The new site is up and working! IF YOU SUBSCRIBE to you will have to RE-SUBSCRIBE at I apologize for this inconvenience. In any case, check in now, subscribe (and invite a friend to subscribe!), and look for a post later today.

On another note, I just want to thank all readers and subscribers. When I started this blog less than a year ago I never could have imagined that it would grow the way it has. Close to 60,000 hits, hundreds of subscribers, and counting. I’m humbled.

Peace and Courage,

James McWilliams


ANNOUNCEMENT: Eating Plants is Moving . . .

I will be moving this blog to a new location–the addrress of which will be posted here on Monday. In order to prevent the loss of content during the transfer period, I’m “shutting down” operations this weekend.  So, no new content this weekend, and if you post a comment during this period it will likely not make the transfer.  That said, I appreciate very much the active and engaged and intelligent participation of those who follow my blog. In fact, I’m honored. So, check in on Monday and plan to experience a larger, more involved website. Thanks!

James McWilliams


On April 28 activists in Northern Italy–over 1000 of them–raided a facility that breeds beagles for the purposes of vivisection.  The facility, Green Hill Breeders, breeds beagles to meet a variety of special orders, and has even fulfilled client requests to provide beagles without vocal chords so they do not howl when being tortured. The activists liberated 25 beagles. Twelve people were arrested–it remains to be seen how they will be treated. It’s worth noting that in the United States, this kind of act would qualify as terrorism. It’s also worth noting that the North American press has not touched upon this heroic event. Too busy, I suppose, arranging contests assuring us that it’s perfectly okay to raise, kill, and commodify animals as long as the “biotic” community is unharmed.

In any case, here is a video of the rescue:

Slow Food for the Masses?: Good Luck

Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to attend a panel discussion at MIT moderated by The Atlantic’s Corby Kummer. Participants were Barry Estabrook, author of Tomatoland; Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating; and John (“Doc”) Willoughby, former executive editor of Cook’s Illustrated. Topics ranged the gamut, covering the role of tweets and hashtags in contemporary journalism to the most effective method of food reform (bottom up? top down?). The prevailing preoccupation, however, was how to make “good food” available to everyone. Although no one put it quite this way, the collective goal was to figure out how insiders might persuade outsiders–say, consumers still eating fast food and canned vegetables–to support fresh, local, non-processed, high-quality, “slow” food.

For understandable reasons, panelists treaded carefully through this cultural minefield. Tact, however, didn’t stop them from providing insightful observations. McMillan, who seems instinctively suspicious of the entire “foodie” project, threw an opening wrench into the event by noting that the migrant workers with whom she picked garlic in California were fiercely dedicated to eating high-quality traditional food while own mother could have given a hoot about “fancy” meals (her book, by the way, is awesome). Estabrook hewed tightly to an economic theme, suggesting that we couldn’t expect Florida tomato pickers to eat well when they were locked in the ever-tightening vice of longer hours and lower wages. Real food, he noted, required basic economic justice: people should be able to buy what they picked (a point reiterated by McMillan). Willoughby, a gourmand who admitted eating a McDonald’s hamburger once every two weeks, explained how hard-edged journalism that might effectively awake the masses was increasingly difficult to publish due to pressure from wary advertisers. Nobody, it turns out, wants their product promoted in the margins of an expose on the horrors of pink slime.

So lots of engaging ideas about food were bouncing around MIT. Nonetheless, while it would be ridiculous to expect anyone to solve the problem of how to democratize the desire for (and access to) “real food,” the panelists were verbally and visibly confounded by the task. Corby expressed “existential despair” over the prospect of such reform. I felt it, too, as I always do in these discussions.

I imagine, moreover, that very few of us missed the paradox framing the event: here, after all, was a room of highly educated, upwardly mobile, and culturally sophisticated journalists sitting on the top floor of a building overlooking the Charles River at one of the most elite schools in the world, and we were trying to figure out how to . . . well, how to get those who scraped our plates after lunch to eat the way we do. Adding irony to paradox, two of the panelists made a “popular sovereignty” plea for food choice, suggesting that they would never tell people what they should be eating, forgetting (I think) that that’s what we were doing (I thought).

In short, the best and brightest in the food world were brilliant at highlighting the problem at hand but stymied, sometimes awkwardly so, when it came to providing solutions.

I’m not sure that the situation could be otherwise, at least not now. Academics and journalists, emotionally drawn to equality but often intellectually inclined otherwise, can be quick to deliver pronouncements–end subsidies! stop food deserts! stick it to the Farm Bill! boycott Walmart! get rid of Monsanto!–but much slower when it comes to the precise details as to how. I really don’t think there are viable answers to the dilemma of making real food, good food, slow food, local food–call it what you will–a standard, and standardly desired, option. At least not currently. Perhaps we (that is, those of us interested in reforming food systems) should begin not by grappling for solutions to our food crisis but–as writers such as Eric Schlosser have already done–highlighting in as much specificity and honesty as possible the real barriers to change. I say this because I don’t think we’ve fully appreciated the height and strength of these barriers.

Here are some starting points for developing a better understanding of why solutions are so hard to achieve–that is, why obstacles to change are so daunting. By no means is what follows comprehensive, but here goes:

·     There is no technological infrastructure to support the decentralized, diverse food system we’d like to see widely available to consumers of all socioeconomic backgrounds. Ushering a novel idea from theory to practice typically requires a brute-force technological advance. Consider fresh produce. We tend to think that pre-industrial consumers lived in a lush Eden of fresh food, supping on what fell from the heavens as they skipped through the garden. The fact is that fresh food was the rarest of luxuries. Apples were pressed into cider, corn into whiskey; meat was smoked, fish was salted, fruit brined. Wheat was processed into bread and often eaten when hard as tack and black as fungus. The nineteenth and early twentieth centuries represented the apogee of canned goods. Only one thing and one thing alone made “fresh” a relatively common expectation: the refrigerator. Slow food, if it’s going to go mainstream, needs its version of the refrigerator. I should add that I have no idea what that invention might be.

·      To some extent, elites want to stay elite. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this desire, but still, it’s a cultural reality we need to confront. People with excess capital–be it social, cultural, or intellectual–generally prefer to protect the uniqueness of their investment (or inheritance) by keeping arrivistes at bay. This impulse is evident with many material objects–cars, clothing, art. But it seems especially easy to act on when it comes to food. As the idea of eating well is increasingly rooted in culinary esthetics, the desire to exclusively possess the rarest esthetic of eating intensifies. You know you’re about to start seeing $4 peaches when you eat $3 peaches. You know you’re about to eat backyard chicken when you eat chicken from the local farm. You know you’re about to eat the face of a pig when you’ve eaten its feet. In other words, esthetically self-conscious consumers, consciously or not, like to stay a dollar, a mile, and an odd body part ahead of the competition. Economically speaking, current conceptions of “good food” tend to rely on characteristics that cost more to attain and, as a result, are inherently bound to make products less accessible and more expensive. Irrespective of federal policies, locally sourced food generally costs more because producers aren’t making money on the margins through high volume and widespread distribution. Organic food costs more, in part, because it’s more labor-intensive to grow food without synthetic inputs. (Inputs that are not really saved, because many organic growers pay a lot of money for organic fertilizer and pesticides.) A consistent supply of “slow” food, in its emphasis on terroir and rarity, is necessarily off limits to mainstream consumers. My point in this ramble: there are clear economic obstacles to seeking the kind of reformed systems we seek. To think that consumers will wake up to horrors of industrial food and start spending more on the pricier alternatives strikes me as deeply unrealistic. Maybe once or twice, but not as a habit.

There are, in sum, entrenched technological, cultural, and economic realities that powerfully mitigate against the mass acceptance and popularization of commonly articulated food reforms. Corby’s “existential despair” is, good to know, rooted in the reality of existence. As the food intelligentsia continues to valiantly contemplate, and offer solutions to, the systemic problems marring food systems, we must keep in mind that we’ve inherited a mess a century in the making. The landscape has to be cleared before a new reality sprouts. That will take time, and patience. In the meantime, if my three suggested starting points are worth anything, we might very well start envisioning reforms that stand a fighting chance of clearing the barriers–reforms that are technologically feasible, as immune as possible to the esthetics of taste, and, put simply, affordable.

News for Nicholas Kristof: Organic Chicken Feed Isn’t What You Want It To Be

Check out Nicholas Kristof’s column today. He reports that chickens on industrial farms are fed all manner of unexpected chemicals, including arsenic. Why anyone would be surprised at this discovery is beyond me but, nonetheless, good for Kristof for keeping the heat on industrial agriculture. The real problem with his piece, though, is the absurd conclusion. He writes,

What does all this mean for consumers? The study looked only at feathers, not meat, so we don’t know exactly what chemicals reach the plate, or at what levels. The uncertainties are enormous, but I asked Nachman about the food he buys for his own family. “I’ve been studying food-animal production for some time, and the more I study, the more I’m drawn to organic,” he said. “We buy organic.”

I’m the same. I used to be skeptical of organic, but the more reporting I do on our food supply, the more I want my own family eating organic — just to be safe.

So, Kristof assumes that all is well with organic chicken feed. But is it? Here’s the nutrient profile of one of the higher end examples of organic chicken feed:


Countryside Natural Products

Organic Soy-Free Poultry Starter Feed


Organic Field Peas, Organic Wheat, Organic Corn, Fish Meal, Organic Oats, Organic Flaxseed, Organic Alfalfa Meal, Calcium Carbonate, Hydrated Sodium Calcium Aluminosilicate, Dried Organic Kelp, Dicalcium Phosphate, Salt, Sodium Selenite, Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Choline, Menadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex, d-Pantothenic Acid, Niacin, Riboflavin, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Thiamine, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Biotin, Folic Acid, Iron Polysaccharide Complex, Manganese Polysaccharide Complex, Zinc Polysaccharide Complex, Copper Polysaccharide Complex, Cobalt Polysaccharide Complex, Yeast Culture, Dried Lactobacillus Acidophilus Fermentation Product, Bacillus Licheniformis, Bacillus Subtilis, Lactobacillus Lactis, Enterococcus Faecium, (Dried Aspergillis Oryzae Fermentation Extract)

Not only do many of these ingredients violate the Pollan-esque dictum not to eat anything that has an ingredient you can’t pronounce, but a quick search of the scientific literature reveals that many of these mystery ingredients are, at least in high doses, toxic. A quick sample:

Sodium Selenite

The Journal of American College of Nutrition reports not much was known about which selenium compounds to approve for use in animal feeds when the decisions were made back in the 1970’s. “At the time the regulatory action was taken, only the inorganic selenium salts (sodium selenite and sodium selenate) were available at a cost permitting their use in animal feed.” Science has since learned that these inorganic selenium sources (sodium selenite most commonly used in pet foods) can be toxic in high doses; effecting an animal’s blood, liver, and muscles. The organic selenium yeast on the other hand, has proven to be far less toxic, even in large doses. “A study with rats showed that high doses (1.5 and 3.0 mg/kg body weight) of organic selenium in Selenium Yeast did not have any toxic effects after 14 days. This level of selenium is much higher than the theoretical toxic level for inorganic selenium.”


Menadione Sodium Bisulfate

This ingredient can be highly toxic in high doses. Hazard information regarding menadione lists “carcinogenic effects” and states “the substance is toxic to kidneys, lungs, liver, mucous membranes. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.” ( sodium bisulfite-9924604) More information on menadione sodium bisulfate and pets can be read at ( .


Pyridoxine Hydrochloride

An excess of pyridoxine is toxic and may result in damage to your nerves in your arms and legs called neuropathy. The excess usually comes from overconsumption of nutritional supplements that contain pyridoxine. The upper tolerable intake level for pyridoxine is 100 mg per day for adults. The risk for neuropathy increases as the supplement dosage or total daily intake of pyridoxine exceeds 100 mg per day. When dosage falls below 100 mg, the symptoms of neuropathy may be reversible. Research by Martijn Katan Ph.D. published in “Nederlands Tijdschrift Voor Geneeskunde” in 2005 reports that intake of pyridoxine at doses of 1000 mg per day or more is toxic and causes neuropathy; this dosage is about 800 times the daily intake from foods. The research also reports cases of two patients with neurotoxicity from taking 24 mg and 40 mg of pyridoxine per day


Enterococcus Faecium

Although the opportunistic bacterial pathogen Enterococcus faecium is a leading source of nosocomial infections, it appears to lack many of the overt virulence factors produced by other bacterial pathogens, and the underlying mechanism of pathogenesis is not clear. Using E. faecium-mediated killing of the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans as an indicator of toxicity, we determined that E. faecium produces hydrogen peroxide at levels that cause cellular damage  . . . These results suggest that hydrogen peroxide produced by E. faecium has cytotoxic effects and highlight the utility of C. elegans pathogenicity models for identifying bacterial virulence factors.



“The uncertainties,” as Kristof writes, “are enormous.” But still . . .

The List: A Work in Progress

Everyone likes lists. So here’s my general list of why I think all alternative agricultural systems producing animal products are ultimately unsustainable. Consider it a kind of crib sheet.

1) Although often better than industrial systems, they aren’t as environmentally sustainable as plant-based systems.

2) As in industrial agriculture, they commodify animals and, in turn, objectify them, thereby denying their intrinsic value–something enlightened consumers claim to care about.

3) By supporting the consumption of animal products, they indirectly (but powerfully) support the most essential prerequisite for factory farming: the idea that it’s okay to eat animals.

4) Sustainable animal agriculture relies on a set of ideas and slogans that not only obscure objections 1-3, but lend themselves to being co-opted by industry (which, of course, has bigger advertising budgets).

5) Killing animals unnecessarily is not only ethically problematic, but it’s psychologically unhealthy for those who do the slaughtering. Doesn’t it make sense to think that the less that intentional suffering is present, the healthier a community will be?

Feel free to add on.

Self-Deception and Slaughter: The Psychological Salves Required to Kill

The following images of self-slaughterers (and, in one case, a witness of a slaughter) are accompanied by short commentaries on the justifications offered for undertaking the butchery, or the meaning of the act. The point here is as simple as it is disturbing: when humans choose to kill an animal they know doesn’t want to die they’re forced to weave a protective narrative that obscures the inherent and unnecessary aggression of thier action.

First comment on this person’s blog: “Good for you for taking back another piece of your food chain.”

A student participating in a chicken butchering workshop at Fairhaven College: “I realize now, more than ever, that the chicken on my dinner plate was a living creature and that it had to be sacrificed for my consumption.”  (I wonder if they offer Ethics 101 at Fairview?)

“Death is only one day . . .”

“I felt a whole lot of pride, and I felt like a real farmer . . .”

It strikes me as deeply troubling that we’re so indifferent to the emotional lives of animals that we can justify killing them on the basis of the following “arguments”: killing animals is a way to fight the power of corporate influence; killing animals has to be done as part of some skewed sense of the natural order; death is meaningless if life was lived well; and killing an animal instills pride in the agrarian life.

Just in case you’re not yet thoroughly depressed, I’ll end with this excerpt from a magazine I recently discovered called Backwoods Home Magazine:

“Fall is butchering time, a period of joy in the harvest of the year’s work and of sadness that the lives of your beautiful, healthy animals have come to an end. On this occasion the animals should be treated with the same kindness and respect with which they were treated during their lives. Good farmers raise their animals free from fear, anxiety and stress. The animals should meet their end as they lived, without the terror of the slaughterhouse.”
But the reality of the slaughter.