Food Dystopia

Last year, I attended a Food Symposium at the Mountainfilm festival in Telluride.

Many of the speakers offered a simple solution to feeding the world in the face of a population that is expected to grow to 9.2 billion by the year 2050: Eat local.

But how much impact will the “locavore” movement really have on sustainable food production?

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Not much, says James McWIlliams in his latest book “Just Food”. “Eating local is not, in and of itself, a viable answer to sustainable food production on a global level.”

“We should not delude ourselves into thinking that the relatively easy decision to support the regional foodshed is automatically an environmentally superior choice.”

McWilliams, an environmental historian who has written several carefully researched books on agriculture, is certainly equipped to pass judgment. Still, he comes to this conclusion somewhat unwillingly. After all most of his friends, writers and activists that he admire strongly insist that the problem of sustainable production can be solved through a primary emphasis on eating locally.

“However, when I asked myself the demographic questions, no matter how imaginative my answers, no matter how doggedly I pursued alternative options, I kept slamming into realities- the reality of 10 billion people scattered across the globe, of declining soil quality, of limited arable land, of shrinking fresh water supplies, of the Erlichs’ ‘already plucked… low hanging resource fruit’. Considering these inescapable global facts, I remained steadfastly unable to envision anything but a food dsytopia arising from the universalization of the movement that I had one embraced with religious passion. It might have worked in 1492, but not today. Not on the eve of 10 billion:”

With great compassion, humor and insight, McWiliams delves into questions that locavores have not yet sufficiently confronted. “How can we, both collectively and as individual consumers, achieve a sustainable global diet? How can the world keep growing in population, feed itself and at the same time preserve its natural resources for future generations?”

As he points out in his book, the track record for rationally discussing controversial matters of food and agriculture is not encouraging. “Something about food fosters radical dichotomies. We instinctively feel an overwhelming desire to take sides: organic or conventional, fair of free trade, “pure” or genetically engineered food, wild or farm raised fish. Like most things in life though, the sensible answer lies somewhere between the extremes, somewhere in that dull but respectable place called the pragmatic center. To be centrist when it comes to food is, unfortunately, to be a radical.”

McWilliams’ refreshingly lively analysis of the concepts of food miles, GE crops, meat consumption, aquaculture and the economics of US farmer subsidies convincingly demonstrates that a radically rethinking of agriculture is needed.

Comments

  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    January 23, 2010

    I grew up on a small ranch. We had two large gardens, and swapped food with friends and relatives. Rows and rows of home canned stuff in the attic. We had a smokehouse (no freezer, no electricity). For a while we farmed with horse drawn machinery. When we realized the farming amounted to raising feed for the horses, we sold the horses and turned the fields back to pasture. I well remember when getting an apple and an orange for Christmas was a real treat.

  2. #2 Ewan R
    January 21, 2010

    I’d definitely propose more of a middle ground scenario rather than an imposition of such a system on absolutely everyone – I was extrapolating, for the most part, how the St Louis ‘burbs look – my guess is that most cities around the US would be able to at least grow something, in Iowa let’s guess at potatoes and other root veggies (coming from the UK I’d guess these should grow in some pretty crappy weather conditions… as that is essentially what an entire side of my family does grow in the wilds of Northern Scotland) – sure, you’d still be part of a globalized supply chain of agricultural produce, but assuming you eat what you grow (and share with neighbors and family what you dont want to…. potatoes with every meal gets very old very fast, which I can attest from ~18 years of potatoes with almost every meal) you reduce the spatial footprint of your demand within the commercial Ag sector (in the general locavore setting I’m guessing that each person would essentially be eating produce that could grow in their garden anyway – only utilizing Ag land rather than residential land to make it)

  3. #3 Hinemoana
    January 21, 2010

    @ James & Pam

    My partner’s brother lives in my ideal living space; high-density housing (i.e. almost no silly lawns that need mowing all the time) with great public amenities, including a well-used community garden. The garden has a veggie/fruit area, flower area, picnic area and playground. They often take their kids there, who, when bored of gardening, play on the playground while the adults neighbours mingle. Every time we go over there at least one thing on the table is from the community garden.

    I especially like this situation because I’m arachnophobic. I see one spider and its no more gardening for days -not so great when you’re only half way through weeding or planting. At least at a community lot someone else can pick up my slack and I can pick up theirs :-)

  4. #4 James
    January 21, 2010

    Oh no! Don’t tell me I’ve assimilated into the Californian worldview already. ;)

    I’d guess Iowa could probably grow its own tomatoes from say June to September. So in the unrealistic best case scenario where everyone has the space/time/interest to raise a backyard garden, call it a one-third reduction in the number of tomatoes that need to be shipped in from places like California (more if people gorge on tomatoes while fresh local ones are available, and then have less interest in them the rest of the year.) In St. Louis, where it sounds like Ewan is based, the tomato growing season is probably a month or two longer. Since I freely admit I’m not aiming for 100% local, I could happily call it a win if local production replaced 10% of imports, and that only for certain kinds of fresh produce that don’t travel well.

    As for lettuce, I’d like it if someone would calculate the energy efficiency of shipping it in from California vs building systems like this awesome demonstration greenhouse in Ithaca, NY which produces just under 1000 heads of lettuce per day all year round. But if, as I sadly suspect, it ends up being more sustainable to ship it in from California in winter, by all means we should keep doing so.

  5. #5 Pam Ronald
    January 20, 2010

    James, spoken like a true californian. But what about Iowa? What do you do there for the 10 months when you cant get tomatoes and lettuce. OK I may be exaggerating a bit but I didnt see many tomatoes or lettuce when I visited in December. Yet we were served them almost every meal. So clearly we must change our eating habits entirely (I wouldnt mind eating tomatoes only in the summer but I would miss the lettuce) or we need to accept that at least some non-local eating is necessary. Both for the wants of our high class lifestyle and also for the reasons Hinemoana points out (sometimes it is just a more efficient use of land and water elsewhere).

    That said I am a big proponent of ripping out old parking lots and planting gardens. It is a joy to grow your own food as much as possible and we need more of that.

  6. #6 James
    January 20, 2010

    Ewan I like where your head is at. For the primary sources of calories, everything from dried grains and dried beans up through beef, it probably makes sense to produce food where it can be done most efficiently, because the energy cost of production is a much bigger proportion of the total cost, and because we have a very efficient system set up to transport those foods.

    Fresh produce, especially things like tomatoes and salad greens, I assume take a lot more energy to transport per serving (more packaging, possibly refrigerated trucks, the need to ship things faster to avoid spoilage) and their taste doesn’t seem travel well even then. Growing things like tomatoes and lettuce hyper-locally wouldn’t do much to change where our calories come from, but it would use land that might otherwise be left vacant (turfgrass lawns) and it targets the stuff with the biggest costs in energy and flavor to transport.

  7. #7 Ewan R
    January 20, 2010

    Is there any arguement to be made for a hybrid locavore type system being helpful to global food needs? Not quite sure how I would formulate the system – my own personal leaning is that for any kind of ‘eat local’ system to work you have to essentially eat as local as your own back yard (and ideally front yard, although I don’t particularly seeing that going down well in a suburbia obsessed with uniform aesthetically pleasing green carpetting) – thus utilizing agricultural space so far underutilized (and which probably receives more nutrition and water than your average agricultural space anyway)

    Only by relieving the demand on current agricultural acreage can we, in the short term, alleviate, even partially, the problems caused by the increasing population.

    The mind boggles somewhat when driving through suburban St Louis at the vast amount of utterly wasted space (even in areas with pretty dismal house prices) and I cannot help but feel that a large portion of suburbanites could vastly reduce their impact on agriculture if they utilized this land effectively. Of course saying this I have a good 1/4 acre or so of lawn, and maybe a 12′x12′ patch on which I plan to experiment in the next year…

    Perhaps what the world needs is micro-locavores, although obviously a more in depth study of this would need to be done, and the same distribution of excess issues exist when considering reducing the demand burden on US agriculture.

  8. #8 Greg
    January 20, 2010

    Looks like a must read.

    It will be nice to have another book to point to after one of my rants about ‘the middle path’ of farming and consumption.

  9. #9 Hinemoana
    January 19, 2010

    I’ve never really understood the locavores. I live in New Zealand, whose primarily exports are agricultural, and, I think you will all agree, is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. When the whole ‘food mile’ thing came around in the UK(mostly based on CO2 production at the time, rather than sustainability), and some in the UK were pushing for ‘food mile’ labelling, some guys apparently crunched numbers and discovered that even including CO2 output from shipping, our farmers used so much less CO2 raising cows that it was still better to buy NZ beef than British beef in Britain (CO2-wise at least). Just another example of oversimplified labelling.

    While NZ can certainly still improve its farming practices, we are blessed with nice fertile volcanic soils and (thanks to our strict biosecurity and remote location) relatively few pests and pathogens. Why give up such great conditions to struggle with local but poor soils or high pathogen and pest loads?

    Of course, I suspect I’m mostly preaching to the choir here!

  10. #10 Prometheus
    January 19, 2010

    Consumer activism is emotionally gratifying.

    Like whistling while strolling through a graveyard.

  11. #11 Mary
    January 19, 2010

    I don’t know if it’s because centrist is radical, but it’s a very difficult place to stand. You are assaulted (sensu bloggy, not sensu physical) from both sides.

    Nuance and gray are not well tolerated in the internet discussions I see, IMHO. Not just on this topic, but most.

  12. #12 James Sweet
    January 19, 2010

    To be centrist when it comes to food is, unfortunately, to be a radical.

    Ain’t that the truth…

    FWIW, my primary motivation for trying to eat locally is simply because the food tends to be fresher/more seasonal, and when possible I like meeting the farmer who grew the food, because sometimes their passion for it is contagious.