James E. McWilliams seems like he may be a big bummer at a lot of cocktail parties. You can tell, because the introduction to his book Just Food is continually defensive. “My goal here is not to write a reactionary tract against the locavore movement,” he writes, yet his real and well-researched analysis of sustainable agriculture is laced with sideways critiques and subtle condemnations of current green culture. Within the pages of Just Food lie a mixed series of sustainable solutions and conflicting emotions regarding the challenges of eating an ethical diet.
Some of the conclusions the author draws are very complementary to the current organic food movement, such as his belief that farming subsidies need to be seriously reexamined and sustainable aquaculture supported. Other suggestions, like the support of Genetically Modified crops, or the dismissal of food miles, are more controversial. McWilliams maintains that escalating population growth will force us to seek out various solutions.
“It’s so much sexier to reiterate the mantra of eating local, growing rooftop gardens, foraging for wild dandelion balls, and keeping backyard hens. And this is wonderful. We can keep things local– we should keep things local — but we must also stop insisting that our behavior is, if universalized, a viable answer to the world’s present and future problems,” he writes. To those who “insist,” McWilliams offers the “viable answers” of reducing meat consumption, judicious use of pesticides, and the support of sustainable aquaculture.
To be sure, the bulk of Just Food is a solid, comprehensive analysis of our global food system. Vegetarians will find new conversation fodder in McWilliams’ justification for reduced meat consumption. Fans of the previously featured Farm Fountain will be thrilled to read his descriptions of some forward-thinking aquaculture projects. And if you ever wondered about the details on pesticides allowed within organic certification, here’s your chance. But a few of the authors’ attempts at cultural observation leave the reader cold.
“I suppose it would have been a lot more fun to have written a book on the sublime virtues of slow food, Chez Panisse, Berkshire pork, or the gustatory pleasures of an heirloom tomato. For sure, it would have been a pleasure to indulge my research abilities in something sensual and fulfilling,” reads his introduction. At which point the reader can’t help but feel a little . . . how should I say . . . scolded? As if enjoying An Omnivore’s Dilemma or a farmer’s market tomato had been an act of frivolous excess. As if food (you know, the real, important food) were not also pretty and fun.
“I’ve chosen to save the romantic rhetoric for the parlors of hobby farmers and seminar rooms of the chattering culinary class,” he writes. He’s not wrong in pointing out that there are, indeed, a lot of pretty-pretty stories out there about tomatoes and watermelons. But he’s wrong in thinking that folks who enjoy these stories exist in a locavore bubble of some sort, or that supporters of sustainable agriculture don’t also enjoy the benefits of global trade. Hi, my name is Moe Beitiks. I just had some organic brown rice and kale with some imported green tea, and now I’m using the internet.
Let me be clear: the green movement needs its critics. It needs global perspectives like McWilliam’s to keep from getting entrenched in religious fervor or Utopian ideology. For these reasons, I’m grateful the book is out there. But if McWilliams is certain that his plan in Just Food is the best solution to feed the world, he’ll have to make nice with a culture beyond statistics. We all benefit from a deeper appreciation for farming: I’ve had enough pale, hard, supermarket tomatoes to know that.