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Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly Paperback – June 9, 2010
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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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"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."―Mike Shea, Texas Monthly
"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."―Meridith Ford Goldman, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
PRAISE FOR A REVOLUTION IN EATING:
"Fascinating....Anyone curious about the cultural history of that meatloaf on the dinner plate will gobble it up."―Tina Jordan, Entertainment Weekly
"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
"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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Fairly moderate ideas about food miles, agricultural chemicals, GMOs and international trade get submerged when the author delivers his most heart felt argument-- that we all would best save the planet by simply stopping (or nearly stopping) to eat meat, whether grain-fed or raised on the open range. (How likely is this in our McDonald's world?)
While Professor McWilliams presents many rational arguments, I think he does a disservice to his objective when he consistently demonizes those growing the food of this nation by such pejorative terms as members of "a food system that's inherently corrupt and degrading to the natural world." Most all of us, in his bellicose view, operate subsidized factory farms and are driven solely by corporate greed.
While there are good reasons for reforming many U.S. agricultural policies, this book is not likely to bring any but those already committed in to the diaphanous world of "sustainability" to the negotiating table.
Here is my "one additional point:" I find it hard to take seriously someone who makes a dismissal of Wendell Berry in a footnote: "Wendell Berry is a poet." Yes, he is. He is also a farmer and son of a farmer and grandson of a farmer -- and back for I don't know how many generations. McWilliams lost credibility with that snarky note.
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.