Category Archives: Farming

Is farming finished?

Bad things are usually done by people who think they are doing good things. Bad things are almost everywhere done by people who imagine that they are acting for the benefit of humanity. I was reminded of this recently by the apparent convergence of views about the future of farming from both the right and the left of the political spectrum. 

First, let’s take a look at the perspective from the left. The vegan environmentalist and campaigning journalist, George Monbiot, has been very much in the public eye recently, using a TV programme on the UK’s Channel 4 together with an appearance at the Oxford Real Farming Conference and an article in The Guardian to set out his views on the future of farming and food production.

In his TV programme, Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet, Monbiot argues the biggest problem driving us towards global disaster is how we feed ourselves, particularly on meat. He instances the ways in which agriculture, particularly the rearing of animals for meat and milk, has rid the UK of the trees and shrubs vital for a thriving ecosystem. Grazing sheep prevent tree saplings from growing, cattle emit greenhouse gases and take up land that otherwise could be re-wilded for the benefit of nature and animals, as has been demonstrated at Knepp Castle in West Sussex. Monbiot also says that English cows in conventional farming systems are fed on imported food based on palm oil kernels and soya; and thus our consumption of meat is an indirect contributor to the devastation of rainforests in other parts of the world. What is more, fertiliser, excrement and pesticides leach into rivers causing toxic algae blooms, the planet faces a soil fertility crisis, and we do not have enough space to feed a growing population. 

Monbiot believes that the existential threat posed by runaway global warming necessitates a radical reimagining of food production, as part of which we must get away from the idea of ‘farming with the grain of nature’. He argues that, to save humanity, we must stop raising animals in fields and instead, produce protein and other nutrients in laboratories. He visited a lab in Helsinki in which a company called Solar Foods grows a flour-like substance from water, air and bacteria alone. The process does require electricity, but with the rise of renewable energy, this could also be sustainable. Currently, the resulting product is ready to be used as a flour-substitute.  The programme showed Monbiot eating a pancake made from the stuff, and saying that it tasted no different from one made with conventional flour and eggs. The scientists say that, in the future, bacteria will be modified so as to produce the proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs.

This is of course a step further even than current lab-grown meat experiments, which Monbiot says are less than ideal because they still require crops to be grown and valuable land utilised in order to ‘feed’ the proteins. Monbiot argues that the subsidies currently provided to farms by the government should continue, but be directed into re-wilding and tree-planting projects instead. 

On the morning of 8th January, the day that Apocalypse Cow was to be broadcast, I listened to an interview that Monbiot gave to Charlotte Smith for BBC Radio 4’s Farming Today programme. She asked him why he thought the future was going to be about synthetic food. He replied that farming had served humanity well for the past 12,000 years but that the Agricultural Age was coming to an end, because factory food was going to be much cheaper. Casein, whey and milk proteins (which constitute only 3% of the contents of milk) are now starting to be made at very low cost in factories and as a result dairy farming won’t be profitable any more. By the middle of this century, most farming in the world will have gone the same way.  People like cheap food and what he called “farm-free food” will be much cheaper than farmed; meat, for example, will be made in factories on what he called “collagen frameworks” from fermented water and soil microbia. For farmers, this will be like the closure of coal mines was for miners and his advice to them was “Get Out Now.” 

Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference later on the same day, Monbiot said:

“I don’t think I’m going to make many friends here today. We are on the cusp of seeing one of the greatest technological advancements for years.  We’re about to see a shift of food production from farm to factories. Farming to fermentation. Farming as we practice it today is not resilient. The shift from the farm to factory, much as you may hate it, comes in the nick of time. The only sector to be unaffected will be fruit and veg. The environment will be absolutely minimal. The best news humanity has had for a long time. I want there to be a way out for farmers, and a massive restoration of nature”.

And it’s here where we begin to see a convergence of views between Left and Right. Both sides believe that technology will save us from ourselves. Here, for example, is Dr Madsen Pirie, a founder and current president of the neo-liberal think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, in an article written for Free Market Conservatives:

“One of the most promising (technological innovations) is the move to create farm-free foods, ones that promise to greatly reduce the massive environmental footprint that farming makes. A paper I co-authored 17 months ago explored the development of cultured (“lab-grown”) meats, pointing out that the price reduction since its inception means it is poised to compete commercially with animal-grown meat, but using only 1% of the land, and leaching no fertilisers or pesticides into the environment, nor releasing methane into the atmosphere.The meat is cultured from a few animal cells that are fed with nutrients to produce what could be tons of meat. Scientists have managed to give it the texture and taste of animal meat. 

This year the Finnish firm, Solar Foods, revealed it has created protein “from thin air,” combining hydrogen split from water with atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrogen to enable soil bacteria to produce a protein flour they call “solein.” This is done more efficiently than plants grown with photosynthesis, and could within a decade compete with soya on price, without requiring land cleared from forests to grow on.

These developments raise the prospect of using only a fraction of current farmland to meet future food demands, leaving the way clear to reforest and “rewild” much of the land currently needed for agriculture. They herald an agriculture revolution as profound as that which happened 12,000 years ago, when humans shifted from being hunter-gatherers to using crops and animal husbandry as their main food sources.

There will be a massive impact on the agricultural industry, as there are with many technological innovations, but the development will generate the wealth that can deal with this. The biggest impact, however, will not be upon the industry, but upon the planet, as we vastly reduce the footprint that agriculture makes upon it. As so often, it is the unlimited resource, that of human creativity and ingenuity, that is solving the problems.”

One irony in all of this is that many advocates of sustainable farming largely agree with Monbiot’s diagnosis of what ails conventional farming. Here, for example, is Richard Young, policy director of the Sustainable Food Trust: 

“The SFT agrees with almost all of George’s genuine concerns about the impact of intensive agriculture and the serious threat from global warming. But strongly disagrees with him about grazing animals, which we see as central to the development of sustainable food systems, especially in countries like the UK where grass grows exceptionally well and over half our farmland is unsuitable for cropping”.

Young also pointed out that Monbiot has built his position on exaggerated claims, occasional misquoting of a source and global statistics not relevant to the UK.  

Nir Halfon, from Plaw Hatch Farm in Forest Row, has written an excellent account of his experiences at the ORFC, including listening to the debate in which George Monbiot took part. Nir concludes his piece as follows:

“In Biodynamics, we stand by the important role which livestock has to the farm organism. We recognise the importance for them to live in alignment with their essence and character. For them to be able to experience their true nature. Imagine the landscape without cows or sheep grazing in fields or pigs rooting in woodlands. How would that look like? The land needs these animals to maintain itself and keep it fertile.

Clean air, water, shelter and food are the most important human needs. Over the years farms have become solely food production systems. This industrial food producing has had a big part to play in causing the social and environmental issues we face today. In my opinion, local, small, mixed (biodynamic) farms offer all the solutions for these issues; this needs to be highlighted in the media and the British public.”

As I indicated at the beginning of this piece, the adversarial spiritual forces work through the good intentions of human beings. Scientists, technologists – and, yes, environmentalists – are particularly vulnerable.

What both Monbiot and Pirie appear to be blind to is that food is much more than just fodder for our bodies. I have written more about this here. To quote from that piece:

“ Today we still think of food as primarily a kind of fuel for our engines; and therefore we are still without a science that can distinguish the innate qualities of foods beyond their value as fuel. Conventional medicine recognises only the physical aspect of food, which mainly amounts to counting calories and identifying the material nutrients such as protein, fat, carbohydrates etc. But are foods a mere assembly of matter – or is there something more, such as an invisible life-energy, and a coherent, ordered template conveying essential information? (…)

…when we first put food into our mouths, what happens is that the subtle energy of the food enters into our subtle body. The food first gives us its life, its wealth of information, its capacities, its knowledge, its order force (life design principle), its memories and experiences. All these are stored in the subtle body of the food. Foods are in fact highly developed information systems that sustain life. Foods are, of course, also fuels for our engine but only at the very end of the digestive process, and after our organism has first used the food in many other ways.”

Does anyone imagine that the orange froth turned into a flour substitute in Helsinki has any subtle energy or life force left within it?

Of course, health problems won’t become apparent until people have been eating such stuff for some time. What I suspect is that richer people will continue to eat real food which nourishes body, soul and spirit and keeps alive the possibility of accessing the non-physical side of human nature; while the poor will be strongly encouraged and incentivised to eat this new factory ‘food’ which will gradually deprive them of the ability to perceive anything other than the material. We shall then see what Rudolf Steiner foresaw in this blackboard drawing:

It depicts the bifurcation of the human race into those who have the potential to know, and those who will no longer have access to knowing, what it truly means to be a human being. If farming is finished, this will be our future.


Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Farming, Organic vs Non-Organic Foods

Food for thought

In March 2009, Professor John Beddington, who was at that time the chief scientific adviser to the UK government, forecast a “perfect storm” of food, energy and water shortages by the year 2030. Jonathon Porritt, the then chairman of the UK’s Sustainable Development Commission, was less optimistic than Beddington and predicted that 2020 was more likely. At the time of writing, we are now more than halfway through 2017 so the predicted crunch point is between three and thirteen years away.

Of course, these warnings are only useful if they are able to nudge governments and people into taking co-ordinated action prior to the crunch. Once the crunch point has arrived, no more preparation is possible – crisis prevention then has to give way to crisis management. So far, unless plans are being made in secret in Whitehall, there has been a deafening silence from government. I see no preparation and no awareness – but plenty of signs of crisis.

These signs include climate change and the increasing frequency of extreme weather events; a shrinking land area as the seas rise; and heat, drought and flooding affecting the land that remains. As the oceans acidify, they will less and less be able to provide food or remove carbon. Keystone species such as bees and plankton will continue to die off; and the depletion of the humus and mineral content of our farmland soils will go so far that we will no longer be able to rely on future harvests.

In the face of accelerating disasters such as these, we could begin to see events moving out of the grasp of governments; and if, as seems likely, we are unable to make enough changes to avert the worst environmental effects, this will be followed by economic and social fracture, the breakdown of law and order and large movements of refugees from those parts of the world devastated by climate change and war. Hand in hand with this, much of the infrastructure on which we rely to provide food, water and energy will start to fall apart. Professional skills, such as those needed to prevent disasters in the privatised nuclear industry, may no longer be available.

The ways in which the descent to chaos could develop are so varied that governments seem paralysed by the sheer scale of the problems. As the crisis bites, so will the scale of unemployment; and this in turn will mean that government tax revenues become so reduced that they can no longer support the unemployed, or pay for fundamentals such as education, health and law and order. In the UK, we are seeing early signs of this in the way the government is changing the rules about the state pension, meaning that people will now have to work until they are 68 before they can expect to receive it. As the crisis deepens, the rest of us will also be finding it harder and harder to pay our way, and necessities such as food and even water supplies could be hard to get. The social contract between government and people will eventually be broken.

In an uncomfortable kind of way, all of this may be good news. Communities will have to find out how to provide such things for themselves, or do without. All of us will need to re-discover our locality and local skills, and build a new culture of community to take us through. The power of unfettered capitalism, which now seems so inescapable, may become as irrelevant tomorrow as the divine right of kings seems to us today. The shock of this descent will leave nothing in our lives unchanged. It is probable that we cannot now avoid it, but with determination and courage it can be managed, its worst effects averted, and it can be made survivable. It will be our species’ most difficult challenge ever, but also our greatest opportunity.

Turning now to one aspect of this rapidly approaching crisis, how can we secure our food and farming systems for the future? Conventional industrial agriculture is the short-sighted and short-lived product of abundant cheap energy, which has made it possible for a small number of farmers and landowners and industrial food processors to operate on a very large scale, using industrially-produced fertilisers and pesticides, while also requiring the elimination of natural ecosystems which get in the way. It has brought the whole supply chain, from seed production to supermarket checkout, under the control of a few very large companies.

But glyphosate and genetically modified crops etc have led agri-biz into a technological trap: large-scale monoculture means that the crop is highly vulnerable to pests and diseases, since there is no local ecosystem to support predators or resistance. Agri-biz cannot now do without these chemicals, but continuing to use them brings many other problems, such as the steep decline in soil fertility, the absence of pollinating insects, or the introduction of neuro-toxins into our food. Could the bees be telling us something about the consequences for our own health?

What’s more, concentrating agriculture into just a few giant food production centres removes all our defences against the spread of catastrophic crop failures, as well as any security we may have against famine. The claim that centralised industrial agriculture is the only way of feeding large populations is about as scientific as a belief in the literal truth of the Bible, but rather more damaging. Nor will technological fixes help. Their only effect will be to put off for a time the inevitable consequences, so that the breaking point, when it comes, will be as devastating as possible.

So what options do we have? Where does true food security lie? My own sense is that we need to re-discover localism. Hundreds of small farms and CSA schemes, growing healthy and nutritious food for their local communities, is surely much more sustainable than relying on the toxic, glyphosate-drenched prairie monocultures of conventional industrial agri-business.

Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said at a recent international conference in the USA:

“… at a time when governments are beginning to take action on pollution in transport, with plans for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars by 2040, food producers remain largely financially unaccountable for the terrible damage that current systems are inflicting on the environment and public health.

Mechanisms that could exist to allow future food pricing to be more honest include the introduction of ‘polluter pays’ taxes on chemical fertilisers and pesticides and the redirection of farm subsidies in such a way that producers whose systems of production sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide and improve public health are rewarded for these benefits.”

At the same conference, Tyler Norris of the Institute for Mental Health and Wellness, highlighted how the declining nutritional quality of food has an economic cost. In the US, nearly 18 cents of every dollar is spent on health care services.

Other hidden costs exposed by scientists and economists in the proceedings included:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US is so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits;
  • air pollution from CAFOs are shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby; (a CAFO is a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, as an animal feeding operation —a farm in which animals are raised in confinement—that has over 1000 “animal units” confined for over 45 days a year)
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

All these and other costs are ultimately paid for by taxpayers and society in hidden ways, which include general taxation, insurance, water charges and reduced quality of life. Cheap food comes at a high cost to all of us.

As it happens, Patrick Holden is a graduate of Emerson College at Forest Row in the UK, where I currently work. It was Emerson College which, in an astonishing act of public altruism, donated the land now farmed by Tablehurst Farm to St Anthony’s Trust, a local charity whose charitable objectives include the training of biodynamic farmers and growers. This has had the radical effect of removing the Tablehurst farm land from being a tradeable commodity, and allows the farmers to do their work without having huge amounts of mortgage debt around their necks. I also work at Tablehurst, and to my mind it is an inspiring example of a farming model which offers great hope for a sustainable and much happier future.

On behalf of John Swain, a film-maker in the States who is putting together a project around issues of farm ownership, community farms and access to land for young farmers, I recently interviewed several people who were involved with the early days of Tablehurst Farm and the transfer of the land from Emerson College to St Anthony’s Trust. You can hear these interviews, and/or read the transcripts, here. I hope you will enjoy listening to them, as well as finding some food for thought about the future of farming.



Filed under Agriculture, Biodynamic farming, Climate change, Community, Farming, Localism