When I was asked to review Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, I was a little apprehensive. I thought it would be about how everything with all food production was overly capitalistic and wrong, but that wasn’t the focus of the book at all. The author made it clear that he would confront some “urgent but inconvenient” truths about what we eat and where it comes from. The book was more of an indictment on simplistic thinking and the food police who constantly seem to direct our attention on the wrong things. For example:
Food Miles: Easy to understand but a worthless measure
Better than using the number of miles from “the farm to the fork,” the author presents a better evaluation called a life-cycle assessment (LCA). Why are “food miles” not the best way to evaluate the environmentally responsible way to eat? Because they’re only a tiny fraction of the energy used to get food to your table. But it feels good, saying you only eat locally produced food, doesn’t it? That means no seafood in St. Louis, no bananas in New York, and no fresh fruit in the winter for anyone.
LCA’s are a much better way to look at our food. Ironically, LCA shows that it is four times MORE energy efficient for Londoners to dine on grass fed lamb from New Zealand than locally. Though it seems incomprehensible, the comparative advantage of growing lamb on the other side of the world outweighs the fuel and transportation costs of shipping it to London.
And lamb isn’t the only product that falls into this category.
Localism is not always the most environmentally sound solution if more emissions are generated at other stages of the product life cycle.
Stirring up an organic panic
Here’s a news flash: organic practices can’t feed the world. It’s all basic math. Scientific studies consistently produce lower yields between 25 and 82 percent. Therefore, to produce enough food, farmers would need that much more land to sustain current production levels.
The underlying temper of our times is that anything processed or industrialized can be seen as adulterated and harmful, while anything that appears to be natural or close to nature can be regarded as pure and uncorrupted. The reality of contemporary food production, whether organic or conventional, whether large-scale or small, stubbornly fails to follow this purified/corrupted script.
The author lists several “organic” practices, one of which the use of sodium nitrate. This product, mined in South America, is considered natural and is used to grow winter vegetables in dry soil. Used as a soluble fertilizer to enhance the soil’s nitrogen content, organic farmers seem oblivious to the mining and shipping costs to the environment, the groundwater pollution sodium nitrate causes (artificially beefs up the nitrogen and phosphorous in soil), as well as its detrimental effects on soil salinization. Still, it’s “natural.”
A judicious use
McWilliams impressed me. Although he and I disagree about the causes of global warming (or the lack of global warming), I was impressed by his willingness to search for the truth, even if it didn’t fit his version of reality. That’s the mark of a real journalist. He ended the book with several very good conclusions:
- Go beyond food miles
- Go beyond organic and conventional methods
- Judiciously use biotechnology
- Judiciously use chemicals
- Reduce tillage
- Integrate livestock and plant crops
- Explore more freshwater aquaculture
We have a lot of people to feed. Just Food is a great way to point us in the right direction.
Buy or don’t buy?
If you’re concerned about the environmental effects the production of your food is having on our world, you’ll enjoy reading Just Food. I’ve never been that concerned myself, but I still enjoyed reading it anyway, mostly because I felt that the author was real, honest, and willing to change his way of thinking if the facts presented themselves accordingly.
If you would like to win my copy (which I received free from the publisher – thank you Little, Brown & Company), just leave a comment on this post.
Note: I received this book gratis from the publisher.