By James E. McWilliams
AUSTIN, TEXAS: When news arrived that I’d received a modest advance for a book I was writing on global agriculture — published this month as Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by Little, Brown in the USA — my first thought was: “Where’s my passport?!?!” With the upfront cash I’d travel the globe on a research/pleasure excursion, interviewing fish farmers in Java, lamb producers in New Zealand, papaya growers in Hawaii, and, on the way home, plant biologists at Berkeley and sugar beet growers in Colorado. Naturally, a book tour would follow, thus requiring me to accumulate even more frequent flyer miles. I’d escape the fierce heat of the Texas summer where I live and entertain audiences in Portland, Chicago, Asheville, and New York City. After publishing two university press titles, this would be my entrée into big time serious non-fiction. Geographical corners would not be cut.
Relaying my travel plans to my wife, I was encouraged by the fact that, as I spoke, she nodded with apparent enthusiasm. The moment I finished outlining my itinerary, however, all joy fell from her face, her eyes went cold, and she reminded me in a calm voice that many years ago, before I became such an important person, I had signed on to support 1) a marriage, 2) two young kids, and 3) a job that provided amenities such as a salary and health benefits. The book, she explained, came in at number four, barely ranking ahead of pet responsibilities, gutter-cleaning duty, and hauling the trash to the curb every Monday evening.
Needless to say, I wrote my book from the comfort of home. And in the end, the fact that I wrote it armed with a telephone and a computer rather than a travel agent and a Dopp kit made no difference at all. Come to think of it, it might have even made for a better book.
Journalistic reliance on the “on location” anecdote isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If I want to understand the ecological benefits of fish farming I must visit a fish farm, right? Not necessarily. If I want to understand how a particular fish farm works, sure, I need to pay a visit to that particular farm. But if I want to understand how fish farming in general works, it would actually make more sense to avoid any single farm and see what the scientific studies say about fish farms collectively. In other words, to write about aquaculture objectively means that any visit to a single fish farm would, ipso facto, skew my interpretation. To get too cozy with a single example would undermine my ability to speak for the multifarious whole.
At least this is what I told myself as I wrote, cleaned gutters, wrote, drove kids to school, wrote, took out the trash, wrote, and brought home the health care bacon. I’ll admit that it has the ring of a lame rationalization. Whatever doubts I had about it, though, were vindicated when I researched a chapter on crop yields and organic farming.
Making a general statement about organic yields turns out to be a lot like biblical interpretation. Anyone with an agenda can find what he’s looking for. In reality, the studies are vast and contradictory, pocked with caveats and qualifiers. After two weeks of going bleary eyed over several dozen intricate studies, I found myself tempted to toss aside the literature, call that travel agent of my dreams and pay a visit to a famous organic grower in Maine who assured me that he could prove to me firsthand that organic food could feed the world. I could make a definitive case with the authority of an on location report and eat local lobster while I was at it.
But again, I backed off. I never went to Maine. Instead, I stayed home and dove back into the studies — those dull, dry, jargon larded studies. Contemplating a mass of evidence that would not line up behind a single, clear answer about organic yields, I finally decided to register my verdict in these terms: “It depends on the crop, the place, the farmer, the variety . . .” In other words, we do not know for sure. I’m not sure I’d have said the same thing had I been under the influence of a lobster salad, a friendly farmer, and the crisp summer air of a bucolic farm in northern Maine. It took the mundane business of reading and thinking — rather than the indulgence of wanderlust — to keep me honest.
James E. McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University. In addition to Just Food, he is the author or American Pests: Our Futile Attempt to Conquer the Insect Empire from Colonial Times to the Death of DDT (Columbia University Press, 2008) and A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia University Press, 2005).
BUY: Just Food
CONTACT: James E. McWilliams directly.