253 of 269 people found the following review helpful
Elephants in the Garden,
This review is from: Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly (Hardcover)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.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Aug 20, 2009 9:59:11 AM PDT
Would that all Amazon reviews were this thoughtful, well-reasoned and open minded. Thank you.
Posted on Aug 22, 2009 9:51:48 AM PDT
B. Case says:
I agree completely with Roselock above. This is an outstanding review. I will read the book very carefully as you suggest.
Posted on Sep 8, 2009 1:27:03 PM PDT
Patrick Stoneking says:
This is a good review of a somewhat misguided book. However, I do not agree with point #4,that we must drastically reduce our production and consumption of meat animals and non-farmed fish. This is a good example of the argument wasted due to generalities. For instance, how was the meat (pork, poultry, or beef) produced? I strongly agree with the statement if we are talking about intensive, confined animal meat production. Finishing cattle on corn or corn based feeds is a huge waste of food calories and fossil fuels for production and transport of those calories. However, meat produced via grass fed cattle, in areas with sufficient rain (such as the US Midwest) does not have the same issues.
Neither does the comment about non-farmed seafood. Intensive production of salmon in fish farms is not sustainable and is damaging to the environment. Sustainably harvested wild Pacific salmon does not have the same issues. Farmed catfish or talapia, done in a sustainable way, is a useful and sustainable production method.
Overall, I thought McWilliam's book drew too many negative conclusions on local food and sustainable production without providing complete supporting arguments. It made my head hurt every time the author got half way through a coherent examination or viewpoint, only to veer into locavore bashing before completing his thought. Until he fixes these issues I cannot see this book as seriously adding to this much needed debate.
Posted on Feb 17, 2010 8:55:57 PM PST
Gary Loewenthal says:
At 25 million animals a day or 10 billion animals a year killed in the U.S. alone, factory farms (and intensely brutal slaughterhouses) are practically a given. If all those non-native animals were given the space they need to have a decent life, the effect on native flora and fauna - assuming we could find the room for all these free-range operations - would be disasterous. And many of the standard animal agriculture cruelties (incubators instead of protective mothers, disposing of newborn male chicks at hen hatcheries, stealing day-old calves from their mothers at dairies, breeding animals to overproduce flesh, milk, and eggs, amputating body parts without painkillers, and so forth) would still go on.
There are many reasons to reduce the consumption of animal products. As this trend continues, it will spur the development, promotion, diversity, and quality of plant-based alternatives.
And from that point forward, we can continue to make strides in terms of lessening our diets' impact on the earth and its inhabitants.
Posted on Apr 14, 2012 12:50:54 PM PDT
The big problem with genetically modified crops is that they can have an adverse effect on ecological systems. New info coming out on bees becoming disoriented and not getting back to the hive, resulting in major reductions in bee population, points to insecticides, including those placed in the plants with genetic modification. A few industry scientists do not know better than billions of years of evolution. They can really screw things up irreversibly for the world.
Posted on Sep 16, 2013 3:43:45 AM PDT
Ashley Yakeley says:
"Factory-farmed beef consumes 33 calories of fossil fuel for every single calorie of meat produced" - don't you think this is a strange argument? After all, people don't eat beef for the calories. In fact, in many parts of the world we have a problem of over-consumption of food energy, so the marginal value of food calories is actually negative -- it's a good thing for a food to not have many calories.
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