jump to navigation

Book review: Just Food December 10, 2009

Posted by Angelique in Book reviews.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
trackback

James McWilliams styles Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly as a heroic underdog’s battle against the popular but shallow and misguided eat-local movement. He would love to drink the Kool-Aid and spend his afternoons lolling about the farmers market, he tells us, but his gosh-darned integrity just won’t allow him to sink mindlessly into the morass of locavorism.

Unfortunately his laziness won’t allow him to sustain a compelling argument for an alternative either. He briefly discusses the intriguing alternative of life-cycle assessments, according to which all the energy costs, not just the ones involved in transporting food over long distances, are calculated to determine how environmentally friendly a food is. McWilliams is of course right that it is better to look at all energy costs than only the portion that locavores are concerned with. But without a life-cycle grade on every piece of food we buy (which the government of Sweden is implementing, but is not available elsewhere in the world), how is the consumer supposed to rank the different contributions to energy use that go into food production? Should I buy a fish caught by an ocean trawler – a huge energy sink – if I can save household energy by searing it for only a couple of minutes on the stove, or should I buy dried pinto beans whose production is relatively green, but which require simmering for two and a half hours? McWilliams isn’t offering us any help here; discussing the energy-intensive components of food production, McWilliams says “these findings leave one wondering how much energy could be saved if we threw out less food, cooked smaller amounts, ate less in general, used energy-efficient ovens and refrigerators, composted all organic matter not eaten, and developed more energy-efficient menus…” Yes, they leave one wondering because McWilliams hasn’t bothered to do the calculation for us, or even helped us rank these sometimes competing priorities.

The annoying habit of substituting rhetorical questions for tough analysis pops up at other intervals in JF. When discussing – and dismissing – the possibility of scaling up local food production, McWilliams asks “…how could any storage and distribution service stay in business if it depended on seasonal produce from small growers spread over a vast region?” Well, I don’t know McWilliams, how about interviewing regional grocery chains like Lunds that are incorporating local food into their assortment to find out how their distribution chains handle it? Again, when he reviews sustainable, free-range methods of pig farming, he wonders whether all pig farming could be this way, saying that to answer that question, “One could begin by asking if the resources, labor, expert knowledge, patience, and land exist for the world to convert to such forms of pork production while maintaining the same rates of meat consumption. We don’t have the answer to this hypothetical question…” Well, we could at least begin to answer it by multiplying annual pig consumption by the average number of acres required to raise free-range pigs in places that are already doing so. And we could interview free-range pig farmers to find out how much labor they use to manage their pigs. We could, but McWilliams chooses not to.

McWilliams’ analysis is lazy in other ways, too. He cites secondary sources of important research rather than going straight to the original studies, for example when he discusses Charles Benbrooke’s work on GM soybean yields. I’ll admit that this is a pet peeve of mine, but it’s a non-trivial concern. Had McWilliams read Benbrooke’s actual report, published five years before his own book, he would have seen that Benbrooke found that herbicide application rates on GM soybeans actually went up after the initial few years of adoption, and not down, as McWilliams states.

Perhaps I’m too harsh of a critic here; McWilliams does have some interesting things to say about aquaculture, for example, and the promise of aquaponics to sustainably provide protein for a ballooning world population. The section on subsidies and how their structure should be changed to level the playing field between environmentally costly and environmentally friendly foods makes a lot of sense, although McWilliams fails to own up to the fact that in this case, leveling the playing field means increasing the prices consumers will pay for currently cheap food. Since its expense is one of the most common challenges thrown to advocates of sustainable eating, it’s a big one to ignore.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to cut McWilliams a break, especially when he has so little faith in his readers. At the end of the first chapter, when he discusses initiatives to reduce the cost of food transport like using bigger trucks, he says to us “And you’re thinking to yourself, Yawn.” If he doesn’t credit his readers with the attention span or interest level to delve deeply into these issues, then why write this book for them?

Advertisements

Comments»

1. December 14 Morning Roundup « The Heavy Table - December 14, 2009

[…] Bûche de Noël smackdown, a caustic and thoughtful local book review of Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, a profile of Two […]

2. Bob D - January 22, 2010

Angelique,

My sister directed me to this blog and I think you are doing great work. I just wanted to recommend a book for possible book review. Hungry City by British Architect digs into how food has been viewed throughout history and tackles the current position we are in today. We are in a position where even if everyone did buy whole organic ethical foods there are very few around who would actually know how to make a meal out of it. I am sure you have a list of books to tackle but it would be great to see a review of Hungry City on this blog.

Angelique - January 25, 2010

Thanks for the tip Bob, I’ll add it to my list!

3. McWilliams, enfant terrible and radical oversimplifier « From Animal To Meat - April 23, 2012

[…] the end of last week, James McWilliams, a sort of enfant terrible of the sustainable food movement, disparaged the notion that we can eat […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: