Tag Archives: George Monbiot

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