Author argues in favor of a different kind of sustainable agriculture

James E. McWilliams is stirring up trouble, the kind that gets noticed — and the kind that makes us all scratch our heads and think harder. That’s a good kind of trouble.

McWilliams’ new book, “Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly” (Little, Brown, $25.99; available Aug. 26) puts some popular theories about eating locally on the chopping block, and in some cases this associate professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos makes a good argument. What is his case? That eating locally isn’t going to save the planet.

Yikes. Did I just say that out loud?

Before everyone starts getting hot under the horse’s yoke, hear me out. As a locavore myself, and a strong proponent of the sustainable movement in food, I don’t think McWilliams is the enemy. He wants to save the planet one table at a time, too. He just has a different suggestion as to how we should do it.

His argument is that eating locally doesn’t subtract from the carbon footprint our food system leaves. Shipping 2,000 apples over 2,000 miles, for instance, consumes the same amount of fuel as a local farmer who drives 50 miles to deliver 50 apples. And 2,000 feeds a lot more than 50. Food shipped from nonlocal sources helps economies across the globe, too — where would Belize be if we all stopped eating bananas?

I can’t argue with McWilliams’ basic math. But I do think he’s missing an important piece of the locavore movement’s message. Eating locally isn’t only about reducing carbon output and monetarily supporting local farmers. It’s about putting a face on our food — and not just the face of a farmer.

When I taught culinary school, I had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of kids from all over the country. It astounded me how little they knew about the food they had been eating all their lives — and these were young people readying themselves to work in the food industry. One student had never seen a peach, other than in a can. We have become too removed from the origins of what we eat, and it’s costing us dearly — in method, practice and money.

McWilliams’ biggest — and boldest — statement is that if we really want to reduce the greenhouse gases emitted from our food system, we should all become vegetarians. He has a valid point, one vegetarians have been screaming for decades. Researching the book made him realize that “it was impossible to be a meat-eating environmentalist.”

Plants require far less energy per pound to produce than meat, and perhaps even more importantly for the not-so-far-off-future, far less water. According to his research, it takes 2,400 liters of water to produce a hamburger, while only 13 liters are needed to grow a tomato. He maintains the argument that fish — farmed more than fresh — is the only environmental protein choice we have.

The other piece of the locavore puzzle that’s missing from McWilliams’ argument is that while it’s true that “the economics of scaling up local operations and successfully weaving them into preexisting global food systems faces serious obstacles,” he fails to really point a finger to a definite why. The cooperation that might exist between large- and small-scale operations to provide local produce or meat to both is “bound to ultimately undermine the small farming ethic at the expense of the larger endeavor.”

Well, I’ll be brave and point the finger: greed, pure and simple. The system, as it is, makes lots of money for some powerful people. And while reading his book is ultimately enlightening, his argument accepts things as they are far more than it should. It will be nearly impossible to get small farmers into larger markets with the distribution system we have in place, but there are two lessons to be learned from that. First, not every small farmer wants to get that much bigger; he or she just wants to make a living. Secondly, just because change is difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt it.

There’s more — including a rational look at genetically modified organisms and ideas on how to feed the planet. In McWilliams’ last statements, he offers the most clarity: “... as much as we might wish otherwise, food is not simple ...”

“Just Food” ultimately offers a brave, solid argument that anyone who cares about their food — and everyone should care about their food — should consider.