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?
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.