Just Food Book Review
Just Food, by James E. McWlliams.
Book review by Jenny Calder
This book reinforces the fact that our food system is complicated! By by focusing on single issues
such as food miles, we may be ignoring other significant energy costs and environmental impacts
that occur in the process of bringing food to our plates.
McWilliams states that transport is approximately 10% of a food's overall energy cost, with other
energy costs coming from farming and cooking at home, etc.. Additionally, if everyone “ate local”,
we may cause large environmental impacts by trying to grow food in climatically unsuitable
McWilliams also argues that the dichotomy between organic and conventional food needs to
be dissolved. Used judiciously, chemicals and biotechnology can give large increases in farm
productivity, and the problem is often the dose, not the poison. Tillage is another big issue. As
organic farmers cannot use pesticides to kill weeds, there is often no choice but to plough, a process
which releases carbon, causes erosion is often more damaging to soil health than pesticides.
A strong argument in the book is that we must eat less red meat in order to achieve a sustainable
global food system. Even free range beef requires approximately 3 calories of fossil fuels to
produce 1 calorie of meat. Although this is not as bad as feedlot beef (which requires 33 calories),
it is still a negative energy budget. 1 calorie of grain, on the other hand, can be produced with
0.4 – 0.7 calories of fossil fuel. McWilliams is instead a proponent of freshwater aquaculture.
Significantly more protein can be produced from fish than land animals from the same energy input.
Freshwater aquaculture can be contained and integrated as part of a polycultural system, using the
waste water to irrigate and fertilise vegetables.
McWilliams argues that all food should be subjected to a life cycle analysis. This is far more in
depth than only food miles and would enable us to make more informed choices. He also argues,
that as food activists, one of the most important things we can do is to protest against perverse
subsidies in agriculture. Subsidies to large agribusinesses undermines the quest for a global
sustainable food system, with incentives to overproduce and ignore pollution. However there is
not reason why subsidies cannoy be environmentally beneficial and provide incentives for truly
sustainable food production, which huge challenge in this world of rapidly growing population.
At Source, we have always recognised that the food system is complicated and it is a challenge
to find the most sustainable and just food, which is also affordable. Presently we choose organic
and local where possible, because we believe they are the best choices within the current food
system. We also recognise that there are benefits beyond the energy costs, such as supporting
local growers. However we would certainly look forward to a time where we can more accurately
compare the sustainability of certain food types with life cycle analysis.