Just (Choose Sustainable) Food

September 14th, 2009

Just Food
by James E. McWilliams
Little, Brown & Co.
272 pgs, Aug. 2009

In Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong And How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly, author James McWilliams insists that we must find more sustainable methods of food production to improve our health and the planet. Most of us willingly acknowledge this fact and have been trying to make more responsible choices by buying local products. McWilliams argues, however, that this is not enough.

Though local foods don’t waste fossil fuels in transport, they can sometimes use additional resources like water and electricity. It is important to ask how a product is made, rather than just assuming that it was produced responsibly because it was made close to home. We at Meatless Monday believe that locally produced foods are usually the best choice for the environment and your health, but we also encourage our readers to ask questions about the foods they plan to eat, whether they are found at the farmer’s market or the grocery store. Feel free to inquire about the water, electricity, fossil fuel and processing techniques used to produce and transport your groceries. Also ask growers what types of fertilizer and insect repellents they are using.

McWilliams and locavores alike make the case for reduced meat consumption. In Just Food, McWilliams is astounded by his findings but must conclude that “if the world continues to eat meat at current rates, there’s simply no way to achieve truly sustainable food production.” He notes that every major environmental issue that can be traced back to food has roots in meat production and urges readers to “treat meat like they treat caviar… something to be eaten rarely if ever.”

Even grass fed and free range meat options should not be consumed at current rates. McWilliams notes that even organically farmed meats result in a net energy loss, because it takes 3 calories of fossil fuel to produce 1 calorie of meat (compared to 33 calories of fossil fuel to create 1 calorie of meat using industrialized farming methods). Grains produce anywhere from 1.5 to 2.5 food calories for every calorie of fuel used, making them the most efficient use of land for food. Grass fed meat also requires pasture space, which takes away from local ecosystems and natural biodiversity.

The good news is that the amount of meat you consume is entirely your choice. “Unlike most other dietary decisions, this one can be completely controlled by the individual consumer.” McWilliams acknowledges that it can be difficult to cut back on meat products, and encourages readers to make gradual yet substantial efforts to reduce their intake. Having a Meatless Monday each week is a consistent way to reduce the amount of meat in your diet and take steps towards more sustainable and healthful food options.