265 of 284 people found the following review helpful
on August 17, 2009
Just Foods is an important book in the continuing (and continually escalating) debate over how we should grow our food and what we should eat. Environmental historian and reformed locavore James McWilliams, invites us to think logically and dispassionately about some of the most important food issues of our time--and of the future. Having read two of McWilliams' previous books, I expected a controversial, detailed, and well-documented discussion. I wasn't disappointed.
In summary, McWilliams argues
1) that global food production is more fuel-efficient and more economically necessary (for developing countries that need export markets) than is local food production/consumption ("locovorism");
2) that organic farming is no more healthy for people and for the land than is "wisely practiced" conventional agriculture;
3) that genetically-modified crops, in the right hands, are not to be feared and are in fact necessary to feed the ten billions of people who will live on this planet by 2050;
4) that we must drastically reduce our production and consumption of meat animals and non-farmed fish;
5) and that we must get rid of "perverse" subsidies that undercut fair trade.
Informed readers will likely find themselves in near-total agreement with McWilliams' last two points. Factory-farmed beef consumes 33 calories of fossil fuel for every single calorie of meat produced, as well as creating huge amounts of air, soil, and water pollution and--on the other end--causing serious health problems in those who over-consume. Other animals, including range-farmed animals, may be less damaging to the environment and to their consumers, but still require (by a 3-to-1 ratio) more energy to produce than they offer in return. Wild fish stocks have been harvested to the brink of extinction, and ecologically-sensitive fish-farming may be our only alternative, short of giving up fish altogether. Many readers may agree with McWilliams that "conscientious eaters must radically reduce current rates of consumption" of meat and wild fish if the world's ecosystems are to be saved. Many will also agree that an end must be put to wasteful government incentives such as corn subsidies.
But those same informed readers will find much to argue with in this book, for McWilliams overlooks several hugely important problems--elephants in the garden. As I see them, here they are.
The first elephant: fossil-fuel depletion. While I am sympathetic to McWilliams' arguments that we need to be sensible about "food miles" and make more effort to save energy in food selection and preparation, I feel that he has overlooked one of the most important argument against continuing and/or increasing our dependency on global food markets and conventional fossil-fueled agriculture: that over the next decade or two, oil will become so expensive that food will no longer be shipped halfway around the world. Conventional farming, with its reliance on fossil-fueled equipment, fertilizers, and insecticide, is not viable in the long term. Even the conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) now says that "peak oil" is likely to arrive by 2020 and bring with it skyrocketing fuel costs. Whether we like it or not, when the price of a gallon of gasoline hits double-digits, shortening the food miles from farm to fork may be a necessity. Indeed, many of us may be eating out of our front-yard gardens, raising chickens in the back, and purchasing shares in a neighborhood milk goat. Don't laugh. It's possible.
A second elephant. I would like to accept McWilliams' argument that we must make a kind of peace with biotechnology, and that genetically-modified crops may be important when it comes to feeding fast-growing human populations across the globe--populations that (he says) are on track to exceed the carrying-capacity of the planet. We need the promise of higher yields, drought tolerance, and pest-resistance. But McWilliams brushes aside too easily the huge issues of gene contamination; the failure of GM crops to reduce (as promised) pesticide use; and their failure to produce the promised higher yields. And since GM crops are conventionally-farmed, the challenge of energy depletion must be faced here, too.
Still, it is not the flawed promise of GM crops that will most concern readers. It is the question of private ownership of the world's seeds. McWilliams himself acknowledges that the only place for biotechnology is "the public domain," and that as long as the genes of the world's most important foods are owned and controlled by a "handful of corporations intent on monopolizing patents in the interest of profit," none of its benefits will be achieved.
But that is the elephant. These technologies do not belong to the commons. They are held by monopolistic private corporations. And short of a revolution, corporations will continue to hold them. And as long as this is true, biotechnology is a much greater threat than a promise to the food security of peoples around the world.
A third elephant. Any book that presumes to point definitive directions for global agriculture absolutely must take into account the enormous cloud that looms on all horizons: global warming and climate change. McWilliams addresses this far too briefly. Under changing climate conditions, what kinds of foods will we be able to produce and where? How are these changes likely to affect pests and crop-destroying viruses? Global warming, fossil-fuel depletion, and privately owned crops are the huge elephants in the garden. That these issues are not front-and-center in this book is a substantial disappointment.
As always, I am grateful to James McWilliams for requiring me to read carefully and think about his arguments. While I read, I scribbled in the margin, made notes on the flyleaf, and ticked off the sources I intend to investigate. Just Food engaged me fully and completely--not always comfortably, but always productively.
The bottom line. Just read Just Food. Give yourself time to read (this is not skim-reading stuff) and equip yourself with pencil and paper or your laptop. Bring your own arguments to the table, and measure them against the author's, point by point. And do plan to spend more than a few hours reading and thinking and arguing with this book. You will find that it is time well spent.
181 of 202 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2009
This book was a disappointment. Knowing of the author's keen intellect and captivating style, I was eagerly anticipating a set of challenging arguments to engage with. Like McWilliams, I have myself been a participant in the new food movement, but, also like him, I am aware that there are many complex factors that complicate simple rules of thumbs such as "eat local" and "organic is always better."
Unfortunately, there are too many inconsistencies, retailing of old canards as if they were surprising new facts, and an embarrassing lack of critical analysis of technoscientific hype.
For inconsistency, let me just detail one especially glaring contradiction. The general theme of the book is supposed to be that we have to find a "golden mean"--that is, to make sustainable eating more practical and acceptable to the world at large, we need to steer between the extremes of the local, organic purists and the conventional food system. Yet in the middle of the book we learn that by far the most important thing people can do to eat more sustainably is to give up eating meat. Now, in principle I tend to agree with McWilliams on this point, though I am a bit more positive about the grassfed and free-range meat alternatives than he is. But how in the world can you pass this off as advocating a moderate or "golden mean" position? In fact, McWilliams is something of an extremist on the meat issue--and for good reason, though, as I've said, he could afford to rethink his dismissal of the arguments in favor of grazing animals. (At one point, he glibly dismisses the objection that some land is only suitable for animal grazing by strangely contending that the land could grow plant crops if only it weren't so degraded by the hooves of cattle. For an environmental historian, this position seems willfully ignorant of the actual environmental history of places like the Great Plains.)
I do agree it seems justifiable to take a fairly extreme position on the meat issue, especially meat that is raised conventionally, if estimates of its contribution to climate change, water usage, etc., are any indication. But anyone who believes that it will represent some sort of moderate, practical, "golden mean" approach to convince Americans, and other folks in developed countries--not to mention developing-country aspirants to this lifestyle--to give up meat is kidding himself. This would be a major tectonic cultural shift not all that different, and probably even more unlikely, than the conversion to local, organic eating that McWilliams derides as unrealistic for the global masses. We may in practice achieve global reductions in meat consumption because of rising costs of production due to energy shortages, but (as one previous reviewer has pointed out), this is itself ironically a huge blind spot in McWilliams's analysis and one that significantly undercuts many of the other points he makes in the book regarding such things as global food trade and fertilizer inputs.
Next, McWilliams may have previously immersed himself in the Austin new food movement so much that he didn't notice, but many of the claims he makes--that organic food cannot feed the world, that genetic engineering is not significantly different from the long history of human plant and animal breeding, that genetically modified crops will save the world from starvation and pesticide use, etc.--have been bouncing around as conventional boilerplate for decades. I've been reading the debates and commentaries for many years now, and what has impressed me is how shaky these assumptions have become (or have always been). Yet they seem uncomfortably central to McWilliams's arguments. True, there are some valid and less worn-out points in the book too, but they are regrettably mixed in with too many of these shaky generalizations. Related to this, McWilliams seems mesmerized in many places by the pronouncements of molecular biologists, technology promoters, and the like. He does not dig deep enough and scrutinize them critically enough. He is too good a historian to ignore the long history of technoscientific hype and the promises that have not come to fruition.
As I've hinted, there are some good points in this book. Transportation from producer to consumer--the popular concept of "food miles," which McWilliams repeatedly derides--is indeed proving to be only one small component of the environmental footprint of the food system. Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is certainly a valuable and often enlightening corrective to our initial assumptions. Yet even in discussing this issue, McWilliams falls prey to weak argumentation. It may well be true that local food *could* be less sustainable, for example when it uses fossil-fueled greenhouses, or when farmers markets are considerably further away from consumers than supermarkets, or when local production practices are less ideal than more distant ones. But does McWilliams have any evidence that this *is* the case, on average?
Sure, there are well-documented examples of long-distance food being arguably more sustainable than local, such as when produce is shipped by train from warmer to colder climates in the off season, or when Britons dine on shipped New Zealand grazed meat instead of grain-fed local meat. On the whole, however, my suspicion is just the opposite of McWilliams: I suspect that local producers more often tend to use more sustainable practices. (Would local farmers even consider using air freight to get their products to market?) As farmers markets reclaim town centers, I also suspect that customers may often be driving less to get there--maybe even walking or bicycling?--than if they were traveling to big pedestrian-unfriendly supermarkets on the edge of town. These observations are definitely true where I live. But we have no systematic data on this point--we have only my hunch and anecdotal experience against McWilliams's. The problem we have here is that McWilliams has jumped from the existence of exceptions to the conventional wisdom ("buy local") to rejecting the conventional wisdom. But sometimes exceptions are just that: exceptions. No one who is advocating a "golden mean" and practical solutions for the masses has any business rejecting rules of thumb that make sense for lots of food consumers, on such a slender base of evidence.
The same is true of his discussion of the problems of organic production. At first, he informs us that critiquing the scaling up, or "industrialization," of organics is a "red herring" (p. 55). Then a few pages later we find him excoriating organic farming's heavy use of allowable external inputs brought in from far away that may be as bad or worse than synthetic inputs forbidden by organic regulations. Yet, in my experience and reading of studies on this subject, the "big organic" producers are often the leading users of such inputs, while the small organic farmers near where I live use them far less frequently. Indeed, many small, local producers are rejecting the organic label--co-opted by "big organic" to focus solely on allowable vs. non-allowable inputs--and instead choosing to follow a more thorough and holistic set of agro-ecological production practices. I suppose McWilliams would probably deride these folks as impractical "purists," but then it seems ironic that he is using the sins of their less pure competitors to cast doubt on the whole movement. Here again, we need to study this issue more fully before someone like McWilliams can so confidently minimize the sustainability of organics.
On the whole, I think the sloppiness and lack of systematic analysis undermine this book. There are many thoughtful nuggets, such as the need for full life-cycle analysis of the food system and the overriding importance of meat consumption. If nothing else, these nuggets of wisdom may spur some dedicated sustainable food advocates to elevate these issues to greater prominence. But they tend to remain just that: nuggets, rather than a carefully constructed and constructive critique of the assumptions of the new food movement. (On a related note, I was also disappointed that the wonderful double entendre in the title was not followed up more thoroughly with a critical analysis of the injustices in the larger social and economic system, which is what the title led me to expect. He gets to that towards the end, but it seems too little and too late.) Unfortunately the valuable nuggets are needlessly obscured by the author's relentless, cynical posturing and inconsistent argumentation. In the end, the book reads as one person's chronicle of how he started to have doubts about his enthusiasm for eating local, organic food. A more disciplined analysis with greater gestation time might have produced a more consistent and balanced (and less strident) book.
81 of 92 people found the following review helpful
I had such high hopes for this book. I was initially drawn to it because something about the locavore movement seemed not quite right...... many fall root vegetables are difficult to prepare in an appetizing way, and as an East Coast resident I don't wish to eat canned potatoes and pickled onions all winter. Unfortunately, James McWilliams' book extends beyond addressing the locavores, to declare that consumers who try to be ecologically conscientious by purchasing organic produce and grass-fed beef are also wrong. He presents well-researched arguments for considering GM crop technology and the benefits of aquaculture. Clearly he wants to induce a change of heart in the reader about these technologies, but unless the reader is the CEO of Monsanto who then decides to give such technologies to third world countries for free, the end result of the discussion will be nothing.
Admittedly, there are problems associated with a Michael Pollan type diet: beef is still resource intensive and costly to produce, organic farming methods still use harmful but naturally occurring pesticides, but McWilliams often conveniently disregards the fact that as individual consumers, these buying decisions are the only means we have to make a difference (albeit a very small one.) In a section that apparently slipped by the proofreader, McWilliams states that "Ultimately, however, these solutions are left for others to design and implement. We can only stand by and encourage these plans (which is admittedly, all we can do when it comes to many of the thorniest agricultural issues.)"
The audience for a book such as this is the same Michael Pollan crowd that McWilliams feels is not doing enough, even though they now have chickens in their backyards and have joined the local CSA farm. So what's his problem with his audience? "As I hope is clear by now, scaling down food production and eating local fare is not in and of itself going to feed the impending 10 billion in a sustainable way." This is oversimplifying the problems that a growing global population presents. Even if all of western society converted to a diet of vegetables and farm-raised trout so that we could grow extra food for poor countries, how is the food going to get there? Once everyone is full, how are they going to support themselves? How will they get potable water? How will they dispose of their waste in a sanitary way? A true environmentalist should thinking bigger than McWilliams asks us to think.
As a consumer who tries to be thoughtful, this book left me frustrated. Other than not eating meat and "supporting" aquaculture and GM crops and opposing farm subsidies (things that the by the author's own admission are little more than thought experiments for the average consumer), Just Food comes across as chastising of those who try to do right with no concrete ideas for how to do better.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2010
In Just Food, the author James McWilliams sets out to disabuse locovores of some of their commonly held beliefs about "Food Miles" and "Organic" as synonymous with "Sustainable" farming. I am not certain that it is necessary to read the whole book as the author does a very good job of summarizing his five key points in chapter 6.
First, he desperately wants conscientious shoppers to stop thinking about "Food Miles", how far food is shipped to reach a given locale, and instead think in terms of Life-Cycle Assessments (LCA's). LCA's take into account the efficiency of farming or processing operations based on scale, labor and the type of power they use as well as considering the amount of energy to prepare the food at home. A simple example: Grain which is very low in water content and needs to be milled can be produced on a large scale farm, on a rain-fed basis and then milled at a very large processor very efficiently compared to everyone trying to grow wheat locally (perhaps requiring irrigation), then processing in small local mills. The amount of fuel needed to move processed grains around the country is, by comparison, negligible.
Second, he tries very hard to dispel the myth that small, scale organic farms are more efficient then large scale farms. In fact, he very accurately points out that we could never raise enough food in that sort of system to feed 8-10 billion people. Some examples: Organic farms tend to rely very heavily on water sodden manures as primary fertilizer sources even though it requires a great deal of fuel to move these high-water, low nutrient fertilizers to the farm and spread them on the fields. Plus, these fertilizers, because they tend to release their nitrogen slowly, are often over-applied to cool season crops leading to significant nutrient leaching out of the system in the warmer months. Another good example would be the use of the herbicide RoundUp (an herbicide with nil environmental impact and toxicity lower than either nicotine or caffeine) in sustainable systems as opposed to organic systems where farmers are obliged to burn a great deal of fuel to do mechanical cultivation instead. Organic farming is a way of life, it is a quasi-religion, it is a Jeffersonian ideal; it is not the most efficient and sustainable production system.
Third, the author strongly advocates the cautious and considerate use of biotechnology, specifically the use of recombinant DNA to create GM crops, as a means to develop crops that are salt-tolerant, more drought tolerant and which use nitrogen fertilizer more efficiently, among other things. Here, I have to point out the author's total lack of citations for any type of work that has been done in this area, and plenty has, and almost no discussion of the science or ecology behind such advances in plant breeding.
The author's fourth and fifth points go together. His opinion is that far too much land and fertilizer are used to feed cattle which are very, very inefficient at converting that plant energy to meat energy. He is only somewhat less disparaging of pig and chicken production. His answer is freshwater fish pond systems. Particularly those which encompass both plant and multiple-species fish production in the same closed system. Here the author does seem to have done his homework and makes some very valid points.
In the end, I have to take issue with several things in the book. The author routinely refers to "Confused Omnivore's" as a means of disparaging the popular book by Michael Pollan. In fact, in the notes for the introduction at the end of the book he points out that Pollan is a journalist, Wendell Berry a poet, Alan Chadwick an actor and Jose Bove is just a Berkeley bred activist and the only reason all four can romanticize agriculture is because none have to make a living from farming. I just can't help but think that hiding this slight in the notes is a bit of cowardice and just affirms that the author is mostly harboring professional jealousy for Pollan's much greater commercial success. Of course, the reason Pollan's books have sold better are because the author is witty, he writes excellent dialogue and has much better narrative skills; in short he is a far better writer than is McWilliams. In the brief resume for the author at the end of the book I note that he is listed as a Professor of History and Agrarian Studies, no mention of him making a living from farming either, unless he grows mushrooms inside the ivory halls of academia. On page 32 of the book the author refers to. "...elite professions such as academia and journalism..." Journalism? Is he serious? He praises the very prolific and successful plant breeder Luther Burbank (p.89) for systemizing "what farmers had been doing since the dawn of agriculture..." Luther Burbank was known for his lack of scientific rigor and almost total lack of record keeping. Perhaps the author meant to laude the Vilmorins who did make great strides in systematic plant breeding in the late 1700's and early 1800's. Or, perhaps he was thinking of the great statistician R.A. Fisher who did actually systemize plant breeding and agricultural field trials in the early 20th century.
On page 101 the author writes about RoundUp (tm) resistant crops, "Because the GM crop has been endowed with a gene that produces bacteria able to resist glyphosate, however, it thrives." Again, huh? A single gene produces a whole bacteria? Come on, bacteria do indeed have small genomes, but it takes far more than one gene to make a bacteria. What glyphosate resistant plants have inserted is the ESPS (5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phospate synthase) gene which acts in a critical biopathway in the plant allowing it to resist the affects of glyphosate. The author is an academician and we can't even count on him to get the scientific facts right. In describing how benign glyphosate is (p.102) the author points out that it does not, "bioaccumulate in species in higher tropic levels." I am pretty sure that is supposed to be higher "trophic" levels. In describing the $3.6 billion Central Valley (Irrigation) Project on pages 193-194 as a farm subsidy the author points out that agribusinesses were supposed to shoulder $1 billion of that cost, but between 1936 and 2002 they had only paid 11 percent of that share. He then writes, "So, for a little over a million bucks, monocultutal systems in California have enjoyed unlimited access to water that cost the taxpayers over thirty times more." I am not in the elite professions of journalist or academia like the author, but my math skills tell me 11% of $1 billion is more like $110 million dollars. His version does make it seem like more of a subsidy though. On page 195 when describing the US government subsidy to the fishing industry he writes, "...a fishing venture can spend $124 billion to catch fish over the course of a year, sell that catch for $70 billion, and count on the federal government to pick up the $54 million difference." That doesn't add up for me either. I think if we cannot trust the author to get the science or the math right than we really can't trust much in this book and, as stated before, he is not even an entertaining writer.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
I love reading books about food policy and politics so when I saw that Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly was being released I was very intrigued. The premise of the book is that Locavores often don't have the whole picture when trying to eat ethically and the book is designed to point out where they go wrong. While this might seem controversial to some, I was genuinely excited because I try very hard to make responsible food choices and wanted to know if there was something I was missing. Unfortunately, this book did not really live up to my expectations and while I liked some aspects of it, there were many more I had a problem with. The bottom line is I found this book more confusing than enlightening (not because I am not an intelligent person, but because of the way the information was presented) and think there are other books that do a better job of taking a holistic look at responsible food choices.
The book covers points like whether food miles are really the most important metric to think about when eating environmentally, the value of organic, genetically modified crops, the meat and seafood industries, and the economic side of food production (especially government subsidies)so it tries to take a pretty comprehensive view of the food industry. I say try because I think one of the weaknesses of this book is that it bit off more than it can chew. I agree 100% with the author that it's complicated and that making responsible choices can not be boiled down to JUST food miles. However, the problem is when you try to capture everything in one book there just isn't enough space to cover enough raw facts to make a covincing argument and you often raise more questions than you do provide answers. I admire the author for trying to be comprehensive, but I think there is a reason why so few books are - the food system, especially once you talk about it from a global scale, is incredibly complicated and holds no easy answers for the future. I found it amusing because one of the points the author makes is that Locavores tend to oversimplify things, but I honestly think part of the problem is that it is just SO complicated and that there is no one answer so people tend to do the best they can and make choices that fit their lifestyle.
I also didn't necessarily find the take in this book to be incredibly fresh or new. I think theThe Ethics of What We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter already does a great job of looking at ethical food choices from a comprehensive perspecive (looking not just at environmental impacts, but also nutrition, principles, community, animal welfare, etc.).
I also didn't care for the slight digs at locavores the author chooses to make in the book. They came across as a little petty and in my opinion wasted words that could have been used to better make the author's case. I think we all agree there are environmental hypocrites, but why waste time pointing it out when the audience for this book is likely someone who genuinely cares and rejects simplistic views anyway?
What I did like about this book was that it really caused me to pause and think about my beliefs and realize areas where I may need to solicit more information to make informed choices. I definitely didn't walk away from reading this book like I had all the answers so if this bothers you, you may not enjoy this book.
Overall I just wasn't a fan of this book. I can respect what the author was trying to do, but after reading through it and sifting through it again while writing this review, I'm not sure his intent was fully realized.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on December 12, 2009
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Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, by James E. McWilliams, presents some good ideas, but is weakened by arrogance and less-than-thorough analyses. His critique of locavorism is ultimately incomplete and flawed.
If you are interested in what he has to say but don't want to read the whole book, I recommend that you go to your neighborhood bookstore and read the 9-page Conclusion. It is short enough to read standing up.
McWilliams' driving concern throughout the book is the environment. Greenhouse gasses are his main focus. He argues that "food miles" is an overly simplistic, and in fact misguided, gauge of food sustainability. He discusses the concept of life cycle analysis, suggesting that it is important to look at the total carbon impact of your food, rather than focusing simply on the carbon impact of its transportation; he demonstrates that there are often other factors that make a far greater contribution to carbon footprint than transportation. He also points out, rightly I think, that farmers' markets and small farmers in general will face an increasing challenge trying simultaneously to meet the needs of foodies, the mainstream population, restaurateurs, wholesalers, and the low-income population.
His argument is weakened by unfounded assertions and unnecessary contrariness, perhaps products of a conscious attempt to be "provocative" or "controversial". He claims that an ever-growing contingent of "food-milers" think food miles are the only thing that matter, and he casts himself as the defender of the human race against these food-milers; it not clear to me that a lot of people look only at food miles without looking also at issues such as sustainable farming practices and rural economics. He states that "if we can measure the distance food can travel, we can certainly measure the carbon footprint created by the major inputs of production"; this seems far from certain to me, especially on smaller, polyculture farms. He spends a good portion of the first chapter criticizing the "food-milers" for being smug and self-righteous, and obsessing over their one pet metric; he spends much of the rest of the chapter being smug and self-righteous himself, and focusing on his own pet metric (carbon footprint).
He faults locavorism for being unable to meet the needs of the urban population of the US, especially in arid cities (he specifically mentions Tuscon, Phoenix, and Las Vegas). He says: "Locavores will often respond to this line of attack by arguing that people should not be moving to these areas in the first place." He dismisses this argument by claiming that the US government cannot realistically tell "citizens and corporations that they cannot settle in a particular region because the resources do not conform to a locavore vision", and finally concludes that "some places cannot, on environmental grounds, justify a localized food system." He implies that the US government is the only force that determines where people live. I doubt this--I think economics play a significant role. I believe that if the Southwest continues its trend toward running out of water, or if transportation becomes more expensive, water and food prices will likely rise sharply in response, and Phoenix will become a less appealing place to live. The government could (continue to) subsidize the transportation of water to such locations, but this would seem to work against McWilliams' goal of lowered carbon footprint. In short, I don't think his argument holds water.
He also fails to acknowledge the non-carbon-related reasons for supporting local agriculture. Chief among them are, in my view: building resilient local food systems able to withstand sudden events (rises in transportation costs triggered by rising energy prices, natural disasters, wars, economic and infrastructure collapses); and supporting the local economy, both by keeping money in the local community and by providing meaningful jobs. He does not acknowledge the possibility that small agriculture jobs might be meaningful. And he says that buying food directly from farmers does not build any kind of "community" that he is interested in. In these matters I simply disagree with him.
Finally, he "often wonder[s] if consumers could consistently discern the difference in a blind taste test between farmers' market produce and Wal-Mart produce." Because of the wide variety of farmers' market produce, the question as stated is essentially meaningless. It's hard to see the purpose of asking it. Is it intended merely to provoke?
In the next chapter, he makes a point about how "local" is turning into a marketing buzzword, just as has happened, to a large extent, to "organic" (and, I might add, to a variety of other terms like "free-range", "farm fresh", and so on). He argues that organic/conventional is a continuum rather than a dichotomy, that they are not as distinct as most people think in terms of practices, use of chemicals, etc., and that rather than being limited by these two categories, we should consider a range of approaches to farming that use appropriate technologies.
He loses me is in his discussion of genetically modified food. McWilliams doesn't see a big difference between selective plant breeding and genetic modification. Specifically, he states that we have been selectively breeding plants for a long time,
but now, somewhat arbitrarily, many of us are deeply bothered over biotechnology. We shouldn't be. Genetic engineering (GE) is often portrayed as a radical break from "natural" agricultural practice, but as [Pamela] Ronald points out, this is not the case.
He justifies GM food by trying to demonstrate that it is the only way we will be able to address current hunger, and to feed the ever-growing population of the future. He downplays the many possible ecological risks.
As far as I'm concerned, given what we don't know about it, GM food is not an option, period. So ultimately, his claims about the relative efficiency of GM versus conventional crops are irrelevant to me.
Furthermore, in his discussion of GM foods, he again downplays or ignores the issue of local resilience and self-sufficiency. GM seeds generally require money, and even when they are given away, they frequently require specific chemical inputs from specific companies in order to produce. Additionally, they are often sterile in the next generation, making seed-saving impossible, and locking farmers in poor countries into cycles of dependency on American multinational corporations like Monsanto.
His chapters about meat and aquaculture are the strongest chapters of the book. Meat from industrially-raised land animals, he argues, is expensive in terms of land use, carbon footprint, and environmental devastation, and our worldwide consumption of such meat is skyrocketing. Between 1958 and today, for example, per capita meat consumption in China has gone from 8 pounds a year to 119. Another statistic he cites is that a 50% reduction in meat consumption would compensate for 2937.5 miles driven every year by every family (he does not specify geography; the study he cites is British, so perhaps the context is Britain). He concludes that
In the end, the only environmentally viable kinds of meat production are the emerging alternatives to conventional factory production--grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken, and free-range pork being prime examples. However...it will work only when kept small and integrated into midsized sustainable farms that place the bulk of their emphasis on growing plants to feed people.
(This makes it sound like grass-fed beef, free-range organic chicken, and free-range pork are new ideas, which they are definitely not. Nevertheless, he makes his point.)
His analysis of the history and state of the art in aquaculture is insightful. Fish farms vary greatly: some are very sustainable, and some are awful and polluting. His exploration of the growing possibilities of small scale, fresh water aquaculture and aquaponics is compelling. He makes a good case for his claim that of all the available sources of animal protein, aquaponic fish is the best.
The final chapter deals with subsidies, incentives, and fair trade. While I'm tired of reading about farm and trade subsidies, he presents many of the issues well. He ends, however, with another argument against strict locavorism, which I suppose is understandable, given the full title of the book. He justifies the large-scale import of green beans from sub-Saharan Africa to the UK on three grounds: (1) these beans don't have a large carbon footprint; (2) sub-Saharan Africa needs the money and the jobs, and (3) farming practices there might be more sustainable than in the UK. The first and third points are difficult to address. The second, money-and-jobs argument is short-sighted. The export/import arrangement increases the dependency of sub-Saharan farmers on the price of transportation fuel, and on market conditions in the rest of the world. What if large-scale food trade becomes impractical or inordinately expensive? What if the price of green beans drops suddenly, and these farmers are not able to cover their costs? This is exactly what has happened to coffee farmers. For people to be truly self-sufficient and secure, does it not make sense for them to grow food that they and their neighbors can eat? Self-sufficiency and food security considerations are compelling arguments for global locavorism, in the face of an increasingly complicated and volatile world economy.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2012
I was intrigued by this subject, as I'm something of a locavore and certainly wanted to make sure I am on the right track.
What the author misses entirely is that the locavore movement I've been exposed to is not only about food miles, that's just one aspect to take into consideration. Most of the people that I would consider locavores in my area care about how the food is grown (pesticides, rotation, monocultures, setting aside of wild habitat, Best Management Practices, living soil, etc, etc). I interview new farmers at farmer's markets when they first show up, to find out their practices. Just last week, a new cattle farmer showed up, and in discussions with him I found out that he practices standard 'industrial' beef methods (regular use of antibiotics, hormone injection, feedlot 'finishing', etc), so I moved on and left him off my list of grocery sources.
The author also makes handwaving dismissals of the amount of fuel that is used to transfer locally grown food to consumers. He makes use of no empirical data about farmer's markets nor does he do a survey of CSAs to determine how they do their drop offs. Such unsupported pronouncements give us nothing to analyze, persuading only those who believe anything that is written in a book is automatically true.
The author's completely unrealistic dream of Monsanto, Cargill, and the shrinking list of seed suppliers giving up the 'rights' to their seed genetics into the public domain is so absurd that I can't fathom how anyone could say that with a straight face.
The author's contention that Roundup saturated soils where vital natural nutrients are artificially replaced with ammonia pumped into the soil and beneficial soil organisms are annihilated. He completely ignores the growing movement of organic no-till, where cover crops are used to suppress weed growth and naturally build soil nutrient levels. As anyone can google this, one wonders where he obtains his information.
So while about 20% of the information correctly provided, it is unfortunately distorted by the other 80% of misleading opinion and non-representative cherry-picking that do nothing but confuse the average reader who has not delved deeply into these areas already.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on January 30, 2010
Reading some of these excellent reviews took me back to the question I asked myself as soon as I first picked up this book: how do you navigate a middle road ("Golden Mean") around food production and consumption; a topic that arouses so much conviction and passion at so many levels? My conclusion, after finishing the book, is that it's nearly impossible. While I believe a number of McWlliams's arguments are valid (limited and responsible input use rather than purely "organic", lower meat consumption and development of fresh-water aquaculture), he often over-states his case, as though he was "loaded for bear" in expectation of the response from locavores and others who he might have offended. What I do believe he accomplishes is an expansion of the dialogue about how our food production can remain sustainable in light a growing population with higher levels of discretionary income, diminishing natural resources (particularly fossil fuels), and compounding evidence that many current agricultural practices are detrimental to the environment. His recommendations on policy changes ("Merging Ecology & Economy"), while laudable, are not particularly likely unless there is a profound change in consciousness on the part of the big agribusinesses and other corporations who - particularly after the recent Supreme Court ruling - call the shots in Washington.
16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 2, 2010
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
By James E. McWilliams
Review by Gregory R. Ziegler
Professor of Food Science
Penn State University
In The Omnivore's Dilemma Michael Pollan presented a thoughtful analysis of the food system as it exists in the United States and most developed nations today. Unfortunately, his subsequent book, In Defense of Food, seemed a hurriedly-written, less thoughtful anti-science polemic. Now in Food Rules he has produced a daily devotional on how to eat that belies the complexity of food choice. Fortunately, James McWilliams, associate professor of history at Texas State University and recent fellow in Agrarian Studies at Yale has entered the fray and expanded the analysis to a global perspective.
A self-described member of the "food elite," personally sympathetic with the local, organic movements, McWilliams insists that there is a more productive, creative and global way to think of the complicated problem of eating an ethical diet. "Somewhere in that dull but respectable place called the pragmatic center," says McWilliams, "there's a golden mean of producing food that allows the conscientious consumer to eat an ethical diet in a globalizing world." Pragmatic as it may be, the book is anything but dull, and despite offering a balanced view his analysis reflects passion and conviction. "To be a centrist when it comes to food is, unfortunately, to be a radical."
The third rail in the food debate is population, or as McWilliams puts it, the looming demographic catastrophe is "the elephant in the locavores' room." The book is McWilliams attempt to honestly and holistically confront the challenges posed by a growing world population, and he concludes that "[E]ating local is not, in and of itself, a viable answer to sustainable food production of a global level." "We must be prepared to dissolve entrenched but simplistic dichotomies - in this case the idea that distance is bad, proximity is good - in order to help pave the way to the golden mean."
McWilliams also dissolves the false dichotomy between "organic will save the earth!/conventional will feed the world!" "Agriculture by its nature demands human interference with nature's rhythms, and these interferences, synthetic or not, are necessarily contrary to what "nature" intends. No matter how sustainable the process, agriculture is designed to transform nature and yield outputs. No matter how "primitive" or "pure" the operation may seem, every farm on some level is a factory." (This chapter reminded me of another of Michael Pollan's books, Second Nature, A Gardener's Education.)
Most disconcerting to the proponents of organic agriculture may be McWilliams' conditional acceptance of genetic engineering. His support of the technology is neither support for the corporations that currently deploy it, nor advocacy for the way it is currently being used, but a realization that the technology has already contributed to environmental stewardship and, with proper oversight, could be directed more explicitly to the goal of sustainable food production on a global scale. He argues, however, that control of the technology should be in the public domain. What he seeks is a continued debate "free of agricultural romance, ideological localism, scientific ignorance, and elitist solipsism."
On at least one point, McWilliams and Michael Pollan are agreed: our diet should be based mostly on plants. McWilliams concludes unexpectedly, "a necessary precondition for eating a sustainable diet is to radically reduce meat made from animals that dwell on land." "To be perfectly blunt, if the world continues to eat meat at current rates, there's simply no way to achieve truly sustainable food production." He believes this to be the book's most important conclusion, for it implies that we, as individuals, have the power to make a direct and immediate positive impact on the environment by reducing our meat consumption.
Unfortunately, the analysis lacks for McWilliams' limited scientific understanding. For example, he states, "When you break it down, a bunch of protein is all we get out of the deal [meat] - no fiber, no real vitamins or minerals, no complex carbohydrates." In the book The End of Food (another book I highly recommend) author Paul Roberts concludes, "we will need a means of providing substantially more protein than we now produce, yet with substantially lower external costs than we now incur." High-quality protein is nutritionally limiting in much of the world. I would have appreciated a discussion of animal agriculture in its entirety, including the potential role for dairy in a global food system, which was not mentioned at all.
Both Roberts and McWilliams make a cogent argument for a "blue revolution." While not ignoring the problems of present-day aquaculture, McWilliams believes that as a commercial enterprise it is still in its infancy, and so we have a rare opportunity to bring it to maturity in a responsible way. He particularly likes the "radical polyculture" embodied in the technology known as "aquaponics."
But global sustainability will depend on more than appropriate technology. Economic policy, especially perverse subsidies ("a word that is pretty close to socialism") that fail to account for externalities must be eliminated. McWilliams thinks that if food producers were required to pay the full cost of production, including externalities, farmers and corporations would innovate to produce goods in a way that minimizes or reverses environmental damage. These costs are already borne by consumers in the form of taxes and a degraded environment, the proper policies would make our choices more transparent.
McWilliams makes the case that trade as a whole can improve the global environment, in as much as it creates wealth, for poverty perpetuates environmental degradation. Free and fair trade, almost categorically denounced by locavores, "is a viable approach to alleviating poverty and its counterpart, environmental destruction." McWilliams advocates for changes in the food system that can transform "just food," as in it's nothing more than food, to "just food," associated with the justice of sustainability.
McWilliams repeatedly argues that we have an obligation to foster more sustainable larger systems to feed the world, which will ask us to think more critically, creatively and comprehensively about how food is produced and consumed. Rather than insult readers with simplistically prescriptive answers, McWilliams offers "a vision of sustainability that assumes that, as socially conscious consumers, we're prepared to take on more complexity in the quest to achieve an environmentally sustainable diet." "A patronizing list of eating dos and don'ts is the last thing anyone needs."
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on December 15, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
The fact that this book has so many bad reviews is testament to the fact that it is successful: it is confronting some widely held beliefs (among many) with facts disputing these beliefs. Many adherents dislike such a confrontation, and their response is to dismiss the evidence and post a one-star review.
The author strives at length to clarify that he is sympathetic to the ideals of locavores, fans of organics, opponents of GM foods, etc. But it's hard to miss the tone of provocation that seeps through. I think that provocation is warranted, though I predict it will ultimately turn potential converts away rather than convert them.
The author's main beef is with the fetishization of "food miles" (the distance food travels from the farm to the market), rather than many other more important contributors of food's environmental impact (including the production process and the cooking method). It is hard to reasonably disagree with this argument (though clearly many people do). He expands to criticize proponents of organic farming, opponents of GM food, meat eaters, and opponents of aquaculture. These arguments are more open to debate. Then, in the last chapter (besides the conclusion), he brings everything together with a criticism of how food policy in most countries (including the US) and internationally is doing exactly the opposite of what it should be doing. I would have preferred more meat to this section of the book, although this part is much more in line with the locavore/organic ideology than the rest of the book.
If you care about food, sustainability, the environment, or world poverty, then you should read this book. If you disagree with the conclusions, you should think about why you do, and if you have good reasons for doing so. I would suspect that you don't.