Butter’s Bitter Lesson
A guest blog by James McWilliams
Environmental advocates who promote eating “real” food (a deeply problematic concept for anyone who knows the history of food) as a necessary part of an ecologically responsible diet miss the point. In doing so, they render their larger message of eating in an environmentally responsible matter irrelevant. And not just a little irrelevant. Totally so. To understand why, it helps to take a closer look at the recent enviro-foodie reaction to butter.
Foodie environmentalists love butter. In part, they love it because it’s food that their grandmother would have eaten—this prerequisite being one of the more arbitrary elements of this somewhat precious culinary ideology. But they also love it because they are foodies and, tautology aside, are reluctant to allow anything as inconvenient as ecological reality or animal welfare to come between external justice and the internal pleasures of the palate. These are people who are all for “An Inconvenient Truth” but not so much for inconvenient truths.
It’s easy to overlook this reality. Foodie-enviros spin bucolic narratives that highlight the benefits of pasture-raised this and grass-fed that as “evidence” that one can now, if she can afford it, viably eat animal products and remain dedicated to environmental causes (this is, in many ways, why such issues as pipelines and dirty coal are so appealing—the connection between the personal and the political is less obvious). The reason they get away with these stories is that our collective base of knowledge on these matters remains lamentably thin. People such as Allan Savory, who bill themselves as planetary saviors, have thus excelled at a TED-ish foodie brand of duplicity, promoting ideas that, at the end of the day, might be just as damaging as those promoted by Monsanto and Cargill. (Eat beef, reverse global warming?! You can anything at a TED talk.)
But every now and then the gentlemanly facade is lifted and a whiff of truth wafts out. Which brings us back to butter and the foodie-enviros who support it. Last month butter got some temporary good news on the health front. The prospect that butter could be healthy sent foodie-enviros into a froth of excitement. Mark Bittman, foodie-enviro extraordinaire, led the celebration, declaring in both a headline and the text of his Times column that “butter is back.” He then explicitly advised with oracular confidence: “You can go back to eating butter, if you haven’t already.”
But then the other shoe dropped. Turns out the study had flaws. Serious flaws. Flaws serious enough for important people at fancy places such as Harvard to call for a retraction. And then everyone got sheepishly silent. When critics (myself included) harped on Bittman (who has written hundreds of recipes that call for butter) for his rush-to-judgment, suggesting that it contradicted his purported green mission, not to mention that it ignored animal welfare issues that he has long claimed to care about, something strange happened. I don’t use this word lightly, but what happened was Orwellian.
Suddenly, all discussions of health were tossed to the curb. Indeed, as criticisms of the study swirled, the foodie-enviros now switched the media focus to industrial agriculture in general. Tom Philpott blogged that, in criticizing Bittman for his premature embrace of butter, I was somehow advocating butter substitutes—a non grandma food—and, in so doing, was acting as the handmaiden of industrial agriculture. Wha? (Bittman, for his part, thanked Tom with a tweet.)
This all left me baffled, in part because I’ve never advocated a butter substitute in my life. But more so because the biggest supporters of the study that these foodie-enviros were so enthralled to promote were the meat and dairy industries themselves. I urge you to see what Big Ag had to say here, and thus whom the foodie-enviros got in bed with in order to back butter.
I’m still wondering by what logic Philpott thinks that supporting butter is not supporting industrial agriculture. Last I checked butter was as industrialized as any product on the face of the earth. To call a vegan a defender of industrial agriculture strikes me as a case of the Philpott calling the kettle black, or at least a complete lack of understanding that a plant-based diet does more to deter industrial agriculture as we know it than any other single measure.
But it’s back on the environmental front where the hypocrisy of the foodie-enviro position really hits home. Conservation magazine (for whom I write) recently declared that “Butter is Toast.” Why? It’s simple: “The carbon footprint of butter is over four times that of margarine.” The article is here; it’s short, it has not been called for a retraction, and you should read it. (emphasis emphatically added)
But for now, let the bitter lesson be clear: it’s time to stop trusting environmentalists who are led by their palates. These folks are perfectly happy to fiddle while Rome burns. But they forget that there are still people out there who believe in the power of personal choice to create genuine change for ourselves, animals, and the planet. Let’s not allow ourselves to be forsaken.
James McWilliams is a professor at Texas State University and the author of four books on food and agriculture, including Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We can Truly Eat Responsibly. His work appears regularly in Slate, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Washington Post, and the Atlantic.com. He blogs at his Eating Plants Blog and lives in Austin.