Sizing Up Sustainable Food These days some shoppers are looking at more than the price of their groceries; they're also considering "food miles" — how far the grapes or pork chops traveled to get to the store. But some experts say eating food grown locally isn't necessarily the best way to go green at the grocery store.

Sizing Up Sustainable Food

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Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Heading to the grocery store can mean making a lot of choices, choices that don't include dinner that night. Should you buy organic or conventional? Free-range or grass-fed food? Or maybe you're going to stop at a farmer's market to buy some local produce, thinking you'll reduce the amount of miles your broccoli and tomatoes have traveled to your table. Or maybe you'll lay off that bottle of water that comes from the Pacific Southwest.

The local movement is built around these food-miles, cutting back on fossil fuels used to ship food around the world. And the author of a new book out, "Just Food," claims that locavores got it wrong. Not every country can grow food locally, they say, and sometimes it's cheaper to ship food thousands of miles than to produce it in your local farm. And that's what we'll be discussing and debating for the rest of the hour. What's the right way to grow food, and then what's the right way to buy it?

And let me introduce my guests. James McWilliams is the author of "Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly." He's associate professor of history at Texas State University, and he joins us from KUT studios in Austin. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Professor JAMES McWILLIAMS (Texas State University): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Michael Pollan is the author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." He is the Knight Professor of Journalism at the University of California. He joins us from the Berkeley School of Journalism studios. Good to talk with you again, Michael.

Professor MICHAEL POLLAN (Journalism, University of California Berkeley; Author): Good to be back.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Brian Halweil is the senior researcher at the World Watch Institute. Brian Halweil joins us from WLNG studios in Sag Harbor, New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. BRIAN HALWEIL (Senior Researcher, World Watch Institute): Nice to be here. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thank you. You've caused quite a stir with this book, James, "Where Locavores Get It Wrong." Where do they get it wrong?

Prof. McWILLIAMS: Well, you know, the title does sound like a cannon shot in a lot of ways. But, you know, I think when you get into the book, you'll find that I think locavores get a lot of things right, as well. So I want to kind of come out and diffuse that right away and say that I have a lot of admiration for what the locavores have done.

FLATOW: You said you were once a locavore yourself.

Prof. McWILLIAMS: I still am, in many ways. I'm just not a fundamentalist about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. McWILLIAMS: And I think that in a lot of ways, that's what I'm arguing, is against a kind of fundamentalism. Locavores get a lot of things right. For 100 years, we essentially forgot about where our food came from and ignored that question. and now we are focusing on that, and that's tremendous progress. My…

FLATOW: I'm sorry, go ahead.

Prof. McWILLIAMS: Well, my concern is, you know, I don't want us to get too far down this path without realizing that there are other ways to achieve sustainable agriculture that are extra-local, that are, in many cases, require a global perspective. And so the title is, obviously, purposely provocative, but it's not. And the book is in no way countering the fundamental tenets of the locavore movement. It's simply saying that there are many other much -perhaps much broader ways we can look at the issue.

FLATOW: Well, one of the tenets of that is to eat locally and buy food from local farms, and your basic thesis is that's wrong, that in many cases, you're going to be doing the wrong thing if you worry about energy usage and shipping foods thousands of miles across the world. That is a wrong kind of thinking. In what cases are - is that, and give us an example of when that is the wrong kind of thinking.

Prof. McWILLIAMS: Yeah, I would say it's not always correct. I mean, if the concern here is to lower the carbon footprint of your diet, focusing on the distance your food travels is, in a lot of ways, the wrong place to look. A number of studies have shown that when you look at the overall energy input into the production of our food, transportation accounts for about 10 percent. Where the energy suck really happens is in the realm of production, and that's really where we need to focus.

FLATOW: Give me an example of a food, for example, where…

Prof. McWILLIAMS: Well, just compare meat and plants. I mean, this would be the extreme example. And the amount of energy that goes into producing meat, whether it's local or not, is astronomically higher than the amount of energy that goes into producing plants, that - according to a recent study, if you gave up - the average American eats a tremendous amount of meat, 275 pounds of meat a year. If the average meat-eater gave up meat once a week, that would be the equivalent of buying all of your food local.

So in a lot of ways, what we should be really concerned with and what I argue in the book is that, you know, we need to radically reduce our meat consumption, eat more fruits and vegetables. This is something Michael Pollan taught me. I mean, I think he'll fully agree with this. And the energy savings will be dramatic, and I think that far outweighs an emphasis on buying all of our food, you know, from locally sourced farmer's markets.

And I'm not saying we shouldn't do that. But, again, I think we also need to keep in mind that what we're eating is a lot more important than where it's coming from.

FLATOW: Michael, where do you find fault with his logic?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POLLAN: Well, you know, I haven't - I look forward to reading James' book. I haven't read it yet, but I'm planning to. In fact, I'm planning to use it in my class this fall. And I'm really delighted that, you know, there are more people from more perspectives engaging this debate about the future of food and farming in America, because we really need to have this debate.

You know, there are many reasons to buy locally. I don't exclusively buy locally, by the way, because you do have to pay attention to the way the food is produced. I think James is exactly right about that. And a classic example is if you bought locally produced, grain-fed meat, you probably have a bigger carbon footprint than grass-fed meat that had come from New Zealand.

The method of transportation has a huge bearing. When food comes to you by boat, for example, it has a much lighter carbon footprint than if it comes to you by diesel truck.

FLATOW: But James is - wait. Let me interrupt there, because there's exactly one point that James is making in his book, is that you've got that wrong. James says that the footprint is smaller if you can buy - if you buy lamb from New Zealand than if you have it grown in your own backyard.

Prof. POLLAN: Well, that's exactly - that's what I just said. I thought that's what I just said.

FLATOW: I'm sorry. I misunderstood you.

Prof. POLLAN: The mode of production - and grain-to-meat is a classic example -matters more than the - how far away it is. But I think there's a bit of a straw man or straw locavore being created here. I mean, it isn't as though the only thing this food movement is talking about is eating locally. It's certainly not the only thing I talk about.

I think, you know, shopping locally when you can has a great many virtues. But sometimes, the better choice is organic. Sometimes the better choice is sustainable production in Uruguay. And you know, there's a tendency on the part, I think, of the media to create a caricature of the food movement as a, you know, a fundamentalist locavore. and I don't know too many people really like that, who are really doing the 100-mile diet, except as a stunt.

There is an educational value in trying to do that, but what you quickly discover and teach yourself is that you can't do that. There are a great many foods you want to eat and a great many foods you should eat that come from a greater distance.

But let me just point out that the case for local food is about more than energy. It is about more than reducing your carbon footprint. It is about - let me just list a couple things it's also about. It's about preserving agricultural land near where you live and keeping farmers alive in your community. It's about health, because this is not to say that every instance of local food is going to be healthier than supermarket food, but as a way of life, if you are shopping from the farmer's market, you are cooking, because nothing there is processed. Nothing there is, you know, microwavable, basically, except maybe a baked potato.

Farmer's markets also offer a very important kind of civic experience. They've become the new public square in America. They're where we go - I go to the farmer's market even - I went yesterday. I didn't need anything. I just went to be there. I just went to listen to the music, see what petitions are being circulated, see my friends, have conversations.

So there's - you know, there's a very important civic, public-square function going on, too. And I go to educate, you know, my kid about where food comes from. He has experiences. He tastes things that he would not in the supermarket, which is such a sensually deprived environment.

So I don't think we should reduce the whole farmer's market movement, as important as it is, to a quest for greater energy efficiency. And the last point I would make about that, too, is the reason we need to encourage regional and local food systems is that we need to restore more resilience to a food system, food economy that is seriously dependent on fossil fuel.

One of the most interesting things that happened last summer when we had this great oil-price spike is that one of the big growers of greens and broccoli in California, Tanimura & Antle, who are in the Salinas Valley - and they are supplying broccoli to the whole country. You've probably eaten their broccoli. They're huge.

They started - the price of moving that product to the Hunt's Point Market in New York went from $3 to $10. And you know what they did? They started buying ag land, agricultural land, in New England so that they could feed people without taking the food across the country.

So fossil fuel is an issue in a few different ways, and re-regionalizing the food system to the extent we can gives us a little bit more resilience in a system that right now is very brittle.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Brian, you want to check in on any of these points?

Mr. HALWEIL: I'd say this is a great summary of the debate as it stands now. I will count myself as the third proud locavore on this call. And I will also acknowledge that not all local food is created equal, as already - as has already been pointed out.

I would add one additional benefit to eating local, and of course eating local - is a food miles. The distance food has traveled is an imperfect measure of the energy footprint or carbon footprint of our food. That is definitely clear.

But another very important benefit of eating local or being a locavore is the sort of awareness and respect and connection to food that naturally comes with that proximity, does have a powerful - has power over our psyche, over our opinions when it comes to food. And we're facing a situation where our food system is dysfunctional in any number of ways.

There are more than a billion people who are hungry on the planet right now. That's a number that is increasing, according to the United Nations. We have an obesity epidemic among children in the United States and in other countries. And, as Michael is indicating, occasionally we have a massive food safety outbreak in this country that we don't seem to be able to prevent. And the real question is what is going to motivate us to change the way we eat and change the way we grow food, and if it has done anything.

The locavore movement has helped bring some of these issues to the table and has helped push our food system back in the other direction, towards a more decentralized state that is more resilient to everything, from food safety crises to climate change, which may also be the largest challenge facing our food system.

FLATOW: James, you write in your book a section about the problem with organic food, and that being that it may be good on a small scale but we could not feed the world organically, that if we - if everybody came to depend on organic food, we couldn't produce enough fertilizer, organic compost, to feed - to grow enough food to feed everybody.

Prof. MCWILLIAMS: Some scientists say that. And I think, theoretically, it is possible to feed the world organically. My take on organic food is a lot like my take on the locavores. I mean, I support the core ideal, but I do come at it maybe from a more critical angle. It's a remarkable way - it's a remarkable approach to agriculture with tremendous environmental benefits. And I think we should support it. And I think there should be both consumer support and institutional support for it.

That said, you know, I really want to avoid becoming fundamentalist about it. And I know a lot of consumers who think that if they buy all organic then they are, in a sense, doing all they need to do to contribute to lowering their carbon footprint. And I realize this isn't all about carbon footprint of our food supply, but that happens to be the angle that I emphasized in my book.

And so what I do with organic food is say, look, you know, there's tremendous benefits here but let's put it in perspective here. Organic agriculture produces about two percent of the food in the United States. It is growing tremendously. It's growing about 20 percent a year and has been since 1990. But still, we're talking about a very small percentage of food that's produced in this country.

And so what concerns me a little bit is as there's a powerful movement to promote organic agriculture and seeing the virtues of organic agriculture, the very deserved virtues of organic agriculture, we're not asking what about that other 98 percent? How can we make them more environmentally efficient?

I talked to a lot of conventional farmers who are not growing organically but are extremely concerned about being good environmental citizens. And I find that what happens is this dichotomy takes place where organic is on one side and conventional is on the other. And instead of building a bridge between them, we tend to create this enormous gap. And so…

FLATOW: Now, let me - I have to just jump in and remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

I'm Ira Flatow talking with James McWilliams, Michael Pollan and Brian Halweil. And I really interrupted Brian. He was trying to make this point. Finish your point, I'm sorry. Have to pay the bills here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. McWILLIAMS: Oh, yeah, right. This is James speaking.

FLATOW: I'm sorry, James. I'm sorry.

Prof. McWILLIAMS: That's quite all right. And so I think with organic agriculture we need to be aware of some of the potential pitfalls as it grows. And you know, some of the things that concern me is there are questions about yields, and the science is very much divided on this. But there are arguments that you would need more land, you would need more labor. You would certainly need a tremendous amount more expertise.

And the concerns with fertilizer really have to do with compost. Compost is extremely heavy. We need around eight metric tons of compost per acre. And this is, in some ways, is going to be tremendously unwieldy and unachievable, especially in poor countries. And there's the biological reality of - there are pests, there are fungi, there are bacteria, there are viruses that organic agriculture - organic methods have a very difficult time systemically and consistently combating.

And again, as Michael Pollan himself has showed, organic tends just as easily towards large industrialization as does conventional food.

So you know, as we're aware of the benefits of organic agriculture, we also have to weigh them against these potential negative consequences. But then we need to ask, how can we create bridges? How can we take certain aspects of organic agriculture and encourage or incentivize conventional farmers to start using them? And…

FLATOW: Michael, is there enough food around - organic food to feed the world?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, the honest answer is we don't know - we don't know. Because we haven't tried and we haven't done the research. And you know, organic food is very impressive in its achievements, given how little support it's had from government. And if you applied the same amount of resources to agricultural research to grow things sustainably, to deal with the fertility issues, the pest issues, who knows what we could achieve. You know, there is - I think organic works better in the developing world, ironically, than it does here because it is more labor intensive. I don't know that we have enough farmers in this country to feed everybody organic. We would need, you know, millions more farmers.

The beauty of conventional agriculture is that it's done away with the need for much human labor on the farm. One farmer in the American Midwest can feed 150 of us. That's an astounding achievement. However, it comes at a very high price in terms of fossil fuel use.

FLATOW: All right…

Prof. POLLAN: Nobody's been a harsher critique of organic than I have. And organic is, you know, gets itself into trouble. Right now we're moving toward a supermarket full of organic junk food, which people buy under the mistaken impression that it's healthy.

So I think organic needs to, you know, needs its critics - without question. And we also need a way to deal with transition. Because I think James is absolutely right. There are many conventional farmers who want to do the right thing but can't quite transition to organic.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: All right. We're going to have to take a break and come back and talk more with James McWilliams, Michael Pollan and Brian Halweil. So stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

We're talking this hour about eating locally and the best way to eat healthy food, while also keeping a small carbon footprint.

My guests are James McWilliams, author of "Just Food" - new book out - "Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly." Also with me is Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dillema." Brian Halwiel is the senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255.

And when I rudely interrupted, we were talking about - so you just made an interesting point, Michael. I want to ask everybody to jump in on this, Brian, you can also. Do farmers really want to transition? Is there a problem here in getting them to move to be more sustainable?

Mr. HALWEIL: Well, this is Brian. I think there's no doubt that there's more demand for information about organic farming and to broaden that ecological farming than there is supply.

When few years ago the farm bill put up some money to help farmers transition into more ecological farming practices, very quickly that entire grant was depleted and there was a long waiting list to farmers who got nothing.

And this is a great point, that farmers don't have to go organic to benefit from some of the principles that go with organic farming. If you think of the typical corn/soybean farm in the Midwest, which uses a tremendous amount of fertilizer and has very little on the soil in the winter, doing something as simple as not tilling the soil in winter or planting a covered crop of rye or adding some sort of diversity to the crop rotation - this is a traditional agricultural technique that is part of organic soil management. That not just will - that will not just serve - save those farmers money on fertilizer that would run off the soil and into the Mississippi River and been wasted, but it also builds the soil in winter. It helps break up pest cycles. This is an ecological farming principle or an organic farming principle that can easily be shared between organic farmers and conventional farmers. And the same goes for farmers in Africa or South Asia or elsewhere around the world who are struggling with the poverty and hunger.

Clearly, chemical-dependent industrial farming has not worked to eradicate hunger in the world, often because it's not appropriate and it's not affordable. And in many situations, let's say in sub-Saharan Africa, you find that yields of organic farmers are higher than neighboring non-organic farmers. That's an advantage that farmers don't have in the first world. And again, it's because in poorer countries often using agrochemicals to overcome problems isn't as affordable or accessible as using the science of ecology or planting leguminous crops that put nitrogen into the soil or using a more innovative biological approach to pest control. So there needs to be more sharing.

And I think in general the food movement, the agricultural movement, is heading towards nuance, not - the issues in many ways are not as black and white as they used to be.

FLATOW: Chuck in San Francisco, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

CHUCK (Caller): Oh, thank you very much. Hi, everybody. Another thing that I think is the - very difficult for poor countries is when - is the export of subsidized industrially produced crops from countries like ours, which I can't help but think has a harmful effect on their agricultural sector. But that's really my question, is do you think this is - how does the local food movement apply to poor and developing countries? Because it seems there's attention between agriculture that's for subsistence and agriculture for export. So what do you guys think about the application of your ideas to poor countries (unintelligible) local, locavorism?

Prof. POLLAN: Can I take that?

FLATOW: Sure, go ahead.

Prof. POLLAN: This is Michael. I think it's a great question. And I think a lot of people who are preaching the virtues of local and regional agriculture preach it overseas as well.

And that, you know, one of the lessons I think that was learned in the great many countries in the developing world last summer during the food crisis was that throwing their destiny at the mercy of the global grain trade, depending on U.S. exports, for example, to feed your population, carries great risks, because we have these price spikes.

Grain prices went through the roof last summer because of the ethanol mandates here, because of speculation on Wall Street, and suddenly people in, you know, in sub-Saharan Africa couldn't feed themselves.

This is a very eloquent argument for preserving at least some local capacity to feed yourself. And I think even the World Bank is now talking this way. President Clinton actually issued an amazing mea culpa at U.N. Food Day last winter where he said, you know, we really made a mistake. Food is not like television sets. It's very important to have some local capability to grow. So I think that the local food movement has gotten a hearing in many parts of the world through the kind of scary experience of watching people on Wall Street and people in the U.S. White House harm other countries' ability to feed themselves.

FLATOW: The caller brought up an interesting point about food subsidies. And I know, James McWilliams, in "Just Food," you come down yourself very heavily on the subsidizing farmers in this country.

Prof. McWILLIAMS: Right. The subsidies - it was a excellent point the caller made because if, you know, we could rearrange perverse subsidies and actually require farmers - you know, we were talking earlier about a transition of ecological practices to conventional farmers.

One reason that hasn't happened as quickly as we might like it to happen are because of these subsidies. These subsidies mean that farmers are not paying the true cost, the true cost of water and fertilizer and pesticides. And they're not paying for the pollution that they're causing. You change that and they're going to have no choice but to adopt more eco-friendly practices simply because they're cheaper to do. And I think that's one area where these subsidies really matter.

In terms of subsidies undercutting local - the ability of local poor farmers -local farmers in poor countries to produce for their own or to export on - to that country's benefit, this is also a very important point. And I want to sort of take a slightly different angle than the one Michael took on the role of local production in poor countries. You know, this can cut both ways. There are farmers in Kenya, for example, who supply - I think it's something like 90 percent of the green beans in the U.K. And they do very well as a result of exporting those green beans. It supports a lot of poor farmers in Kenya.

And when there was a movement a couple of years ago to - now, these green beans are flown in, a real no-no in terms of efficiency. But when there was a movement a couple of years ago, I think it was the grocery chain Marks & Spencer and they were going to put airplane labels on food that had been flown in just to remind consumers that, in fact, this is not an eco-friendly product.

You know, there was a lot of talk about what kind of impact that might have on these farmers in Africa. So, you know, while there are so many insecurities that come with the globalization of the food supply, I think we also need to be aware that there are, you know, possibly also a lot of poor farmers in developing countries who could benefit, to some extent, from some of these globalizing markets.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. So in determining a carbon footprint, sometimes the obvious may not be the right answer is what you're saying? It's just that there's bigger…

Prof. POLLAN: Well, there's a more sophisticated analysis that needs to be performed. I mean, it's kind of a - it's called a life cycle assessment where you really do have to look at everything, not just transportation, but motor production, the kind of fertility that's used, the kind of pesticides that are used. You know, the embedded energy cost in a food is not an easy calculation, but it can be done and people are getting really good at doing it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HALWEIL: And this is not a cop-out, but we will never be able to calculate all the tangible and intangible costs associated with our food.

Sweden has now launched, for the first time, a sort of carbon footprint label in supermarkets where they're trying to attach a coding system to foods based on the energy intensity of it. And it's been received with some enthusiasm, I imagine, particularly, by, you know, folks who consider themselves locavores in Sweden and really want this information. But, immediately, it's also invited a lot of criticism.

And refining a life cycle analyses of food is no question important, particularly if we're making decisions about where to invest in agricultural research and agricultural development around the world. But in some ways, we shouldn't let the perfect prevent us from doing the good. And, you know, to go to that example of the string beans being exported to England, I'm not convinced to that dependence, even on a reliable export market like that, is the best use of that farming resource or even the most valuable use of that farming resource in Kenya.

And what you're seeing a lot of the players in agricultural development doing around the world now, the World Bank, USAID, the Buffet Foundation and, you know, even the Obama administration's new agricultural development initiative is investing in local capacity not just to grow food, but to process that food, to add some value, and to develop a market for that food locally. Yes, there might be more demand for string beans in the United Kingdom than in Kenya. But with some basic processing, there could be a lot more value and money held in countries like Kenya rather than just exporting a raw commodity around the world.

FLATOW: Let's go to Amy(ph) in Avon, Ohio. Hi, Amy.

AMY (Caller): Hi, there. That last point was a very good one and was one that I want to make. I mean, I don't think that farmers in Kenya selling green beans overseas is a way to solve the problems of the Kenyan economy and the problems of not having enough locally - enough food for the local population. I mean, I think the answer is to concentrate on crops that can be consumed locally.

And I feel like it's really important that we each do what we can individually to change the broader ideas of farming. And, for my own example, we belong to a CSA. We have a farm share with a farm that serves over a hundred shareholders. I believe that they farm over a hundred acres and they do that organically. They do crop rotation. We get - that's our primary source of produce during the growing months. And that same CSA also donates a third of what they grow to a local food bank. I think that that's the way that we change things in the bigger world, by supporting farmers who are doing things like that on a local level.

I'm really happy to say that I'm sort of off the commercial food grid. Whatever I don't get from that farm, I would say that I buy 80 percent of what I don't get. And that includes my meats, my eggs, other produce, I buy from local farmers. Now, that's not to say I - that I don't still like, you know, my -some imported cheeses from France and some ham from Italy. But I feel like we have struck a balance in our household and the balance leans - heavily towards supporting local farmers who, in turn, support the local economy. And I think that that's the bigger picture that we all need to see and work towards.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Amy, for your call. We're talking about local farming this hour on Science Friday from NPR News. Talking with James McWilliams, author of "Just Food," Michael Pollan, "In Defense of Food," and Brian Halweil. Is it possible for everyone to do what Amy did? Everybody to do that? Is that sustainable?

Prof. McWILLIAMS: Well, this is James. I think the experience that Amy has just described is fantastic. And I think, I'd like to see more and more people doing it. But I am weary of how extensive that kind of behavior can be. And so, more pragmatically, when I think about the - you know, a sustainable food system, I'm less optimistic that we can actually reach a point where, you know, the vast majority of Americans are buying their food that way. And I'm not really sure it would be such a great thing, especially when you look at, you know, where water is available, where natural resources are such that that can happen.

And there certainly are areas where, you know, Amy's experience is, I think, a lot more efficient than in other areas. Certainly, in the southwestern portions of the United States, it would be much more difficult, I think, to consume that sort of diet in that sort of way.

Now, what I would also add to this, though, is if I back up a little bit and say, okay, I don't think I can propose any model to get people to purchase their food in that manner, but, you know, what can I do? And what I'm trying to do in the book is to say, look, is there much simpler things we can do, such as radically reducing our meat consumption or - and I know this sounds unrealistic, but giving up meat altogether?

I mean, meat causes a fifth of all global warming. It's - 50 percent of all the nitrogen used through fertilizer in this country is the result of meat production. Thirty percent of the land surface of the world is dedicated to livestock, you know, 70 percent of the water in the west and so on. I mean, it is a system that cannot hold. And so, when I present that, my argument is, look, this is what needs to be given up and, you know, purchase more fruits and vegetables and eat at home.

FLATOW: All right. Let me get - only about a minute left. Let's - get a response from Michael on that. Can we eat like Amy does?

Prof. POLLAN: Well, I think that the emphasis James places on meat consumption - if you're concerned about your carbon footprint, that is the low-hanging fruit, if you would, low-hanging pork chop. And that's what you should go for.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It's very - you get a lot of bang for your buck if you stop eating meat or you reduce meat consumption. I do think animal agriculture has an important role to play, much smaller than it plays now, in our food system. I think it can be done sustainably.

Can everybody eat the way Amy does? You know, I think it's the wrong question. I don't think we're looking for a single model to, you know, one size fits all. The problem with our current food system, it is a monoculture economically as well as on the ground. We have to let a thousand flowers bloom. We want to have many different food chains in this country because some of them are going to fail. And we want to know that if there's a problem with organic, that we have local. And if there's a problem with local, that we even have conventional. So that - I really think we're not looking for the right - the single answer for all of us in all places. It's going to have to be locally adapted. And the more different food chains you have, the more resilient your food economy and the less likely you are to go hungry.

FLATOW: Well, there you have it. And, you know, it sounds very much like a discussion about alternative energies. You don't want one, you want a whole bunch of them to choose from. You don't want one food option, you want a whole bunch of options.

Prof. POLLAN: Exactly.

Mr. HALWEIL: And if you…

Prof. POLLAN: Right.

Mr. HALWEIL: And - this is Brian. If you think about, you know, the folks who were considering the threats to agriculture that will come from climate change, they're talking a lot about climate-ready crops and climate-ready cropping systems. And the bottom line there is diversity.

One other benefit of supporting agriculture in your backyard is there are going to be crop varieties and livestock breeds and cropping systems and knowledge about those cropping systems that exist in corners of every state in this country and throughout this country and throughout the world that don't exist anywhere else. And when erratic weather or a new crop disease emerges that threatens one of those food systems, hopefully, it does not threaten the entire food system.

FLATOW: All right. That's about all the time we have for - thank you very much for taking the time to be with us. Brian Halweil is a senior food researcher at the Worldwatch Institute. James McWilliams, author of "Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly." And of course, you know Michael Pollan, who was author of "In Defense of Food" and "The Omnivore's Dilemma."

Thank you, gentlemen, for taking time to be with us again. Have a great weekend.

Prof. POLLAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have.

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