A Conversation With James McWilliams, Sustainable Food Expert

mcwilliams-01_sized.jpg Among today's writers on the topic of sustainable food, James McWilliams stands out—in part because he is a bit of an iconoclast. Whether arguing that it's time to rethink genetically modified foods, that free-range meat isn't better than factory-farmed, or that you can't simultaneously praise fancy cheeses and say you want to save the world, McWilliams is often provocative. You might say he's out to cause trouble. Or you might say he asks the hard questions that nobody else wants to ask. And it is my personal belief that part of the reason he is so infuriating is that his writing is so persuasive.

McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University, San Marcos, and the author of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. I spoke with him yesterday as he was preparing to interview a pecan farmer while doing research for a short book, a natural history of the pecan.

What do you say when people ask, "What do you do?"

Well, you know, I guess I would say I get curious about certain aspects of the world around me, most of them having to do with food and agriculture, and I read and research and write about that. I cover issues of sustainability and the ethics of food production, and I do this both through a historical focus and a contemporary focus.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on how people think about sustainable food?

The big idea that I have been noticing—and that is having an impact, however gradually—is the realization among responsible consumers that it's critically important that we move away from our meat-based diets as much as we possibly can. Privileged consumers are recognizing the immediate and long-term ethical and environmental benefits of doing that. My fear is that as billions of consumers in the developing world are able to eat a Western diet they will develop a meat-centric diet similar to what we have historically eaten.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your job?

My tendency as a writer and as a thinker is to question conventional wisdom. So in a lot of my work I've been critical of the locavore movement, I've been critical of organic food production, I've been critical of free-range meat production. As a result of that critical angle on these sacred beliefs, a misunderstanding has developed that I am somehow linked with agribusiness, which I find particularly funny. Not only do I have no connection to agribusiness, I'm largely in agreement with many critics of agribusiness that industrial agriculture must be reformed in many ways. But I think the hardest part of my job is trying to convince my readers that just because I'm being critical of an alternative to industrial food production doesn't mean I'm supporting industrial food production.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the food world?

Undoubtedly the one that I'm watching very closely is the movement toward in vitro meat production, also known as "vat meat." The idea of growing meat from the cell cultures of animals is extremely exiting to me because it presents the possibility of growing meat in a cruelty-free and largely environmentally benign manner. The problem of course is that it is enormously expensive, but there are companies that are getting off the ground. I guess what is being worked on right now, too, is texture and flavor. This is actually a specific example of a much larger trend that I see having a larger impact and that is the convergence of technology and food production. There are ways in which technology, and biotechnology, can lead to remarkably efficient methods of producing food. Of course, the problem here is that this goes against so many traditional beliefs about what agriculture should be.

What's a food trend that you wish would go away?

The last two times I've gone out to eat in Austin, I've noticed on the menu that the restaurant goes overboard to establish their bona fides with their locavore consumers. And one trend in particular: I don't even know what to make it, but on the menu at the bottom they are listing the chef, the sous chef, the pastry chef, and the forager. I don't know what to make of the forager. I think it's only a matter of time before we start to see the dumpster diver.

What's a sustainability idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

When I first started researching the environmental impact of meat production, I was very much convinced of the dangers of the environmental and ecological problems that were caused by industrial food production. Of course there was a lot of supporting work going on around me to kind of confirm what I was coming across on my own. I never would have predicted this, but as I started reading extensively on all facets of meat production, I did wander into the animal rights literature—the literature that suggest that animal have rights that we as humans have a moral obligation to consider. Much to my surprise, I found myself convinced by many of the anima rights arguments, and that led to a radical transformation in my own diet. And as you may know, now I'm a quite vocal and committed advocate of veganism.

Who are three people you'd put in a sustainability Hall of Fame?

When I think about people who have influenced my own work, it's usually people who are very close to home and people I admire through their example. The first person is Wayo Longorria. 30 years ago, Wayo bought an old meatpacking plant in Austin, Texas, and turned it into a vegan macrobiotic center for health and nutrition. Through the food he serves at his restaurant, Casa de Luz, he has radically transformed the amount of control consumers have over their diet.

The second person I would mention is John Mackey, who is another Austinite and a friend. Through Whole Foods, he has revolutionized the way many Americans shop. Whole Foods by no means is a perfect model of sustainability, but it has taken enormous steps, very important steps, in that direction, and most importantly it has become a model for other grocery stores to follow. We're never going to have a moment where the vast majority of Americans buy their food from farmers' markets, but we can have a moment where the vast major of Americans buy their food from grocery stores that resemble Whole Foods.

The third person is somebody named Gilbert White, who wrote a fabulous little book in the 19th century called The Natural History of Selborne. He basically walked into his backyard and wrote about it beautifully. I think sustainability comes from an ethic that is derived from our appreciation of the natural world around us, and I think that Gilbert White has done a remarkable job of encouraging us just to observe.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

You know, I still think maybe part of me wishes that I did do this, but I'm very interested in the field of entomology, and actually wrote a book on the history of entomology in the U.S., providing evidence that this is a field that I haven't really been able to fully let go of. I find insects to be absolutely fascinating creatures and maintain an amateur interest in them to this day. When I visit my entomologist friends, I usually leave feeling deep envy of their jobs.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?

There is one place that I think is a really great resource: a website called the Food Times, which is kind of a clearinghouse of issues that are both above board and not so much above board. It's run by Karla Cook, who I believe is a former New York Times food writer. That's a place I go to every day.

What song's been stuck in your head lately?

I have been listening to Dylan: "I Shall Be Free," which is off The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. That thing has been on my mind. Where else are you going to hear the word "humdinger" in a song?

Image: Courtesy of Texas State University, San Marcos

Read more installments of "Nine and a Half Questions."