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MAY 2009



James McWilliams, the Contrarian Agrarian on Our Food Future

Rod Dreher, Dallas Morning News, April 24, 2009. Full interview athttp://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/dn/opinion/points/stories/DN-mcwilliams_26edi.108ea41c5.html

James McWilliams is an emerging voice for agricultural reform whose skepticism of the increasingly important food movement and its goals makes him a decidedly contrarian agrarian. This summer, he'll offer what he considers a more realistic vision in his forthcoming book Just Food. The Texas State University historian, 40, is considered a young scholar of such promise that he won the Dallas Institute's 2009 Hiett Prize in the Humanities. He recently chatted with Rod Dreher from his San Marcos office. Here is an excerpt:

You consider yourself an agrarian. What does it mean to be an agrarian in the 21st century, when very few Americans live on a farm?
To be an agrarian is not necessarily to grow food, but to be informed, or at least curious, about how food goes from farm to fork. Honest curiosity leads to honest explorations into how we might become more socially and environmentally conscious consumers. Trust me, there are no easy answers to the conundrum of pioneering sustainable agriculture for a globalizing world, much less consuming according to these goals. Even suggesting answers lands one in a crucible of controversial hellfire. <cut>

You forcefully attack some of the core beliefs of your fellow travelers in the movement. For example, many organic farming devotees are strongly against mucking around with the genetic code of fruits and vegetables. You think genetically modified food could actually be a boon to the environment. Explain.

We've been "mucking around" with vegetables for 10,000 years. If we didn't selectively alter the genetic makeup of wild plants we'd have no such thing as agriculture. That said, there is certainly a difference between crossing genes within species and, as is the case with GM crops, crossing genes between species, in order to achieve a desirable trait. Over 2 billion acres of land have been planted worldwide with GM crops since 1997. While there are, as with any technology, a number of potential problems that could occur, we've yet to see any of them systematically appear.

Given this cautious endorsement, I should note that the major problem with GM technology is that it's monopolized by a handful of corporations who use it to grow three monocultural crops: corn, soy and cotton. What I'd like to see is the technology broadly dispersed, made more affordable and adopted to foster the goal of environmental sustainability. It's currently possible to produce blight-resistant rice, drought-resistant cassava, high-yielding sorghum and grass that, when fed to cows, eliminates the emission of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. None of these products are on the market, however, because the corporate players don't see a big enough market to justify production and the NGOs and nonprofits are ideologically opposed to plant biotechnology. All I can say is that it's a good thing we don't treat GM pharmaceuticals the same way, as a lot of insulin and vaccines are produced through GM technology. <cut>

What's the food future likely to bring?
There's an instinctive and quite understandable tendency to look at the problems of industrialized food and seek solutions in the agricultural past. The assumption, however, that our forebears hold all the answers is a bit romantic. We have to keep in mind that the world's population has more than quadrupled since 1900, so the pre-industrial food systems that we often mythologize were nowhere near as burdened to achieve high yields. Beyond that, I've never been terribly convinced that pre-industrial food was so safe or ecologically correct.

The future of food production must achieve a balance between high yields and high sustainability. The only way I see this happening is if we stop polarizing our discussions of food into big industrial and small organic, and start seeking common ground over compromises that split differences. We'll have to eat much less meat, many more whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes; tolerate the judicious use of chemicals in the production of our food; keep an open mind to the potential benefits of biotechnology; and worry less about the distance our food traveled than the overall energy it took to produce it.
James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University and an associate fellow in agrarian studies at Yale University.