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Eating locally not the answer to saving world

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Just Food
By James E. McWilliams
Little, Brown and Co., 222 pages, $29

It isn't easy telling people what they don't want to hear, but that is exactly what Texas history professor James E. McWilliams does in his latest book.

He attacks the locavore -- a person who seeks out locally grown and produced food -- and suggests their deep-rooted belief that local food can save the world is not only short-sighted but a luxury of the privileged western world.

In Just Food, McWilliams attempts to demonstrate how the local food movement has gotten it wrong. He argues that the transportation of our food is only a small fraction of the overall equation and that small farms idealized by the local food movement are not going to feed the 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050.

The author of three previous books, including A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, McWillams admits he was once a staunch believer in local food himself.

However, through his research he discovered that deciding what to eat is "too complicated to be managed through a primary reliance on food grown in proximity to where we live." For the true local foodie, some of what McWilliams suggests will incite gasps of horror.

For example, he details why organic isn't always better than conventional farming and why we shouldn't completely eschew genetically modified crops.

What McWilliams is mostly suggesting is that in the right hands, these tools that currently represent corporate oppression and environmental destruction could actually be the answer to our ever-increasing food crisis.

Where McWilliams fails is in his delivery. When Michael Pollan wrote The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), the current manifesto on local food, he revolutionized the way people thought about what they ate because he told such a convincing and compelling story.

McWilliams, on the other, hand appears to be talking down to his reader. He uses phrases such as "And you're thinking to yourself, Yawn" when he discusses things like vehicle telematics and transport collaboration being the "stuff of real environmental change."

It's as though he doesn't believe his readers are capable of being passionate or interested in the serious business of saving the planet and are only dazzled by flash slogans that can be put on bumper stickers.

When he states that no true environmentalist should eat meat, it's obvious McWilliams takes himself a little too seriously. Almost any environmentalist (of any shade) is already well aware of the costly environmental effects of meat production and McWilliams' "radical conclusion" is anything but.

However, by suggesting we practise moderation in the use of several current farming practices, McWilliams makes some interesting and even convincing arguments. His belief that eating locally could potentially lead to even more starvation in the developing world is one worth listening to.

Having once been on the side of the locavore himself, McWilliams also does an admirable job of addressing the arguments any locavore reading his book might have. While he does miss some of the finer points of why people seek out local fare, his own point is generally well made, balanced and rational.

For any locavores who have found themselves wondering if there is more to the equation, Just Food may offer one or two solutions.


Nisha Tuli is the co-founder of Slow Food Winnipeg and once lived on a completely local diet for six months.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 20, 2009 B9

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