Just Food

Just Food: How Locavores Are Endangering the Future of Food and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, by James E. McWilliams. Little, Brown, 2009.

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!” 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. (Later note: McWilliams is now a vegan advocate. Follow his blog Eating Plants.) 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 for most people; 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 need look no further than his own city of Austin, Texas, 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?

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