Can eating locally, organically hurt the environment? New book says yes

eating-locally-organically-might-hurt-the-environment-author-aAt first blush, James E. McWilliams' new book Just Food could be taken as an attack on three movements; eating locally, fighting genetically modified crops, and using organic farming practices. He argues that these three could be responsible for more, not less, damage to the environment.

Heresy? Perhaps. However, the author is neither a knee-jerk conservative nor one who bases his conclusions on hearsay. Just Food is a carefully researched, thoughtful presentation about what happens when our preconceptions collide with valid research. But lest you think that McWilliams is a toady of the status quo, he also includes a scathing take on the land meat industry as an ecological and economic nightmare, while expressing a surprising amount of hope for aquaculture.

McWilliams contends that eating locally can increase, rather than limit, the damage on the environment. Food miles, he writes, are only a small fraction of the environmental cost of what we eat. He makes a strong case that growing tomatoes in a Minnesota greenhouse in the winter, for example, requires more resources than growing them where they would best grow, even counting the cost of shipping. He also considers other factors often overlooked, such as the cost of replacing one weekly trip to a grocery store with several to farmers markets.

McWilliams makes the case for replacing the food miles metric with Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), which he describes as a full-body physical for the foods we eat. LCA takes into consideration water use, harvesting techniques, pesticide and herbicide use, storage, nitrogen cycles (nitrogen plays a central role in his book) and other factors. Add all those factors in, and his conclusion is clear: Small local farms can sometimes be an inefficient way to grow food, which not only uses more resources but drives the cost up for consumers.

The term "organic" is also of concern to McWilliams, when it means using alternatives to techniques and products such as pinpoint fertilization, no-till planting and herbicide applications. He makes several interesting arguments.

Organic farming, he points out, uses more acres and yields less, meaning more land, often less productive land, must be used. The products organic farmers use, such as zinc phosphide and rotenone, to replace man-made chemicals, are also often just as hazardous. Sodium nitrate, used to add nitrogen to the soil, is mined in South America, so it requires a lot of fossil fuel to deliver it to an organic field. Manure, the brown gold of the organic farmer, is also a product that requires a great deal of food to produce, is imprecise in its delivery, and poses risks to the environment.

He argues that synthetic fertilizers cannot be replaced without dramatically reducing the grain yield, something the world can't afford. However, he's not so concerned, because he feels that synthetic fertilizer is actually beneficial to the environment. Its precision and effectiveness allows more food to be grown on less acreage, thereby countering the spread of agriculture onto marginal lands or lands such as the Amazonian Rain Forest that are needed to maintain the world's biodiversity.

Many of the same concerns are addressed in his discussion of genetically modified foods. The alternatives to GM crops, he writes, all have their own environmental consequences, including lower yields and consequent hunger. He makes a compelling argument that one of the greatest long-term threats to the environment is the degradation of our topsoil by tilling. GM crops such as those bred to be resistant to Roundup could help save our most precious natural resource by allowing no-till planting.

For the most part, Just Food is written with concern and respect for those with opposing views, but in the section on the impact of red meat production, the author's passion shows through. McWilliams goes to great lengths to show how meat production squanders food, ruins land and drives the cost of what we eat up enormously. He follows up this argument with a round criticism of government price supports around the world, and how frequently they support products and practices that at are at odds with the world's long term best interests.

The most interesting section of Just Food, I thought, was on aquaculture. McWilliams argues that the raising of fish and crustaceans, while currently criticized for the pollution it generates, is an industry in its infancy. He believes that it could be refined into a highly efficient, sustainable and safe way to provide protein for the world diet.

What I took from this book is that these issues are controversial not just because of competing world views, but because the scientific evidence is still being collected. His arguments are mostly scientific and ecological, rather than economic and political, and therefore will feel incomplete to some readers. Nonetheless, McWilliams does a very good job of bringing believable information to the discussion, and his conclusions are thought-provoking. I'd suggest giving Just Food a taste.
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