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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly

I just finished reading James E. McWilliams' new book, "Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly." I have to say I'm still having a hard time deciding how much he's convinced me... On the surface, reading chapter headings and such, I was immediately struck by just how contrary McWilliams seemed to be to most of what I accept as green ideas. But a simple scan of the book would leave you with a very worrying impression: that he's anti-locavore (or 100-Mile Diet), that he's pro-GMO (genetically modified organisms or Frankenfood), and that he is anti-organic.

McWilliams' argument needs to be understood at the outset and he gives an excellent and rewarding summary near the end of the book. If we are accepting of the prediction that our planet's population will reach 9 or 10 billion people by 2050, then we are going to have to rethink our cherished "green" ideals in order to feed everyone - and he proposes a way to do that that is also green and sustainable.

First, while eating local is a grand idea, McWilliams points out the obvious: not everyone can eat local and the 100-mile diet necessarily means a lot of compromise depending where you live, whether for climate or for sheer population numbers. Imagine a large city like Phoenix, Arizona having to live off the Arizona desert. Applied on a large scale, locavores appear to be isolationists that fail to account for the need to feed the world's poorest and over-estimate the actual costs of transportation compared to the ecological damage done to grow locally at any cost (high pesticide or fertilizer use).

Second, McWilliams argues that organic farming is also a luxury afforded to those who live in appropriate areas. If organic farming were applied on a scale needed to feed the masses (instead of just the wealthy), then we might be sacrificing actual wilderness in order to have sufficient land to grow organic food which (McWilliams argues) has much lower output than traditionally grown food.

Third, Just Food takes an optimistic view of GMOs, with no apologies for the way they have been used in their early days. Whether we like it or not, most of the corn and soy we consume in North America has been GM for some time. McWilliams suggests that with proper testing, appropriate controls, the benefits of GMOs far outweigh the potential risks. For example, Bt infused corn already uses far less pesticide than its traditional counterpart. McWilliams believes that irrational fear is holding us back from embracing and steering GMOs in a sustainable, eco-friendly direction. Worse yet, we're allowing multi-national corporations make these decisions without us.

These are some of the green community's sacred cows and McWilliams is tearing them down with some strongly compelling arguments. Tomorrow, I'll tell you what he proposes as a remedy to our growing need for food and how it can be done in a safe and sustainable way.

Have you read Just Food yet? Let me know what you think! Is McWilliams a Green Good Guy or a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing? Weigh in!

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