If you are interested in what he has to say but don't want to read the whole book, I recommend that you go to your neighborhood bookstore and read the 9-page Conclusion. It is short enough to read standing up.
McWilliams' driving concern throughout the book is the environment. Greenhouse gasses are his main focus. He argues that "food miles" is an overly simplistic, and in fact misguided, gauge of food sustainability. He discusses the concept of life cycle analysis, suggesting that it is important to look at the total carbon impact of your food, rather than focusing simply on the carbon impact of its transportation; he demonstrates that there are often other factors that make a far greater contribution to carbon footprint than transportation. He also points out, rightly I think, that farmers' markets and small farmers in general will face an increasing challenge trying simultaneously to meet the needs of foodies, the mainstream population, restaurateurs, wholesalers, and the low-income population.
His argument is weakened by unfounded assertions and unnecessary contrariness, perhaps products of a conscious attempt to be "provocative" or "controversial". He claims that an ever-growing contingent of "food-milers" think food miles are the only thing that matter, and he casts himself as the defender of the human race against these food-milers; it not clear to me that a lot of people look only at food miles without looking also at issues such as sustainable farming practices and rural economics. He states that "if we can measure the distance food can travel, we can certainly measure the carbon footprint created by the major inputs of production"; this seems far from certain to me, especially on smaller, polyculture farms. He spends a good portion of the first chapter criticizing the "food-milers" for being smug and self-righteous, and obsessing over their one pet metric; he spends much of the rest of the chapter being smug and self-righteous himself, and focusing on his own pet metric (carbon footprint).
He faults locavorism for being unable to meet the needs of the urban population of the US, especially in arid cities (he specifically mentions Tuscon, Phoenix, and Las Vegas). He says: "Locavores will often respond to this line of attack by arguing that people should not be moving to these areas in the first place." He dismisses this argument by claiming that the US government cannot realistically tell "citizens and corporations that they cannot settle in a particular region because the resources do not conform to a locavore vision", and finally concludes that "some places cannot, on environmental grounds, justify a localized food system." He implies that the US government is the only force that determines where people live. I doubt this—I think economics play a significant role. I believe that if the Southwest continues its trend toward running out of water, or if transportation becomes more expensive, water and food prices will likely rise sharply in response, and Phoenix will become a less appealing place to live. The government could (continue to) subsidize the transportation of water to such locations, but this would seem to work against McWilliams' goal of lowered carbon footprint. In short, I don't think his argument holds water.
He also fails to acknowledge the non-carbon-related reasons for supporting local agriculture. Chief among them are, in my view: building resilient local food systems able to withstand sudden events (rises in transportation costs triggered by rising energy prices, natural disasters, wars, economic and infrastructure collapses); and supporting the local economy, both by keeping money in the local community and by providing meaningful jobs. He does not acknowledge the possibility that small agriculture jobs might be meaningful. And he says that buying food directly from farmers does not build any kind of "community" that he is interested in. In these matters I simply disagree with him.
Finally, he "often wonder[s] if consumers could consistently discern the difference in a blind taste test between farmers' market produce and Wal-Mart produce." Because of the wide variety of farmers' market produce, the question as stated is essentially meaningless. It's hard to see the purpose of asking it. Is it intended merely to provoke?
In the next chapter, he makes a point about how "local" is turning into a marketing buzzword, just as has happened, to a large extent, to "organic" (and, I might add, to a variety of other terms like "free-range", "farm fresh", and so on). He argues that organic/conventional is a continuum rather than a dichotomy, that they are not as distinct as most people think in terms of practices, use of chemicals, etc., and that rather than being limited by these two categories, we should consider a range of approaches to farming that use appropriate technologies.
He loses me is in his discussion of genetically modified food. McWilliams doesn't see a big difference between selective plant breeding and genetic modification. Specifically, he states that we have been selectively breeding plants for a long time,
but now, somewhat arbitrarily, many of us are deeply bothered over biotechnology. We shouldn't be. Genetic engineering (GE) is often portrayed as a radical break from "natural" agricultural practice, but as [Pamela] Ronald points out, this is not the case.He justifies GM food by trying to demonstrate that it is the only way we will be able to address current hunger, and to feed the ever-growing population of the future. He downplays the many possible ecological risks.
As far as I'm concerned, given what we don't know about it, GM food is not an option, period. So ultimately, his claims about the relative efficiency of GM versus conventional crops are irrelevant to me.
Furthermore, in his discussion of GM foods, he again downplays or ignores the issue of local resilience and self-sufficiency. GM seeds generally require money, and even when they are given away, they frequently require specific chemical inputs from specific companies in order to produce. Additionally, they are often sterile in the next generation, making seed-saving impossible, and locking farmers in poor countries into cycles of dependency on American multinational corporations like Monsanto.
His chapters about meat and aquaculture are the strongest chapters of the book. Meat from industrially-raised land animals, he argues, is expensive in terms of land use, carbon footprint, and environmental devastation, and our worldwide consumption of such meat is skyrocketing. Between 1958 and today, for example, per capita meat consumption in China has gone from 8 pounds a year to 119. Another statistic he cites is that a 50% reduction in meat consumption would compensate for 2937.5 miles driven every year by every family (he does not specify geography; the study he cites is British, so perhaps the context is Britain). He concludes that
In the end, the only environmentally viable kinds of meat production are the emerging alternatives to conventional factory production—grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken, and free-range pork being prime examples. However…it will work only when kept small and integrated into midsized sustainable farms that place the bulk of their emphasis on growing plants to feed people.(This makes it sound like grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken, and free-range pork are new ideas, which they are definitely not. Nevertheless, he makes his point.)
His analysis of the history and state of the art in aquaculture is insightful. Fish farms vary greatly: some are very sustainable, and some are awful and polluting. His exploration of the growing possibilities of small scale, fresh water aquaculture and aquaponics is compelling. He makes a good case for his claim that of all the available sources of animal protein, aquaponic fish is the best.
The final chapter deals with subsidies, incentives, and fair trade. While I'm tired of reading about farm and trade subsidies, he presents many of the issues well. He ends, however, with another argument against strict locavorism, which I suppose is understandable, given the full title of the book. He justifies the large-scale import of green beans from sub-Saharan Africa to the UK on three grounds: (1) these beans don't have a large carbon footprint; (2) sub-Saharan Africa needs the money and the jobs, and (3) farming practices there might be more sustainable than in the UK. The first and third points are difficult to address. The second, money-and-jobs argument is short-sighted. The export/import arrangement increases the dependency of sub-Saharan farmers on the price of transportation fuel, and on market conditions in the rest of the world. What if large-scale food trade becomes impractical or inordinately expensive? What if the price of green beans drops suddenly, and these farmers are not able to cover their costs? This is exactly what has happened to coffee farmers. For people to be truly self-sufficient and secure, does it not make sense for them to grow food that they and their neighbors can eat? Self-sufficiency and food security considerations are compelling arguments for global locavorism, in the face of an increasingly complicated and volatile world economy.
Some of my ideas presented above were shaped by a conversation that took place at a book club meeting.
A list of our current and past book club selections can be found here.