About

I’m an historian and writer based in Austin, Texas. My books include Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Little, Brown) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press). My work on food and agriculture has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Slate, Forbes, Travel and Leisure, The Los Angeles Times, The International Herald Tribune, and the Texas Observer.  I regularly post articles at theatlantic.com.

 

69 Responses to About

  1. Pauline says:

    Hi, Dr McWilliams. Ijust finished watching your presentation today at UC Berkeley’s Conscious Eating Forum. I thought it was a very enlightening, well-supported, articulate, and inspiring talk. I really want to read your book and go through your blog. I had a question, though. I may be moving to College Station, TX, for several years and I was wondering if you had any advice or suggestions or insight for eating vegetarian around there? Thanks!

    -Pauline

  2. Scott says:

    Hello James

    Not sure if you have seen this movie “The Silent Time Bomb on Your Plate – When Will Your Moment of Truth Arrive?” but I thought you might be interested:

    http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2012/02/26/fresh-video-documentary.aspx?e_cid=20120226_SNL_Art_1

    Scot

  3. chris collins says:

    Hi Dr

    Hey I like eating kangoroos which is a good thing because all this land out here is good for is growing roos, rabbits, snakes and acacias… and oh yellow belly fish and crocs when it floods comprehensively every ten years. Too many people on the planet that is the problem. All I want is sufficient people to create an economy sophisticated enough to produce parts and ammunition for my carbine and 22 cal.. . and, nearly forgot – condoms so we do not get in this goddamn awful mess again. I am just messing with you – but seriously we need to contain population growth urgently and I guess eat a few more vegetables (so my doctor tells me).

    Keep up the good work.

    Regards

  4. Elizabeth says:

    Read your article in the Times, and honestly, I’ve rarely seen more one-sided garbage. There’s a place in the world for those who choose not to be vegan, and there IS a way to produce meat responsibly. Unfortunately, you clearly didn’t do enough research to discover how, largely because you were only interested in the Faux News approach to journalism.

    If you want to be truly fair, how about an article about the damage farmers do to the land while raising soybeans, for example? I spent several years living near a farming community, and the effects of the pesticide and chemical fertilizer runoff was terrible. Yet organic farming is not the way, either — not if you want to force all of us to eat soy. Also, what, exactly, will organic farmers use for fertilizer if you succeed in eliminating all the livestock? Small farms won’t work for you, either; in case you’re wondering, soybean farming wears out the land and it’s necessary to rotate crops frequently in order to keep from completely draining the soil of nutrients.

    Veganism isn’t the perfect path you purport it to be. You have as many problems on your side as meat consumers do on theirs. The difference is, you deliberately fail to tell the truth about yours while ostensibly ‘revealing the truth’ about the other side of the coin. While I respect the choice vegans make, I do not respect the fact that so many are unwilling to allow NON-vegans the freedom of choice as well.

    • Rod Henry says:

      Agreed – left out of the article was the fact that if grazed meat costs more people will use less of it.

    • fakename@nodomain.com says:

      He didn’t claim that veganism was “the perfect path.” He didn’t try to take away your choice. He didn’t make any false claims, which you seem to suggest in your first paragraph.

      Instead, his central claim was that, IF the goal is to have more sustainable consumption practices than the recent status quo, THEN the local food/grass fed movement is not obviously to be preferred to factory farmed analogs. It’s not about ideology, it’s about figuring out the best way for those of us interested in sustainable consumption to move forward together.

      • royalestel says:

        And he did make convincing, if factually conglomerated arguments to that end. . . I do like Joe Salatin’s response. It’s true that he buys local grain from nearby farmers instead of growing his own, but from what I’ve read he is moving to be more and more self-sufficient on his farm. They are converting some of the forest land to pig forage and raising corn on it. We’ll see. “imports” tons of grain sounds like he gets it from overseas. Hauling it a couple miles is a world of difference and sounds pretty sustainable to me.

        I’m planning on raising chickens this year in the same pattern as Joel. I’m currently considering using mulch gardening (as in the Back to Eden film) to grow the necessary supplemental grain. Actually, I’ll pay a neighbor to grow it. My biggest problem is actually all the pesticides that the surrounding industrial grain fields use–kills water quality and contributes to poor health of my family.

        As for meat consumption–I will be educating my customers that they ought to eat meat sparingly, and preferably only in times of cold (I disagree with Joel on chicken being a “warming” meat). If we all only ate meat only a few months of the year consumption would change as well, but that’s my personal take on the Word of Wisdom coming into play, since I’m Mormon.

        Cheers!

    • dknul says:

      i’m shocked by how frequently people make this mistake.

      you talk about soybean production as if it’s all for direct human consumption. it’s not. we feed livestock LOTS of soy. but cattle are very bad at converting soy calories and protein into meat calories and protein – at best, they lose 11 out of every 12 calories (and 11 out of every 12 grams of protein) in the process.

      so, if we stopped producing that beef and ate the soy directly instead, we could convert AT LEAST 11 out of every 12 acres of soybean farm into land for other uses, very significantly reducing the negative impacts you are (reasonably) concerned about.

      next time, before declaring somebody’s work “one-sided garbage,” you might want to read up on a few other sides yourself.

      • abbazabba says:

        Same goes for you. Pretty sure the article was talking about pastured, grass finished, meat. Which means no soy or grain.

    • Dave says:

      “Elizabeth” – your nasty, dishonest, and ignorant attack sounds like it came directly from the animal industrial food complex. Or the US Chamber of Commerce. Or Faux News. Really.

      How much do you weigh? Do you have high cholesterol? High Blood Pressure? Diabetic? All of the chronic disease epidemic which will bankrupt the health care system in the U.S. is a direct result of what people choose to eat, and meat consumption is one of the top causes.

      We need solutions now, not confusion and screaming.

    • Benjamin says:

      I agree with Elizabeth. You also failed to mention all the fossil fuels needed to transport food that isn’t local. That goes for all the processed vegan food too! Talk about global warming, Mr. McWilliams, ..hehem..do you have scientific evidence that grass fed manure has gives off more methane than soy and corn fed diets? That would have been a nice thing to add a link to. I’m amazed the NY Times even let you post this biased misinformed propoganda. Oh, I forgot, the NY Times loves to lie through omission. Nothing’s perfect, as Pollen states, but local omnivores offer a hell of a lot more to sustainability than anything else. BTW– I never quite caught your solution to the problem of feeding 7+billion earthlings?

      • June says:

        There are much more than 7+ billion earthings… or do you only think of humans as such?
        Check out hthe doco “Earthlings”.

      • Benjamin says:

        Thanks for noticing, June. What I meant by that is.. the human race is responsible for feeding themselves and obviously their pets, livestock, plants ect. We should always be thinking of the future if we’re going to have children..a lot of people don’t, unfortunately! Criticizing the local/sustainable food movement is seriously counterproductive because it’s so fragile right now, especially with all the Monsantos, corrupt USDAs, and corrupt FDAs out there. Everything can be improved, humans can also be smarter and more respectful toward other living things. And YES, I’m in awe of all cosmic things(living or dead)…probably more so than humans.

    • Michael says:

      Respectfully, I suggest that disagreement be made more, well, respectfully. You may not agree with Dr. McWilliams’s piece, but the point of journalism and the media is a free flow of ideas. While you do make some substantive arguments, your vitriol is counterproductive.

    • Aaron says:

      Outstanding post!!!!!!!

  5. glkanter says:

    I did not enjoy your op-ed piece in today’s NY Times. I don’t agree with your “all or nothing” premise, and I think you weave a well-told, but misleading story, downplaying the ability for what I’ll call ‘traditional farming using modern advances’ to meet a reasonable society’s meat and crop needs.

    If we stopped growing and subsidising all the wrong things, I’m pretty sure we can figure out the details.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    My only response to the question of vegetarianism is this —- Not all humans are genetically disposed to health on a vegetarian diet. Read The Metabolic Typing Diet by William Wolcott and realize that some of us are happiest and much more healthy on a diet heavy in protein and fats. Especially as we age. I trained as a natural foods chef in New York, have tried all the ways of eating, was even vegan for a year, macrobiotic (6 months was all my body could handle). My body and mind are simply happiest on the Paleo type of diet. I agree with most of your comments about the fact that our food production methods, commercial or natural, are unsustainable. What the planet needs is population control. We need to produce less people. Bringing a child into this already overpopulated world should be a serious ethical decision, and one not to be taken lightly.

  7. AF wench says:

    Not to mention that our bodies evolved to be omnivores (gut not acidic enough for a pure carnivore, and not long enough for a pure herbivore.)

  8. Chris C. says:

    As an organic vegetable farmer who raises grass fed cattle on my organic vegetable farm, I find your comments in the NYT op-ed extremely biased and unbalanced.
    As a farmer, your job is to manage the land as a way to make a living, it is a profession, and a livlihood.
    Your idea that animals be allowed to live out there lives on the farm and not be slaughtered for meat would quickly bring about a population explosion, and thus more ecological harm.
    We plow and plant vegetables and small grains on the fertile bottom land, and we graze and make hay on the sloped pastures to avoid erosion.
    There is room in this world for vegans and meat eaters, and I would never criticize your right to choose between the two, and claim my choice as superior.
    I wonder if you have ever spent any time on a true working farm, because there is more to it than Joel Salatin or Michael Pollan can put in a book?
    Have you ever wondered how these grains can be continously raised on the same land without any true rotation? The answer is petroleum based fertilizers, and harsh herbicides, along with genetically modified plants that emit pesticides which are devestating the honey bees!
    The footprint of soy and corn is bigger than you think, so I cannot take anyone seriously who suggests that this is the answer. You can have your GMO, round-up ready grains all day long (fakin’ bacon), and I’ll stick with my free range eggs, locally milled small grains, grass fed burgers, and sustainable produced vegetables.

    • Pamela says:

      Chris C: your response is excellent; I appreciate common sense.

    • plant based eater says:

      For all the jokes about humorless vegetarians, meat eaters can be such an insufferably defensive lot. I found the article critical of the rampant green washing by the sustainable livestock niche industry. But given the rates of consumption, even if ethically raised livestock was an ecologically perfect model, it only accounts for a micro sliver of the animal products consumed in the US. To expand that model on a scale of current livestock demand requires significant trade-offs, as Mr. McWilliams addresses in the piece.

      Every omnivore looking to take a swipe at vegetarians/vegans points to the kind of processed fake meat products which many health concious eaters eschew. But lets be honest, because this isn’t the problematic overproduced GMO soy used to feed livestock but the relatively small amount consumed as soy products like tempe (fermented soy), tofu (ground and caked soy) or edamame (natural). Fresh tofu = soy, water, natural coagulate for caking (calcium sulfate) — in other words it’s about as processed as your grass fed hamburger without a fraction of the cost (in every sense of the word).

      I’ll take my quinoa, sprouted wheat, brown rice, amaranth, fresh fruits, nuts and vegetables and a world of legumes other than soy (nothing wrong with it). Think of it as more meat for you.

  9. sandra schwanberg says:

    Please see the Quivira Coalition http://www.quiviracoalition.org for information about sustainable agriculture and grazing. Their work focuses on healthy soil as the foundation for healthy ecosystems, including large grazing areas.

  10. Rick Ferriss says:

    As a vegetarian and retired agricultural scientist (plant pathology), I was disappointed with part of the Sustainable Myth article. Dr McWilliams says: “if a farmer isn’t growing his own feed, the nutrients going into the soil have been purloined from another, most likely industrial, farm, thereby undermining the benefits of nutrient cycling.” He seems to ignore the ecological reality that if mineral nutrients are removed from an ecosystem (such as in the form of produce or animals from a factory farm or organic farm), they must be replaced with inputs from outside, or the nutrient content of the soil/farm system will decline. It doesn’t matter whether or not a farmer is growing his own feed; except for nitrogen, nutrients must be actively imported in some way or we are depleting the soil. I too would like to see a decline in factory farms, but we do a disservice to the cause when we ignore science.

  11. Ted DesMaisons says:

    I just read the piece in the Times. Thanks for the thought-provocation.

    I do have a question. Your piece seems to assume a constant level of demand for meat. Do you think sustainable meat production is possible if we were all to reduce our consumption significantly–like, say, three times a week instead of three times a day?

    Clearly, it’s not sustainable at current levels of demand.

    • Sarah says:

      Yes, thank you! If there weren’t hugh fast food conglomerates and other “cheap” eateries, we wouldn’t need so many f-ing cows. Also, please check out the Small Farmer’s Journal (I don’t work for them) and other info sources that explain the nutrient cycle very clearly. As a pastured poultry producer, I’m appalled that anyone would believe the dribble present in McWilliams Time’s letter.

  12. I have included an article I wrote about 2 years ago. In a globalized world, commodities such as food or fossil fuel require comprehensive and intelligent policies and not populist political solutions. With some planning the world can survive and prosper with carnivores and vegans.

    OY, SOY
    April 11, 2011
    No one pays much attention to the food chain until there is a shortage or until prices rise substantially. While the inflation index (CPI) has barely budged in America, the price of the stuff we really need to survive, coarse grains, corn, wheat and soy have nearly doubled in the last year shadowing crude oil’s strong rise. Most carnivores don’t care if the veggie-heads pay more for their soy milk, wheat sprouts, organic popcorn or even soft drinks, which mostly use corn sweeteners anyway.

    Unfortunately, the price of these raw agricultural products affects the price of beef, pork and poultry along with nearly everything else we eat. In the case of beef, after they leave the ranch, animals are fed between three and four pounds of raw or semi-processed grain to create one pound of beef. It is slightly less for pork and even less for poultry.

    Because of the price increases in these agricultural products that we produce in abundance in the United States, a few dimwits in Congress have proposed an export ban as a solution to bring prices down. Congress has yet to grasp that in spite of our huge surpluses, bakers in Americans pay about the same for a bushel of corn, soy or wheat as a baker would in Asia should they be importing our grain –less their transportation cost to ship the product. This shocking fact is known as a free market economy.

    One of the big culprits in boosting food prices is bio-fuels. I’m not sure I agree with the concept of putting food in our gas tanks, which is the thrust of our national ethanol program. Currently, about one-third of our corn harvest goes into ethanol production and Congress is intent on increasing that figure to about half the domestic corn crop or a 15% blend with the gasoline we buy at our local service station. Generous subsidies are part of our domestic ethanol program along with a high tariff that keeps Brazil’s better-quality sugar based ethanol out of our market.

    The price of raw agricultural products will rise because of demand not only for a food source but for a fuel source as well. As a general rule agricultural commodities rise as the value of the dollar weakens against other currencies. Most Americans are oblivious to this relationship between commodities and our currency strength, but the end result is inflation and then higher interest rates. Those of us old enough to remember Jimmy Carter’s frightful economic policies worry we’re heading down that road again.

    I suppose the cruelest health and environmental quandary lies with soy. Americans thrive on hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oil – heated vegetable oils, generally soy, palm or coconut are injected with hydrogen and often mixed with sugar. This creates a wonderful solid mass that can be found inside a Twinkie, other baked goods and the arteries of some of my dearest friends. Hydrogenated oil, like nuclear material, is an extreme health hazard and it shares a similar half-life or shelf life with its radioactive cousin. It is found in nearly every processed food in America and is a leading cause of obesity and a wide range of other medical conditions.

    The other down side of growing soy is the total disregard for the environment. The largest growers and exporters of soy are the United States, Brazil and Argentina. Like corn, soy has become another prime source of bio-fuel, the farming of which is wreaking havoc upon several of the world’s major tree canopies. It is a mystery to me how environmentalists can support the clearing of forests and jungles, large areas of carbon receptors, in order to propagate soy or palm plantations for bio-fuel.

    Large swaths of forests have already been and are still being cleared throughout South America, Borneo, Africa and Southeast Asia to grow soy and palm for use as bio-fuel. Since the 1970′s the Brazilian Amazon has lost an area the size of Texas to cattle grazing and bean cultivation. The Amazon is the world’s largest carbon drain, but it is becoming the starkest example of deforestation. The Brazilian government’s official stand is “soy or poverty.” Coincidentally, the former Governor of the Amazon Region (2003-2010) in the State of Mato Grosso, Blairo Maggi and his family are also the world’s largest privately held soy producer.

    The paradox is striking because those saving the planet from global warming are causing the destruction of the world’s largest carbon neutralizers. Add to this the carbon footprint left by processing grains into fuel and one wonders if Drill, Baby, Drill is not a more comprehensive energy policy?

    The destruction of the Amazon is catastrophic, but there is a worse scenario. The Amazon forest along with the Andes creates a north-south barrier that channel humid winds through the most productive agricultural regions on the continent. These “flying rivers” ensure rainfall for all of southern Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay and Argentina and are responsible for making this area a world leader in agricultural commodities.

    Cleared forests never get to grow again and once prevailing winds and moisture patterns are altered they can never be replicated. Deforestation generally leads to adverse climate phenomena, which lead to desertification and desolation. At the same time, countries that have limited arable land are attempting to buy huge areas in the Philippines, South America and Africa that will eventually lead to more crop cultivation.

    I am not sure we have a clear energy policy in America, but we have managed to make some policy contingent on our agricultural capacity, which is already rife with subsidies. Raw agricultural products are healthy – processed products provide cheaper options but they often encourage poor food choices by the general public. One can easily make a case that processed grain for consumption or for fuel may be more harmful than helpful to the health of individuals and the planet. Eventually we may decide the politically exaggerated benefits simply do not outweigh the destruction.

    • mary says:

      If I understand your premise to be that production of additional soy for fuel is an enviromental mistake, wouldn’t the same be true for production of soy (the three to four pounds required per pound of beef that you mention) for livestock?

      • Kathy says:

        The same can be said for all non-GMO production of soy (for fuel, beef, veggie burgers, additives, fillers, inks, and more.) 91% of soy in the US is GMO. It’s ubiquitous; according to Raj Patel, it’s in 75% of items on grocery store shelves, 100% of fast food, and it’s a top 8 allergen (I wonder why…). I want to know why, while everyone is still (justifiably) upset about corn, Pollan et al don’t speak out more against soy. Its so-called benefits are questionable, and most research takes place in universities funded by Monsanto and Archer Daniels-Midland. What independent research has been conducted as shown hormonal disruption and infertility. As Mr. Kravitz writes, they’re clearing the rainforests in Brazil, both for beef and soy production for worldwide consumption. I’ve been speaking out against soy for the past few months. If you’d like to read more, please visit: http://www.subtractsoynow.com

  13. Rita says:

    I don’t think you’ll find many people in the alternative ranching movement who think we need to produce 100million cows. Most of us would agree that Americans eat too much meat, and that in addition to changing the way we raise animals, we need to change our diets. What if we only raised 33million cows, and did it on pasture? What if we breed forage crops that produce less methane? What if we breed cattle that do a better job digesting on grass? Your entire argument is flawed because you are trying to transpose a snap shot of the current industrial model on to the alternative model, and while doing it you stop the actuality and facts of time, innovation, and ongoing research that will inevitably drive us to continued improvements in organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture.

    • Evan says:

      Thank you for also pointing that out. My thoughts exactly. The flaw is the assumption of continued unchanging rates of consumption when all other variables change. No justification for that assumption mentioned in the article.

  14. Tony Weston says:

    RE: your NYTimes article, you conclude with the statement: “We need a bolder declaration.”

    How about humans as food for humans? A recurring idea, e.g., “A Modest Proposal” and “Soylent Green.” Marketing should have no trouble inventing terminology to replace “cannibalism.” And governments can be co-opted by making sure there are tax revenues from the sales. We certainly don’t lack for supply, with 313 million Americans and a world population of 7 billion. We could exceed the sustainable yield for a long time!

  15. glkanter says:

    What a delight to read well-reasoned, non-abusive dissent *and* support regarding the Times article.

    You don’t see that everywhere.

    Thanks to everyone!!!

  16. Evan says:

    Just read your NYT article today. I think you twist all of your conclusions around one assumption: that if small scale farming and other more sustainable practices were in use all over the country, we should calculate what that would mean ecologically, BASED ON EQUAL TOTAL CONSUMPTION. But that assumption is not a safe one to make. Look at any of the people who place self-imposed limits on their animal consumption (e.g. “I only eat meat if I know the person who killed it.”) and you see people who consume less meat. Look at the price of sustainably farmed eggs, meat, milk.. it’s more expensive… so we end up consuming less.
    In other words, switching to small scale farming is less efficient at producing meat, and that is a good thing. The costs to the environment, the costs to the farmer, the cost to the nutrient cycle… all are more easily witnessed and grasped by local consumers and all of them factor into the value, and thus the price, of that meat.
    Considering that for health reasons, most people should be eating less meat, this works out very well.

    On other topics such as veganism, I will debate you anytime you want…. til the cows come home. 😉

  17. L. M. says:

    Hello Dr. McWilliams, I work at GOOD Magazine and we’re launching a food campaign this summer. It would be wonderful if we could collaborate with you. Can you email me if you are available to discuss in more detail? thanks!

  18. Sally Brown says:

    An interesting op ed piece in the NYT. One factor that you don’t mention is the potential for human manure to be recycled back into soils as a part of recycling both organic matter and nutrients. Granted, we are much less productive in that way than a cow or a pig

  19. Zach says:

    The NY TIMES article was very disappointing because of its terribly one sided and non holistic approach. Pasture raised animals produces a much higher quality of animal products and does much less damage to the environment. The methane emissions vary by the condition of the pasture among other factors.Cows on pasture do not produce these impressive amounts of green house gasses if managed properly. Cows are also important components of farming due to their impressive manure production.Also, chickens are not natural grazers; nevertheless, methods have been developed to produce them at high efficiency on pasture lands. Furthermore, pasture lands can support multiple farm animals together including cattle, sheep, and chickens. For this to be sustainable it has to be developed to include more animals like ducks and goats. These animals use different aspects of low quality lands that are under utilized by food production or used for inefficient biofuels. Also to be sustainable, humans have to start thinking of their waste as manure, so that your meat or plant products are returned to the farm as fertilizer.
    The human diet is diverse and complex. Small amounts of meet are important to health and morbidity. Eating meat is sustainable

  20. Daniel says:

    “A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle.” To visualize this, I suggest visiting http://overlapmaps.com/ and overlapping France onto Brazil; it’s worth a thousand words.

  21. If I understand your premise to be that production of additional soy for fuel is an enviromental mistake, wouldn’t the same be true for production of soy (the three to four pounds required per pound of beef that you mention) for livestock?

    Mary,

    Yes and no. Beef are not usually feed soy beans because the beans are too valuable for other uses. Normally, beans are processed to yield soy oil which have thousands of uses in the human food chain and the oil can be easily converted to bio-fuel. The hulls of the beans are compressed into soy pellets and that is usually fed to livestock. Cattle at feed lots are also fed “feed wheat” which by its name denotes it as unusable for human consumption generally because of low protein or damage from insects or too much or too little moisture. Edible corn is also used along with a variety of bi-products usually made from residue material in food processing. Dried Distiller’s Grain (DDG) a bi-product of ethanol has become a popular feed.

    We must also bear in mind the USA is the number one course grain supplier to the world through exports and that any dramatic reduction in production would have a worldwide impact on prices and availability. Therefore, this is not a national issue of eating less meat or organic production, it is a worldwide problem as acute as energy or clean water. I believe we need to be more cautious before expanding relentlessly into bio-fuels

    Regards,
    Lou

  22. Dear Mr. McWilliams,
    Thank you for your thought-provoking writing. Clearly, we need this discussion.

    I would love for you to write more about the issues with soy. I posted some facts in the discussion above. Here’s hoping that soy will be the next HFCS, gluten, pink slime, etc.

    Thanks for your efforts,
    Kathy

  23. Patty McIntire says:

    These small farms are sustainable if people would move to a more plant based diet and away from the unhealthy diets, and slaughtering of so many animals on such a large scale. It’s not up to the small farmers to fix the problem….it’s up to an enlightened consumer to lower the need for the large factory feedlots.

  24. brian lindberg says:

    I just read your op-ed piece in the NY Times….I don’t believe that Pollan is correct about needing animals to cycle nutrients in ag production systems. One of my most interesting insights was when I realized that the microorganisms in my compost piles were performing the same function as a horse or a cow does when it produces manure. I haven’t sought animal manures since then, with no loss of soil vitality. Mulch and compost…..

  25. Hi Dr Williams,

    I just read your article in The New York Times. I was very surprised by a number of your assertions. You and I must live in very different worlds because we have come to very different conclusions.

    I produce most of the food my family eats. I use permaculture, forest gardening and herding. I milk my own cow and collect eggs from my hens. I grow, slaughter and eat my animals and fowl. I do this on 0.5 acres of industrial land and 4.5 acres of brittle grasslands. I hope that my next house will be off-the-grid. Growing my family’s food is a lot of work. but I feel somehow more connected to my food when I know where it came from.

    You said: “Although these smaller systems appear to be environmentally sustainable, considerable evidence suggests otherwise.” I feel sad to have my food self-sufficiency project be considered little better then industrial models. I can also see it makes you sad that I kill and eat my animals and you would rather I didn’t.

    If every domesticated animal in the world disappeared tomorrow, our society would still have serious problems. People would still go hungry. Our world would still be polluted. Maybe growing my own food and dreaming about living off-the-grid will not save the world but it has changed me and changed my world. I feel grateful for every life, plant, animal and microbe, that gives its life for me to have mine. I look at my strong, healthy children and marvel at the circle of life… and death. I know one day I will also be recycled too.

    With Affection,
    Caroline Cooper

    • LaLa says:

      And I look at my strong healthy vegan children and marvel at the fact that we can live so well without intentionally confining and killing other animals. And I’m amazed that so few people choose to do so.

      By the way, animals don’t “give” their lives to you. You take their lives. You can pretend like it’s an agreement all you want, but the truth of the matter is, all sentient beings, by virtue of their sentience, desire to continue living. This is why “your” cow will run away from you if you start to beat her. She desires to continue living and live free from harm.

      Is death inevitable? Yes. Does that mean we should kill when we don’t need to? Of course not.

  26. tmgieseke says:

    Your article does contain many truths, but they are not applicable or true everywhere. Your recommendations on how I manage my and everyone else’s farm, of course, does not work. The economy and the ecology are far too complex to be contained in any one’s recommendation. Give a thought to Symbiotic Demand – https://prezi.com/tpfaewgz1jie/apportioning-ecological-values-and-costs-through-symbiotic-demand/
    It will provide you with a new impression on the ecological-economical dance we are soon to engage in.

  27. Tyler Reynolds says:

    Does any vegan understand the basic fault in the emotional argument based on compassion for animals is that if humans did not raise livestock for consumption they would be extinct. Disease and overpopulation would eventually destroy them. Cattle, hogs, and chickens are not wild and would not survive without our cultivation. Not to mention the benefits livestock has on the local ecosystem and on human health if maintained correctly to avoid overpopulation, fed naturally, and processed humanely.
    Local honey has the ability to provide immunity support in in the human body and health of animals that survive on it. Oops, vegans dont eat that either. I suppose we just eradicate the cultivation of honey and we can watch the desication

    • Tyler Reynolds says:

      Of the local ecosystem. Eating local meat is the fundamental act of practicing sustainability.

      • Patrick Weix says:

        Actually, vegans understand this. Most vegans to not have a fuzzy-headed “all life is pwecious” philosophy; they have a “sentient beings should be allowed to live self determined lives” philosophy. Is being kept alive in cages and slaughtered for meat better or worse than being allowed to go extinct? I’d go nuts locked in a broom closet for a day, let alone a gestation crate or a battery hen cage for years.

        For what it is worth, I’ve followed a plant based diet for 2.5 years after a life of heavy meat eating and have never felt better. I’m not judging anyone here, as I used to feel same way. But my health and energy are so much better eating this way, and 10 billion land animals are killed for food each year in the US alone. 10 Billion.

        As for honey, read about the bee die-offs from pesticide residue in the replacement HFCS after honey harvesting, and get back to us.

        And vegan, even in a dietary since, does not equal “soy based”.

  28. glkanter says:

    I’m lost in this conversation. Livestock has countless reasons for being on this planet. Putting them in warehouses where they serve only a single function – feeding us – is the pinacle of arrogance.

    This ain’t complicated: Do it the way nature designed it. Using 2012 tools. And quit feeding them antibiotics. Which means remove them from their own feces. And return them to the natural grazing areas where they can move and poop and carry pollen from here to there, or whatever they do. Plus the zillions of other things they do in nature.

    Enough is enough, already!

  29. There are far too many misconceptions and inaccuracies in your article to deal with all of them in one short reply. I am an organic farmer. I farmed ‘conventionally’ for 20 years before transitioning to organic. I have participated (as PI on some and co-autor on others) in many research projects that deal with the exact same subjects you discus in your article. Here are a few examples: Your assertion that grain fed animals release more methane than pasture fed cattle is simply wrong, and by a wide margin I might add. if you actually include the entire
    production system in your calculations rather than ignoring a substantial part of it . *see the ‘Shades of green calculator’ by Benbrook et al at the Organic Center.org. Your figure of “2 to 20 acres” to feed a beef animal on grass is absolutely ridiculous if you are talking about land that could also produce grains or vegetables. That figure could be correct for land suitable only for grazing but please don’t imply or assume that such land could be cultivated if it were not being grazed. I actually agree with many of the points you make in your article but they are weakened by the lack of good factual information. I invite and challenge you to research your information more completely and write a followup piece.

  30. Xogenesis says:

    Looks like this vegan guy’s faulty reasoning and shallow reasearch have been shown up by the majority of replies so far. Annual seed crops supported mostly by petroleum based fertilizers are the primary reason the planet has 7 billion humans on it. Is this sustainable? Only whacky small thinkers would say yes. Topsoil building demands the presence together of co-evolved herbivores and grasses. Kind of a bad place we find ourselves.

  31. chris collins says:

    There is a grain of truth in all the above because ecological circumstances are so diverse and causes and effects so are perversely linked … Catching fish and harvesting semi- wild animals (non rumintants ideally) – may be ecologically sound if populations could be managed sustainably. But who does that and anyway this is not an option for everyone. Food miles may count but how much? Recent research shows the fossil fuel input to some production systems in some locations (local greenhouses) may outweight transport considerations. So much fossil fuel goes into many food systems that may in some circumatances be better to drive a scooter than bicycle – in fact it may be good if we could directly eat gasolene.

    The point is – because we cannot generalise we find it hard to develop personal or public policy responses to the issue of food choices and issues such as climate change (ethics is another matter – but much of the argument above is ethics looking for a utility or self-interest footing). We have got to this point because of overpopulation. Almost everything we do stresses the planet and yet there are no right answers to get out of the inpasse.

    When a human population is operating below the assimilative capacity of its environment, below the radar so to speak, we have a lot of options and luxuries – time to lean more about ourselves and our environment for example. At the risk of generalising myself it is critically important that we remove all policies that encourage human population growth, such as misguided food aid in already overpopulated regions, or – closer to home -the mass of cross subsidies, welfare handouts and tax rebates that encourage childbirth in the developed nations. We also need to encourage programs that help reduce fertility, such a better education for women in the developing nations.

    You could even mount a separate ethical argument that humans have a duty to share the resources of the planet in a way that other species are sufficiently abundant and have enough time to have a remote chance of continuing their evolution. This leads to an argument for depopulation since we already have too many people to allow space for any creatures beyond algae and ants.

    • royalestel says:

      Okay; Really misanthropic at the end there. The largest immediate problem I do not believe has been caused by overpopulation but by tyranny and over-governing. With a truly free market for food in the U.S. nearly all industrial farmers would have to change their methods almost overnight. Industrial methods are simply not profitable without subsidies. So if we phased them out, we’d see much faster shifts to other products and methods than soy and corn. That’s not a catch all for worldwide production, but a data point.

      As for “overpopulation” in rising economies, even in dirt-poor societies, human beings have an amazing capacity to solve problems and live while respecting the world around, if rule of law and self-determination prevail.

      Look, I don’t believe we’ve scratched the surface of a good, sustainable way to live with our current population. I think the world could certainly hold 80 billion-but we’d all have to garden, for starters, and I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  32. brian lindberg says:

    unfortunately, any discussion of the necessity of decreasing our numbers runs into a plethora of religious shibboleths….our best hope is probably in the virus kingdom.

  33. I have a read a few of your items and it is painfully obvious you have never done any farming or raising livestock from what you write. While, a non-farming food consumer can possibly relate to what you are writing – us fellow farmers can barely stop from wincing at how little you actually know. It’s almost embarrassing because you are a good writer and you mean well. But it is obvious that you know almost nothing at all about farming. It is like reading an article written by a Hair Salon owner on how to tune up a ’57 Chevy.

    You might consider running your own farm before you write any more on the subject.

  34. greenbing says:

    Mr. McWilliams, I just read your recent op Ed piece in the Ny Times titled “The Myth of Sustainable Meat”. I completely appreciate the vegan sentiment and the idea that the world would be a better place if we chose not to kill animals in order to eat. However, as an agricultural scientist, I have to disagree with many of the arguments you made In regards to the sustainability of organic, pasture-based protein production. I live in Bastrop, just outside of Austin, and I would be glad to meet with you in Austin sometime so we could sit down and discuss the scientific details of pasture based farming.

  35. Joan Beeson-Healy says:

    The tragedy of this is not the argument between vegans and omnivores, it’s that Dr. McWilliams is a respected writer and commentator on food and the New York Times is one of our most respected news institutions and they both choose to perpetuate the misinformation that is ruining the very basis of our culture, our entire food ecosystem. All the while big agribusiness is ruining the environment and our health, reaping egregious profits and you choose to take on the small, sustainable farmers? You should be ashamed of yourselves — Americans believe you!

    • Joan,
      Respectfully, I think your perspective on food and agriculture is simplistic. See this post to gain a deeper sense of my vegan advocacy:
      https://eatingplantsdotorg.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/veganism-its-what-gives-big-ag-real-nightmares/. I’m actually as opposed to Big Ag as anyone. I deeply believe, though, that as long as we have animal agriculture–no matter how small and “sustainable” it may be–the industrial model will always prevail. It’s basic economics. Veganism is the real threat to industrial food. Big Ag could care less about small sustainable alternatives. I know this because I’ve spent a long time interviewing Big Ag execs. In calling for a radical response to Big Ag (veganism)–rather than a lukewarm alternative (what you seek)–I feel no shame whatsoever.
      JM

  36. Wayne says:

    Mr. McWilliams I believe you are doing much more harm than good with your attempt to drive the wedge in deeper between vegans and those that consume and produce pastured livestock. The sustainable farmer is already under attack at every turn by big ag influenced government policy. Your article erodes support for proper farming and it does it through quite a bit of inaccurate and dubious argument. You assert that gras fed cattle exudes excessive methane without mentioning that the carbon that is sequestered in the ground through rotational grazing much more than offsets the methane released. I know you have heard of this and it is dubious in the extreme to not mention it. Would you have us kill off the millions of bison all over again because they fart too much? Were those millions of bison bad for the environment?

    Joel Salatin feeding his chickens conventional grain is a problem, you are correct to point this out. It is a transitional problem though. Farmers who attempt to raise pigs and chickens in a humane and sustainable way are desperate for a solution. Organic grain is very expensive and unavailable in most places. This problem is due to the fact that traditional farming infrastructure was entirely destroyed in the 20th century. Many people are desperately trying to rebuild that infrastructure. This movement is tiny and unfortunately will likely fail unless there is a real groundswell of support and dollars.

    Have you read J. russell Smith’s book tree crops? If not you should. http://www.amazon.com/Tree-Crops-Permanent-Agriculture-Conservation/dp/0933280440 He offered the proper way forward way back in the 1930’s. Non ruminant livestock can be fed quite well on site from the fruits and nuts that fall from the correct tree crops. Almost nobody is doing this but it is the solution. Anyone who is reading this who is raising pigs, chickens or turkeys on a small farm, I urge you to plant your mulberry, persimmons, honey locusts, chestnuts, etc. right now because you will not want to be hooked into the commodity grain system in a few years. Mulberry only takes 5 years to profitably produce and can fatten hogs or a chickens entirely. You let the fuit fall and the animals harvest it themselves on site. We must become independent and and close the loops. Mr. McWilliams: If you want a vision for a truly sustainable food system for this country, picture an endless forest of crop producing trees. Maybe you could use your big microphone in a better way? Unless you think that monocultures of soy and corn woud be better than endless walnut trees.

    Your point about scaling up being the eventual problem is sort of silly. If someone had 100,000 acres and was able to maximize production and efficiency while improving the soil and allowing the animals to express their inclinations, that person would be doing a very good thing. As a conjecture it is only based on a flimsy opinion that you hold that all agriculture will eventually turn into the agribusiness model. The whole point is a rejection of that model and prioritizing the health of the soil and proper treatment of animals. It is very cynical (and not very logical) to assert that those values will be abandoned if we embrace those values.

    • brian lindberg says:

      I think it is fair to say that McWilliams lets the perfect be the enemy of the better. To put it differently, the road from 1 to 10 travels through 9 numbers. On the other hand, those who give strong voice to an attainable ideal, to the extent that they do not appear to be dogmatically adhering to an idee fixe, are the motive energy of change in the right direction.

    • royalestel says:

      Hey, that tree crops idea just might be the link I’m missing. Thanks!

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