Monbiot Attack - Real or Ruse?
Can we eat our way out of environmental collapse? In the wake of January’s Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) we’ve been asking ourselves this question again and again. Although full of absorbing talks and seminars, the memorable thing about this year’s conference was George Monbiot’s unprecedented moral attack against the UK farming industry that he delivered to a crow
ded hall on the final day. The basis of his censure; that lab-grown food will “save the planet” and replace the defunct land-based global farming system, was largely rejected by the crowd. For those more heavily invested in the farming sector however, that rejection turned to disbelief as this hitherto ally of the sustainable farming movement swiftly outed himself as a “farmfree” advocate.
Whether or not you agree with Monbiot’s position, the fact remains that he sees the widespread transition to lab-grown food as an inevitability, not a choice. Given that his chief concern lies with the effects of global C02 emissions, this transition presents an unusual opportunity for him to paint an optimistic picture of the future. This future looks like: increased biodiversity, more complex ecosystems, increased carbon capture and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. If we stop using vast amounts of land for “simplified human food chains” then these outcomes, says Monbiot, are logical certainties. On top of this, as if this trade-off couldn’t sound any better, food will also become cheaper; up to ten times cheaper in fact, and more healthy, too!
So why didn’t Oxford Town Hall erupt with applause when Monbiot delivered his prognosis, as surely his vision near-utopian?
Aside from the existential threat to those who work on farms and in the farming sector, the lack of applause; at least from me, is rooted in George’s acceptance of a top heavy metamorphosis of one of civilisations most fundamental cultural and economic activities. How is it ok to usher in the end of subsistence agriculture to all those millions of people who depend on it for their very existence, and allow the wholesale monopolisation of our food supply by laboratory owners?
How is it ok to destroy the complex web of localised food supply chains in favour of centralised economic control? How can we possibly believe that lab-grown food will provide the same amount of micronutrients, amino acids, minerals, vitamins and phytochemicals as their ‘real’, soil-derived equivalents? Monbiot’s concerns about environmental collapse are very real, but in his telling of the future there are outcomes that are nothing short of dystopian.
Here at Three Pools, we believe that reforming the land-based farming sector is a measured and effective approach to combating climate change, and at a local level using permaculture principles to manage this land is an effective way of reconciling farming with nature. Unlike Monbiot’s assertion that ‘extensive’ farming is the worst sort, ie non-intensive pasture grazing systems which produce less meat per acre (such as ours), we feel that this farm, like so many others across the UK, has the perfect opportunity to diversify everything from it’s income stream to it’s soil microbes, and from it’s wildflowers to it’s hedgerow species, whilst keeping the agricultural heritage alive and providing important job security for the local community. We have a responsibility to mitigate the effects of climate change, and rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater, why can't farmers be at the cutting edge of carbon sequestration as well as food production? The two shouldn't be mutually exclusive.
Perhaps hope for the UK lies, at least in part, at governmental level. After the UK leaves the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), the new subsidy system has the opportunity to move away from a narrow, production-focused system and create an economic environment that incentivises farmers to carry out environmental services, many of which will mitigate the effects of climate change. The agricultural sector is therefore poised to go through another revolution, and thankfully it doesn't involve “lab-grown collagen scaffolds” and people in white coats prodding suspect-looking yellow flour!
At his speech at the ORFC and through his journalism, Monbiot brought an elephant into the room that isn’t going away. Perhaps his plan all along was to fire a broadside at a room full of farmers and watch them become even more committed to stopping environmental collapse. Perhaps his was the perfect ruse; a picture of a future without farming that creates the groundswell for the right kind of change. Either way, ruse or no ruse, the farming sector needs help, not abandonment.