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Questioning the Locavore Logic

Forget the 100-mile diet: James McWilliams has other ideas of what it means to eat responsibly. Since 2005, when four women drew a 100-mile...

Forget the 100-mile diet: James McWilliams has other ideas of what it means to eat responsibly.

Since 2005, when four women drew a 100-mile circle around San Francisco and vowed to only eat within the Bay Area "foodshed," local foods have become a mandatory merit badge for environmentalists. And locavores no longer eat local merely for pleasure. It's a moral obligation. All the attention given to locavores has meant more critical thinking about where our food comes from, how we eat, and the country's goals for sustainable food production. Still, an ideology based of food miles will not save the world.

If "The Omnivore's Delusion" or "Spoiled" haven't challenged your assumptions, then James McWilliams will. The agrarian contrarian's new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, attempts to kill some sacred cows-local and organic ones.

Take the case of food transportation, the inspiration for a 100-mile diet. McWilliams calls food miles an inaccurate barometer of a food's energy consumption and advocates a more nuanced life cycle assessments, a Danish model measuring inputs from water usage, fertilizer outlays, harvest techniques, drying, storage, and packing.

McWilliams doesn't stop with food miles; he also suggests applying chemicals judiciously, reducing soil tillage, integrating livestock and plants, eliminating "perverse subsidies," and farm-raising more freshwater fish. He argues that organic agriculture is not the one-size-fits-all model for global sustainability, although organics may serve as a model for agricultural reform and can continue serving niche markets. He's also a cautious advocate of genetic engineering, suggesting it has potential to reduce pesticide applications.

His strength is as a provocateur, a camera-ready pundit arguing that the false dichotomies that have come to characterize the debate in food–global versus local, abundant versus deficient, organic versus conventional-should give way to a middle ground, even if that risks "selling the sustainable soul." McWilliams's suggestions might cause anti-globalization activists' blood to boil, but he makes compelling points about the use of sulfur fungicides in organic agriculture and how meat-eating is incompatible with environmentalism.

Many of his points, though, feel like jabs intended to raise the stakes, rather than comprehensively cover the issues. McWilliams, for example, says farmers' market produce might be comparable to Wal-Mart produce in a blind taste test. And despite the provocations, he tends to shortchange his arguments by inadequately explaining the financial or institutional backing of various talking heads, esoteric-sounding think tanks, and scientific journals he quotes at length. It's almost as if the book were meant to have hyperlinks to the researchers and studies mentioned on each page. As it is, readers are left to dig through footnotes and web links to determine how the evidence stacks up-and sometimes it doesn't.

This is right in line with his previous editorials on whether organic agriculture is polluting our food with heavy metals and how Frankenfoods can be good for the environment. Earlier this year, McWilliams wrote about a study on free-range pigs and trichinosis, but neglected to mention that the study was preliminary, funded by the National Pork Board, and found antibodies rather than actual trichinosis. Had he shown that the study's findings translated into actual pork pathogens-rather than making insinuations-he might have had an argument.

Still, Just Food provides a counterpoint to the prevailing locavore thinking, its folksy, romanticized revolution, and its patronizing how-to diet books. There will always be members of the local food gospel choir who refuse to hear the opposing view, as reactions to a recent study on the nutrition of organic food show. But McWilliams's perspective is valuable-if only for the response it demands-for anyone concerned with moving microgreens "beyond Berkeley" or taking the sustainability debate beyond the 100-miles diet.

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