Like many of us, I have one eye permanently fixed on the climate crisis these days. As fires rage in Australia and deadly floods overwhelm parts of Indonesia and Israel, there’s an undeniable, urgent need for concrete, scalable solutions.
And because the food on our plate accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, rethinking what we eat, and how we produce it, is one logical place to turn.
But when Guardian environmental columnist George Monbiot argued yesterday that the solution is a near-total move toward laboratory-produced, “farmfree” food, it raised an enormous red flag for me.
In the piece, Monbiot describes a new fermentation technology that he says is poised to replace the vast bulk of the food we grow—from meat to dairy to grains—ushering in “the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years.”
Technology has a role to play in making our diets more sustainable, and some lab-based food may well help us shift away from the kinds of farms that are more destructive than beneficial. But, as I see it, writing off agriculture isn’t going to solve our problems; it might even make them worse.
Monbiot is an outspoken environmentalist who many in the conventional farm world are likely to dismiss before giving him their ear. But he has a major platform and he often offers cogent analysis of the climate crisis. (For example, this video he made with The Guardian in collaboration with Greta Thunberg is spot on.)
And when he wrote, in the op-ed, “nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife,” I know deep down that he’s not so far from the truth.
Here in the U.S., the trillion-dollar farm bill has made small moves toward sustainability, by routing more food to local producers and funding for research into organic agriculture, but the bulk of the money is still spent on maintaining a brittle status quo built on massive payments to commodity corn and soy producers who are increasingly vulnerable to climate change. Even the ongoing effort to tie subsidized crop insurance for commodity production (i.e., corn and soy) to mandatory conservation efforts that improve soil and water quality—seemingly a no-brainer—keeps failing to make it into the final bill.
And the only truly encouraging, hopeful agricultural policy I’ve seen is explicitly focused on farming in response to climate change.
Here in California, the state government has begun paying farmers to respond to the ecosystems they’re working with by building soil, preventing drought, and encouraging the growth of carbon sequestering perennial grasses. Four states (Vermont, Illinois, Nebraska, and New Mexico) passed healthy soils legislation in 2019, and at least another 20 are working on similar initiatives for 2020.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve worked with dozens of other reporters and editors to report on hundreds—now thousands—of farmers who work in concert with nature. They range from Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch and Lani Estill of Bare Ranch, who are both transforming their grazing operations using compost, carefully managed grazing, tree breaks, and riparian corridors, to Gabe Brown and other regenerative no-till farmers starting a potentially massive agriculture shift in the great plains, to Chris Grotegut, a Texas farmer who is bringing water back into the Ogallala Aquifer by managing carbon-rich grassland.
In the aforementioned video, Monbiot himself says, “Where nature is doing something vital, we must protect it.”
On all these farms, I can assure you nature is doing something vital. Many, many vital things at once, in fact. And agriculture isn’t something to dismiss; it’s one of the most important ways that humans interact with the natural world. It’s also, last I checked, still a huge part of what makes rural communities viable.
Does that mean all farms are moving toward sustainably? Not even close. Does it mean that farmers should be feeling loads of pressure to make their practices regenerative? Absolutely. (Hint: lots of them, even the really big ones, already do.)
But Monbiot’s idealistic image of laboratory-produced-food-as-panacea isn’t only simplistic, it’s dangerous. For one, it completely misses the potential of agriculture itself as a carbon sink. (The jury is still out on that one, but there have been several promising signs.) It also normalizes an approach to food that is further compartmentalized, and divorced from the amazing, complicated, frustrating, and at times brutal realities of the natural world.
These are realities that farmers know better than any of us. And while I realize that many also see fewer people and more technology as the best way to improve agriculture’s carbon footprint, I have a hunch it’s the other way around. The more people we have on the land, working to truly understand the intricacies of ecosystems through farming, the better chances we have of achieving an agriculture that both helps mitigates the coming climate emergencies, and prevents them from getting worse.
Monbiot’s call for tech-based solutions that replace actual farming should serve as a wake-up call for farmers and others who believe that agriculture has an important role to play in a sane, safe future. It should remind us that farmers and farmland are increasingly vulnerable in our modern world. And farming that incorporates environmental stewardship deserves our respect, attention, and protection.
His words are also a reminder that, for most people, a fixed (i.e., pristine) environment is an abstraction—not something they are actively endeavoring to create with their time, their focused attention, or their bodies.
On the other hand, nearly every time I’ve visited a farm lately, I’ve stood in awe of the effort it takes to steer food production in a direction that is more diverse and sustainable, and the grace with which so many brave people have made a commitment to doing just that.
Top photo: Lani Estill’s sheep grazing at Bare Ranch. (Photo by Paige Green for NRCS)