Thursday, August 27, 2009

McWilliams and locavores

I will certainly read it, but, from the title, I'm not really looking forward to James McWilliams' new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

In a recent radio interview, McWilliams really objected to a certain kind of strictly dogmatic 100-mile-circle type food discipline. That seems like a true and fairly bland point. It would be good environmentalism if Americans ate food that has less processing, less meat, and comes from closer to home, on average, but that doesn't mean all food should come from right nearby.

In the meanwhile, Kerry Trueman's review at Eating Liberally certainly was fun. The lead sentence describes the book as "the literary equivalent of a turd blossom, the Texan term for a flower that pops up out of a cow patty."

Kerry reminds the reader of McWilliams' credulous New York Times piece about a study of trichinosis in free-range pork, which was the subject of an editor's note acknowledging that the study's Pork Board funding should have been mentioned.

She gives examples of McWilliams' "pointless ponderings": "What would happen to local traffic patterns if every consumer in Austin made daily trips in their SUVs to visit small local farms to buy locally produced food?" Hmm. I guess I never really wondered that. But, if I had, I would have agreed it was a bad idea.

And, generously, she draws out "the needle in McWilliams' hyperbolic, straw man-stuffed haystack." She says McWilliams' criticism of current meat consumption patterns hits home more strongly than does his caricature of locavores: "McWilliams evidently made the calculus that it would be more lucrative to demonize farmers' market fanatics than mindless meat eaters, but his opportunistic posturing ultimately overwhelms the more thoughtful analyses contained in this book."

I'm just glad McWilliams relented on the originally planned subtitle for the book: "How Locavores Are Endangering The Future of Food." With that title, I would have felt free to skip the book altogether.


Deirdre Saoirse Moen said...

I wouldn't exactly call myself a locavore, but I do try to eat as much grown as close to home as is practical. I buy at Farmer's markets, but many of the vendors drive 2-4 hours to get there.

However, I like sugar, bananas, and other things Not Grown Around Here, so I try just to get sugar from organic cane grown in the US and not worry overmuch.

Matt DiLeo said...

His appearance on Science Friday was pretty feeble. It came across as petty, willfully non-conformist rebellion.

I think his central point, that sustainable ag proponents need to think more deeply about the details, is long overdue.

We really need to get away from unscientific over-simplifications (e.g. that "natural" chemicals are good and "synthetic" ones are bad).

Erin said...

My husband almost bought this book for me today today. I am still ambivalent, despite your post. I would urge you to post more salient details in your reviews. I can't say I gleaned any meaningful information from this overview.

Allvira said...
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Stephanie said...

I also heard his NPR discussion with Michael Pollen and he seemed to be back pedaling and agreeing with everything Pollen had to say, thus contradicting his own thesis. He probably walked away from the interview agreeing that even he thought his thesis was weak. Don't waste your money on this book - he isn't saying anything new except that we should eat less meat (and he did not make the distinction between CAFO meat and grass-fed locally raised animals).

Katelyn Mack said...

I recently embarked on an "eating local" challenge -- but quickly recognized its limitations. Most, and by "most" I mean nearly all, Americans are going to require to go beyond their "local" limits to get food. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be more diligent and mindful of incorporating local foods when they are available and supporting local farms (and businesses) as well! You can follow my locavore journey at

I think I will skip this book, thank you very much. Sounds like it lacks substance and scientific rigor.