McWilliams expounds upon finding less ideologically driven alternatives to the way food is produced to better help the environment. With a strong bias toward smaller, independent producers, locavores don’t appreciate the scale required to supply even one national restaurant chain, he says.

Also wrapped up in the locavore mentality is opposition to genetically modified foods, he notes, even though GM foods can reduce pesticide and fossil fuel use and increase yields so that more land can be left to nature.

Almost by definition, global trade is anathema to locavores. However, global trade allows countries to create the wealth needed to adopt environmentalist policies, he writes.

Instead of the oversimplified food miles idea, McWilliams encourages a much more complex method of energy-use evaluation that considers as many factors of production and consumption as possible.

These life-cycle assessments show that food production and processing take up 45.6% of fossil fuel use, restaurant preparation takes up 15.8%, home preparation takes up 25% and transportation takes up a measly 11%.

McWilliams saved most of his venom for the meat industry. The “perverse subsidies” of beef, pork and chicken industries and sky-high energy requirements the meat industry requires help make meat production the greatest barrier to creating sustainable food production, he writes.

“Food milers, if they really wanted to help the environment, would be much better off giving up meat than buying local,” he says.

McWilliams’ book may not be as inspiring to read as Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma,” but he suggests a way of viewing the issues embraced in the buy local movement that could help us achieve much of the intent of the locavore movement and produce food more sustainably.


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