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


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 throuWe 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....

Title : Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
Author :
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ISBN : 9780316033756
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 288 Pages
Status : Available For Download
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Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly Reviews

  • Lena
    2019-05-18 17:57

    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.

  • Richard
    2019-05-03 19:57

    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.  •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     • 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.  •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     • 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 inher 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.  •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •     •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. ­

  • Susan Albert
    2019-05-14 23:52

    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.

  • Suzanne
    2019-05-09 17:46

    I was pretty happy to be finished with the book. It starts out pretty hot with a no-holds barred butchering of the sacred cows of responsible eating. Food miles? Bollocks. Organic? Schmorganic. Frankenfood? It's what's for dinner! I was feasting on the charry remnants of those slaughtered heifers of hoity-toity loco-vorianism when the fun came to a screeching halt. The author thinks we shouldn't eat meat. At all. Ever. Oops. But, he knows we will so he has some ideas about that. And he has numbers. Lots of numbers. 10,000. 552. 15%, over 1 billion, blue, 17 trillion. Okay, blue isn't a number but I stopped trying to make sense of his numbers pretty early on. Frankly, as far as I've ever seen, the more study-based statistics one has to cite the less actual proof they're holding. I'm not saying he's wrong, I'm just saying that the case hasn't been made yet. By the time he got to aquaculture I was drowning in the numbers and boredom. I read the rest of the book in the voice of the Peanuts teacher. "Wawawawa. Wawawawawa. Wawa. Farmed Alaskan wawawa. By-catch." This was fine right up until it wasn't so thank goodness the book ended exactly right there.There is one notable exception to this back section of the book: his all to brief section on farm subsidies and why they absolutely have to go. I'd like to tell you that the book changed the way I eat but I had the world's biggest steak on Saturday night. I mean, the cow was already here. Why waste it?Flippancy aside, If you're a numbers person you will probably get more out of the book than I did. It was definitely worth reading. In fact, the first 2/3 really NEED to be read by anyone who claims to care about responsible eating. And don't let my own failings as a reader detract you from what is probably a very worthy last 1/3 of the book. Really. I've read the first 70 Sweet Valley High books. Do you really want to take my word for it?

  • Christy
    2019-05-08 16:41

    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.

  • Jennifer
    2019-05-05 00:59

    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.

  • Andrew Breslin
    2019-05-08 00:49

    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.

  • Marie-Therese
    2019-04-24 17:42

    3.5 stars, because I'd give it 4 stars for general information and 3 stars for readability. McWilliams is passionate about his subject (global environmental agriculture and the ways in which we, in our limited, local spheres, can help to enact better, more sustainable, global practices) and he is often highly informative, opinionated, and (mostly) convincing. He traces his own journey from committed locavore to someone more aware and better educated about actual environmental costs associated with producing and distributing food at mass scales. His chapter on food miles, what it really means to distribute produce and what the real environmental costs are, is a must read. I also found his chapters on organic food and aquaculture very intriguing.This is a thoroughly researched, well-sourced, and intensive look into modern agriculture and what foodies and smart consumers need to know about it to make informed decisions (not nearly as obvious or facile as one might think). It's not an easy or a particularly fun read, but it is informative and if you have any interest at all in the subject, I think it's worth your time and attention.P.S. I hope y'all really like carp, because it's what we're going to be eating as animal protein for most of the foreseeable future ;-)

  • Shawn
    2019-05-08 17:47

    this book was good i thought about giving it 4 stars but could not bring my self to overlook the fact that he never thought to question If the solutions he was presenting where just putting off the collapse of our whole food system. I like reading an alternative point of view and like what he said about meat, organic food and local food. but felt like he adviods the hard fact that we are killing the earth and if we don't do some thing radical very soon it will be to late. I could not agree with his thought on GMF or big AG .

  • Keith Akers
    2019-05-22 00:48

    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.

  • Emily
    2019-05-21 19:48

    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.

  • Michelle
    2019-04-27 21:43

    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.

  • Mike
    2019-05-18 00:41

    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.

  • Linnea
    2019-05-04 19:05

    An interesting and worthwhile read, McWilliams takes on a lot of assumptions about the environmental benefits of eating locally and other issues of responsible eating and points out some unexpected problems--especially for feeding the world responsibly. He makes some particularly good points about genetically modified crops and higher yields/lower land use. He also stresses the value of expanding healthy fish farming as a good solution to some of the food crises facing the world. However, he almost never references issues of nutrition, whether recommending vegetarianism, promoting gen-modified crops or farmed fish. Some of the biggest problems with these things have been that they don't match the nutritional benefit of eating healthy animal proteins, regular crops or wild fish. He brings up some good questions (particularly wrt to food miles as the ultimate measurement of energy consumption), but this is by no means a complete or well-rounded study of these issues.

  • Dan Patel
    2019-04-26 19:43

    It took me a long time to read because I took a pretty long break from nonfiction in the middle of it, but I nonetheless loved this book. This book and "Whole Earth Discipline" excel in promoting an unbiased and nondogmatic approach to assessing the value and place of new and old techniques for doing anything in a sustainable future. Ideas like "GM is bad," "Organic is good," "Nuclear is dangerous," "Eat local," and plenty more bumper-sticker-length slogans vastly oversimplify the depth of understanding needed to know in what ways any part of society is contributing to its progress or detriment. Both books mentioned in this review offer a fantastic lesson in this idea, and are highly recommended.

  • Mike Jorgensen
    2019-04-28 16:55

    Extremely well done. Highly readable and very timely. Rise above the bumper sticker mantras and work for food change that actually accomplishes something.“Our job as consumers is not what it used to be. It is, less to make the right choices among the current range of food options, and more to advocate for changes that would help develop a sound twenty-first-century food system, one in which our collective choices might actually matter.” (214)

  • Laura
    2019-04-26 23:49

    I certainly don't agree with the entirety of McWilliams' argument but I have been thinking a lot about many of his points - particularly about meat consumption. He's right that there is far more to responsible eating than just buying food that is grown/raised close by. The issue is far more complex than that.

  • Bob
    2019-04-24 22:52

    One of the most balanced, even-handed, and heavily-researched books on eating responsibly and environmentally out of the many I've read. Not as engaging as The Omnivore's Dilemma, but certainly more all-encompassing of the realities of food production.

  • Sally
    2019-05-11 21:09

    Well researched and thought out, but quite dry. Feels like studying or reading someone else's dissertation, making it less accessible and therefore less effective.

  • Josh
    2019-05-11 19:51

    Want to eat local to help the environment? Your efforts are gallant, but ultimately they are wrong. This is the message Mr. McWilliams succeeds in conveying. I’ve never really cared one way or the other about eating local. Actually, I probably have. I perceive our ability to eat a widely varied diet that includes foods from all over the world all year round as a great thing. I feel like it allows me to have the best possible diet available – vitamins and minerals that weren’t available to people 100 years ago, are available to me all the time; I want to take advantage of that. The author covers eating local from several vantage points and comes up with the same conclusion each time – eating local is not a solution to our worldwide food issues. After reading the book, I agree with him. Eating local is not the answer to saving our planet or reducing our obesity. Now, I don’t agree with everything he says. He covers the environmental and health impacts of eating land based animals and also eating commercially farmed fish. He insinuates that there is probably a solution to be found for the couple billion people here on earth who want to continue eating meat – it just has to be a more responsible method of raising and bringing to market. Maybe. Maybe there is a way, but I don’t think so. Nature raises animals in the way that is most suitable to their current environment and when that environment is altered, even in the most well-intentioned way, the animals will also be altered. That is a simple fact of natural adaptation and evolution. One plus for James, he does advocate abstaining from meat consumption, because all his research pointed to the same conclusions – the meat industries are destroying our environment and wrecking our bodies. P117 “To be an environmentalist who happens to eat meat is like being a philanthropist who doesn’t happen to give to charity.” – Howard F. LymanP118 I argue that a necessary precondition for eating sustainable diet is to radically reduce meat made from animal s that dwell on land. I insist on this change because conventional meat production is unavoidably degrading to the environment. No matter how hard we strain to find rays of hope in this grim picture, no matter how much we’d like to find a magic loophole of sustainability, it does not exist.P119 Monocropping, excessive applications of nitrogen fertilizer, addiction to insecticides, rainforest depletion, land degradation, topsoil runoff, declining water supplies, even global warming – all these problems would be considerably less severe if global consumers treated meat like they treat caviar, that is, as something to be eaten rarely, if ever.P125 The world already raises and slaughters 45 billion chickens a year, 23 million a day in the United States alone. Slaughterhouses in the United States now kill hundreds of millions of cows, pigs, and sheep a year, as well as billions of chickens. And as staggering as these numbers are, they’re growing exponentially.P126 The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that livestock are the cause of 18 percent of all global warming.P127 As the FAO notes, transportations of all forms worldwide accounts for 13.5 percent of global warming gas emissions. This compares to 18 percent for livestock. Food milers, if they really want to help the environment, would be much better off giving up meat than buying local.P130 Livestock give off 86 million metric tons of methane a year. Methane is 21 to 24 times more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.P140 Consider that about 70 percent of the water in the American West goes directly into raising pigs, chickens, and cattle. This amount is not surprising, given that it takes 2400 liters of water to make a hamburger (as opposed to 13 liters to make a tomato) and fifty times as much water to produce a pound of meat as to grow a pound of grain.P142 The problem of livestock-induced water pollution is global. In fact, it’s a huge, mostly unacknowledged mess. Antimicrobials, endocrine disrupters, hormones, antiparasitics, pesticides, antibiotics, and an array of feed additives designed to foster disease-free pest-free, and absurdly fat livestock are never fully absorbed by animal tissue. These products join the detergents and disinfectants used excessively in dairy production to foul freshwater supplies wherever livestock are raised, milked, and slaughtered.P146 John Robbins, author of Diet for a New America, puts it, “I wouldn’t get too carried away and think that as long as it’s grass-fed then it’s fine and dandy.” There’s much evidence to back him up. Grass-fed beef still comes from a cow, after all, and no matter how one massages the math, cows are comparatively inefficient converters of energy into nutrition. When you break it down, a bunch of protein is all we get out of the deal – no fiber, no real vitamins or minerals, no complex carbohydrates. This nutritional point is true for grass-fed beef as it is for feedlot beef.P153 Gidon Eshel, a geographer at Bard College, writes, “However close you can be to a vegan diet and further from the mean American diet, the better you are for the planet.P162 Over the course of a year, aquaponics will generate about 35,000 pounds of edible flesh per acre while grass-fed operation will generate about 7 pounds per acre.P186 First, we must stop fetishing food miles. The distance food travels certainly matters, but it is a relatively minor factor in the over quest for ethical and sustainable food. Instead, consumers must pay attention to the wide variety of energy inputs present at every major stage in the product’s route from farm to fork. P187 Third, despite the well-coordinated campaign against agricultural biotechnology, we must remain open to the proven potential of genetically modified crops to achieve sustainable goals such as boosting levels of production on less land.Fourth, to ensure that the earth does not fall prey to the environmental degradation caused by cattle, we must radically scale down our consumption of meat derived from land based animals. Meat from animals that are fed grain – that is, GM corn and soy – should be banned from the diet of every legitimate environmentalist, while the more environmentally sound alternatives, such as grass-fed beef and truly free-range organic chicken, must be eaten in the strictest moderationP191 Adding insult to injury, the widespread environmental damage caused by factory farming – eutrophication, soil depletion, erosion, water contamination – is paid for by you and me. According to Myers and Kent, “A typical American taxpayer forks out at least $2000 a year to fund perverse subsidies, and then pays another $2000 through increased prices for consumer goods and services or through environmental degradation.” This is to say nothing of the uncalculated (and perhaps incalculable) health-care costs related to the unhealthy environment and food that emerge from these supports.P192 According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the federal government doles out at least $144 million a year in management costs to graze livestock on federal land but collects only $21 million in grazing fees. The difference - $123 million – comes from the fleeced taxpayer, who has not only paid welfare to the western rancher but has inadvertently supported considerable environmental degradation in the process.P198 Organizations such as the Environmental Working Group lave already done a remarkably effective job of outing subsidy addicts by compiling and making available comprehensive data on who’s getting what from whom, how much, how often, and where it’s going. … Unsubsidized neighbors can now check up on their subsidized neighbors. For a cohort of swaggering recipients who traditionally espouse the virtues of rugged individualism and survival of the fittest, the corporations (and farmers) revealed by these embarrassing numbers appear like a bunch of effete fat cats rather than the rock-ribbed capitalist or yeoman farmers they purport to

  • Samantha
    2019-05-09 18:03

    He uses many examples to state his point, and I understand that local eating isn't enough, but the book reads as a scientific article. I was bored. Didn't feel any emotion behind his research and he wrote of agricultural from a knowing perspective so it wasn't friendly to ag newbies. Just not my cup of tea.

  • sdw
    2019-05-20 18:42

    James E. McWilliams aims to “reframe the debate about sustainable food production in a way that opens it up and encourages us to seek less ideologically crafted alternatives – ones that reform the environmental abuses of industrial agriculture, lend themselves to pragmatic regulation and enforcement, preserve the profit motive, and adapt to local, regional, national, and global economies and infrastructures” (80). McWilliams is concerned with three concepts that he believes environmentally conscious foodies have wrong. First, he exposes the problem with food-miles (or the drive to eat local). Sometimes less energy is used producing something half way around the world and shipping it in than through the irrigation used to grow it locally or the hot-houses used to grow it out of season. He encourages us to use a more holistic approach in determining the energy costs of our food. Second, he decries the opposition created between “organic” and non-organic produce. He points out that our understanding of “organic” as good relies on our assumptions that organic food is grown “more naturally.” He points out that the natural pesticides used in the organics industry can be just as harmful as many chemical pesticides. He claims that with the successful chemical regulations post-Rachel Carson, organic food is not necessarily healthier than traditional produce and that the carcinogens in our food is negligible compared to our other exposures. Third, he encourages us to rethink our opposition to Frankenfood as a solution to world hunger (can you tell that I was less convinced by this argument). In his fourth chapter McWilliams urges us to reduce our meat consumption. He points out that while 13% of green house gas emissions relate to automobiles, 18% can be linked to our meat consumption. His argument against meat is entirely on environmental grounds (rather than based in an argument about humane treatment of animals or animal rights). He also reminds us that “cage free” eggs really aren’t any better for the chickens. Conditions are just as abysmal. His fifth chapter encourages us to embrace aquaculture. He critiques large scale fish-farming (and urges us to boycott farmed salmon) but is very hopeful about the rise of small-scale local aquaculture as a substitute protein source for meat. McWilliams’s final chapter denounced the government subsidies of environmentally-destructive food practices. I admired McWilliams’s concern with issues of global hunger throughout the book. McWilliams urges us to think not just locally but about sustainable agriculture on a global scale. I also appreciated the way McWilliams urged us to recognize the ways our image of “the natural” and American pastoral ideals confuse our ability to identify best practices in food production. I was skeptical of three of his approaches. First, McWilliams often denounced certain tendencies as “extremist.” I’m really uncomfortable with calling anything “extremism” because it assumes that ideologies operate on a linear spectrum with a rational center we should all agree with flanked by polarizing extremes. McWilliams was also very dismissive of any attempts to name capitalism as the ultimate problem in our food solution because he felt this was impractical. Transforming our economy from capitalism to something more sustainable is unrealistic but taking on big agribusiness to transform our entire food system on a global scale isn’t? I disagree with him and think we need to remove (or at least significantly reduce) the “profit motive” from food production. Finally, McWilliams believes that at the heart the problem is one of education. As consumers, we need to be more conversant in biochemistry. I understand that McWilliams is a professor. He believes that education is the answer to many problems. I am sympathetic to that view. But I also think too much of our society is based on the idea that we all need to become experts. We live in a world where we are overwhelmed with information. I think any solution that requires us to become biochemists to decide which tomato we need to buy in the supermarket is problematic (and not very pragmatic).

  • Katie
    2019-05-10 17:50

    I picked up this book knowing that I probably would not agree with the content, but hoping that reading a different perspective would provide food for thought. The author introduces the book by describing his journey from a member of the locavore ideology to a more balanced view of food production. He wishes to provide arguments for a more balanced and global view of sustainable food production than can be provided by the elitist locavore movement. His first two chapters deal with problems associated with only focusing on food miles and organic growing. In these he makes some very good points, especially in regards to viewing organic vs. conventional as a continuum rather than completely polar opposites in which organic is always good and coventional is always bad. He supported his arguments fairly well and did, indeed give me some food for thought.Unfortunately, the remainder of the book was not nearly as balanced and contained some serious flaws in logic. The chapter on genetically modified (GM) crops contained all the standard arguments for GM foods touted by the industry (and supported by industry research). For nearly every study he cites about the high yields of GM crops, low use of pesticides or equal amounts of nutrition compared to organically farmed crops I could pull up a study that cites the complete opposite. He also brushes aside the concern that GM crops will promote a race of superweeds and pesticide-resistant pests. Unfortunately, the news in the past month has contained several stories of these dire predictions coming true. He also glazes over the issue of reducing biodiversity and cross-pollination that has plagued the GM industry for years. I have to conclude that there is a more honest desire to feed the world and reduce pesticide use with GM crops that is often touted today in the anti-GM community, but the evidence cited does not, in my evaluation, override the inherent risks of GM crops.The chapter the had the most flaws for me was where he argues for a massive reduction in meat consumption worldwide. The main issue I have with this chapter is that his arguments are based on changing criteria. He argues that nature doesn't always know best and a manged system can improve on nature, but then he talks about how animal grazing in nature is the most sustainable way to raise meat rather than humans corralling cows. A few pages later he then argues that wild meat is inherently unsafe, a conclusion he backs up with a study from the pork industry (can we say conflict of interest here?). The author also declares that livestock farming is one of the most environmentally degradating practices out there, although he seems to forget that in a former chapter he attacks monocrop farming and excessive use of pesticides and herbicides in a similar fashion. Now he declares that pastureland should be given over to vegetable crops. In his estimation vegetables and grains provide more nutrition than meat since meat is basically protein and nothing else (no vitamins, minerals, or carbohydrates). All I can say is that he doesn't cite any source for this information where I could pull up a pile of research studies and scientific articles that comprehensively refute this. Where I do agree with this author is that no one should be eating meat grown by conventional means (grain fed, confinement operations) and we should cut back on our meat consumption. However, we can eat meat as part of a healthy diet and this meat can be grown in sustainable ways. The remainder of the book deals with aquatic farming (I don't know much about this) and subsidies, another topic I mostly agree with him on, although I don't agree with all his arguments. Overall, I thought this book had a good purpose- to try to bring a balancing perspective to the increasingly opposed conventional vs. local/organic argument. However, I felt that the research and logical used to support most of his points were fairly weak and did not offer many convincing arguments to sway my opinions. Overall, it was a frustrating read and not very well researched.

  • AJ
    2019-05-16 19:46

    In Just Food, McWilliams tries to present a third way, a "golden mean" as he calls it, of agriculture and food production. Unfortunately, I found this book to fall short in many ways.The first three chapters of the book cover locavorism, organic food and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). While hoping to find some third ground that is better than either extreme (organic vs. conventional, eating local vs. eating food trucked to Maine from Mexico), McWilliams resorts to reductionist arguments basically against both sides without presenting a third option. He also remains optimistic that current systems of free trade and profit motive will fix things, even though he claims to dislike large corporations such as Monsanto. Ultimately, his arguments fall short and offer no convincing solution to the problem, while unnecessarily vilifying the efforts that many people make to chose local, organic, non GMO food as part of an overall environmentally friendly lifestyle.Next, McWilliams talks about meat production, arguing that it is inherently bad for the environment, and even the small sustainable farms that exist (such as Polyface Farms) wouldn't hold up on a global scale. As a vegan for environmental, animal rights and health reasons, I obviously agree with what McWilliams says. However, he still treats animals as products instead of beings, which may cause the vegetarian or vegan reading this book to be wary of this chapter. Indeed, as I read the next chapter, about fish, I once again found his arguments to fall short. McWilliams refers to fish as "floating protein," which makes me wonder if he is aware that protein is fully available from plant-based sources, and fish consumption isn't required for a healthy diet. Dietary issues aside, McWilliams showcases a bunch of small scale aquaculture operations that are doing a good job, and promotes them as the way of the future. However, I wish McWilliams took his own advice from the previous chapter on meat to realize that, once the profit motive gets involved and large corporations step in to consolidate and reap profits, what now works as small scale aquaculture operations will become just as environmentally precarious as factory farms. That's not to say that there's no good future in aquaculture, but government regulations the likes of which do not currently exist would need to step in to ensure that aquaculture doesn't become the next environmental scourge. I believe it's easier to just stop eating fish along with other meat products.Finally, McWilliams rallies against so-called perverse subsidies, which I think many who read this book can agree with. Lack of government regulations that allow Big Ag to get away with ruining our environment while producing food products of questionable safety is what leads many environmentally conscious people to shop locally and organic. The amount of transparency at a farmers' market, where one can directly question the farmer about her/his methods of farming is incomparable to the questionable content of a McDonalds hamburger or Lean Cuisine frozen meal. It seems to me as if McWilliams feels he's the first person to make the connection between environmentalism and ending corporate subsidies. He also feels that the solution is financial incentives and entrepreneurship. Color me skeptical, but I'll continue to try and boycott Big Ag by buying locally from my farmers' market, growing my own food when I can, and buying organic. Ultimately, I think McWilliams arguments are hit or miss, and would be better packaged with a more radical, anti-corporate agenda. However, I don't think that would have sold as many books because it wouldn't have lent itself to such an inflammatory subtitle ("Where locavores get it wrong and how we can truly eat responsibly") as well as painting locavorism as movement of food elitists who have no conception of global issues. It's unfortunate that the good messages in this book (end corporate subsidies, stop eating meat) are surrounded by lots of questionable content (synthetic fertilizers aren't that bad, GMOs are the only way to feed the starving masses).

  • Amanda Banks
    2019-05-13 21:56

    I actually finished this book a few weeks ago, but wasn't sure how to review it initially. This isn't because I didn't like it: I actually loved it so much that I dramatically changed my eating habits after reading it. I think it's because I liked it so much that I didn't want to write an unworthy review.The basic argument of the book is that the current emphasis in ethical eating on consuming "locally grown" food is wasteful, inefficient, unsustainable from both an environmental and population perspective, and ultimately a blind alley. (For example, he points out that transportation consumes a measly 11% of all energy consumed in the 'life cycle' of food; home preparation consumes 25%!! Switching to more fuel-efficient methods of cooking would be a much more sound way to make a positive environmental impact.)To eat in an ethical manner, McWilliams instead recommends the following (backed up by excellent, well-researched evidence):1. worry about buying local; instead, buy crops from the region naturally most suited to grow them, even if that's thousands of miles away. In other words, the division of labor should be applied to the growing of food as well. Some locations will have to ship all of their food from elsewhere (like Tucson or Las Vegas); most will have to ship a large portion of their diet (like New York, which can only produce apples in sufficient quantities to feed its population). 2. Organic food is not that great. Thanks to inconsistent and deliberately vague regulation and enforcement, the designation "organic" does not necessarily mean anything meaningful. More importantly, even truly organic food does not solve the problems it purports to: organic food tends to consume more resources, not fewer; still uses extremely toxic and dangerous chemicals (albeit naturally derived); is not environmentally sustainable; and may actually be worse for the soil and natural environment. 3. Genetically modified crops are a wonderful solution to many problems, such as world hunger and malnutrition, the overuse of pesticides, and the destruction of the natural environment for cropland. We should encourage their use (and the development of new ones) whenever possible.4. Eating meat is not environmentally sustainable and should be avoided, or at least only consumed on rare occasions. Factory farming is worst, but this is true even for grass-fed, free-range animals. Freshwater fish farming, while not currently perfect, is a wonderful solution for producing protein for a growing population. He speaks especially highly of tilapia and catfish.5. Agricultural subsidies and protectionism are wreaking havoc on both the environment and our food systems, and need to be eliminated. Greatly enhanced global trade of food should become the norm (see point #1).I love all of these recommendations, and wholeheartedly agree with them. I had always had vague doubts about many aspects of the ethical food movement (in particular, relating to points #2 and #3), and it was wonderful to have my rather amorphous objections fleshed out and explained in a logical manner. I was already a huge believer in #6 (ever since B the economist explained to me WHY corn syrup is so ubiquitous in the US as a sweetener=corn subsides+sugar protectionism).There were a few things I didn't like. --McWilliams is an academic, which means (unlike, for example, Michael Pollan) he isn't much of a prose stylist. While the book is perfectly readable, it's a little bit repetitive and dry.--McWilliams is very concerned with the ethics of food (what the 'just' in the title refers to). However, this very concern means he overlooks the main function of food: its taste. Tilapia and catfish in my experience are rather disgusting, which is going to be a major barrier in their widespread adoption. Similarly, a major reason to eat local produce is because it tastes much better (by a HUGE margin). McWilliams completely ignores these and all similar issues.

  • Laurie
    2019-05-11 18:01

    The subtitle of this book is “Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly”, but it’s not just locavores that McWilliams think have it wrong. Not wrong, really- more that locavores, and everyone else, really, haven’t thought it through far enough. The problem with basing how environmentally sound a food is on simply ‘food miles’- how far a food is transported from growing point to your plate- is that it leaves out a lot of information. A vegetable grown within 25 miles of your home is local, but there is no guarantee that it was sustainably grown. The grower could be dousing the fields with hazardous chemicals, allowing the soil to blow or wash away, or using huge amounts of oil to till and tend the fields. Those things have to be factored in. Buying your food from a grower that is further away, but uses sustainable growing practices, may actually be better for the environment. Also, in most places, it would be very difficult to find local sources of a varied and healthy diet, especially year round. In our area, we have a very short growing season, most of the area is unsuitable for growing grains, and the fruit in our diets would be limited to apples, pears, prune plums and cherries. McWilliams stresses sustainability. In doing this, he goes down some unusual paths. While he is all for organic methods, he points out that tilling- the method used for wee control in most organic fields- is bad for the soil. A judicious use of an herbicide that breaks down quickly-like Round Up- might actually do less damage to the environment. And the best way to use Round Up in a field is if the desired crop is resistant to that herbicide- in other words, genetically modified. The author has great hopes for the future of GM crops- he sees them as a very good way to get more food out of the earth with less environmental damage. Needless to say, this stance flies in the face of the accepted doctrine of the environmental movement. While McWilliams’ ideas about GMO foods, herbicide use, and food transportation are new and controversial, one of his ideas is a revamping of a 1970s one. He contends that to be able for the earth to feed the constantly enlarging population, we will have to either stop eating land based meat or cut back drastically, and rely mainly on plant foods for our protein. This idea was brought to public attention by Frances Moore Lappe in ‘Diet For a Small Planet’. It’s a simple thing: land growing feed for animals like pigs or cows uses more resources than land growing grains and beans for humans does. Converting protein via a cow is less efficient than giving that protein directly to humans. So, if everyone converted to vegetarianism, there would be more food available to humans. But that hasn’t happened in the 40 years since Lappe proposed it, and while more people are going that way today, I don’t see any mass conversion in the near future. And McWilliams doesn’t address dairy or egg production; I have no idea where that lays on the efficiency chart. He is a strong proponent of aquaculture as the future of animal protein, but is quick to point out how poorly it is being done in many instances. What it comes down to is that there are no simple answers, and we can’t rely only on the data that supports what makes us feel good; we have to look at all sides of the issue. McWilliams supports localism and organic methods, but he points out that these things alone won’t feed the growing population and sustain the earth. What I’m left thinking is that we need more studies- studies not run by Monsanto or other large producers, but independent ones that will help us find a common, middle ground of organics and science. Read the book. It’s disturbing and thought provoking.

  • Nisha
    2019-04-30 19:41

    Just FoodBy James E. McWilliamsLittle, Brown and Co., 222 pages, $29It isn't easy telling people what they don't want to hear, but that is exactly what Texas history professor James E. McWilliams does in his latest book.He attacks the locavore -- a person who seeks out locally grown and produced food -- and suggests their deep-rooted belief that local food can save the world is not only short-sighted but a luxury of the privileged western world.In Just Food, McWilliams attempts to demonstrate how the local food movement has gotten it wrong. He argues that the transportation of our food is only a small fraction of the overall equation and that small farms idealized by the local food movement are not going to feed the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050.The author of three previous books, including A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, McWillams admits he was once a staunch believer in local food himself.However, through his research he discovered that deciding what to eat is "too complicated to be managed through a primary reliance on food grown in proximity to where we live." For the true local foodie, some of what McWilliams suggests will incite gasps of horror.For example, he details why organic isn't always better than conventional farming and why we shouldn't completely eschew genetically modified crops.What McWilliams is mostly suggesting is that in the right hands, these tools that currently represent corporate oppression and environmental destruction could actually be the answer to our ever-increasing food crisis.Where McWilliams fails is in his delivery. When Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), the current manifesto on local food, he revolutionized the way people thought about what they ate because he told such a convincing and compelling story.McWilliams, on the other, hand appears to be talking down to his reader. He uses phrases such as "And you're thinking to yourself, Yawn" when he discusses things like vehicle telematics and transport collaboration being the "stuff of real environmental change."It's as though he doesn't believe his readers are capable of being passionate or interested in the serious business of saving the planet and are only dazzled by flash slogans that can be put on bumper stickers.When he states that no true environmentalist should eat meat, it's obvious McWilliams takes himself a little too seriously. Almost any environmentalist (of any shade) is already well aware of the costly environmental effects of meat production and McWilliams' "radical conclusion" is anything but.However, by suggesting we practise moderation in the use of several current farming practices, McWilliams makes some interesting and even convincing arguments. His belief that eating locally could potentially lead to even more starvation in the developing world is one worth listening to.Having once been on the side of the locavore himself, McWilliams also does an admirable job of addressing the arguments any locavore reading his book might have. While he does miss some of the finer points of why people seek out local fare, his own point is generally well made, balanced and rational.For any locavores who have found themselves wondering if there is more to the equation, Just Food may offer one or two solutions.Nisha Tuli is the co-founder of Slow Food Winnipeg and once lived on a completely local diet for six months.Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2009 B9

  • David
    2019-04-27 18:52

    This was a good, if not difficult, book for me to read. I am open to hearing different opinions on the subject of the future of food, agribusiness vs. organics, GM seeds, etc., and I was excited to read a well-written book by a local author. I also think it's an extremely important subject and set of challenges and I care deeply about food and the planet. But in the end, what I didn't like about this book had nothing to do with the opinions or proposals set before us by the author, but something much simpler and more human: the tone of the author's voice.McWilliams simply starts out the book with an unexplainable (to me) acrid tone towards the organic, local-foods consumer. Oddly, he almost demonizes them. That's a bit strange and ironic to me, as it's largely these people, the "localvores", who are responsible for the whole environment of change we are seeing in this country and beginning to see worldwide (he's almost kinder to agribusiness, in a way). So, in my opinion, not nearly enough credit was given to the fact that amazing changes are taking place right now--we're in a food revolution--and he might not even be writing a book about this subject if it weren't for the gains many others have made in, say, the last 10 or 15 years. New ideas are certainly welcome and I can even understand the author's annoyance with folks who pick up a drum and start beating it when they don't know the tune, but I'm still a bit offended (and I'm not a staunch localvore, either). I also don't believe that localvores are unrealistic, either. Most of the localvores I know don't buy all their locally; they buy what they can. And regardless of all the data McWilliams gives us, the carbon imprint on these local foods is very low. And what about supporting local businesses, local economy? This never gets a mention in the book.Fortunately, McWillliams backs off and becomes noticeably kinder by Chapter Three, but I personally was still reeling from the obvious bitterness of the first few chapters. It's like meeting someone for the first time, have them insult you (or someone else, really) for an hour or two, and then want you to stay and listen to what they have to say. Well, that's too bad. I feel McWiliams may have alienated a good part of the audience he was trying to reach by not toning it down a bit. Big mistake. And why so angry, anyway?Still, I stuck it out (I'm tough, I guess) and am willing to admit McWilliams is smart and makes some excellent points (his stance on meat consumption, for example, and aquaponics), many of them worth further discussion and worthy of public attention. He is also clear in his objectives for writing the book (which he sums up succinctly on pages 186-188, if you want to get right to the point). As he takes no side of the current food-politik fence, it's easy to see his position will not be a popular one (he's neither agribusiness or organic/go-local, but somewhere in between and neither). For one, I admire him for taking a different position and making each of us on both sides of the fence re-examine our positions and assumptions. I just wish he would have been a little bit kinder while doing it--so he would have reached a wider audience--which always helps when you're trying to inspire serious change...

  • Kate Lawrence
    2019-04-20 16:42

    Want to get a lively discussion going among people who care about food sustainability? This book will do it!The author hits the ground running with a spot-on sendup of the locavore mania, and not a moment too soon. Then we get chapters on organics and GM food, which I'm still digesting (pardon the pun). I'd thought it was clear that organics should be embraced and GM foods opposed, but here are considerations that were new to me. The uncompromising chapter on livestock had me cheering "You tell 'em!" (disclaimer: I've been vegan for 23 years)and wondering if the author is also a vegan. Not yet, we find out: he tells us he's given up eating land animals, but still looks favorably on aquaculture, as detailed in the following chapter. The last topic is agricultural subsidies; once again, he nails it.Two major omissions jumped out at me. First, the possibility of converting urban yards into food gardens was not even mentioned. Given the total amount of land taken up by yards, this could be important. If we could incentivize food gardening, vegetables and fruits grown in American yards would not have to be provided by farmers, which would mean more food to feed the world. During World War II, victory gardens produced up to 40% of all vegetables grown in the U.S.Second, in the aquaculture chapter, assertions of sustainability were all based on comparisons between aquaculture and livestock agriculture. Livestock is so outrageously wasteful that almost any other kind of production would look good next to it. What we need in order to be convinced are comparisons between aquaculture and plant-food agriculture; i.e. between a diet with fish and a vegan diet. If aquaculture can't compare favorably here, and because fish-eating has negative health and ethical aspects as well, why should we give it even a moment's consideration?The author seems to think that veganism is too difficult; he writes, "As much as I would like to push a completely meatless diet, I know that such a change is virtually impossible to achieve on even a small scale." Why so? Several million people in the U.S. and elsewhere have been following it for years, with more coming on board daily. McWilliams needs to look no further than his own city of Austin to see a textbook example of an unlikely population adopting vegan eating: the firefighters of Engine 2, whose new diet was recognized on Oprah and in the New York Times, among other media. I'd say firefighters are about as far as possible from the Skinny Bitch demographic, yet they made the switch and are much healthier for it. Furthermore, who would ever have thought that the fast-food-loving Bill Clinton would adopt a plant-based diet? There are those who stand back, believing that a big change is too difficult, and others who are busy putting that change into practice. C'mon, James McWilliams, join the vegan community. You know you want to. Later note: I learned that McWilliams is now a vegan advocate.

  • Greg
    2019-05-09 21:04

    It points to the seemingly obvious (in hindsight) conclusion that there is no 'simple' solution to the problem of sustainable eating. The point is made clearly and emphatically. I knew a lot of the objections to organic and local eating as a sustainability plan going in, but the main takeaway for me was how environmentally destructive it is to consume meat. Everyone has an idea that this is probably the case, but probably have little idea of how much of a negative impact this act has. For example, I was not aware of the tremendous levels of greenhouse gases emitted by farm critters (though the stench should probably have given it away).That's not to say that McWilliams gives a totally unbiased representation of the facts. For a fair-weather environmentalist like myself, this book leaves me totally aware that there are facts being left out of the story (though I honestly doubt that McWilliams has an agenda--I think it more likely that he chose to err on the side of simplicity and readability, or that the facts were unavailable). But being a half-hearted conservativist, I don't really know what it is that McWilliams isn't telling me. A couple of ideas that are not thoroughly explored are the health implications of the type of sustainable diet that McWilliams is suggesting. It's not enough to assume that the transition to veg-heavy diets would be seamless and healthy.Just Food> does a good job of bringing up alternative considerations in the sustainable eating game that most people don't think about. For example, most local producers don't benefit from efficient transportation or processing, and in many cases the environmental impact of consuming those foods is worse than the cost of consuming a food grown in another country. This should be a relief to those of us who cringe at the sight of expensive locally-grown produce at the supermarket, and feel bad selecting the dirt-cheap, high-quality produce shipped in from Argentina.The book is never too technical for the average reader, yet never quite technical enough for someone who is doubtful of incredible claims. For example, at one point, McWilliams notes that there is the potential to produce 35000 pounds of edible fish flesh per acre per year with sustainable aquaculture, compared with 75 lbs per acre per year of beef. That's a startling number, but it's presented flippantly and without justification. Though McWilliams quickly moves on to discussing more down-to-earth numbers, a quick search on current aquaculture yields places excellent harvests at around 2500 lbs of edible fish flesh per acre for catfish, which are very amenable to farming. This is a far, far cry from the 35000 lbs quoted in this text, though still impressive. I guess I can hope that was just a typo.McWilliams main point, which I wish he would have made more emphatically, in bold text, is that there is currently not enough information available in order to enjoy a definitely sustainable diet.