Just Food Book Review

‘Just’ Food

Hi guys!  This is Christine here, back for Sweet-Tooth Friday!  Instead of sharing a recipe with you, this week I wanted to share a book I thought you NMA-ers would find interesting: Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly by James E. McWilliams.

[Just Food cover]I originally picked up this book because I thought it was about returning to simpler, unprocessed food.  Instead, McWilliams argues for changes in our food system that will enable the world to feed itself in an environmentally safe manner as its population increases.  He writes, “Only then can ‘just food,’ as in it’s nothing more than food, become ‘just food,’ as in food we can rightly associate with the justice of sustainability.”  Ahh there’s the title pun!

Usually I am interested in theories regarding eating right in terms of eating healthily for my body.  Honestly, I’ve never been too focused on environmental concerns.  I put out my recycling on the correct day, shop with reusable grocery bags, and have the barista fill up my travel coffee mug instead of a paper cup.  That’s pretty much the extent of my activism.  I’ve never thought much about energy used to produce food or how much our current agricultural system is truly damaging the planet.

Just Food sets out to show that eating ethically can’t be solved only by going organic or sticking locally.  Here a sustainable diet is a means for using the smallest amount of land to feed the greatest amount of people, which in the next couple generations will no longer be a choice.  Just Food highlights five main ways to achieve this goal by focusing on the true energy cost of food, looking past organic, researching genetically-engineered foods, significantly reducing meat consumption, and establishing better systems of aquaculture.

Energy costs of food are often calculated by ‘food miles,’ or how far the food traveled to get to your plate.  However, this can be outweighed by the energy producing the food, from what kind of nets catch fish to making the tin can and other packaging.  Transportation is actually the lowest use of energy.  I was disappointed to read that 25% of the energy total in making food comes from home preparation.  Jeez, and my oven is always on!  In the end, ‘100 mile’ diets don’t always make sense, especially when a ton of bananas flown in from another continent may be overall more efficiently produced than the apple at the farmers market.

Regarding organic foods, I always thought by definition it was chemical-free.  Turns out, they just can’t use synthetic fertilizers or pesticides.  The botanical chemicals that are used can be just as dangerous to the environment and humans in high doses, just like the synthetic ones.  Fertilizing with manure isn’t completely safe either because of the antibiotics still present.  Organic farmers also till their land more often to get rid of weeds, which messes up the nitrogen level and allows for erosion and chemical run-off.  Finally, organic farming just requires more land to produce the same yields.

Genetically engineered foods have gotten a bad rap, but they can be beneficial.  Most corn and soybeans already come from GM seeds.  Genetically modified crops that are equipped with pest-fighting genes can significantly reduce the use of harmful pesticides as well as frequent tilling.  Genetically modified crops can also increase the yield of a plant in a smaller amount of space, and are then able to feed more people.  Even with these advantages, the book does not neglect the fact that we still need to monitor any chemicals that go in to our food.

McWilliams is decidedly less enthusiastic about the joys of vegetarianism than we NMA-ers are, but admits that “if you want to start changing the environment with your diet, one of the most productive things you can do is quit eating meat.”  The world’s current appetite for meat simply cannot be sustained.  Meat production operates at a net-energy loss, not even counting the high-temperatures it gets cooked at later!  Livestock uses more of our limited water than plants do, as well as contaminating water with their manure ponds at factory farms.  And don’t forget about all that methane released into the air!

Though grass-fed and free-range options seem like the better choice, both have issues.  Grass-fed cows take up valuable land to graze, and free-range pigs can be exposed to more parasites.  McWilliams simply says if you do eat meat it should be considered as rare as eating cavier and shouldn’t be eaten more than once a month.

Fish farming is brought into the picture as way to get higher yields of animal protein from less space.  It also protects the destruction of marine ecosystems from modern fishing practices and overfishing. In medium sized farms, aquaculture can be integrated with the crops to share nutrients and make less waste.  It is important to buy fresh water fish from countries with good environmental standards.  You should also avoid farmed salmon, shrimp, and halibut because these species rely on animal-based food, and are therefore less sustainable.

Before these five strategies can be really effective, Just Food acknowledges that government subsidies artificially promoting corn, soy, and cattle must be removed.  Without financial incentives, agribusiness has no motive to change its structure.

I really enjoyed the environmental perspective from Just Food.  It really opened my eyes to issues that the organic movement and locavores haven’t fully addressed.  McWilliams isn’t against organic farming or local movements, he just explains that in the very near future it will be necessary to scale production up.  At the same time, we cannot continue the current practices of big argribusiness.  We need to act now to make this production environmentally sound and sustainable.

There is a TON of information in this book- way more than I can even gloss over here.  Please remember that in trying to lay out the gist of the argument and sustainable plan, I have not included his many defenses and counterpoints.  I full-heartedly recommend you give this book a read for yourself, no matter which side of the issues you stand.

As always I would love to hear your thoughts!

Until next time,
Stay sweet and sustainable!

xoxo Christine




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  1. I really liked this post, Chris! I’m sure it’s not what some people want to hear, but I’m a very strong believer in always remaining skeptical about anything, and never closing your mind to alternative viewpoints. It’s probably so tempting right now to write a book that goes with the grain on this new “green” trend than against it, so I think it’s very brave of this guy to question a lot of the stuff from an environmental and economic point of view.

    I’ve wondered myself where the balance is between health and economics. When you can get 1200 calories at McDonalds for the same price as 150 calories of fresh fruit, there’s something to be said for that. Obviously McDonald’s is not the answer and is doing a lot of harm, but producing only the healthiest, most expensive food is not the way to best serve everyone either.

    Sounds like a very interesting read and it’s on my list now. Great review!

  2. Sounds like an interesting book, it really addresses issues that most people just don’t think about. A lot of us ‘think’ we’re doing our little part in helping the environment but if you’re filling your reusable grocery bags with overly packaged items, then you’re not seeing the big picture. I’m by no means an environmentalist but I try to do little things I think we’ll help the planet so it would be nice to see what the author suggests.

  3. Great review! I had heard about this book just the other day when the Oregonian here in Portland published an interview in the Food section with the author (http://bit.ly/UXPFV). I’m definitely going to get the book.

  4. i’d be very interested in reading this book. i’d like to read his counterarguments towards local and organic foods. everyone else advocates the opposite and its good to keep a healthy debate going. there is no perfect way, but at least we are trying to make it better!
    .-= Elizabeth´s last blog ..Local Tropical Treat =-.

  5. What an interesting perspective! I love hearing all sides to issues, so this was a great post idea.
    .-= Paige@ Running Around Normal´s last blog ..To-Do is TO-Done =-.

  6. I enjoyed this review. You gave an excellent overview of a somewhat controversial subject.

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