4 local New York carrots x 9 Dutch hothouse tomatoes = 3 California Early Girls … and an acre of confusion? Photo: palestrina55 via Flickr

Our first topic is whether locavores — those who prefer to eat food grown nearby, versus that grown thousands of miles away and trucked or flown in — are misguided in thinking their food choices are helping to save the planet, as argued in a provocative Aug. 20 op-ed, Math Lessons for Locavores,” by Stephen Budiansky in the New York Times.

Grist’s food editor, Tom Philpott, kicked off the debate. We’ve asked a diverse menu of thinkers to weigh in, and we’ll post their responses in reverse chronological order through Tuesday. Jump to:

Why can’t we all just sit down and eat nicely together?

By James E. McWilliams, author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly

Posted Wednesday, August 25, 2:45 pm PDT

Reading Budiansky’s piece, and the responses to it, and the responses to the responses, and the responses to the responses to the responses, I’m struck with a frustrating sense of déjà vu. Déjà vu because Budiansky’s arguments echo the ones I made in 2007 in the Times, déjà vu because the criticisms of Budiansky’s article are the exact same ones leveled at mine, and déjà vu because the tenor and tone of the debate — from both sides — remains characterized by a sharp dose of vitriol, defensiveness, overstatement, and ad hominem angst. Granted, this might be what passes for discourse in the age of the Internet, but surely, as intelligent people who care about food and agriculture, we can overcome.

I suspect that the entire lexicon of this debate — one which I am as guilty of perpetuating as anyone — is flawed. Our accepted dichotomies — conventional/organic, small/industrial, free range/confined, local/global, etc. — are useful in getting articles published, but they only make sense at the extremes. Most of agricultural life, however, happens between the extremes, and it is for this reason that all of us engaged in these knock-down-drag-outs should start forthrightly acknowledging that the positions we hold so dear actually face enormous challenges, ones that will require genuine compromise in order to solve. How will our food system improve if we smugly embrace our favored positions while dismissing the enemy as either hippie/yuppie-elitists or corporate shills who do little more than build straw men?

Other than nastiness, what’s the point?

Now to Budiansky’s piece. Here’s what I take from it: food miles can be an inaccurate gauge of overall agricultural sustainability. By implication, there’s room for large farms to grow a lot of food responsibly according to the laws of comparative advantage and ship it globally. Seems reasonable enough. But, as Anna Lappe wisely notes, comparative advantage — not to mention market logic in general — rarely happens in the real world. Interest politics inevitably intervenes. Which leaves us with a problem: there are many theoretical advantages to consolidating the food system — food can be cheaper, more accessible, more reliably diverse, and less dependent on extensive land and labor — but the underlying realities — perverse incentives, trade agreements, and subsidies — too often prevent these advantages from being realized.

So what should we do about this problem? A growing contingent of privileged consumers believes we should cut and run, live our culinary lives “beyond the barcode,” and cultivate our own foodsheds. This response also seems sensible. Anyone who has witnessed the tangible benefits of a genuinely regionalized food network will understand the power of its appeal. But, as Elanor Starmer points out, not everyone has the choice to opt out and hit the farmers market. For many reasons, local food choices aren’t a reality for most consumers.

And thus we face yet another problem: the recognized benefits of a local foodshed are numerous, but — while small might be beautiful — small is also expensive and, in turn, prone to exclusivity.

Which makes me wonder: can the economics of local agriculture work for everyone in a global economy? Is there a way to take these well-developed local food systems and multiply them to the point where a significant majority of Americans — not to mention global consumers — can eat a significant majority of their food from local sources? And if so, will consumers be willing to limit their diets to seasonal availability?

Given these concerns, I think pieces such as “Math Lessons for Locavores” (which, by the way, I generally agree with) have run their course. Instead of making us rethink a common assumption, at this point in the game they do little more than drive the debate deeper into the trenches. As I have tried to point out in this brief response, reforming the way we eat will mean cooperatively addressing a series of very tough questions:

  • How can global food be consistently safe and environmentally sound?
  • How can local food become more accessible, affordable, and capable of serving a diversity of socio-economic groups?
  • How can responsible industrial agriculture (not an oxymoron) and responsible local agriculture work together to serve the myriad interests of a global population expected to reach 9 billion or so by 2005?

I have a few ideas, as I’m sure you do as well. We’d
be wise to start a constructive dialogue rather than reduce the complexities of food and agriculture to yet another unproductive food fight.

James E. McWilliams is currently a fellow in the Agrarian Studies Program at Yale University. An associate professor of history at Texas State University, he is the author of three books, most recently Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. His other books include American Pests: Our Futile Attempt to Conquer the Insect Empire from Colonial Times to the Death of DDT (Columbia, 2008) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia, 2005).

Next: Elanor Starmer, Food & Water Watch