The Food Revolution: Vegans v. Locavores

I’m not much impressed with the local, sustainable food movement. When I’m cranky, it strikes me as insular, retrograde, solipsistic, libertarian, conspiracy-minded, and self-indulgent. When pressed, I’ll admit that the movement has a place in the overall effort to reform the food system, but it’s a small nook. Decentralizing the food system, fragmenting it into a billion little pieces, makes little sense to me with meat consumption skyrocketing and the world population about to hit 9 billion. Why not change the way we eat rather than fetishize where food comes from?

I’m perfectly fine with having my food produced for me. Fact is, I don’t want to grow my own food–there’s a million things I rather do besides farm. Moreover, I feel no need to have it grown near me. As I see it, an apple is an apple, whether it came from Washington State or my backyard.  And in this sentiment–one consistent with the historical continuum of change–I know I’m not alone. Plus, one thing I’m always noticing is that vocal locavores are always buying stuff that’s globally sourced–coffee, wine, bananas, mangoes, and such. So, in a sense, they would have to agree as well.

It’s not that I get excited about impersonal agricultural entities sending me food from all over the world. I’m aware as anyone about the dangers inherent in such dependency. It’s just that I think density of production and global transportation have to be critical factors in a future plant-based food system that’s diverse, accessible, responsible, and–here’s a key point–nutrient dense. It is on this last point where I think the sustainable food movement especially fails. For them it matters none whether you are producing goats or groats. As long as it was produced nearby and with a veneer of eco-correctness, then all is well. Call it the tyranny of greenwashed localism.

What I envision is far more radical than anything the food movement advocates. Forget animal products–because when it comes to nutrient density, they fail. And forget corn and soy for the same reasons. Processed foods–nope. Instead, envision a food system based totally on plant-based superfoods–whole foods such as avocados, gobi berries, anasazi beans, teff, amaranth, blueberries, sprouts sunflower seeds, barley, root vegetables, lentils, nuts, kale, squash, and sprouts. Eating these kinds of foods is the healthiest and most environmentally sustainable way to produce and consume food. However, there’s simply no way we can expand the range of available superfoods without some level of industrialization and large-scale distribution.

Locavores, who cringe at the mere mention of “industrial”– have a problem with this. They see revolution in downsizing. But perpetuating an animal-based diet on the local level is not revolutionary. It’s just scaling down the status quo. Real food revolutionaries–superfood eating vegans–are the ones who work to fundamentally alter the status quo. They seek a way of eating that’s unprecedented, disruptive, compassionate, and sustainable.  I’ve said it a hundred times, but here it is again: to eat animals is to implicitly endorse the heart of the food system as it now exists. Vegans get this. They are the ones who seek fundamental, rather than merely locational, change.


About James McWilliams
I'm a historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. This blog is dedicated to exploring the ethics of eating animals and animal-based products.

19 Responses to The Food Revolution: Vegans v. Locavores

  1. brian lindberg says:

    True enough, but rather than vegan vs. locavore, let’s just co-opt it: locavegans! Yes, it is difficult to begin to comprehend the scale of production and distribution needed to feed 7 billion people, almost all of whom abide in cities (and this is a mistake, the fixing of which ties in with the nascent locavegan movement). And why shouldn’t I be eating this delicious, fresh, organic apple from Chile right now? (To save carbon emissions, let’s first kick a few idle tourists off the plane)

    But my first choice must be to support a sustainable local economy, where I can evaluate the state of economic justice (implicit in the term “sustainable”….thank you, UC Santa Cruz, always at the forefront)). Onward, locavegan soldiers, marching off to eat….

    (and by the way, I’ve got a lot of industrial-scale organic vegetable production around me, serving the “local” LA and SF markets…it sure as hell ain’t sustainable (can anyone spell groundwater?), but it is transitional progress….)

    • brian lindberg says:

      P.S. When you write “goats or grouts(sic…typo)”, you meant “groats”….unfortunately, that makes me think of buckwheat groats, and (yin/yang perfection notwithstanding), I would be tempted to choose the goat!

  2. Wayne says:

    Mr. McWilliams,
    It’s good that you do reveal your positions pretty clearly. Since you are someone who is not interested in even having a fruit tree and if you had one you would think no more of the fruit you tended than the fruit that came from a mega-farm across the world. The spirit behind your positions is clarified. You reveal yourself as someone who knows nothing about agriculture. Being a university professor is not that impressive anyway but you are even out of your field when you start talking about these issues. It is evident in the way that your positions never seem to be backed up or if they are backed up you use something from the National Pork Board or other industry garbage. To say that grass finished beef or raw pastured milk cannot be ‘nutrient dense’ is laughable. Also it is laughable to say that sustainable farmers and their customers don’t care about ‘nutrient density’… have you ever heard of Rudolf Steiner or Sir Albert Howard? These are the people that the good farmers I know follow. You fire critiques at the most shallow urban locavores who, like you, have no understanding of agriculture. You use them as your straw man to show how stupid the people are who ‘fetishize’ where their food comes from, and who are happy if there is a ‘greenwashed veneer’ of sustainability. Dubious rhetorical technique is your hallmark. I would not start bringing up PETA employees catching and killing cats and dogs to launch an attack on vegans. That would be a pretty low brow argument. That is the worst of the community not the rule. You attack the upper middle class bonehead urban consumers and use them as the perfect example of people who care where their food comes from. The fact is that the urban folks that sit back and over-value their whole foods local meat is the vast minority of those involved in this issue. Millions of people are growing food in their backyards, on their rooftops, keeping chickens, keeping bees, canning, and fermenting food they produced themselves or buying it from their local farmers market. They are reclaiming and expressing their natures as human beings as a protest to the ‘continuum of change’ that you speak of. That continuum of change is none other than the terrifyingly destructive forces of the modern era. It involved the reduction of the citizen to the consumer and the stripping away of the people’s independent survival skill sets. I guess you embrace those values even though those values are destroying this world. You may think it is highly evolved to live in a city and use your money (acquired through participation in the extractive economy) to shop at the supermarket. I disagree. You may have convictions about animal rights but your position is ultimately advocacy for the role of passive consumer. The passive consumer who’s only action is choosing what to buy is a blight on the surface of the planet. Those of us advocating local food systems want to flip the western world to a society of producers not consumers. You don’t even want to get your hands dirty apparently. That is a disappointment but not surprising. Your post is incredibly condescending of those who care and see as sacred the human arts of producing food with their own hands. It is really not that impressive to be a a third rate intellectual who writes about subjects entirely out of his academic and experiential field and even less so since your subject of critique is apparently beneath you.

    I know many of you following this blog think that it diminishes McWilliams credibility that he is seemingly opposed to doing labor and doing ‘dirty work,’ yet he wants to write daily about how stupid local food is. Anyone here think it is not stupid to grow your own food? Or that it does matter where your apple came from?

    • Wayne,
      I’m certainly not going to make it a habit of defending myself against your mean-spirited speculations about my character, my professional competence, or my value system. But I need to remind you of three things: a) I’m not opposed to labor or dirty work–never, ever said that; b)There are other ways to affirm the nature of humanity besides growing food (such as showing compassion to animals, playing the guitar, or learning to identify every tree native to the United States); and c) if being involved in an “extractive economy” is such a fatal flaw in your anarcho-primitivist worldview, shouldn’t you take your hands off the computer into which you pour your bile? Speaking for myself, I kind of wish you would.


      PS: Oh, yeah. What you call “dubious rhetorical technique” I call good writing.

      • brian lindberg says:

        uh oh….just quit reading when the comment goes uncivil…protect yourself, you are performing a great service for man and you are going to have to take a lot of blowback….duck. I am always amazed by the diversity of humanity….

  3. Wayne says:

    By calling my worldview anarcho-primitivist you again reveal your position that agriculture is beneath you. Good agriculture is far from primitive, as anyone who has actually studied or practiced it would understand.

    “PS: Oh, yeah. What you call “dubious rhetorical technique” I call good writing.”
    -That is pretty much why I referred to you as a third rate intellectual. If you want to write about sustainable agriculture maybe you should apply the type of rigour that would be required if you were writing for an academic journal in your actual field of study.

    You think that I should not use a computer because I would like to see an economy that was not entirely extractive? Your arguments are really 4th grade sometimes. A non extractive economy is the only possibility for long term quality of life on this planet. We should all be doing what we can with our brains, hands, feet, and even computers to help bring this about before irreversible desertification is the norm.

    Why do you think that it is ethical to use a study funded by the National Pork Board to write an article for the Times, trying to stir up a Trichinosis scare about pastured pork? You did not even disclose that in the article. I will answer for you if you don’t want to answer. You believe the end justifies the means. Typical of true believers and zealots.

    • brian lindberg says:

      hey, I’m an anarcho-primitivist and damned proud of it!! (card-carrying member of the Mad Farmer Liberation Front, baby!…but I think Wendell Berry really should have a computer)….but here’s something to think about….(although he probably has not)…I think that McWilliams has a lot in common with Steiner….for Steiner, things were always in the context of Everything, agriculture included….and when Steiner affirmed that spiritual development is preceded by moral development (a fundamental precept of Buddhism, with which he was imbued through Theosophy), he is working the same agenda as McWilliams. I don’t know that McWilliams has any particular end in mind, and his aggressive, academic style of affirmation can get your goat (ah, what is a gadfly for?), and he, too is subject to partial truths, but basically, he is saying, hey, don’t kill anything that also has an astral body (like us)….he calls it sentience…it’s an intuitive thing, with him, maybe, but Steiner would have liked that, too.

      Bottom line: basically, we are all rowing in the same direction….out of a goddam mess of ignorance!

      • brian lindberg says:

        P.S. Wayne, you got the professor so riled up that he forgot to mention that nutrient density is essentially a measure of phytochemicals, by definition, plant-sourced. There lies the road to good health.

      • Wayne says:

        If you are a member of the Mad Farmer Liberation front you should understand that McWilliams positions are 100% contrary to Wendell Berry’s life goals. McWilliams pieces in the Times, etc. are ghastly hack jobs trying to undermine by any means a localized food system. He revels that intent even in this post. The logic of the trichinosis scare article is exactly the same as the logic of the proponents of irradiation in order to kill salmonella and e.coli on raw vegetables. He unashamedly pushed the National Pork Board’s agenda of asserting that CAFO pork is safer than pastured pork. Without this outspoken vegan professor writing it they never could have gotten that position in the Times. That is unforgivable.

        Steiner was not against animal agriculture when it is done properly. It is silly to act as if he did not even consider the issue when he devoted much of his enormous body of research and creative work to agriculture and the moral and spiritual issues that go along with it. You can’t just shove dead people into your ideological box.

        I think that we have loads in common as far as values. But, I am disturbed by your ‘end justifies the means’ attitude as well. It seems to me that you would stand by your guy regardless of the half truths, misleading arguments, or bold faced lies. It seems that you would stand by your guy because as you said he is ‘doing a great service for man.’ It boggles my mind that you have at least some understanding of the degree of his ignorance in the field that he writes about yet you give him a free pass. It is telling that neither of you would comment on my point about the National Pork Board study. You know how low of a move it was to use that and not disclose it. I would love to see a McWilliams post about how it is ok to do morally questionable things if it is toward the ultimate goal of achieving something for the greater good.

        The issue of the ethics of taking a non-human life is an important issue. It is a debate that we should be having. That is not the problem that has me pointing out McWilliams intellectual and ethical shortcomings.

        The problem is this: The issue of the morality of taking an animal’s life has nothing to do with the issue of whether or not animals are inherently destructive and cannot be part of an ecologically balanced farming system. If you know a bit about good agriculture, which you seem like you do, you would have to admit that animals can and do fit in. We do not know yet if it will be by necessity or not. That is an unknown even though everyone seems to have convictions along those lines. We do know that animals can be part of a healthy resilient ecologically balanced farming system. We also know that you can grow food without animals.

        You write to McWilliams above to ignore me because I am uncivil. What I said to him is in no way less civil than calling everyone in the sustainable food movement ‘insular, retrograde, solipsistic, libertarian, conspiracy-minded, and self-indulgent.’ It is not uncivil for me to question the credibility of someone who writes about sustainable agriculture yet would ‘rather do a million other things’ than grow food. It is not uncivil for me to point out his glaring ignorance in the field that he is writing about. He uses his professorial status as a means of conveying authority even though he is totally out of his field, and seems to have no interest in sustainable agriculture other than figuring out ways to erode support for it. You write to him like he needs to be comforted and I have injured him. He has the same injured tone. You should damn well know that the big ag people have been jubilent whenever one of McWilliams hack job articles comes out. They could never get their talking points taken. seriously without someone like him. Playing a game like that involving such crucial issues doesn’t give you the right to say ‘no fair.’ It seems to me that you are supporting the wrong guy.

      • brian lindberg says:

        McWilliams is not “my guy” any more than you are. Once you get past the personal combat phase of communication, perhaps you will have some effect on someone. And before directing diatribes at individuals, you should learn how to write. “Mad Farmer Liberation front” should be “Mad Farmer Liberation Front”.

      • Wayne says:

        Lindberg: You really have time to correct my lack of a capital letter but will not engage with any point I brought up? My combative style does not invalidate the contents of my arguments any more than McWilliams veneer of civility validates his misinformation and faulty arguments. Suddenly you have a problem with ‘gadflies?’

      • brian lindberg says:

        I have a problem with people who direct their arguments at individuals. It is crude. Address the issues in an impersonal way, and perhaps someone will reply.

      • Wayne says:

        Lindberg: This is not about generalities. McWilliams activism has consequences. He is acting in the world not an abstraction. I am questioning his credibility and the effects of his activism. I am questioning his motives in using half truths, misleading rhetoric, and obviously corrupted information. I am questioning his knowledge of the field that he attacks as if he is an expert. Why would I make that impersonal? It is not impersonal.

  4. Provoked says:

    I can certainly understand why someone wouldn’t want to (or be able to) grow their own food. There are a million good reasons why… If I were in a different situation – the idea of growing parsley on my window sill would seem burdensome.

    And that would leave me to get what foods I could – most attainable only through industrial-scale means. I know what those foods would be and I’d choose them because of the nutrition I was after as well as the ethical implications…

    Left with only two options… Mung beans from a thousand miles away… Or fresh “pork” from next door… I’d be happy paying the cost of the beans rather than the expense of the life.

    • Wayne says:

      Not everyone needs to grow food. Getting beans next door should not be a problem. Beans grow just about everywhere. There are real problematic issues around squandering precious fuel resources to unnecessarily ship food around. If fuel prices spike like they inevitable will, you will wish you supported your close by organic veggie farms when they were building their fledgeling businesses. For all you McWilliams believers… here is a report commissioned by the US Government in 2005 about peak oil. It was commissioned then buried when they did not like what they heard. If you actually want to read it you will find the very disturbing solutions they are proposing to deal with it. Liquifying coal to oil, ethynol etc. We need to re localize the food system now. It is bordering on too late already. When fuel doubles and triples in price those 1000 mile beans will be very expensive to say the least.

  5. brian lindberg says:

    p.s. I am in agreement with you as much as I am in agreement with McWilliams…the path to the long-term future goes through the near-term future.

    • Wayne says:

      OK. Thats a good place to start. I saw another recent post of yours that you think the best way to convince people to not eat meat is to point out that it shortens life span, which is backed by science. Maybe, just maybe, when you use that argument you could point out that all the meat involved in the study was industrial grain finished meat and that, at least, there are no studies confirming such a thing with regard to pastured grass finished beef? That such a position, regarding grass finished beef would be speculation at best? I know there is a litte red Machiavelli on your left shoulder saying no way never!!

  6. Anne B says:

    Superfoods don’t have to originate on other continents or be priced around $10-$15 per pound. Soy *is* a superfood: protein, fat, fiber, calcium, iron, magnesium, vitamin K, riboflavin, folate, B6, etc. Soy, peas, flax, sesame: all superfoods, all less than $4/lb.

  7. CQ says:


    You and Brian cite authors (Steiner and Berry) who I’ve heard of but whose works I haven’t read. So I don’t know the basis upon which you say that this blogger is giving us “half truths, misleading arguments, or bold faced lies.” Would you mind giving an example of each of three those charges, followed by what you believe is the truth that McWilliams is avoiding? That would help me understand what you’re trying to say. Thanks.

    Also, I’m wondering whether it’s fair to accuse James of purposely supporting the NPB’s agenda if he coincidentally happens to agree with an NPB position that makes him appear to endorse industrial agriculture? I mean one could say that a vegan supports the Center for Consumer Freedom if he grouses about the motives, ethics, and tactics of the large animal protection organizations. But we here know that isn’t so.

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