Does the Source of Food Matter?

A new book argues that we need genetically modified crops and non-local food supplies. Reviewer and farmer Richard Oswald sees "pragmatism" differently.

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Book review
Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly
By James E. McWilliams
258 pp. Little, Brown and Co., 2009. $25.99.

James McWilliams labels himself a “food centrist.” In his book Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, he writes that reasonable conclusions about what we should eat and where our food should come from lie “somewhere in that dull but respectable place called the pragmatic center.”

McWilliams uses statistics to bolster his centrist views, as when he points out that the global population has increased from 450 million people, when Columbus made landfall in the Caribbean, to nearly 7 billion human souls now. At the current rate of expansion, McWilliams says, by the year 2050, inhabitants of our world will have increased maybe another 30%, to about nine billion.

McWilliams writes that feeding all those people can’t be done locally. More pointedly, he calls local food systems the equivalent of “gated communities.”

“The elephant in the locavore’s room,” according to the author – a historian —  is that we have already utilized the low hanging fruit of our richest resources, claimed the best land, made the easiest choices, and performed the easiest work. McWilliams would do away completely with most cattle. He calls cattle an ecological disaster that are beneficial neither for feeding the hungry nor for sustaining the planet as a whole. Their manure is a major source of pollution, and, compared to plants, they use nitrogen inefficiently.

Cattle might also be responsible for forest fires, according to one of the author’s quoted sources. Maybe Smokey the Bear should eat fewer picnic lunches and more beef —  though that might be tough for a local guy like Smokey: U.S. beef cattle numbers today are 97 million head, down from 135 million head in 1975.

With herd numbers down, how have we been able to increase our beef consumption here in the U.S.? Simple — by accessing beef supplies across more and more food miles, brought to us primarily by non-local big corporate food. Neither hogs nor poultry rate much higher on McWilliams list. Another source quoted in his book states, “If people stopped eating meat, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa would be returned to forest and grassland.” 

So we have a hungry world, but we should idle some of the most productive farmland on Earth? That might be a little unrealistic.

Some global food advocates might argue that crop land in the Buffalo Commons areas of the Great Plains should be converted back to unpopulated preserves, (I wonder what the carbon footprint of a buffalo herd is?) while more vegetable and fruit production returns to the Midwest—or China–from dry California. You see, water is another big problem for food production in many of the faraway places where food is sourced now.

Drought resistance — along with pest control and herbicide tolerance – is the most advertised advantage of GMO crops. While at least one seed company, Monsanto, claims to be developing GMO drought-resistant crops, no one has as yet come up with any real accomplishment in that area. Crops still need rain to grow. Just the same, McWilliams feels that GMOs hold the key to abundant production and will limit pesticide use.

USDA/ERS
Farmers in Minnesota and Wisconsin adopted BT corn (the seed infused with pesticide) rapidly between 2000 and 2005.

But he fails to acknowledge the price of those inbred pesticides to farmers both here and abroad, and ignores that we now produce more pounds of pesticide within our crops than we ever applied to them when insects were killed with conventional insecticides. While those chemicals were long gone by the time the crop was picked, today enough BT exists in each kernel of corn that a simple litmus-type test can detect it. BT is consumed both by the farm animals and people who eat the corn.

Is that dangerous over time? No one knows for sure, but we eat it just the same.

Life cycle assessments (LCA), it says in the book, are most relevant to food, not where food comes from. How environmentally damaging a food system is and how deficiencies are corrected without limiting food availability are what counts. McWilliams points to a LCA study that concluded fuel consumption by ocean fishers using beam trawlers could be cut to one fifteenth simply by switching to seines instead of dragging weighted nets across the ocean floor. Beam trawlers that disrupt ocean habitat and spawning beds have been a source of environmentalist disdain for years because they indiscriminately scoop up every thing from the ocean regardless of whether they have use for it. (Seines would do much the same without destroying spawning beds.) They are also the bane of local family fishermen, like the New England Hook Fishermen, who catch and keep only the most desirable food fish without doing any ecological damage.

But McWilliams doesn’t mention them.

Wellfleet oysters served at the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fisherman’s Ball, Chatham, Massachusetts

As any good debater knows, the way to win an argument is not by promoting the other guy’s views. McWilliams the centrist really has little good to say about local food until he gets around to aquaculture. “Aquaculture operations,” he states, “can be more easily incorporated into areas that are unsuited for other forms of food production.” In fact aquaculture is about the only locavorian pursuit he promotes.

When I read McWilliams’s advocacy for freshwater aquaculture, it reminded me of so many other farm products that have become the raw commodity from which corporate food chains manufacture our food. It seems so easy to say that fish are the answer, but I have witnessed over the years the grinding and reforming of chicken, pork, and beef, the camouflaging of our food so that the original product is unrecognizable. I’m talking about chicken nuggets, preformed pork cutlets, or hamburger patties made from meat scraps gathered from across state lines and national boundaries. If they could see these foods in their original form, consumers would never buy them let alone eat them. So manufacturers make these food products look like something else.
 
Is it so hard to imagine that the same thing can come to aquaculture?

Sausage is always best when made by the people who plan to eat it.

A recent New York Times article (October 4, 2009) tells about contaminated beef that led to the food borne illness ultimately responsible for paralyzing Stephanie Smith from the waist down. All she’d done was eaten a hamburger. Our current food system readily trades profits for the health of some consumers, because food inspection fails to hold large corporations truly accountable. Corporations have become responsible for much of our food manufacture and distribution, and both they and our government accept that fact as reality.

A banquet of local Wisconsin foods, served last April in Eau-Claire, included parsnip apple soup, chicken and wild rice casserole, acorn squash, and more.
At some point in the corporate food model, profit always seems to trump consumer health and safety. Some foreign food companies recently took tainted food to new heights of disgust with things like melamine and lead, but our own domestic food oversight relies more on corporate integrity than practical enforcement of broken rules. As the banking crisis pointed out to us, it is a rare corporation where integrity exists at every level.

Do food miles matter? McWilliams says no.

In World War II, did it matter to Europe if food wasn’t available locally? Did it matter to the people of West Berlin during 1948 when East Germany blockaded the city? Would food miles matter if we have another oil crisis like the one in 1973 when OPEC stopped exporting oil to the US?

Without a doubt, they would.

Did they matter when giant livestock producers started producing hogs in the southeastern US and found that soymeal from South America was cheaper than the domestic product located hundreds of miles closer?

Only to their profits.

During times of war or crisis, having an abundant food supply located 1000 miles away from the people who need it is like saying a drowning man has plenty of air to breathe — he just has to figure out a way to get it.

Corporations haven’t managed to gain control of our air, but if they do, be prepared to breathe from a long distance, because profits earned for essential services are best concealed by a shell game that begins with hiding both profits and partners.

Some books leave me hungry for more, this book does not. I believe the world has many exciting possibilities when it comes to food, but the most exciting food, the food I like best, still comes from the fruit trees in my front yard, our home garden, and even the farm pond in the pasture where our cattle graze. While only a portion of what we eat originates from those places, for me they are still the best, most trusted places on earth.

For any reader who’s hungry for data, who believes as James McWilliams does that the stuff we fuel our bodies with is ‘Just Food,’ this book is a cornucopia of facts and figures. It is realistic to a point but disappointing, for what it fails to say; that clean water and air combined with a source of wholesome local food are just as essential to human life on earth as having people to grow it.

 

Topics: Food
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