Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book Review: Just Food, by James E. McWilliams

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.

Some of my ideas presented above were shaped by a conversation that took place at a book club meeting.

A list of our current and past book club selections can be found  here.


Pam said...

Congrats on the foodie blogroll!


Alex Lewin said...

Thanks Pam! Yes, today seems to be my day on blogroll.

Cheysuli and gemini said...

Sorry for the silly name--I'm coming from my cat blog. I think the argument that cities like Arizona can't grow their own food is a straw argument as well. I just finished the book A Nation of Farmers and they make the argument that if you grow food that naturally grows in a region (look to your indigenous people) you can actually feed people--or most people. Maybe it's not 100%. The most difficult thing is that people in those areas realize that if they want to stay, they aren't going to be able to eat the same way they always have--they will have to eat what their land and city areas provide (mostly).


Alex Lewin said...

Hi Bonnie,

I think you're right. Indigenous societies have lived almost everywhere on the planet for thousands of years, or tens of thousands, living quite well in some cases off the available animal and vegetable resources. _Nutrition and Physical Degeneration_, by Weston A. Price, is a remarkable book that describes the diets of some people in more extreme climates.

You allude to one of the differences between "them" and "us"--these indigenous societies ate what the land provided, and our "modern" people are not likely to be happy to do that.

The other crucial difference is that there are more of us than there ever were of them. A desert environment will simply not support human life in the numbers that would be necessary for something like metro Phoenix, an urban center of 4 million people in a desert.

So yes, it is possible to live on locally-available food--but not the way "modern" folks might be willing to, and with a much lower population density than what we have now.

How do we get from our current state, 4+ million people living in metro Phoenix demanding strawberries and lettuce, to a sustainable state, tens of thousands (perhaps) living off local animal and vegetable resources, many of which have been destroyed or denatured by "civilization"?

I don't have a good answer for that question. I do think it's a question more and more people will be asking in the coming years.

vagabondette said...

Well, this is an interesting blog! I came across it via 'The Locavore', and then 'Just Food'. Definitely bookmark worthy!

I only read a few pages of 'Just Food', and what I do agree on is that the author understands there's a bigger issue than just food miles in a sustainability plan. His GM foods view turns me completely off, as does his narrative style in general, but I'm glad the book is out there to generate discussion such as I found here on your blog and others' comments.

Looking forward to 'tuning in' in the future to see what you're reading!

Alex Lewin said...

Hi Vagabondette,

I'm glad you are enjoying my blog! It's always nice to hear that someone is reading...

Here's a review of a book that is pretty darn different from _Just Food_:

jeanmarietodd said...

Darn, I just lost a long response I posted because I had to stop and log in, and when I returned it was gone... Anyway, great job on this. I heard McWilliams speak a few months ago on a panel on NPR and my distinct impression was that he was deliberately trying to be contrarian. When other panelists quickly dismissed the notion that locavores care only about food miles, he seemed to lack any purpose for being there, as they agreed on most everything else. I guess GMOs didn't come up, though I don't remember.

Another happy trend in locavorism and the re-development of local economies is the trend to buying grass-farmed livestock on the hoof at the farm, which means the animals don't need to be transported to an often-distant USDA-approved facility (necessary to sell butchered meat). We just bought half a hog this way, and the farmer delivered it to us, putting down a $100 deposit via PayPal and paying the balance by check upon delivery. We had made his acquaintance originally at the farmers market, trying his pork chops and his honey (also available at local stores, but we liked buying it in person and getting to ask him all sorts of questions about what truly raw honey is, etc). On that basis we decided to invest in half a hog, which saved us money as well as shopping time and trips to the grocery store. We have a standing invitation to visit the farm and see the pigs and honeybees in their natural environment. I read the farm wife's blog and learn about their struggles to build their operation and about their philosophy, which matches mine, and we feel sure the animals had a good life, a good diet, and a good death. Can Cargill and Safeway replicate this experience for me? I don't think so.
Keep up the good work!

Alex Lewin said...

JMT, thanks for your great info about buying on the hoof, and how it simplifies the process of buying meat. I agree with you completely that personal relationships are key when it comes to finding real food. Bringing eaters and producers together is absolutely key.

And thanks for your vote of confidence!