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Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly Hardcover – August 15, 2009

3.4 out of 5 stars 37 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Eager to dispel the mythology surrounding local and organic foods, historian McWilliams (A Revolution in Eating) outlines the shortcomings of contemporary ideology regarding "food miles" and offers a series of prescriptive ideas for a more just, environmentally sustainable food system. The rational and data-driven argument-presented with chatty asides-tackles the conventional wisdom about transportation, aquaculture, and genetic engineering. McWilliams urges concerned consumers to move beyond the false dichotomies that have come to characterize the debate-global vs. local, abundant vs. deficient, organic vs. conventional-and imagine a middle ground within the existing system, even if it runs the risk of "selling the sustainable soul." He presents thought-provoking ideas about food reform, sulfur fertilizers, and eating meat. At times, McWilliams shortchanges his own arguments by failing to disclose the financial or institutional backing of his sources (including various talking heads, esoteric-sounding think tanks, and scientific journals), leaving readers to comb extensive footnotes and web links to determine how the evidence stacks up. McWilliams's perspective acts as a welcome foil to folksy, romanticized notions of the food revolution, using sound rhetoric and research to synthesize an examination fit for anyone who takes seriously the debate over a sustainable food system.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"McWilliams has guts. Some of the changes he champions will draw fire from all quarters...but he also presents ideas that may appeal to both the greenerati and capitalistas...McWilliams forgoes sloganeering in favor of measured logic, but he doesn't downplay the notion that a worldwide food crisis is imminent and that we had better fix things. Soon." (Texas Monthly Mike Shea)

"McWilliams presents some appealing alternatives to the views of both the agrarian romantics on the left and the agribusiness capitalists on the right. The author advocates a judicious use of genetically engineered seeds and food products, believes we must reduce our passion for land-animal protein...and urges more attention to the nascent science of aquaponics...He concludes that the best food-production model may be "a broad pattern of regionally integrated, technologically advanced, middle-sized farms." Rich in research, provocative in conception and nettlesome to both the right and the left." (Kirkus Reviews)

"Enlightening....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....Just Food ultimately offers a brave, solid argument that anyone who cares about their food-and everyone should care about their food-should consider." (Atlanta Journal-Constitution Meridith Ford Goldman)


"Fascinating....Anyone curious about the cultural history of that meatloaf on the dinner plate will gobble it up." (Entertainment Weekly Tina Jordan)

"The lucid style and jaunty tone....make this accessible to all." (Publishers Weekly)

"McWilliams has penned an illuminating account of the evolution of foodways in the colonial Americas." (Washington Post Book World Josh Friedland)

"McWilliams's examination of the culinary history of Colonial America is more than a....gastronomic tour....A lively and informative read." (The New Yorker)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company; 1 edition (August 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 031603374X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0316033749
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (37 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #348,992 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: 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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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