It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Just Food

I just saw local author James McWilliams give a well-attended talk at BookPeople on his book "Just Food", where "just" refers to justice as well as purity. I would definitely consider him a kindred spirit. He ended his research quite unconvinced of the importance of "food miles" (the book is entitled "How Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly") but unexpectedly convinced that meat is unethical. 

The talk was wide-ranging, and a number of interesting points came up. I don't have any central organizing theme of my review of the event, but I thought I'd capture some interesting snippets.

He had been on Ira Flatow's Science Friday just last week as the contrarian intended to debate Michael Pollan. Of course, he cringed. He gave journalists grief for their craving of simplicity and conflict, but he gave the show credit for letting the two of them actually agree on things.

He believes that organic methods COULD feed the world, but that there would be very little room for meat in such a scenario.

He believes that concentrating on localism doesn't work. Some places are better suited for growing food than others. They should specialize. However, the places we grow food are the wrong ones. (California, with imported water.) And what we do with the midwest (feed crops) is incredibly destructive.

He is the guy who wrote a New York Times article a couple years back asserting that New Zealand grass fed lamb bought in England was less greenhouse gas intensive than local feedlot lamb. 

Grass-fed cows emit MORE methane than corn fed ones.  (but lamb also eats grass. contradiction of the previous point?)

General agreement from author and audience that overpopulation is the core problem. In a sense our problems are problems of success.

Energy expenditures for meat don't seem to include "rendering", i.e., disposing of what he called "deadstock", over half the weight of a meat animal that is inedible or unsellable anyway. 

20% of all greenhouse emissions in the US are attributable to meat. Transportation is a small fraction thereof. Giving up meat one day a week has all the global warming benefit of zeroing out food transportation costs.

He believes dairy and eggs are not as bad as beef. I'm not so sure. I hope so.

Soil depletion, groundwater depletion, increased population points to increasing food stress in the future. Meat consumption increasingly an ethical issue.

Food problems cannot be solved on an local level. Systems must be redesigned. Global hunger is a food issue, after all. 

Most of the questions intelligent and polite. But one woman was intense, upset. Going on about the importance of local control, keeping things out of the hands of corporations. McWilliams was careful to acknowledge her point, but couldn't get her to acknowledge that localism, while good, isn't enough. Many people seem very attached to an idea of local self-sufficiency. In Texas! Texas has NEVER supported a significant population on local resources. 

Speaking for myself as a liberal in a land of libertarians, it was nice to see a smart Texan thinking global for a change.

It was a thought provoking evening. BookPeople rocks.


9 comments:

Neven said...

Of course, everything that can be done locally should be done locally. Preferably IMBY.

There are many reasons for eating little or no meat, but the impact on climate is the most important one, I believe.

Nice to see this subject touched upon here. Cutting down meat consumption is the easiest and fastest way to become more carbon efficient.

gravityloss said...

Some of the things seem improbable and it would be good to see the sources for the claims.

But as a whole, yes. Food is increasingly getting talked about in regards to the climate problem (and other things too).

Environmental interest gets more about the real things and less theatrical hopefully in the future, as it is learned by the masses (I think I'm partly one) what really counts.

Dodo ry in Finland is organizing a public seminars / workshops event centered around food and the environment in late september in Helsinki. That should serve as a kickoff for the general awareness of this stuff in Finland, as many people attending will then carry on thinking about the things from there on.

Such gatherings are really nice things, so it's good to hear that you have interesting people to meet there in Austin.

Vinny Burgoo said...

MT: He is the guy who wrote a New York Times article a couple years back asserting that New Zealand grass fed lamb bought in England was less greenhouse gas intensive than local feedlot lamb. Grass-fed cows emit MORE methane than corn fed ones. (but lamb also eats grass. contradiction of the previous point?)

(The NZ study didn't include methane.)

Your 'asserting' is about right. The NZ study based its British figures on the few farms that could be legitimately termed intensive 'feedlot' setups: specialist lowland 'finishing' farms, where some British lambs are fattened immediately prior to slaughter. I'm no farmer but I think most British sheep and lambs spend most of their lives munching unfertilized pasture, with hay from the same in the winter (probably boosted by pellet supplements). Our many upland sheep live in semi-wild conditions similar to what you'll find in New Zealand. So the study's British figures were overstated. Our agriculture ministry recently published its own study claiming that embodied greenhouse gas emissions are greater for NZ lamb than for local lamb. (But they would, wouldn't they?)

The real mystery is the price and availability of NZ lamb. Although not subsidized, it's cheaper than subsidized British lamb; and never-frozen NZ lamb is available pretty much throughout the year whereas fresh local lamb can be hard to find except at Easter. The hills are alive with sheep and lambs around here. Where do they all go? And why is their meat so expensive compared to meat from a developed nation on the other side of the world? The eightysomething farmer next door raises lambs (and beefs) unaided (apart from his subsidies) and with no fancy equipment apart from a quad-bike, so ... ? Baffled.

Dano said...

Glad to see more and more of these arguments coming out. Now if we can get the average person to listen, we'd be all set.

Best,

D

(oops - word verif says 'haternes')

Mark said...

Vinny: "And why is their meat so expensive compared to meat from a developed nation on the other side of the world? The eightysomething farmer next door raises lambs (and beefs) unaided (apart from his subsidies) and with no fancy equipment apart from a quad-bike, so ... ? Baffled."

As a New Zealander with only a minimal knowledge of farming, I suspect that the corresponding New Zealand farmer raise lambs and beefs with no fancy equipment but a quad bike, but he raises about 10 times as many. Farming is pretty efficient here because it has to be and because the climate is good for growing grass.

Pity about the methane.

Brian said...

I have a beef (sorry) with the anti-cattle/anti-locavore argument, in that it fails to include indirect land use changes from converting away from local produce and cattle.

My day job is with an enviro group that fights sprawl onto farmlands and ranchlands in the South San Francisco Bay area. I can't imagine how much harder my job would be if I couldn't point to continuing farming and ranching as alternative uses to spraw.

I acknowledge the problem is that this effect is hard to measure accurately. But just because something is hard to measure doesn't mean it doesn't exist, and the calculations being used are ignoring this issue.

Alex Lewin said...

I had some issues with McWilliams' methods, and also a bit with his attitude. I don't think there's anyone out there claiming that food miles are the *only* thing that matters, yet McWilliams spends a lot of time tilting with that straw man, if I may...

A more enlightening book on the subject of meat and sustainability, with far more solid research behind it, is _Meat: A Benign Extravagance_.

For my reviews of both books, here:

http://feedmelikeyoumeanit.blogspot.com/2009/12/book-review-just-food-by-james-e.html

http://feedmelikeyoumeanit.blogspot.com/2011/01/meat-benign-extravagance-by-simon.html

Alex Lewin said...

Here's a good quote from _Meat_. I hope it strikes a chord with everyone the way it did with me. Simon Fairlie's writing is understated, rather than polemical:

(QUOTE)
Food miles may not be over-extravagant in their energy use, but they are thickly implicated in a centralized distribution system which multiplies our energy expenditure at every opportunity and whose impacts include excessive packaging and refrigeration, waste, traffic congestion, road-building, noise, accidents, loss of local distinctiveness, exploitation and displacement of peasants, excessive immigration, urban slums, deforestation and habitat destruction, removal of biomass from third world countries, the undermining of local communities in the UK, the collapse of UK farming and the blood which is split over oil fields.
(ENDQUOTE)

Rey Abisan said...
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