The last time I was at the library, a book on the New in Non-Fiction shelf caught my eye: Just Food: Where Locavores Get it Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, by James E. McWilliams.
Wait, what? I thought local, organic food was the way to go. Naturally, I left with this book under my arm to find out more. In my view, what I learned is so important, I wanted to share it here. And yes, I do realize I just wrote a book report for fun. (Also, I’m not getting paid by anyone to share my opinions.)
McWilliams made a strong case for his views and supported his claims with thorough research. His argument is basically that with an exponentially-growing population, we ALL need to take advantage of every possible way to produce as much food as possible so we can feed everyone on the planet. Our population has exploded: the last 50 years alone saw the world population double. And it will continue to grow. We have all the tools we need to feed everyone, and we need to start using them wisely. It’s not enough to feed our own family at the expense of others who starve and at the expense of massive environmental degradation.
From here, McWilliams takes an in-depth look at the real impact of food miles, organic and conventional farming, GM foods, chemical use, tillage impact, meat production, fish production, and in general, every angle of food production to evaluate the best ways to feed the billions (and billions more) people who populate our planet.
When I read this book, it really opened my eyes to the food crisis underway. It’s much larger than anything local eating would be able to get us out of.
Let’s start with the idea of eating local. It’s often touted that food travels an average of 1500 miles from “farm to fork,” as they say. The idea is that eating food only grown locally (and what exactly does local mean anyway?) seriously cuts down on fuel usage. But there are several issues beneath the surface here. First, this assumes that the food you’re getting at your local farmers market was grown without a lot of unnecessary energy usage in the first place. McWilliams argues that local food is not a viable option in certain cold climates (one who eats locally either couldn’t eat during the winter, or the community will need to build local energy-consuming canneries or hothouses). Additionally, places that have limited water supply (think the dry Southwest US) need to import water to grow local food, which defeats the purpose of reducing energy use through transportation. In many cases, shipping in food is much more efficient than other options.
We need to keep in mind that “geography is not democratic. Growing water-intensive crops in a desert, raising cattle in a cleared rainforest, planting drought-resistant crops in a wetland are all examples of environmentally illogical decisions. An environmentally sound food system is one in which productive endeavors naturally gravitate to geographical locations where the impact on resources in minimized. In other words, producers produce in the right places” (p. 196). Often, eating all locally all the time is uneconomical and nonsensical as far as environmentalism is concerned.
Actual distance is one small factor, but it’s being made into the be-all-end-all of food production. The life cycle assessment (LCA) is the much better evaluator for how energy efficient things are. LCAs take into account the big picture, and within this big picture food miles account for about 11% of fuel energy usage in food production, the lowest of all the energy inputs.
Here’s the breakdown (pp. 25-26):
- Food production and processing 45.6%
- Consumer preparation 25%
- Restaurant food preparation 15.8%
- Food transportation 11%
Truly concerned consumers should improve their own cooking efficiency, waste less food at home, walk or ride a bike to purchase food, avoid processed foods, eat out less, and work to push organizations to tackle the bigger issues of food production and distribution before worrying about food miles.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t buy local food; we should, but with concern to what grows naturally in the area, with the least need for energy inputs and excess resources. But we should also realize that just buying local food does very little to actually change the way food is produced, and undermines our ability (as a planet) to feed our increasing population.
Most of the eat local movement is based in retaliation against big corporations and big agribusiness. However well-intentioned this may be, it does little to change the government subsidies that keep agribusiness going and does little to push the USDA to be more concerned with its citizens’ safety than with big corporate profits. Additionally, local food grown with environmentally sound processes is only affordable to the “elite few who have the time and money to buy produce from a transparently sustainable farm. Therefore, instead of fostering a community free of competition and greed, local food could just as easily highlight and perpetuate a community’s stark, sometimes bitter differences” (p. 34). And this split between haves and have-nots doesn’t change the larger system, but perpetuates further dependence on it by those who can’t afford other options.
Something else I learned: with regard to produce, organic isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. Many people think “organic” equates to “chemical-free,” but that isn’t the case. Often, the “natural” herbicides and pesticides can be more harmful than the synthetic ones, and need more frequent applications as well. Additionally, organic farming requires increased tillage of the land, which contributes to much more soil erosion. And on a global scale, organic farmland produces up to 50% less crop per acre than conventional farming practices. If we truly aim to feed everyone on the planet and not just the elite, we need to continue searching for other options.
Perhaps the biggest drain on energy by far is eating meat. Meat production is an energy black hole, in every stage. Extensive energy goes into producing animal feed (which animals aren’t supposed to eat anyway), animals release considerable amounts of methane gas (a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) and give much less energy in food than they take in. Even grass-fed free range animals take lots of energy, produce even more methane than grain-fed animals, and the large amount of land they need to graze makes all that land unusable to grow crops. What’s more, when the animals are done with that land, it’s so badly trampled, it can’t be used for growing produce. Anyone who is interested in making one single change to help alleviate our food crisis should stop eating land-based animals. That will make a much bigger difference than eating locally ever can.
“Going local, in light of it all, is akin to making sure that everything is fine in our own neighborhood and then turning ourselves into a gated community” (p. 12). This comment really resonated with me. I’m not concerned about environmental issues for personal gain, but for the benefit of everyone. Therefore, this is exactly the kind of system I don’t want a part in. Now that I’m equipped with more information rather than broad assumptions, I can ask the right questions at my farmers market to make sure I’m making the most environmentally sound choices I can, whether it’s buying locally or not.
I know this was kind of long, but it really only scratches the surface of the information presented in this book. I strongly encourage anyone interested in environmentally sound food production to give it a read.
I’ll leave you with one last quote that really struck me:
“Most of the world wants food, just food, and if we don’t figure out how to produce that food in a sensible and sustainable manner, one that honors future generations, our localized boutique obsessions are going to appear comically misguided (and downright tragic) to future historians” (p.14). The task ahead is truly immense.