No matter how “primitive” or “pure” the operation may seem, every farm on some level is a factory. (Page 67)
Food is critically important to the survival of human beings. That is the one salient point that everyone with an interest in food, that is to say every living person, can agree upon. Once we get past that point, opinions diverge into a million streams of thought and arguments ensue.
The usual breakdown occurs across common fault lines: organic versus conventional, GMO versus non-GMO, vegan versus meat eater, etc. There seems to be little middle ground in between these fractious camps, but James E. McWilliams tries to tread such a space in Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We can Truly Eat Responsibly.
McWilliams, an associate professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos, has a problem with food miles:
Food miles are readily popular primarily because they’re easy to grasp and calculate. (Page 46)
I agree with the author that judging the eco-grade of a food based solely on the miles it travels to store or plate is erroneous because it fails to account for so many variables. Transportation costs, in terms of energy and money, are quite small in proportion to the other costs associated with our food’s production.
Where I disagree with the author is that he fails to address some of the larger aspects of the local food movement. It’s not just about bringing production of food back to a local foodshed. It’s about rediscovering local traditions and methods that are lost in a homogenized world. It’s about accountability in a food system where a single company may be responsible for half or more of a single commodity.
His belief in genetically modified organisms (GMO) I am hesitant to endorse. It’s not that I do not believe in the ability of GMOs to address problems that arise in agriculture. It is rather that the efficacy and safety of GMOs does not have to be document before the organisms are allowed out into the wild. This is an indictment of the regulatory regime surrounding GMOs rather than the product themselves but it is an indictment nonetheless.
There is one place where I agree with McWilliams completely: our love affair with land based protein or meat is the single most destructive dietary decision that we make on a regular basis. If you chose to do only one thing to benefit the planet, it would be to forgo any meat that comes from a land animal. Given the state of our oceans and the destructive fishing practices employed it might also be advisable to give up all types of meat.
Meat is inefficient and exacerbates the worst of our agricultural practices. In the U.S. over half of our two primary commodity crops—corn and soybeans—are turned into feed for animals. McWilliams asserts:
If once could wave a magic wand and radically reduce meat consumption, all discussion of fertilizer abuse would come to an abrupt halt. (Page 77)
The key aspect to McWilliams’ book and something that is absent in the majority of writing about food where it seems diametrically opposing views are the only acceptable means of discourse is that a middle way might be possible. In his own words:
I believe in the notion that a rational and achievable middle ground exists between th extremes of abundance and deficiency. (Page 185)
As the world faces the challenge of feeding ever more people on the same amount of land or less, as arable land becomes degraded, utilizing every option at our disposal may become the default. What McWilliams proposes in Just Food is that we can produce more food and do away with the more damaging aspects of modern agriculture, but that the current focus on local and organic is a fool’s errand. It’s an interesting proposal that is worth your time to examine.