Just Food ... and a Few Hard Truths

09/28/2010 09:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In the days of contaminated produce and factory-farmed meat, it's comforting to seek out simple, transparent food sources. But according to James McWilliams, author of Just Food, embracing a quaint relationship with what we eat often inhibits a necessary exploration of the challenges facing global sustainability. According to McWilliams, supporting small-scale farms and eating close to the source are but minor gestures in what must be a complex, global re-examination of food production and distribution. As comforting as the Saturday morning market may be, McWilliams (himself a former local food advocate) urges us not to become so satisfied with our decision to eat locally that we no longer seek an understanding of the requirements for long-term sustainability without borders. Food security--globally, economically and environmentally--is only possible via the continued application and development of food technology. Anyone who cares about where her food comes from has bitten the proverbial apple: a passionate locavore is responsible for developing a greater knowledge of the food system, even (perhaps especially) when the answers are complex and intimidating.

Although Just Food investigates many components of the science of sustainability, McWilliams' deconstruction of organic farming and genetic modification are especially compelling, especially because both topics inspire rigorous debate, frequently unsupported by scientific evidence. According to McWilliams, the belief that eating locally is the ultimate act of sustainability often leads to willful ignorance, and a convenient disregard the more complex questions facing the food system at large. Even if it seems that farmers' markets and organic food have a stronger presence than ever, chemical application and genetic modification continue to define food on the global scale. It's much harder to accept the changes McWilliams suggests than those championed by Alice Waters, but ultimately, one argument bases itself in a global reality, while the other exists in a rarefied world of privilege and untenable idealism.

In fact, as far as McWilliams is concerned, the fewer farms, the better: the idea is not to create more organic outposts, but to reign in agriculture as much as possible. The best way to farm is therefore the most efficient, so that less land goes towards crop production. (This argument assumes, of course, that it doesn't go towards strip-malls either.) McWilliams quotes several scientific journals and researchers who state that organic output requires anywhere from 25-200% more land for conventional farming's equivalent yields. He does note that under ideal circumstances, with the right crops, proper rotation and an ideal climate, organic production could potentially exceed conventional output. But perfect circumstances have never been, and will never be, the norm for the majority of the worlds' food producers. Striking a balance between yields and limited land-use should be the goal in an increasingly hungry, increasingly crowded world.

McWilliams recognizes that the status-quo of conventional farming is also flawed and suggests that modern food producers have an opportunity to use both, "Judicious and conservative systems of chemical application" that can ultimately produce, "50 percent more food on the same land by 2050." Among the changes he suggests is the use of NUE or "nitrogen uptake efficiency," which could vastly cut down on the pollution caused by conventional farming. Although American cities boast successful and organic food production in increasing numbers, the developing world has little regard for alternative methods. "Fifty percent of all nitrogen leached into the world's soil comes from Chinese farmers," McWilliams writes, noting that, "there is no cohort currently less predisposed to go organic." Until the farmers in Northern California can convince their Chinese brethren of the superiority of their methods, McWilliams asks, "Doesn't reform seem a lot more likely than revolution?"

The author also makes a convincing case for genetically modified crops, noting that most people who are against their application are uncomfortable with what "'Frankenfoods' vaguely represent--corporate greed and global exploitation." But, he argues, this stymies NGOs, "and other public-interest institutions, not to mention ethically incentivized corporations, which could use it to further the ideals of regional agriculture, broader productivity, agricultural diversity and global food security." McWilliams addresses the fear of what genetically modified food represents: unknown technology with unanticipated consequences. He notes, however, that of the 2 billion acres of currently planted GM crops, "none of the predicted health consequences have resulted." Like lots of new technologies, genetic modification seems intimidating and mysterious. But like so many scary advancements before it (consider the airplane), GM may eventually become a necessary and customary way of life. In addition to feeding greater numbers of people, genetically modified foods have the ability to lessen chemical and pesticide use and vastly cut down on the need for tilling, which in turn reduces soil erosion. As McWilliams explains, farming practices that reduce or eliminate tillage, "preserve the soil's microbial nutrients, enhance local water quality, lessen fertilizer usage, increase biodiversity, limit agricultural sprawl and sequester more carbon, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions."

Just Food explores a multitude of other possibilities for achieving sustainability in the global food system, including increased vegetarianism and improved aquaculture. The book offers the much-needed perspectives of those asking hard questions about food science and policy. The depth of McWilliams' scientific research is hardly illustrated by this brief synopsis, though the author himself admits that grey areas in science and food production will always remain. Ultimately, he concludes that there is no single way to achieve long-term sustainability. Instead, food producers must work to marry the best aspects of a variety of farming techniques, both traditional and modern. As consumers, we cannot support or encourage such practices without a firm knowledge of the science and sacrifices inherent in feeding an increasingly crowded world. It isn't wrong to support local or organic farmers, as long as we are not lulled into a belief that such efforts are all that is required to tackle the challenges of creating sustainability worldwide.