In the Rush to Solve Climate Change with Lab-Based Foods, Don’t Write off Farming

Farmers who take land stewardship seriously are a vital part of the climate change puzzle.



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.”

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Farmfree food, he writes, “will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale.”

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)

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  1. Monday, January 13th, 2020
    Great article but misleading when it comes to the US Farm Bill. Almost 80% of the $867 Billion (not trillion) goes to food nutrition, leaving $93 billion for crop insurance, $40 Billion for commodities, and $56 Billion on conservation. And let’s be honest insurance never makes you whole. So that’s $16 Billion more for conservation than commodities.
    A simple image search of the Farm Bill will show you what I’m talking about.
  2. Nancy P.
    Wednesday, January 15th, 2020
    There is not enough arable land of any kind to keep raising farmed animals in natural environments. Millions of wild lives are already killed to make way for animal and fowl farming. More farmed animals grazing also means more wild lives killed and natural ecosystems disrupted. We have no biological need to eat flesh, which actually damages our bodies. Farmed animals will still use exorbitant amounts of resources needed elsewhere.
    The only solution is a 100% plant-based diet. Plus, slaughtering animals is always violent and resource-intensive. A good life includes the opportunity to live free and free from human harm, the opportunity to live a natural life span, and to have a peaceful, natural death.
  3. Isabel Keener
    Friday, January 17th, 2020
    "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."

    What exactly are these realities of the natural world that lab grown meat would divorce our food from? Would it be less natural than tying a tight rubber band around the tails and scrotums of pigs and wait until they decay and fall off the animal? Or plying their teeth out as babies, both of which are done because the conditions of 99% of farms that provide the U.S. with meat drive them to insanity and they begin to cannibalize? Cutting off the beaks of birds? Blending baby chicks alive in a high-speed macerator because they are males and economically unprofitable?

    It's so frustrating to read arguments against ending animal agriculture that feel the need to glorify the torture we inflict upon sentient life, calling it "natural" because we get to cherry-pick when we want to refer to nature to justify our actions. A brutal reality is that there is no way to sustainably meet the demand for meat that exists today. We are nowhere near the point in which criticizing an "idealistic" approach to helping our environment is insightful or helpful in anyway given that the issue's surface has hardly been scratched. Before you write an article romanticizing the meat industry and dismissing a viable solution for people to continue having their tastebuds delighted without it entailing an animal to be tortured its entire life and killed as a child (a majority of farmed animals are killed prematurely), please watch this video all the way through http://watchthousandeyes.com/.
    • Ben Dunsmuir
      Saturday, January 18th, 2020
      I think her article is confusing because she lumps all agriculture into one bundle. When she speaks about how lab-food would move us further from a connection with the natural world, she is likely referring to how industrial agriculture has already moved us quite far in that direction. You're right, the only thing 'natural' in industrial factory farming is the life that's being exploited and destroyed. But truly natural farming that works in harmony with nature is a whole different thing and it is extremely important for people to return to the land to farm in regenerative, healthy ways. And I think the regenerative, healthy potential of farming is what she was trying to say was valuable and important. I didn't see her glorifying the meat industry in her article.
  4. Ben Dunsmuir
    Saturday, January 18th, 2020
    I have found compelling ideas in both Monbiot's article and in this well-written response to it. But let's make one thing clear first (which was woefully buried in Monbiot's original article): lab food is not going to be replacing fruits and veggies anytime soon (and hopefully never). So the farming that lab-food might begin to replace is currently some of the worst farming out there: massive scale mono-culture grains, corn, and soy, and worst of all: industrial meat production. A lot of these farmers have largely abusive relationships with nature while causing untold suffering to animals, so frankly, I'm on board with these barbaric practices being a thing of the past. So I do see a lot of potential that could be positive as long as the lab process truly is sustainable. But if their main food for the microbes is hydrogen, that does muddy the waters since the most common way of generating hydrogen is by steam reforming natural gas--and hydrogen is not exactly the easiest thing to come by or to handle. And then of course there's the uncertainty about human health and whether lab food will be guaranteed as safe before being recklessly mass produced. Sometimes changes in diet like this require 10 years to discover the full effects. We might just deprive a lot of people and not fully realize it, as we have done in the past as the nutrition-content of food continues to decline. Or we might accidentally increase cancer rates.

    Anyway, this does not really change the biggest unanswered question: how can we make healthy, ethical, regenerative farming financially sustainable? Whether it has to compete with Big Ag as it is or with lab-food--it still requires more people to return to the land and deepen into healthy, working relationships with nature. And when is that going to be affordable, let alone an attractive business model? The money has to come from somewhere. And real, regeneratively grown food shouldn't be affordable only to the rich; so does that mean tax dollar subsidies? Which politician is going to put that one forward? But it's either that or volunteer labor which a lot of farmers are already giving just to stay afloat. If enough people 'volunteered' to grow for themselves and didn't bother counting their hours because they were happy with the deeper fulfillment of it, things might start to look better, but that's an entire culture shift of back-to-the-landers. And who's got money for land?

    Another point: if these big farms start to collapse, what is *really* going to happen to that land? Is it magically going to be turned into healthy wild ecosystems protected from human exploitation? A lot of the land is debilitated, degraded, and poisoned. Any farmland that is abandoned near cities will likely get paved over. Other land might find new uses in industrial applications, mining, or the like. And some of it, if abandoned and given to climate change, would become desert. The thing is, this land *needs* us. And *we* need to reconnect with *it* or suffer an even greater extreme of severe disconnection.

    Farming used to be our immersion in nature. The natural world was our intimate home back when being human meant being a farmer. But now we think that a connection with nature is when we drive to the forest with our bagged lunches, walk around in plastic gear, take instagram photos, and return to the city again. When really, *farming* is the most powerful connection we can have with nature because it is our *working* relationship and it offers a series of profound wake up calls about what dependency truly means, and these lessons are taught to us in visceral, bodily ways that we don't easily forget. Full independence from nature, which our culture is obsessively pursuing, is a fantasy. And on the road to such a fantasy is a lot of death and deprivation. The sooner we can recognize that our health and happiness is intrinsically connected to life on this planet, the sooner we can start collaborating with a better world.

    So back to the point: if lab-food can sustainably take a weight off of the farming system then that could be a big positive change for the environment, and yes, there would be more land available for cultivating into regenerative systems. But the question still remains: who's going to champion these remediation and regeneration projects and how will they make a living while doing it? If the poor farmers doing the work have to settle for lab-paste while the rich elite get to eat the real food then we are looking at a dystopian future.