James McWilliams, Meat, History, the “Contrarian” View, and Land Supply

[UPDATE: Joel Salatin responded to McWilliams’ essay with this post. It appeared first on Salatin’s Facebook page, and then at Grist.]

(How’s THAT for a kitchen sink title?)

I’m a fan of James McWilliams, a historian whose last book was about our contemporary food system, but who has also written a brilliant book about the history of food in “early” America (that’s the fancy term for the colonial era). He also writes op-ed pieces about contemporary food politics and system, and he’s almost always on the “wrong” side — so he’s often referred to as a contrarian. (*1)

In any case, here he is in today’s New York Times, pointing out that the more “natural” system of making meat isn’t necessarily better than the existing “factory” system. In particular, he points out that it requires more land.

 If we raised all the cows in the United States on grass (all 100 million of them), cattle would require (using the figure of 10 acres per cow) almost half the country’s land (and this figure excludes space needed for pastured chicken and pigs). A tract of land just larger than France has been carved out of the Brazilian rain forest and turned over to grazing cattle. Nothing about this is sustainable.

He’s right, of course. And that’s one of the aspects of our food system that critics rarely, perhaps never, mention: Where are the acres to raise all that livestock going to come from?

As I point out in my forthcoming book, one reason that the “factory” system of livestock production took hold, especially in the 1950s, was because of rising demand for what had been agricultural land. And, too, the demand for meat, especially beef, proved more than the existing western range could handle. (Commercial feedlots were the solution to both problems.)

Put another way: We Americans wanted cities more than we wanted “natural” farms. As a result, farmers could no longer enjoy the luxury of grazing stock on very expensive land. They had to farm “intensively” rather than “extensively.”

That’s an important point. And as I’m fond of pointing out, one reason that we have so many critics tapping away on their keyboards today is because the vast majority of us (nearly 80 percent) live in cities. And one fact about city folks so obvious that it’s easy to overlook is this: They’re city folks, not farmers. They rely on others (farmers) to produce  food. Because we city people aren’t out toiling in the fields, we enjoy the luxury of time — time to think, to criticize, to write.

So. Land for urban places? Or land for happy cattle and pigs? We can’t “fix” the food system until we decide which is more important.

Which is one reason that I say: the only realistic way to solve the “problem” of the current food system is by re-thinking how, when, and why we eat meat.

And, yes, ohmygod, but I’ve missed blogging……………… SO happy to have some time to indulge!


*1: A beautiful example of what Orwell had in mind about language and politics: when McWilliams is defined as a contrarian, the implication, of course, is that there’s a received, “correct” view — in this case that the existing “food system” is evil and that we should return to a “natural” system of making food. (*2)

*2: Which itself implies that somehow there used to be a more “natural” way of making food. Oh, if only people knew….

3 thoughts on “James McWilliams, Meat, History, the “Contrarian” View, and Land Supply

  1. Not quite…it’s not land vs. urban spaces, which are actually pretty efficient, but land vs. SUBurban spaces, with all the sprawl that entails. I live in a small town surrounded by farmland. Every year, more farmland is bought up by developers to turn into another grossly oversized subdivision filled with 4,000 sq ft houses- whose owners then turn around and lobby for nuisance laws that are aimed at, among other things, farm smells and sounds. After moving out into the country because it’s “so picturesque.” So yes, we do need to have the conversation about what kind of agricultural system we want. But we also need to have a conversation about what kind of living space we want, and whether we want to do more to protect farmland from becoming suburban sprawl.

  2. Pingback: Making Meat, the Writer’s Pitfall, and Online Interaction With Readers « Maureen Ogle

  3. Louisa, thank you so much for this comment. It inspired another blog entry (in which I quoted your comment in full — am assuming you won’t mind that) (although, heh, as I note in the new entry: never assume!)

    Anyway: THANKS!


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