Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly By James McWilliams


Pretty good book. Challenges the conventional farm system and locavorism. Basically seeks to get people to realize there aren't easy, pat answers to the question of how we can have a just and compassionate food system that doesn't further climate change and also produces enough food to feed the 9 to 10 billion people that will inhabit this planet in the near future. One of his better points is that simply deciding to eat as much local food as possible is too simplistic of a guiding rule for just and ethical eating. You have to taker a broader and deeper view of the situation. Even if some food at the local supermarket traveled a long way to the store, there was at least a lot of food on that truck, so you may not be reducing your carbon footprint if you have to travel to several different markets and stores on a regular basis to buy your local food. Not that the author is against local food, he is just trying to foster deeper thinking on the issue. The reason I don't rate the book higher than 3 stars comes down to the facts that the book gets bogged down in some technical details at points and he falls short on helping individuals figure out how to be more ethical consumers of food. There needed to be more advice for individuals mixed in with his discussions of larger policy issues and his question raising. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly This is clearly an important book, and the star-rating system doesn't really do justice to it. So if you're wondering whether to read this book, consider it a five-star review. It has some flaws, but as someone said of Kant (if I recall correctly), the mistakes of a great thinker are more valuable than a thousand correct platitudes from a lesser one.

McWilliams takes on one of the hottest topics in food politics, the whole question of the locavores who emphasize the need for eating locally. In his first chapter, he demolishes the whole food miles paradigm. Without even pausing for a breath, he then proceeds to take on organic agriculture, genetically engineered foods, land based animals, aquaculture, and ecological economics.

His approach is nonideological. He just wants to preserve the environment and feed the world, and thinks we need technology to do that. On the other hand, unlike Stewart Brand (who comes across as essentially an apostate from environmentalism) he is not uncritical of technology nor of the human institutions that use it. He sees a place for both chemical agriculture and even GMOs. But he is quite scathing of meat production. Only aquaculture -- and only some aquaculture, at that -- escapes his wrath.

I liked his critique of localism and of eating animals. He clearly understands the problem of organic agriculture -- it's valuable, but does it scale up to feeding the world? This same problem applies to GMOs. GMO technology is now in the hands of private for-profit corporations who are making a mess of things, but in principle, according to McWilliams, GMO technology could be used for good rather than evil.

Here is where the problems with the book start -- with his treatment (or non-treatment) of ecological economics. He says somewhere early on that when he wrote the book, he in effect threw down his hand when he felt his case was strong enough to be published. This isn't bad advice for a magazine writer: if your case is better than anything that's currently widely circulated, throw it out there. But the problem is that our economic system is fundamentally flawed and is without mainstream critics. Yes, his case is better than anything currently out there, but that's not saying all that much. I wish he had looked deeper. He might have written a very different kind of book.

He essentially presupposes the case for continued economic growth. Uh, it's not going to happen. We'll be lucky if we ever even get back to the state of the world economy in 2005, much less expand the economy beyond that point. Peak oil will see to that. And our agricultural system depends on oil, and consequently won't be expanding very much further in any event. Food prices and oil prices are rising in tandem; the only thing that will save us from starvation because of high food prices, will be another recession or depression, which will lower food prices (which the poor still may not be able to afford, though).

The first consideration of ecological economics is how big can our economy get? (Before, that is, resource limitations such as land, oil, etc. restrict further economic growth.) He doesn't really address this and while I'm sure he is aware of it, it doesn't enter into the discussion either in chapter 6 (Merging Ecology and Economy) or anywhere else. Our agricultural system is already in ecological overshoot and we need to address the question, how much food can be sustainably produced at all? And how many people can be fed in such a world?

If he had addressed these questions, he would probably come up with an answer of about 2 to 3 billion. (I'm speaking off the top of my head here -- I need to write my own book to fully explain this statement.) And THAT'S assuming we're using technology to the max and we're all vegans. We can probably support more than that for a while -- perhaps quite a while -- but inevitably there will be a population crash. The original Limits to Growth study set this date at about 2050 in the main (business as usual) scenario. The question of how big our agriculture can get is extremely significant, and how we can get from where we are now to a sustainable agriculture (and a lower population) is even more perplexing. No one is really talking about it.

I hope that McWilliams will turn his considerable analytical talents in this direction. It is a most difficult task because there is currently no popular version of ecological economics out there. There is some technical academic stuff from Herman Daly, et. al. (whom he quotes at least once, as I recall), but we lack even the most basic tools to discuss this subject intelligently in public. Instead, all he can do is talk about perverse subsidies -- which is fine as far as it goes, but doesn't go nearly far enough. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly To start, the blurb Everyone who has read up on their Michael Pollan should also read Just Food is misleading. While it is true that I think Just Food is an important read, it by no means is a counter argument against everything Pollan has written; in fact it agrees with some of Pollan's ideas.

That being said... The first half of the book I regretted ever picking it up. I found myself on the receiving end of a repetitive lecture about the fallacies of locavores and organic produce. The writing also had an air of superiority and was condescending to the reader. I had to put it down and take a break for a few weeks and read something else.

I was glad that I returned to read the rest of the book instead of filing it away under could not finish. Once McWilliams went into genetically modified crops we started to reach more common ground and the writing wasn't as condescending, nor did it feel so much as a lecture anymore. When I reached the meat production and freshwater aquaculture portions it was even smoother sailing through the pages. The important thing to remember about McWilliams is that he is approaching agriculture production from a sustainability and environmental point of view. Most of my reading on agriculture production has been aimed at the best possible way to produce the healthiest products. It was refreshin G'night. yet eye opening to approach the topic from a different point of view.

Just Food helps to encourage informed and educated consumerism. It gives the tools/bread crumbs as to what to consider when purchasing food, from fruits to vegetables to meats to fish and more. The second half of the book made pushing through the first half worth the time. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly McWilliams is an excellent researcher. He has some very worthwhile ideas. And he seems to have a genuinely balanced perspective. As unconventional as it is in our increasingly polarized society, he swims against the current of schismogenesis and attempts to actually discuss and raise awareness of agricultural issues, rather than preaching to one of two choirs who mostly scream at one another when they interact at all. It's really a shame that the book is so astoundingly boring.

Maybe that's not fair, but it's hard not to grade on a curve when The Omnivore's Dilemma and Fast Food Nation and the like are out there. Those books raise important discussions about food production in modern society and--this is key--they are extremely entertaining to read. This one isn't. It just might be the Wuthering Heights of the non-fiction world. If you think that's a compliment, then by all means read this. If Emily Bronte doesn't put you to sleep, maybe you can stay up all night reading the same (initially interesting) point made over and over, rephrased in slightly different ways, and backed up with far more numerous and detailed examples than necessary for you to get the basic gist.

Again, I applaud McWilliams for his willingness to take positions unpopular with one group or another. Throughout the book, he makes points that would irritate ranchers, carnivores, vegans, locavores, factory farmers, anti-GMO activists, commercial fishermen, organic farmers, pesticide manufacturers, farmers markets, and just about anyone whose lifestyle involves some form of eating. So, pretty much everybody except those meth addicts down the street. He's clearly not out to win a popularity contest. I might not agree with all his ideas, but I can respect his intellectual integrity and honesty, a rare thing these days. One thing I cannot do, however, is stay awake while reading his book.

There is definitely some food for thought here, but someone slipped a sleeping pill in it.

Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly I picked up this book sort of by chance at the library and never dreamed it would have such an impact on my thinking about the food industry and the environment. I've never thought of myself as an environmentalist, and I've always been skeptical of the propaganda surrounding environmentalism (rightly so, I think). But this book made me think about the environment in ways I never had before.

Just Food gives such a realistic, refreshing take on the food industry's impact on the environment. It lays out the facts--many of them terrifying--in an extremely rational, objective way, with tons of research to back them up. Yet McWilliams ends on a surprisingly positive note. He's very optimistic about how the food industry could change, thanks to valiant efforts on the parts of small farmers and fisheries to find greener ways to grow food.

There is a chapter on each of these subjects, viewing them critically and in most cases proving the trendy thinking wrong: the eat local movement (insufficient and elitist), organic vs. conventional (more of a continuum than a dichotomy), the fight against GMOs (we need to actually support GMOs in many cases), eating meat (we shouldn't), eating fish (this is the future, with some modifications), and the government's part in the food industry (seriously needs to stop subsidizing huge farms that pollute unscrupulously). Every single one of these chapters blew my mind and shifted my paradigm. The last chapter actually made me want to write my Congressmen. Seriously. Again, I have never had any desire to get involved in environmentalism--but if anything could make me do it, it's this book.

But the book has a major flaw, which is why I can't give it 5 stars and I'm not going to tell everyone to read it: it pretty much reads like a textbook. McWilliams is HUGE into research, but he doesn't know how to make something readable. Take this excerpt:

In terms of general biodiversity, it's also worth noting that cattle dictate the destruction of a wide range of indigenous animals, even when they do not trample riparian zones or damage grasslands. Rangeland management, whether informal or formal, automatically threatens and often substantially diminishes surrounding wildlife.

He could have given this information in a WAY more readable way. I'm not saying it's impossible to understand it the way he wrote it--I just think he's used to writing academically. But this book is supposed to be for the general public. I thought it was riveting, mainly because I was absolutely fascinated by the subject (although I'm not an environmentalist, I am very interested in food and farming). But most people would probably have a hard time getting through it with their eyes open.

Basically, if you're already interested in the locavore movement, organic food, or ways to make the food industry greener, or anything else I've mentioned that's discussed in this book, I would totally recommend it. But if you're not interested in that kind of thing, this book isn't going to make you interested. The information is so important; I just wish it were written more appropriately for its audience. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly

Each year, I try to read one book that goes against the grain of how I think about things. I picked “Just Food” without knowing much about it except for the subtitle, “Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.” I am not a card-carrying loacavore by any means; I do not belong to a CSA, nor do I calculate the meal on my plate in food miles. But I do patronize the local farmer’s market in the warmer months and buy corn on the cob from any farm kid I see selling it on the side of the road. I buy organic produce and dairy and made weekly trips to Whole Foods to buy the apples, plums, and butternut squash that would become pureed baby food for my daughter. In the great Green spectrum, I’m probably more of a medium seafoam.

Still, I wanted to read this book because when everyone and everything from the government to t-shirts at Target are telling me to think I certain way, my first reaction is to be skeptical. I expected “Just Food” to be anti-environmentalist. It wasn’t. I expected it to be a lot of conservative ballyhooing, and it wasn’t that either. I didn’t expect it to change my views of ethical eating, but to my great surprise, it did.

What I learned: Organic is good, but not a logical choice when it comes to feeding the world (it’s just not possible). Aquaculture is the way to go, and it’s early enough in its evolution that we may not screw it up. Food without chemicals is a myth. And the big one: the veggies you buy from your local farmer may not have been produced in an environmentally friendly way as the ones in the local supermarket, even if they were shipped all the way from Mexico or California or wherever.

The two hardest bites for me to chew were the chapters on genetically modified food and the absolute necessity of decreasing our meat intake. However, the author makes a very good argument for both of these, and my acceptance of both has tilted slightly. When you read sentences like, “livestock gas emitted from Argentine cows - up to 1000 liters of flatulence a day - threatened coral reefs in the Caribbean,” well, those kinds of things kind of stick with you.

Like a lot of reviewers, I don’t care for the subtitle (although it is what got me reading it in the first place). The book bills itself as deconstructing fresh food the way “Fast Food Nation” did for fast food. I don’t think of locavores in the same way I do the people pushing chemically-tainted french fries. Most hardcore locavores that I know are kind, forward-thinking folks who are earnestly trying to do something good for themselves and the environment. Although this book is an important read for anyone who cares to be environmentally responsible, I just can’t imagine locavores are going to want a book with this subtitle sitting on their shelves.

Overall, a great book, an eye-opening book. Should be read by anyone who cares about how to feed our growing population in a responsible, ethical way. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly 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 food calorie 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. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly It's a six-year-old book, but still one that goes into a lot of science that many folks don't want to believe, even when the science is pretty clear. But there's good news, which the author of Just Food writes about in Even the Critics Are Coming Around on GMOs. And the article he links to, about a tour of Monsanto, Inside the Country's Most Controversial Company, is informative even aside from the surprise that a GM-hating reporter from Mother Jones would even deign to visit Monsanto.

While I'm here, I'll also point to an interesting interview with a Monsanto scientist by the Mother Jones-affiliated science podcast Inquiring Minds: Inside the Mind of a Monsanto Scientist.

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Late 2010 update: Want to read the micro-version of this book? Check out the editorial, Math Lessons for Locavores in the New York Times, August 19, 2010. It doesn’t get into the complexities that McWilliams does, but it encapsulates the first chapter of this book quite nicely.

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In Just Food, James McWilliams goes all heretical on his former fellow-travelers in the food-reform-movement cabal. He looks a bit deeper into the global political realities that are so easy to ignore when arguing for a 100-mile food production horizon, and doesn’t particularly like what he sees.

As Lena points out in her excellent review, his subtitle is misleading. The first half, “Where locavores get it wrong” really only applies to the first chapter here, although it is a note McWilliams returns to several times as a former fervent locavore himself. But the real story is the second half of the subtitle: “How we can truly eat responsibly” – and he will argue that much of the received wisdom in the reform movement isn’t fundamentally responsible.

The faithful might well be very discomfited by his lessons, although those so ideologically committed to their current trajectory probably wouldn’t read this anyway, since it might threaten their trajectory. Those willing to examine his arguments will find many of them very plausible, especially the ones that cast as villains those we are accustomed to putting in those roles. Agribusiness as a recipient of government largess comes in for a spanking, as does the American legislative machine that rewards agribusiness and distorts so many markets.

But quite a bit of McWilliams’ story will still be hard to swallow, although my perception is that in his research he has examined the evidence more carefully than most readers or writers could: he is probably correct on all counts to a great extent.

The first chapter, as mentioned, covers the locavore movement. By this point, many of us will have heard the counterarguments: production efficiencies in some parts of the globe are so much higher than in others that it is still better for the planet that some food is produced far from where it is consumed. I’m lucky: I live in San Francisco, and within one hundred miles almost everything I might want to eat could potentially be grown. Bananas and mangoes, no: but that list is pretty short. Unfortunately, much of the world isn’t so fortunate and would find an intolerably dull and perhaps even unhealthy diet. Countering these climatic and geographic limitations can be done with hothouses, for example, but for most of the year it is actually much more resource efficient to produce green beans in Kenya and ship them to England than to grow them locally. The truth is that transportation of the final product is a small portion of the amount of energy that goes in. Other energy costs are often overlooked, such as the cost of irrigating deserts, or of shipping feed for livestock. McWilliams returns to this point in the final chapter as he discusses how “perverse subsidies” make this worse – creating incentives for ranchers to raise cattle on subsidized grazing land and then ship subsidized corn (or soya) (raised with subsidized fertilizer) to fatten ‘em up. The message Mcwilliams’ seems to understand is that while local production is excellent when it makes sense, there are more circumstances where it is irrelevant and quite a few where it is counterproductive.

His second chapter is more reminiscent of the story Pollan tells in Omnivore’s Dilemma: it’s really, really hard to solve the food problem with organics. First, going organic introduces problems. Pesticides and fungicides can prevent food from decaying after it is harvested, but organic producers often have to use energy-intensive refrigeration instead. When herbicides can’t be used, other techniques to keep weeds from destroying yields have to substitute, and some of those, like deep tilling, have nasty environmental consequences of their own. But one aspect that I hadn’t been aware of is that today’s “poisons” are much more targeted and less toxic than they had been decades ago, and we consumers often don’t pay attention to that distinction. One study that he cites noted that “the natural chemicals that are known rodent carcinogens in a single cup of coffee are about equal in weight to a year’s worth of ingested synthetic pesticide residues that are rodent carcinogens” (p. 64). The author of that study concluded that, effectively, “pesticides lower the cancer rate” by increasing the supply of cancer-fighting fruits and vegetables. It bears remembering that plants have been evolving their own pesticides, herbicides and fungicides for billions of years and we ingest many of those without blinking an eye. Caffeine, anyone? Capsaicin? Allicin? Diallyl disulfide? Maybe some bioflavonoids? We might be guilty of enforcing a distinction between “natural” and “synthetic” toxins that has less than we think to do with our health or the health of the planet. The third chapter is similar, but deals with genetic modification instead of chemical applications. A gene that creates a highly targeted pesticide within a plant generally means much less of an equivalent pesticide would need to be applied externally — where it will also be sprayed on soil, into the air, and on non-targeted insects and other creatures (and recall, once again, that plants have long been fighting this battle on their own as well). For example, a pesticide created within the plant’s tissues will only be directly consumed by the insects that attack the plant, not the many other insects — some of them beneficial, such as bees — that happen to be in the vicinity.

Chapters four and five really hit hard at meat eating. Most grain is grown just to feed animals; reduce the amount of meat in the planet’s diet and many problems would simply go away. This is, really, the key point the whole book is oriented around: we already eat too much meat, and the trend is just getting worse with the changing appetites in formerly vegetarian-intensive parts of the world like China. McWilliams makes a strong case for eating fish if one has to eat meat, because fish are a more means of converting energy into human food. Yeah, there are plenty of problems with global fisheries, but there are some really good potential paths through that thicket, especially with fresh-water aquaculture and herbivore fish such as tilapia and catfish, especially when these are integrated with horticulture. McWilliams’ discussion of how well aquaculture and horticulture can be blended is more hearteningly optimistic than Pollan’s examination of Polyface Farm.

But finally, it bears repeating that one of McWilliams’ two central messages is expressed in the quote: “However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet” (p. 153). Get your meat consumption down to less than a pound a month and you’re probably going to do more for the planet (and your own health).

The other message is that if the burden of feeding ten billion people can ever be done with the least damage to the environment, then we have to look beyond some of the more simplistic prescriptions. Pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, GMOs — all of these will probably be necessary. Reform of how these are used will also be required, but eliminating any of them probably isn’t in the cards.

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Susan Albert’s review of McWilliams’ book has some points that I kept an eye on while I was reading, and I want to touch on them.

Her first point is that the locavore movement is an important response to fossil-fuel depletion. McWilliams doesn’t address this head-on, but I think he is still on-point in his attack on the simplistic version of “locavore”. Industrial food production has huge energy inputs, and transportation typically isn’t one of the bigger drains. If the oil is available, it will often make more sense to use it to transport food from where it is most efficiently grown, instead of using it to force production in unsuitable regions. The prospect of near-term fossil fuel exhaustion Susan is concerned about would be catastrophic in so many ways that, frankly, people will automatically become locavores as the global economy crashes around us. Worrying about whether lamb comes from New Zealand or fifty miles away won’t be much of a concern at that point: it’ll be a struggle to keep billions from simply starving.

Her second point is that the use of genetic modification is fraught with problems, including low yields, gene contamination, and amoral corporations.

One by one: yields will change as the technology matures. Gene sequencing is still in its infancy: the state of technology is analogous to electricity back when Franklin was playing with kites, so expectations really shouldn’t be too high.

Gene contamination is more of a theoretical problem than a real one: in most cases, the genes we like are for our benefit, not the plants; if a gene adds beta-carotene to rice, that doesn’t make the rice more evolutionarily fit in its natural environment. If that gene were to contaminate other organisms, it would be an irrelevancy or worse, since any plant that expended energy on create superfluous (to the plant) compounds would be out-competed and doomed. Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, etc., would be a somewhat different matter, but recall that these are battles that plants have been fighting since before mammals arrived on the planet. We’ve been taking part in this battle since we started selective breeding of crops. GMOs are a new tool that should be regulated carefully, but the potential is there for a radical beneficial change as well. Consider the analog in cancer treatment: imagine using targeted anti-cancer viruses instead of cutting people open or dosing them with chemo or radiation. GMOs in agriculture could provide a more precise and much less toxic way of managing food production.

Amoral corporations are certainly a real fear in agribusiness — together with the oil companies, its hard to imagine companies that have a worse reputation. But when we discuss those nasty oil corporations we talk about reform and regulation — why aren’t these seen as adequate solutions with agri-tech? Furthermore, a great deal of GM-research could be done in the public interest if we funded research universities properly. The research leading to the beta-carotene-enriched rice, for example, was done at the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Freiburg. What if the funding for that research had come from governments instead of corporations? But even with corporate funding, the corporations involved (including Syngenta and Monsanto) quickly granted completely free “Humanitarian Use Licenses” to impoverished farmers. Of course, corporations exist to make a profit, not to benefit greater humanity, and so always should be regulated appropriately.

Finally, Susan points out that McWilliams’ book didn’t deal with how global climate change is likely to affect food production. That is certainly true, and it would have been a welcome addition. But I suspect that single topic is too big and important to include in a book that hopes to change how we eat here and now. And, ultimately, it would require too much guesswork and hypothesizing. We barely understand how the global system is gradually changing, and knowing how agricultural practices will adapt would require far more detailed knowledge of changes on the regional and subregional level. For example, California is one of the most agriculturally productive regions in the world but depends through its long dry summer on the snowpack in the mountains that ring the central valley. To what extent that snowpack will be replaced by rain (replacing the snowpack with too much flooding in the spring) depends on too many factors that are still unpredictable. And California is probably one of the best studied of the world’s agricultural regions. The information Susan asks is critical, but it is simply too early to know enough detail.
­ Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly Let me begin this review by saying that the subtitle of this book – Where Locavores Get it Wrong – is a bit misleading. Author James McWilliams isn't on a rampage against locavorism per se, but rather against overly simplistic solutions to the incredibly complex problem of how to feed our planet's 7 billion-and-still-growing population in a way that is truly environmentally sustainable.

McWilliams is a history professor down in Austin and a former locavore himself. But one day, he found himself giving in to nagging concerns that he was doing little more than salving my conscience by buying overpriced tomatoes and cooking with parsnips when the weather got chilly. Those doubts led him to do some serious research into food production and come to some unorthodox, yet ultimately hopeful conclusions.

He begins his discussion with an examination of the food miles concept. It seems to make so much sense – purchasing food close to where you live cuts down on transportation and thus global warming and is therefore a good thing. The problem, however, is that transportation actually accounts for only 11% of the energy used to get something to your table. Because more than half of that energy goes to production, those wishing to reduce their carbon footprint would be much better served to study production methods and make choices based on that information instead. In one dramatic example, he points out that it is four times more energy-efficient for London consumers to buy grass-fed lamb imported by ship from New Zealand than it is to buy grain-fed lamb raised locally. In addition, a ruthless commitment to buying local may work out well for you if you happen to live in an area capable of abundant food production, but it begins to break down when you start thinking about people who live in, say, Arizona, or impoverished people in developing countries who depend upon exporting their crops for survival.

The next sacred cow McWilliams goes after is organic farming. While he thinks the organic movement has accomplished a great deal in the last few decades, it is by no means free of environmental problems. While bucolic photos of rural landscapes may grace the packages of food sold organically, the reality is that any kind of farming, be it organic or conventional, is all about interfering with nature. Bugs that are not killed with synthetic pesticides still have to be dealt with, and just because organic growers use compounds already found in nature doesn't mean they're not poison. In addition, refraining from using weed killers may make organic seem better for the soil, but not using chemicals to kill weeds results in significantly more tillage, which contributes to problems with soil erosion.

McWilliams makes clear that he's not trying to dis organic by raising these concerns, but rather to counter the inflated claim that it's the only alternative to today's wasteful conventional production. He is searching for a golden mean that recognizes the benefits of organic practices but can also make use of those aspects of conventional agriculture that have proven beneficial. Towards that end, he then examines the issue of genetically modified crops. McWillliams encourages us to move beyond our knee-jerk reaction to Frankenfoods and really examine the science behind these crops, which, while not risk-free, are significantly safer than they've been portrayed in the popular media. He makes a compelling and detailed argument that these risks are well worth the benefits on offer and that, responsibly managed, GM crops can increase yields and biodiversity, reduce tillage and toxic chemical use and preserve landscapes, all while feeding billions of people in a way that organic alone will simply never be able to do.

From there, McWilliams moves on to the touchy subject of meat production. He outlines in gruesome detail the enormous environmental costs not only of factory farms, but also of those of more righteous-sounding, grass-fed livestock operations. While the later are an improvement over the former in terms of energy used for production (not to mention ethics), grass-fed animals actually contribute dramatically more methane to the atmosphere and, on any sort of scale, are still very destructive to the land. The underlying issue is that land-based animals are astoundingly poor converters of energy (conventional cattle require 33 calories of input for every 1 produced), resulting in a hugely inefficient system that McWilliams argue we simply cannot afford on a planet where both population and meat consumption are growing at exponential rates. Eat meat if you must, he says, but know that the most effective thing you can do to reduce your food footprint is to treat it like caviar and eat a lot less.

McWilliams believes the future of affordable and environmentally sustainable protein lies in aquaculture. If you've heard any of the horror stories about fish farms, this may come as a surprise, and McWilliams does not shy away from discussing the terrible problems caused by these operations, particularly in developing countries with no environmental regulation. With the exception of salmon and shrimp, however, American fish farms are getting a decent environmental mark, with home-grown catfish, tilapia and trout doing better than average. What was most fascinating to me about this chapter, however, was his discussion of the infant industry of fish-based polyculture, closed systems that integrate freshwater fish and plant production. These operations are experiencing a bonanza of environmentally-friendly, high-yield production that holds enormous promise.

There are, of course, major hurdles to be overcome in the process of creating a sustainable and environmentally friendly food system, one of the biggest of which is the elimination of the perverse subsidy system that actually encourages food producers to engage in wasteful and destructive practices. McWilliams touches briefly on the importance of activism in eliminating these subsidies, but doesn't go into much detail on this subject. Instead, he uses his closing chapter to return to the biggest problem with locavorism, which is that if you really want to be an environmentalist, you have to think about not just how to feed yourself and your neighbors, but everyone in the world. It's a lot easier to slap a buy local bumper sticker on the car than it is to try to wrap the mind around the complex and often counter-intuitive lessons he reveals here, and there were times when he went into more technical detail than I really needed to know. Despite that fact, I think this is an important book for anyone who is seriously concerned about sustainable eating. It's my first on the subject, so I don't know how he compares with Michael Pollan, but if anybody out there has read both authors, I'd love to hear.
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly A disclaimer: I only made it through the first chapter. I would like to try again, when I have calmed down a bit.

As someone who relies on the people around us to eat locally-grown organic produce, I probably have quite a different view than the author and most people who will read this book. That being said, the author made some sweeping generalizations about how we as Americans consume local goods. His claim that most people can't tell the difference between a store-bought tomato and a freshly picked farmers market tomato? If you can't tell the difference, you have no tastebuds. His assertion that you can't always trust your farmer when they claim to grow organically and sustainably? If you don't trust your farmer, you can't claim to truly KNOW your farmer.

I agree that eating locally (in terms of food miles) isn't the only answer to creating a sustainable food system - there are tons of other factors that you need to consider. However, that isn't to say that paying attention to how and how far your food travels is a bad idea. The introduction to this book, though, made it seem that it wasn't worth it to eat locally, that it wouldn't make any difference. Not true. Supporting local, sustainable business is good for everyone. Even if you only participate a tiny bit, you're doing your part and it IS making a difference. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly

We suffer today from food anxiety, bombarded as we are with confusing messages about how to eat an ethical diet. Should we eat locally? Is organic really better for the environment? Can genetically modified foods be good for you?

JUST FOOD does for fresh food what Fast Food Nation (Houghton Mifflin, 2001) did for fast food, challenging conventional views, and cutting through layers of myth and misinformation. For instance, an imported tomato is more energy-efficient than a local greenhouse-grown tomato. And farm-raised freshwater fish may soon be the most sustainable source of protein.

Informative and surprising, JUST FOOD tells us how to decide what to eat, and how our choices can help save the planet and feed the world. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly

Free read ¼ PDF, eBook or Kindle ePUB ñ James McWilliams