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Just Food

A challenge to current ideas about responsible eating.

By Rebekah Denn / September 2, 2009



It isn’t hard to agree with James McWilliams, in his deliberately provocative Just Food, when he compares challenging people’s ideas about what they eat to challenging ideas about their religion. But some of the other pronouncements in his book, subtitled “Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly,” are harder to swallow.

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McWilliams, an associate professor at Texas State University, spends much of the book’s early chapters attacking the trend of eating locally grown food, arguing that it is a form of “green lite” rather than a meaningful practice. He is attempting a valuable service – challenging pat assumptions, digging beneath slogans and oversimplifications – but starts the process in such a goading, patronizing way that he alienates the very audience that should be most receptive to his message.

He sets up a straw man – the idea that smug, elitist “locavores” believe locally grown food is the only solution to the world’s food woes – and proceeds, not surprisingly, to easily knock it down. McWilliams, himself a disillusioned former locavore, writes that he hopes to “expand the dialogue about sustainable food without causing yet another tawdry food fight between radicalized perspectives and opposing interest groups.” Unfortunately, his charged language sets up just the sort of parsnip-slinging he claims to oppose.

McWilliams writes, for instance, that he will “save the romantic rhetoric [about food] for the parlors of hobby farmers and seminar rooms of the chattering culinary classes.” Many consumers, he states, now turn up their noses at foods like “pigs that did not frolic across a verdant free range.” His cynicism toward farmers’ markets was spurred by observations such as “the baffling association between buying local food and dressing as if it were Haight-Ashbury circa 1968.” An emphasis on local foods, he writes, crowds out more complicated but accurate gauges of environmental good only because, in his view, it is as much about “identity politics and anticorporate angst” as it is “the realistic achievement of a more sensible system of food production.”

The bad taste this leaves in the mouth is a shame, because his other points are important and pressingly relevant, worthy of just the sort of nuanced debate he says he wants to encourage.

McWilliams provides some notable perspective on aquaculture (farmed fish), for instance, making the insightful point that it is a new enough field not to be intractably mired in poor practices. He covers broader issues surrounding genetically modified foods than are seen in typical “Frankenfood” debates.  And he vigorously pushes for reducing the amount of meat in our diets, a move that he correctly notes would save more energy than many other well-meaning dietary habits (as would, for instance, using more energy-efficient ways to cook).

He looks for a middle ground on issues from biotechnology to pesticides to agribusiness, arguing that the best efforts of well-meaning American consumers cannot feed a growing world – that their version of eating responsibly, in other words, is too narrow for global needs.

But the book is too broad to support more than a quick overview of all the major issues it raises, leaving McWilliams the luxury of taking a side while also acknowledging conflicting evidence. Reasonable people might well choose a different side in many of the controversies he covers.

The book’s breadth also does not leave room to fully discuss and debate some of the proposals it supports: Some international imports, for instance, may indeed be more energy-efficient today, as McWilliams argues – but the same may not hold true if decreasing oil supplies make transporting food around the world more costly. He cites a study showing it is more efficient for Londoners to import lamb from New Zealand than to raise lamb in England – but, as others have pointed out, that study compared grass-fed animals to grain-fed animals, an uneven comparison when it comes to energy use.

McWilliams dismisses as unrealistic ideas like discouraging population growth in arid American cities, but then asserts that genetically modified crops should lie in the hands of nonprofits rather than powerful corporations, a plan that seems equally implausible. His final manifesto, which calls for a complete redistribution of food subsidies and incentives, is intelligent – but, again, is as challenging a political goal as others that he pooh-poohs out of hand.

McWilliams’s impatience with those who have the narrow-minded luxury of cash and choice is understandable when he mentions a trip to Africa, where the raw hunger he saw made it seem “very wrong to me” to be worked up over “precious” foodie concerns. He is right to push for solutions that will benefit those in need. But it seems counterproductive to simultaneously belittle those already trying to make the best choices they can. In that, for all that McWilliams says he wants to rouse debate, he risks only stirring up the pot.

Rebekah Denn writes at eatallaboutit.com.

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