Hotseat: James E. McWilliams

Why Your Locally Grown Heirloom Tomatoes Won't Save The World.

For much of his academic career, James McWilliams was writing about some pretty unsexy subjects: bugs, insecticides, 17th-century Massachusetts. But around four years ago, the Texas State University associate professor and historian began tackling a much more controversial topic: the "locavore" food movement.

His 2009 book, Just Food: How Locavores are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (subsequently retitled more diplomatically as Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly) provoked predictable controversy, casting McWilliams in the media as a sort of anti-Michael Pollan figure.

Speaking to McWilliams via phone, and reading his pot-stirring columns for The Atlantic online ("Free Range Meat Isn't 'Natural,'" "Community Supported Agriculture: A Ripoff?"), it's clear he enjoys and encourages the status. But his passion for tackling what he sees as a looming global food crisis appears equally sincere.

WW: Your talk in Portland is titled "Thinking Beyond the Food Movement: Four Big Ideas About Food and Sustainability." What exactly are you going to be speaking about?
James McWilliams: What I'm trying to do is shift the dialogue on food and agriculture away from an intense local focus to a global focus, and I'm not doing that because I think there's anything necessarily wrong with focusing on our local food systems. I think a lot of good has come from it, but at the same time I think there are extremely important global questions—particularly bearing on how we're going to feed 9 billion people by 2050—that are really being overlooked in our popular discussions on food and agriculture. So the four ideas I refer to in the subject of my talk all…have to do with the larger global challenge of basically preventing a global food crisis without trashing the environment at the same time. In one way or another, they all have to do with shifting our diet in a more responsible direction— that's the kind of "consumption" side of it. And there's also a "production" side of it to do with producing more food on less land with fewer resources.

So, you actually started out as a devout locavore?
I live in Austin, Texas, and I still support farmers markets and local farms. For a while I belonged to a local farm-to-home delivery service, and I think all of that's really important and serves a lot of significant purposes. But what I did is start to get deeper and deeper into both the literature of food and agriculture, as well as deeper into the world of agriculture by talking to farmers. Not just small local farmers, but big commercial farmers as well. It started to become clear to me that there's something dangerously insular about many of our local food discussions. And what I mean by that is there's a strong tendency when we're focusing on our local food systems to forget about the really important fact that we face this global food challenge, and globally we have to figure out how to solve this problem of producing more food, the right kind of food, for a really radically expanding global population. So it's not that I left the locavore movement—I still support many of its values—I just try to give it a context. A more international context. A context that takes into consideration not just the privileged diets of those that I'm around and focuses more on how poor people in developing countries are going to eat in the next 40 years.

When this first started to dawn on you, did you think "this is just going to bring a rain of opposition"?
Well, it's not like I had a "eureka" moment and the world shifted. The realization comes gradually. But what is challenging about it is that it's a much harder problem to solve than focusing on decentralizing the local food system or developing my local foodshed. It's much more difficult because I don't have as much control—I can't shape international food policies, for example. I can't change the way our subsidy system works in this country. And these are two issues that are integral to the issue of food and global agriculture.

So there's a distance there that's frustrating, and I can certainly see the appeal of being a locavore, because the issues are right in front of you, the people are right next to you and there's kind of a tangible, direct approach you can take to solving those problems. But again, the reality actually is that those working hardest to fix their food systems are the people who least need their food systems fixed. People who call themselves "locavores," I think it's pretty safe to say, are generally people who have access to a wide diversity of healthy foods. Whether those foods are local or imported, those are people who, if they make the right dietary choices, can eat an absolutely exceptional diet.

I want to be careful of downplaying locavore opinions, because I do think they're significant, but it just comes down to context and perspective. And it's much more important for me to spend my time thinking about these larger global concerns that bear on poverty and large scale food production for people who need it in developing countries than whether or not their peach comes from a local farm or was imported from South Carolina.

And have you met with a lot of opposition?
Yeah, that's actually been one of the most interesting things about doing this. Now, keep in mind I'm a historian and I kind of backed into this material about five or six years ago. And really, I look back and laugh because I was so naive about the hornets' nest that I was stepping into. There really is an entrenched ideological attachment to local food, and what that says to me is that to be a locavore means much more than just supporting local food systems. It also, for a lot of people, is a political expression. It's a way to challenge globalization. So this I've come to learn really through the backlash that I've experienced in being critical of some of these locally oriented issues.

Perhaps the most common criticism—I will add unfounded—that I get is that I am somehow a corporate shill or in bed with corporations, in making some of the arguments that I make. Because I do argue that we're going to need large-scale food production. That is immediately interpreted as supporting industrial agriculture as it now exists. And I'm very clear in my work to be highly critical of industrial agriculture as it now exists. But it's difficult to position yourself in opposition in any way, however mildly, to locavore concerns and not be caricatured as a kind of right-wing supporter of agribusiness, and I am none of those.

And you're a vegan now?
Well this is a much more recent turn in my own writing. I've been vegan for several years and I did that for initially environmental reasons, but then as I started to educate myself a little bit and read deeply on literature for moral rights for animals, layer upon layer of justification for not eating animals has turned me into a vegan. And I kept that to myself for a number of years, but pretty much in the last year in The Atlantic online, I started to do a series of essays writing about that experience and taking on some of these issues that are central to the philosophic debate of animal rights. I somehow managed to pick the one topic of conversation that is even more controversial than criticizing locavores! I guess I have a nose for these explosive topics.

Ultimately, I'm just interested in exploring every side of these issues, and the funny thing about some of the backlash against me says I've got some sort of ulterior motive. I'm a historian at a state university. I don't have any stake in these arguments beyond just intellectual interest. I find this really interesting. If I argue—with a small-scale pig farmer, let's say—about some of the ethical issues around eating pork, and I'm critical of free-range pork farming, I will be condemned for being associated with an interest, like I'm a supporter of industrial agriculture. Again, not true. Whereas, what doesn't happen in these discussions, is that nobody says to the small-scale pig farmer, "Wait a minute, you have an interest here in promoting the virtues of what you're doing." I think there's a real selective game of "gotcha" going on, where if you're small, or you're local, then your motives are pure. You couldn't possibly have an ulterior motive—like money—as you make your arguments. Whereas I come at these issues as somewhat of a provocateur, but also as someone who's just intellectually curious, and I tend to get labeled with these interests I don't have.

Do you think ultimately people will wake up to these issues about their food production? Or do you really think it will take a major global crisis?
I think this is very much a media issue. Right now, the only place you read about escalating food prices—which is a tremendously frightening issue to me if you look at how dependent so much of the world is on the price of rice, or wheat, or sorghum or millet, and you see the prices of these staple commodities increasing. Right now this is being reported primarily in business pages. But if they become severe enough, you will start to see starvations move into front-page news, and food sections. I think if that happens, you might see more of a willingness on the part of people who write about food, write about agriculture, to balance out what I see as a kind of overindulgence in locavore issues with these perhaps less sexy global food issues.

SEE IT: James McWilliams speaks at the University of Oregon in Portland's White Stag Building, 70 NW Couch St., 346-3934. Wednesday April 27, 5:30 pm. Free. The talk will also be webcast live at