By Edward Nawotka
Is it more efficient and better for the environment to fly in your food from a far away country or is it better to have a local farmer truck it to your nearby farmers market? The answer seems obvious — the farmer, of course. But when you consider the fact that some foods are produced and shipped utilizing all the hyper-efficiencies of modern technology and some farmers still drive aging Ford F-150s and are growing trendy crops that are otherwise inappropriate for their land due to a profitable spike in demand for “local,” the picture becomes more muddled.
This is just one of the topics addressed by James E. McWilliams’ provocative and stimulating Just Food.
McWilliams’ book challenges the easy assumption that “food miles,” or the distance a product travels to your table, is an accurate way of assessing the damage a product makes on the environment. The true indicator is, he suggests, “life cycle assessment,” which indicates the total energy invested in production, processing, and transportation. McWilliams’ conclusion is that what’s best for you really depends on the crop you’re considering — and it’s this lack of willingness to generalize that makes the book both refreshing and, to some, contrarian.
One lesson you can apply immediately from his book — and a true villain to McWilliams — is the mass production of meat, which remains one of the most environmentally taxing of all food industries (it is also a point that bestselling foodie author Michael Pollan likes to underscore.) His recommendation — and this is not something you’ll often hear someone from Texas say — is to curtail meat consumption dramatically.
So, if you’re planning on firing up the barbecue and tossing on a big slab of middle-American corn fed beef to celebrate this Labor Day (provided you’re in the US today), you might just think twice and toss on some fruit and veg instead.
READ: An essay by McWilliams from the New York Times about food miles.
LISTEN: To an NPR interview featuring McWilliams and Pollan discussing sustainable agriculture.