Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly Paperback – Jun 9 2010
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"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
About the Author
James McWilliams is an associate professor of history at Texas State University. He was a fellow at Yale University's Agrarian Studies Program, and is the author of three previous books. He has written for the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. He lives in Austin, Texas.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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