Gallery: BOOK REVIEW: Just Food by James E. McWilliams


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.

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  1. lazyreader July 1, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Pesticide residues in food cause cancer and other diseases. Total myth. In truth the residues are largely harmless. It’s was called the Ames Test, and its first use in the 1970s raised alarms by revealing there were carcinogens in hair dye, and in the flame retardants in children’s pajamas. But after getting the hair dye and the flame retardants banned, Dr. Ames and other scientists continued testing chemicals. “People started using our test,” he told me, “and finding mutagens everywhere-in cups of coffee, on the outside of bread, and when you fry your hamburger. Practically everything in the supermarket, if you really looked at it at the parts per billion level, would have carcinogens. Vegetables are good for you, yet vegetables make toxic chemicals to keep off insects, so every vegetable is 5 percent of its weight in toxic substances, natures pesticides. We get more carcinogens in a cup of coffee than we do in all the pesticide residues you eat in a day. Pesticides such as DDT and EDB came out much lower than herb tea, peanut butter, alcohol, and mushrooms. One raw mushroom gives you much more carcinogens than any polluted water you’re going to drink in a day, and the greenies want us to eat raw produce. The pesticide bans were far to harsh and we did it in the name of saving birds. It did cause some harm: It threatened bird populations by thinning the shells of their eggs. It’s not the chemical but the dosage, water’s good for you but too much and you could drown. But they were the only way to heavily suppress mosquito populations. I would say for certain that millions of people died as a result of these bans.

    Radiating food is safe. They don’t worry much about bacteria because bacteria is natural. But radiation is natural too. We are exposed to natural radiation every minute of our lives: cosmic radiation from space, radiation from the ground, and radiation from radon in the air we breathe. Every year, the average U.S. citizen is exposed to natural radiation equal to about 360 dental X-rays. We nuke our food everyday if you use a microwave oven. People think food irradiation makes food radioactive, but it doesn’t; the radiation just kills the bacteria, and passes right out of the food. Spices have been irradiated for more than twenty years. Irradiation is good for us. If it were more common, all of us would suffer fewer instances of food poisoning and we could have fruits and vegetables that stay fresh weeks longer. It was the dairy industry that proposed raw milk was better for us. Only the persistence of scientists and medical experts allowed pasteurization to become standard practice and safer for consumption. Only a fraction of meat is irradiated today which is why we keep having these E-coli outbreaks.

  2. feedmelikeyoumeanit December 12, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    I loved this review.

    I agree completely with your comment about feeling “scolded” by McWilliams. His screed against locavorism seems motivated by something other than the spirit of dispassionate scientific inquiry. I found him condescending and charmless. I almost didn’t finish the book because of this.

    What’s more, he beat “food miles” to death, but ultimately failed to address successfully any of the other arguments for locavorism.

    All of which is a shame, sort of, because the chapters on meat and fish are worth reading. Perhaps in the form of an essay rather than a book.

    My full thoughts here:

  3. Liet September 17, 2009 at 6:13 pm

    “At which point the reader can’t help but feel a little . . . how should I say . . . scolded?”

    It’s a pretty mild scold, if it is one at all, but has it occurred to you that…well….sometimes a little scolding is in order? At its best, the slow/local/sustainable food movement is populist, relevant, and levels a thoughtful cultural critique. That’st he slow food movement of Pollan, Waters, and yes, McWilliams as well – rooted in ecology, economics, agronomy, and social justice. At its worst, it can be either smugly self-satisfied and vaguely hedonistic, or shrilly moralistic, preachy, and overbearing in its demands that we all eat the right foods for the right reasons while dimly dismissing various social justice issues that inevitably crop up in these discussions. If you spend too much time jabbering about your $4/lb heirloom tomatoes, whatever your genuine appreciation of them may be, you can sound a little too much like a wealthy yuppie and a little too little like an informed social commentator.

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