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

Exploding the myths surrounding the economics and environmental sustainability of food production

Citation Information

Bender, Robert 2016. Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly , URL = <>.

Publication Information

McWilliams, James E., Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, New York, NY: Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Co., 2009, pp. xii+258, (paperback).

display of vegetables and fruit at farmers market

The author of Just Food is James E. McWilliams, a history professor at Texas State University. His book is aptly sub-titled, Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly. In this book, McWilliams' opening concern is with the 'locavore' movement. This movement is very vocal in the United States, selling the idea that eating local will solve the 'food miles' problem. Eating locally is presented by the group as a major contribution to reducing the energy consumed in getting food from farm to table.

McWilliams argues very convincingly that most of the group's argument is very over-rated hype. It is, he says, essentially a middle-class indulgence in token change and, though nice, eating locally contributes very little to helping feed the expected mid-century population of 10 billion humans. Most of the foods we eat cannot be grown where we live. And of those that can, they cannot be grown economically (for example, hothouses in countries with winter snow). In addition, 'local' is proving a very rubbery concept, varying from farms just outside town to anything within 160 km to anything within one's state (very generous in Western Australia and Texas). But, most importantly, the vast bulk of energy consumed in food production is used in fertilizing farms and in cooking. Transport contributes less than five per cent of energy consumption, no matter where food travels to or from.

McWilliams goes on to dismiss the prescribed behaviours of the organic movement as another bit of middle-class indulgence—very nice to do, but expensive and at the cost of lowering productivity. He also rejects their strong protest against genetically modified (GM) foods. The opposition to GM foods usually seems to be championed by people ignorant of the science behind GM and of what has been achieved to date from specific plant modifications. McWilliams' main argument in favour of GM foods is that research is targeted at reducing the application of pesticides. Such reductions in use are a real boon to our world.

Book cover: Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams

The second half of his book contains two positive recommendations, which are sure to prove unpopular. However, these changes to our eating habits would make large and very real contributions to saving the planet from ourselves. Firstly, he recommends that we stop eating meat and, secondly, that we stop eating ocean fish. His main concern with meat-eating is that most of the world's meat production requires animals be fed on plant foods that are perfectly edible by humans. This practice increases hugely the land area needed to feed the same number of people given, for example, the losses in converting corn into beef. He also asks us to consider the atrocious inhumanity of feedlots in which the bulk of cattle in the United States are fenced. Here, cattle stand knee-deep in their own manure for the last few months of their lives.

Regarding eating ocean fish, our oceans are in a state of ecosystem collapse. The demand for fish has grown unsustainably as per capita consumption has increased in rich and poor nations alike. Our oceans are likely to become dead zones within decades if we don't stop overharvesting. McWilliams describes experiments with intensive farming of herbivorous fish, especially in south-east Asia. Unlike farming carnivorous fish, farming herbivorous fish does not involve the mass-killing of ocean fish for conversion into food pellets for feeding the farmed fish. Herbivorous fish eat plants that absorb huge volumes of fish manure, creating a mutually beneficial intensive system. The practice of farming herbivorous fish can turn out thousands of times more kilojoules of food per hectare than ocean fishing. Adopting this practice on a large scale avoids the vast volumes of manure run-off seen around intensive piggeries and cattle ranches, which seriously pollutes rivers and coastal waters. This leaves the oceans to recover.

McWilliams' final chapter sums up his proposals. Firstly, by all means eat locally and buy organic, but don't kid yourself that that is a major contribution to solving the world's food problem. Secondly, accept that for many crops biotechnology will reduce pesticide and fertilizer use, to the great benefit of the countryside and the lives of insects and larger animals living around farms. Thirdly, become knowledgeable about the science behind pesticides and herbicides and learn that it is the dosage rather than presence or absence that is crucial to food health. Fourthly, support farm practices that reduce tillage and thereby reduce soil erosion. Lastly, stop eating meat and start pushing for the development of intensive farming of herbivorous fish. As McWilliams puts it: 'If improving sustainability and reducing the environmental footprint is the goal, we need to be prepared to use the best tools we have.'

Copyright © 2016

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