Archive for the ‘Food Politics’ Category

Major Tom Foolery

» April 9th, 2014

We all can’t stand industrial agriculture as we know it. So we try to make consumer choices to avoid its abuses. There are many ways to resist the machine, but—as I have repeatedly argued—the absolute most effective way to challenge agribusiness is to stop eating animal products and start eating an exclusive diet of whole plant-based foods. Although my crusade as a writer has been to improve the world for animals, I have always taken solace in the fact that we can eat in a way that helps animals while sticking it to industrial agriculture at the same time. I like that overlap.

The above remarks are exactly what I would have explained to Mother Jones‘ food/ag writer Tom Philpott had he contacted me before characterizing me as defender of the food industry in his most recent MJ piece. For those keeping score, when I wrote about Philpott for a Pacific Standard article, I took the time to correspond with him. But anyway, I’m sure readers of this blog will be surprised to learn that, according to TP, “McWilliams is playing his usual role: reasonable-sounding defender of a highly profitable but dysfunctional industry.”

The analysis certainly thrilled Mark Bittman, who tweeted it and thanked Philpott for his hard work. Interestingly, neither of these defenders of eating animal products—and thus defenders of eating the goods upon which industrial agriculture thrives—have taken the time to respond to my American Scholar essay, one that scares industrial food much more than all the support these writers offer to “humane” animal products from small farms that are doing little more than supporting the status quo at a higher price per pound.

In any case, consider me baffled.

Watered Down Logic and A Lot of Hot Air

» March 1st, 2014

The environmental case against raising animals for food becomes increasingly stronger as more and more research emerges. A closer look at the finer points on the comparative water usage between livestock and plants highlights this correlation quite clearly.

According to researchers recently cited in a Mother Jones article, beef has a water footprint of 15,415 cubic meters/ton. The water footprint for “sugar crops” is 197 cubic meters/ton; for vegetables it’s 240 cubic meters/ton. This dramatic disparity alone raises serious questions as to why anyone seeking to analyze the current California drought would highlight the water footprint of nuts—admittedly, a relatively high 9,063 cubic meters/ton—when cattle consume so much of California’s scarce water supply, most of it in the form of alfalfa. Doing so strikes me as a case of distraction journalism.

A related issue when it comes to comparing the ecological impact of the food is methane–which has 72 times the global warming potential as carbon. Last year was a big year for methane research. Scientists discovered that U.S. methane output is 50 percent more than the EPA was estimating and 70 percent more than the figure cited by th European Environmental Agency’s Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). Especially revealing was the fact that livestock related emissions were twice the current estimates, accounting for up to 33 percent of global methane emissions. Cows burp and defecate, methane escapes, it harms the environment. This claim holds true for factory farmed and pastured animals.

Given these kinds of figures, in addition to the urgency with which environmentalists rightfully urge humans to adjust their behavior to prevent planetary implosion, it strikes me as a little ridiculous that we’re actually having serious arguments over whether or not veganism is a good move for the environment. Of course it is.

Let’s close that case and start talking about why the eco-foodies who wring their hands so earnestly about ecological destruction are not taking the obvious and in many ways the most accessible step of exclusively eating plants.


A Drought Of Common Sense

» February 27th, 2014

I’ve been stewing about this article for days. Courtesy of Mother Jones (an increasingly reliable source of gratuitous fear-mongering) the piece prods readers to go into high-anxiety mode over the ecological impact of almonds. Yep. Almonds. Turns out these crunchy little nuts are hogging California’s water, which is dangerously scarce. “It takes how much water to grow an almond?,” screams the headline.

When it comes to water almonds don’t matter. What matters is livestock. Here are some facts: growing alfalfa to feed cattle consumes more water than any other crop in California; most of the federal support that goes to struggling California farmers goes to ranchers; it takes 2000-2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. It takes about 11o gallons to produce a pound of almonds. One clogs your arteries and demands the intentional slaughter of a sentient animal. The other packs of wallop of nutrients and requires no visit to the slaughterhouse.

What Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert still holds true today: “The West’s water crisis — and many of its environmental problems as well — can be summed up, implausible as this may seem, in a single word: livestock.” But, not to worry: the National Cattleman’s Association has asked its members to pray for rain. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying that somebody in the crazy world of food writing comes to his senses

Mayor de Blasio Vows To End Horse Carriages In NYC

» February 18th, 2014

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that NPR’s coverage of this story was a mess. It begins by immediately belittling the issue of horse welfare, noting that one might reasonably expect the mayor to deal with “big picture problems” instead of . . . .horses. This choice of an opener raises a question. Why would a journalist begin an article on any topic by suggesting that, compared to “big” issues, the one she was covering didn’t really matter? If nothing else, this is a strange way to draw attention to a topic that is somehow important enough to warrant national coverage.

But Janet Babin’s dismissive attitude infects the entire piece. Babin explains that “horse carriage rides are a staple in cities around the country.” Really? In so far as a “staple” is a “main item of trade or production,” horse carriage rides are decidedly not a staple of the urban experience. The reporter furthers her opinion—and, in a way, what she has put together is an opinion piece–that the Mayor’s proposal is just plain weird by reporting that the mayor “raised some collective eyebrows” with his choice.

This phrase is another interesting choice. It implies that everyday folks—the collective–were similarly thrown for a loop by the fact that the mayor cares more than a whit about horse welfare. But again, there’s no evidence offered of a collective anything. And if there was, how about the possibility that a collective of New Yorkers might find the carriage trade problematic? Might it have been more accurate to note that “a collective cheer” went up when New Yorkers heard the news?

And then there’s the problem of context. The carriage horses are largely a political and horse welfare issue whose underlying motivator is economic. The money is on the side of the drivers who allegedly exploit horses. But the politics aren’t—they are more complex, including as they do, interest groups who are concerned with the welfare of horses. Babin again takes the easy way out by ignoring this context and offering only opinions (her own, the industry’s, a horse advocacy group’s) while calling it “news coverage” — which it isn’t.

The segment goes downhill quickly. Before explaining why the horse carriage industry might be a welfare problem, Babin rushes to quote a joke from the Daily Show with John Stewart. Stewart had remarked, ”Should we even be living here? ‘Cause  . . . sometimes I look at their stable and I go like, what do you think that’d go for, $1,600 a month? What do you think?” Well, sorry to be a grump, but I think humor does not have a place in this story. Unless you find the prospect of horse abuse funny.

When Babin finally does get around to exploring the issue from a welfare angle she quotes Allie Feldman, the executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets. Feldman gives a great quote, but her organization is identified as an “animal rights group.” Now, maybe Feldman described her organization this way but, judging from the organization’s website, I would doubt it.  It does not in any way address the issue of animal rights per se. More to the point, it allows Babin to use loaded language—yikes!, an animal rights group!—to skew the issue as one that only a bunch of crazies, oh and the mayor, cares about.

She then quotes the Horse and Carriage Association, which predictably says, ”A lot of these horses come from very, very bad backgrounds and are rescued from very abusive situations. This is not an abusive situation . . .” And then some tourists from North Carolina who are crushed that they’ll never be able to ride through Central Park behind horses that, according to a great deal of evidence that Babin ignores, suffer immensely.

Not only is the Horse and Carriage Association given the last word in this piece, but its message of sanctuary is never countered by credible and widely available information that would, if given attention, have resonance to more than the “animal rights activists” who Babin identifies as the only nuts who care about this issue in the first place.

NPR’s Grade: D.

Note to readers: I’m in the process of beginning an on-line project with the journalist Vickery Eckhoff that evaluates the media’s coverage of animal issues. A more thorough statement of purpose, as well as a web address will be forthcoming. For now, though, please note that the kind of piece published here is the sort of work that Eckhoff and I (and an assemblage of writers) will be doing. Needless to say, when we launch, I hope to count on readers to spread the word.  –jm


Can You Oppose Global Warming And Eat Animals?

» January 19th, 2014

Sensible people take climate change seriously.  We do so because, in a vague way, we care about the planet and, in a less vague way, we’re troubled by the conspicuous ecological devastation that results from a world set on slow simmer.

One of the more troubling consequences we lament when we broadcast our concerns over climate change centers on the issue of species extinction.  As a rule, reasonable people don’t like the idea of a species gasping its last breath under their watch, especially when the driving force appears to be anthropocentric. When polar bears come under threat from melting ice caps, we get upset.

This all seems mighty obvious and appropriate. What’s less obvious and appropriate is the self-serving distortion that happens when environmentalists inveigh against the anthropocentric demise of another species.

You frequently hear vegan activists argue that you can’t be a meat-eating environmentalist. This carbon-calculator critique holds water. But there may be a more fundamental way to confront the meat-eating environmentalist: challenge the way he conceptualizes animals. This must be done because, as matters now stand, the environmental movement rests its anti-global warming stance on a conveniently deceptive view of animals.

Many environmentalists indulge in a kind of eco-tourist environmentalism. Despite having no real appreciation of an ecosystem’s underlying complexity, they make an earnest fuss about the demise of elephants, orcas, lions, eagles, and other “majestic” animals one might encounter while traveling on an eco-venture or watching a nature show.

Concern for these animals—and concern for the potential of their extinction—is certainly a good thing. But it also allows us to root a superficial notion of environmental responsibility in shallow aesthetic ideals represented by a species that–due to no fault of its own–embody an overly stylized concept of “nature.”

According to this strategy, we “care” about these animals not as animals per se, but because of what they collectively represent to us: the ability to stoke our awe for the natural world. We “care” about these animals not as animals per se but for the conceptual purposes they serve as noble “species” clinging to existence in the age  of global warming. This props them up for our righteous outrage. But not our compassion.

Again, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with admiring these animals as a species. They are indeed majestic, awe-inspiring creatures who capture the imagination and, for many of us, bring us closer to the natural world. But it’s worth exploring the question that this admiration begs: if we love iconic animals as a species, why do we not also love them as individuals? After all, you can’t really do the latter without the former, or vice-versa.

Environmentalists will object to this charge. They will claim that they do love animals. But exactly how is this love manifested? After all, love rarely prevents environmentalists from shooting animals, eating animals, culling animals, domesticating animals, and wearing animals. As long as the beloved “species” is not unduly threatened by massive environmental exploitation, then the individuals within it seem fair game for exploitation. The implications of this inconsistency are rarely acknowledged.

But they’re worth exploring.

One could start with this question: Is there a problem with raging over the loss of polar bears’ habitat without raging over the loss of individual polar bears? The anger we feel over dying polar bears is an anger we couch in terms of “losing a species.”  That’s safe, because it keeps the idea of a sentient being at a distance while allowing us to experience the guilty pleasure of high dudgeon. But is it the species that really tugs at our emotions? No.To lament the loss of a species is ultimately disingenuous. It’s to lament the loss of an impersonal collective  phenomenon, sort of like lamenting the loss of an obscure language.

What’s really happening here is a process of abstraction that enables enviro types to publicly demonstrate their concern for global warming and its resultant species extinctions while continuing to exploit animals to meet our selfish little palate fetishes. It allows us to weep over the loss of a species while sharpening our knives to keep eating the chops and steaks that make our lives so happy and hypocritical.




» January 3rd, 2014


Seems like the whole Forbes drama is becoming a media “event” and I really wish it wouldn’t. Let me add some context. I was not a “Forbes writer.” I was a contributor, one among hundreds of bloggers. Big difference there. My payment for posting pieces on the website was minimal, so there’s really no financial sacrifice at stake on my part (if anything, the decision to leave frees up more time to write for outlets that do pay well). Whatever heroism narrative you have in mind should be tempered by these facts.

The other thing to note is that I did not leave under conditions of animosity. There was little drama in this drama. I’m not going to go into the details, but I was hired to blog and it became clear in the Blackfish piece (and hinted at in some earlier ones) that is more interested in bloggers writing stories that stick to conventional reporting tactics rather than writing with an opinion to advance (as I do).

As I said, I realized that we were a mismatch. And that’s really it.


Animal Welfare Labels Revisited

» December 30th, 2013

I’m strongly considering revisiting the issue of animal welfare labeling for a magazine piece and, in preparation, I’ve been delving into exactly what’s allowed and not allowed by leading welfare labels. Several impressions strike me as deeply problematic. I throw them out to garner your thoughts as I do my research.

First, everything in this industry is so damn vague. Of course, stipulations are vague because animal agriculture is, in and of itself, marked by vagaries of production that defy hard and fast rules. So, what you encounter over and over and over again in the welfare regulations are phrases such as “when possible,” “under certain circumstances,” and “when it makes sense”–in essence, phrases that are designed to make welfare labels appear strict while providing loopholes for farmers to leap through. It’s quite dispiriting.

Second, welfare labelers are shameless about highlighting the fact that their label “adds value.” In other words, just get through a few hoops and you can charge more for the animals you slaughter. This seems like a strange outcome to celebrate when you are supposed to be interested in caring fundamentally about an animal’s welfare. It begs certain questions, such as how does premature and unnecessary death factor into the idea of “welfare”? Many people get angry when I ask this question. So: why not just answer it?

Third, I’m murky on the economics of these welfare agencies. If a labeling agency is paid by the farm for the label, what incentive is there for the agency to dismiss farms for not following the rules? Who fires his own clients? Wouldn’t it make more sense to simply create levels of welfare, like 1 to 5 (ahem, Whole Foods), and make a user-friendly label that’s achievable by anyone seeking to make a little more money from the business of exploiting animals.

I’m reluctantly supportive of farmers who choose to treat their animals better than factory farms do. But I don’t celebrate them. After all, it’s not that hard to do. And I certainly don’t see how a label does anything but say “great work” to a farmer who is still, at the end of the day, achieving the same outcome as a factory farm.

Am I missing something?



Quinoa Not Corn

» December 9th, 2013

In the November 11 issue of The New Yorker, Michael Specter (one of my favorite staff writers) has a superb piece on crop insurance. I know, it sounds dull but, trust me, this piece is a thrill. My intention here is not to summarize the piece, but only to highlight the critical thoughts presented by the piece’s leading character, a man named David Friedberg.

Friedberg began a company called It uses high tech algorithms and information technology to predict climatic factors that bear on crop yields. He builds insurance policies on this information. Friedberg is a man obsessed with numbers and seems deeply knowledgable about the intersection between farming and the environment. It thus caught my eye when Specter wrote, “He would like to open a restaurant that serves only quinoa.”


Listen to Friedberg:

The ratio of protein to energy used to produce quinoa is the highest of any food source . . .  The net energy utilization of the protein production of beef in fifty to one; for fish it’s ten to one; and for chicken it’s four to one. Soybeans are two to one—they’re pretty efficient, but quinoa is less than one and a half to one, and quinoa grows in all these drought-hardy conditions. There is all this land that’s undeveloped—in Saskatchewan, in Colorado, in large swaths of Peru—and the yield that you can start to get on quinoa if you start to invest in production would be substantial.

Specter writes that China ate half the world’s pigs last year–500 million of them. In response to this fact, Freidberg says,

We need to change that or we are not going to get the eight hundred million people out of starvation that are starving right now. Think of it: we are sending millions of tons of protein to China to feed hogs. we should really just skip the hogs and grow the quinoa.

So, sensible words from a sensible guy who was raised by vegetarians. But, before you get carried away and think the food world has a new voice of agricultural wisdom, do note: Friedberg just sold his company to Monsanto for a cool billion.


Mixed News on the Backyard Poultry Front

» November 22nd, 2013

I’d like to think it was my incessant carpet bombing of the Austin City Council with emails that did the trick. However, with over 456 citizens registering to comment on the legitimacy of backyard chicken slaughter in front of the council, something tells me that larger forces were at work behind the council’s commendable decision to prohibit the insidious practice of backyard slaughter, one that, as I watched the debate unfold, some residents seemed all too eager to execute.

Reasons cited for the decision included noise and smells, as well as traffic, which becomes a problem when urban farms hold events celebrating the unnecessary killing of birds. Nothing was noted on how this practice might very well not be appreciated by the birds, but oh well. Reality is reality. Whatever the justification, animal loving Austinites can rest easy that their neighbor’s backyard won’t be turned into a bloody hellscape.

Things didn’t go as well in Gainesville, Florida. A Pitchfork reader from there tells me that the city commission voted to increase the number of chickens allowed to be kept in urban neighborhoods from 2 to 10. That’s a big jump. But it came with clear articulations of what are bound to be inevitable consequences. For example, the commission ordered that  chicken feed be stored in “rodent proof” containers, that manure be regularly removed, and odors not be detectable by neighbors. Good luck with all that. Commissioners noted that they reserve the right to revisit their decision if these stipulations are not met. I hope they keep their word on this promise.

It was something of a coincidence—or maybe just evidence of how ubiquitous this concern is becoming—that yesterday was also the day I posted my Forbes piece on why it’s a bad idea to keep backyard birds. One comment caught my eye, so much so that I did something I rarely do: I responded. Here’s the exchange:

Mary Hanson:

Completely disagree with all of their five reasons. 1. We got our chickens over four years ago and they are still laying. If we didn’t have our chickens we would have purchased dozens of dozens of eggs from commercial egg laying operations where chickens are not treated kindly or humanely. Our chickens are treated VERY well and have excellent lives. We have only bought 2 dozen eggs in over four years (when we were on vacation and out of town) 2. Lame reason, I have saved my chickens from being eaten or from being mistreated in a battery cage. I can’t be expected to save the world, but my chickens are a start. 3. Predation: also completely false in my experience. In over four year exactly ZERO OF MY HENS HAVE BEEN EATEN BY ANY PREDATOR. 4. None of our hens were miss “sexed” as roosters. So much for that reason. 5. Cost is minimal and we get fresh local healthy eggs, our chickens get cared for very well, we give them lots of our scraps to eat and it provides great fertilizer for our garden. Too bad this article tries to focus on fallacies and exaggerations. Shame on Forbes.

James McWilliams:

I’m genuinely happy to hear that you are able to avoid some of the problems that I discuss regarding keeping hens. I’m curious: where do you live? (not, as in, your address, but what kind of environment), where were your birds hatched?, and would you be willing to allow a curious writer (me) come visit and observe your hens being happy? (I’m quite serious, as I have thousands of examples from hen farmers supporting my claims and I’d be eager to see what makes you operation work, perhaps with the intention of writing a piece to that effect.)

Stay tuned. . . . (and feel free to join the convo at Forbes).


The Right to Know and GMOs

» November 16th, 2013

Do we have a right to know how our food was made? Seems like a fairly self-evident question. But in fact it’s one that the more I think about the more complicated it gets, especially in the context of the ongoing effort to label foods made with GMOs.  I’m writing about this issue now for publication, so I don’t want to tip my hand too much, but I do want to explore this deceptively simple idea of having a right to know about the food we eat.

Adam Merberg, a Ph.D student in mathematics at Berkeley and a very thoughtful blogger on food issues, recently expressed skepticism about the “right to know” argument as it applies to the GMO labeling debate. Building on the work of ethicist Chris MacDonald, he writes,  ”it’s not hard to think of bits of information that almost nobody would claim to have a right to.” Do we, for example, “have the right to know the exact temperature at which a loaf of bread was baked?,” he asks.

Of course, a knee-jerk objection to such a question might be that GMOs carry risks that baking temperature does not and, as a result, consumers have a right to know about GMOs because they have a right to know about the risks they are taking when they choose to consume a food product.

This objection is complicated by at least two factors.  First, contrary to common anti-GMO thought, there is no hard evidence that GMOs are any more or less dangerous for consumers than the conventional hybrids that make food food. The world’s leading health organizations have all come out and declared GMOs safe.

Second, let’s say there were scientifically documented questions regarding the safety of GMOs. This factor alone would not necessarily justify a label. The food supply chain is riddled with danger points. There are innumerable risk-oriented aspects of food production that, if GMOs made the cut, would also qualify for a label. In time, food labels would carry dissertations of information that, like dissertations, nobody would read or even pay attention to.

Do we have a right to know, for example, if the farm that grew the food was located hear a petrochemical plant? Do we have a right to know if the manure that was used on an organic farm came from a factory farm? Do we have the right to know if the conventional fertilizer used on a conventional farm contained industrial waste? Do we have a right to know, a la Portlandia, if our chicken (“Colin”) ever had a cough?  All of these aspects are common in agriculture. But there’s no way we could reasonably expect this level of detail on a label.

I’ll end with two thoughts. Advocates of GMO labels might very well have a case to make for labeling. But thus far, because it has been a case rooted in ideology rather than science or consumer interest, it has not been in the least convincing. Second, when it comes to a right to know what’s in our food, the hard reality is that we sacrificed at least some of those rights the moment we left the land and entrusted others to bring food to our plates. And even when we were in charge, we didn’t know what we didn’t know, much less did we have a right to comprehensive knowledge about the infinite steps required to turn the natural world into food.

Eating is an inherently risky act. Good luck to you.