Environment: Are Locavores Really Green?

Among foodies, there are certain green truths that are self-evident: fruits and vegetables grown within 100 miles of your home means you're eating fresher, better-tasting foods that help to enhance the social and physical health of your entire community. And buying locally is good for the environment—or is it?

James E. McWilliams, author of a new book, Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly(Little, Brown), argues that being a locavore is not going to save the planet, much as its proponents seem to believe. In fact, he says, it may even be worse than eating food from miles and miles away: after all, a few crates of apples being trucked in from 50 miles away can expend more energy than a large one trucking in tons of apples from hundreds or thousands of miles away. The diktat to "eat locally" is wrongheaded if you're not considering the bigger environmental picture, he says. It's important to consider a food's life-cycle assessment, or the energy that gets put into its production and distribution—that means not just "food miles," but water and pesticide use, harvesting techniques, packaging, disposal, and many other factors.

McWilliams also makes a strong case against eating only organic foods and for the potential benefits of genetically modified foods. He also explains why grass-fed beef can be bad for the environment. He spoke to NEWSWEEK by phone from his office at Texas State University-San Marcos, where he is a professor of history.

You take issue with the locavore movement and its emphasis on food miles, which you say is only a small part of the equation when it comes to having a sustainable food system. Is shopping at the farmers' market pointless, then?
No, it's not pointless. One thing I try to make clear is that I support a lot of the values and the ethics of the locavore movement. But I'm concerned about the movement becoming fundamentalist. Like any movement, it can become the victim of its own success. When I listen to locavores, I'm just not hearing enough about this looming global food crisis I think we're facing. I'm not in any way dismissing them; I'm just realistic about how far [reducing food miles] is going to get us in terms of addressing this bigger question about having to produce a lot more food with fewer resources over the next 50 years. We have to think about what happens to our food once it gets into our kitchen, and what we do to get that food, and most importantly, how that food was produced. Transportation/food miles count for only about 10 percent of overall energy that goes into producing our food.

According to your research, 14 percent of total food purchases are tossed in the trash, and about 27 percent of that is produce. That's a lot of food.
It's a ton of food. Especially for people who have kids. I have two of them, and it's horrifying how much food we waste. I'm sure if someone did a calculation of the energy that went into the food we're throwing out, I'm the problem. But it's not because my food came in on an airplane, it's because I'm throwing it out. But you could also ask questions about the kind of stoves we use. It's common now to just have these enormous gas stoves with these burners that could run a commercial kitchen. It's another way to remind ourselves that when we look at the carbon footprint of our diet, it's so much more immensely complicated than asking where our food came from.

You wrote that an all-organic food industry is simply not possible and can be in fact more dangerous than conventional food farming. Why is that?
Well, first of all, it's a hypothetical: [all-organic farming] is never going to happen. Two percent of the food that's produced in this country is produced organically. So when we get overly obsessed with organic food and say, "I'm only going to buy organic food," I think we're missing a real opportunity to figure out incentives for the other 98 percent to become more efficient without becoming organic. And there are so many ways this can be done that we're not talking about, like getting conventional farmers to judiciously use chemicals. Right now these products are so heavily subsidized that farmers really do not have an incentive to use them judiciously. They're incredibly cheap, so they dump these things indiscriminately.

You mean they're using more than they need to?
Oh, absolutely. It's especially true with fertilizers. There are some high-level fertilizers out there that are expensive but they are much more efficient. The environmental savings would be enormous if we subsidized the use of them. Most conventional farmers I talk to have a profoundly deep respect for the environment. They want to be good environmental stewards, but it's often too expensive for them to do so. And the fact is, there are fungal diseases, there are viruses, there are blights that organic methods cannot control. A lot of farmers want to go as organic as they possibly can, but they don't want to give up access to those weapons in case of an emergency.

How much more organic farming could this country sustain given that, as you say, it requires so much more land than conventional farming?
That's a difficult question to answer. On the whole, conventional has higher yields. We can't ignore that when we think of expanding organic culture. Especially given that with climate change, we are going to confront new fungal diseases, new viruses, and new pests that organic may not be able to control. With the question of yield aside, it's safe to say you would need more land for organic farming. And you would also need many thousands of pounds of manure for a single acre of organic crops, and if we're going to have large organic farms, [then we'll need to] transport that product all over the country. There is also a chemical reliance in organic agriculture; they just happen to be natural chemicals, like nicotine sulfate, which is horribly dangerous. But just because I'm pointing out potential problems with organic farming doesn't mean I'm saying this is a system we shouldn't be pursuing. But we should be pursuing it alongside other solutions.

Perhaps by growing genetically modified (GM) food? You argue that genetic modification allows for food-growing on a larger scale, feeding more people and reducing the needs for pesticides. You also acknowledge that there are unknown health risks in consuming GM foods, but that that shouldn't stop us from growing them. Do you really think it's worth the risk?
There are lots of concerns with GM foods, but we haven't seen any evidence of it. Anyone who eats processed food is eating GM corn or soy. Half our sugar is GM now. Ninety percent of the corn in this country is genetically modified, and it's not just going to animals, it's going to high-fructose corn syrup. There's a movement to start testing these products and finding out if they're GMO [genetically modifed organism]-free and labeling it.

There's no regulation for that?
None at all. And the FDA seems really resistant to moving in that direction.

Why is that?
The argument that the seed companies make is that you impugn their product by labeling other products GMO-free. And the fact that there is no evidence to support any negative health consequences is justification for their arguments. I tend to think the consumer deserves to know. There are possible concerns with all kinds of seeds that are conventionally bred as well. When we conventionally breed seeds to acquire certain traits, who's to say that that breeding technique might not have negative health consequences? There's just no predicting. And there's no way you can test for every possible negative consequence of a seed. I've talked to too many plant biologists who said this is a technology that if used properly can serve very real environmental and humanitarian needs, and I'm not willing to ignore them. I'm not terribly fearful of the health consequences.

According to your book, you're not terribly fearful of synthetic pesticides either, even though numerous studies have pointed to their potentially deleterious effects. Why?
I'm much more fearful of a food-borne allergen than I am on the effect of pesticides on my health. I support organic farming because they don't use synthetic pesticides, but I also support a much more rational use by conventional farmers. In the late 19th century they were dumping arsenic and lead on fruits and vegetables, so the pesticides we're using today are nowhere near as dangerous as what we were using in the past. Which is not to say they're not dangerous, but for me there are lots of other concerns that come before the impact of trace pesticides on myself.

By now, many of us are aware that we need to reduce our meat consumption because of its terrible effect on the environment. Factory farming is bad for the air, the water, and the land—not to mention the animals. Consequently, many people have turned to grass-fed beef. But you say that comes with its own set of environmental problems. What do you mean?
Many grass-fed cows are eating grass that's been fertilized or irrigated. As a result, the amount of greenhouse gases that go into its production is a lot higher. You also need eight to 10 acres a cow. If everyone ate grass-fed beef, it would mean giving up a lot of arable land and chopping down rainforests, which is already happening in some places. The bottom line is, animals are inefficient. By the end of the day, I don't care if it's grass-fed or if it's from a conventional system, only 40 percent of it is turned into edible meat.

You became a vegetarian after writing this book.
I did. [After looking] at the research I did into meat production, I couldn't reconcile eating meat with the kind of environmentalist I want to be. I certainly don't preach that others become vegetarian; I advocate becoming as vegetarian as you can.

You say that you wrote your book "somewhat against" your will. What do you mean by that?
I don't like having to write a chapter telling people to eat less meat, because meat tastes good. It's a sacrifice. That's something that's missing in a lot of our discussions about environmentalism and sustainability—the idea of sacrifice. What kind of personal sacrifices are we willing to make? Putting our glass into the right container and dragging it out to the curb is not much of a sacrifice, but I think giving up meat certainly is. I would loved to have been able to say that what we need to do is put all of our eggs in the organic basket, but when I honestly scaled it up I could not ignore these potential problems. I would have preferred to find a silver bullet, but I couldn't.