Will our grandchildren know the taste of fruit, or just see it in history books?

It would be dangerous to imagine that at any stage in human history we have lived in harmony with nature; this kind of romantic nostalgia for a past that never existed encourages us to see technology as unnatural, or to desire some arbitrary technological ceiling. Though there may be something noble in trying to preserve a way of life uncontaminated by the excesses of modernity, these efforts carry the danger of social exclusion.

On the other hand, technological utopianism—the belief that scientific progress will inevitably lead humanity into a joyous era of post-scarcity—is naïve at best, and at worst both racist and anti-ecological.

The idea put forward by George Monbiot that “lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet” is reminiscent of the headiest proclamations of Wired magazine[1]. But this sort of grand statement uncouples technological progress from socio-political conditions, and makes enormous assumptions about the intentions of those who control access to that technology. Monbiot goes on to suggest that the wholesale abandonment of agriculture and a shift to synthetic nutrition will “allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature,” a suggestion that becomes more peculiar the more you consider its implications.

Abandoned farm in Alberta, Canada. Photo: pikrepo.com

Monbiot’s proposal for farmfree food to replace agriculture is typical of an attitude towards nature that has been used to justify our wanton destruction of it since the industrial revolution; it is based on the idea that humanity is separate from, above, or beyond nature. To see nature as merely a resource to be exploited for our benefit is absurd, as we depend on the ecosystem services it provides for our survival. Equally, to suggest that we simply “hand back vast areas” to nature denies humanity any chance of improving its relationship with the rest of the natural world; on the contrary, it seems to admit that interactions between humanity and nature are necessarily unhealthy, and therefore undesirable. Yet much of what we consider ‘natural’ is anything but: the landscape of the Burren[2] in Ireland, the coastal savanna of French Guiana[3], the forests of Germany[4],  even the Amazon[5] itself, have all been shaped by human interactions with the environment. In some cases, such as Australia, indigenous peoples maintained sustainable systems of land management for tens of millennia[6].

The forgotten rural masses

While the world’s urban population may have surpassed its rural population in 2007, there are still around 3.5 billion people living in rural areas across the globe. Their primary activity is farming[7]. But Western commentators—who generally live in cities—commonly imagine farming as a largely mechanized industry, with a few land-owning ranchers managing vast properties where millions of animals live on a conveyor belt to slaughter with minimal human supervision. Farms like that certainly do exist, and they contribute enormously to carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, but this vision is ignorant of human geography.

The FAO estimates that there are around 570 million farms worldwide, and that of these, 475 million are small (less than 2 hectares in size). These small farms, which account for 83% of all farms, occupy only 12% of the world’s agricultural land, yet they supply at least a third of all the world’s food, and perhaps as much as 80% of the food consumed in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. According to the ETC group[8], between 4.5 and 5.5 billion people depend on the peasant food web for most or all of their food, including almost all of the 3.5 billion people in rural areas.

There are hundreds of millions of small-scale farmers around the world. These farmers are working in a Slow Food Community Garden in Gassa Chare, Ethiopia.

Are these the people Monbiot has in mind when he declares that “extensive farming is even worse” than intensive farming? He seems to consider the intensive/extensive debate purely in terms of meat, observing that “if everyone ate pasture-fed meat, we would need several planets on which to produce it.” This is both simplistic and Eurocentric: It assumes a world in which all humans eat meat every day, and that the pasture-raised animals are kept for no reason except to be eaten. This line of reasoning also fails to account for questions of animal welfare, or the working conditions of the farmers and their relationship with the land they work, whether they be large agribusiness corporations, smallholders, tenants, salaried employees, or casual laborers. Finally, this reasoning doesn’t seem to consider the criminal levels of food waste produced by the industrial food system: Around a third of all the food we grow is wasted, and the food waste generated in rich countries is about the same as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa[9].

There is little point in saving the human race from the rapidly accelerating ecological crisis if the solution is to lock ourselves inside sterile, domed cities and feed on synthetic proteins while social conditions continue to deteriorate. Any human society characterized by such extreme levels of inequality as we know today will inevitably inflict enormous damage on itself and the world around us, no matter what technological innovations are developed to try and absolve us. Again, the question is who do these technologies belong to? High-tech solutions imply exclusive knowledge that cannot simply be taught, like farming can. Besides, these farmfree foods of the future still rely on the most basic primary material of agriculture—soil—and are therefore just as susceptible to the global soil crisis which Monbiot himself cites. There’s no such thing as simply creating food out of thin air. It all requires water, too, and the threats to the world’s water supply are as relevant to pioneering projects like Solar Foods as they are to all other forms of food production.

The Green Revolution in practice. Photo: Chafer Machinery / Flickr

It is absolutely true that we must radically change the way we grow food, the way we eat it, and the way we organize society at large if we are to survive the next century. The current food system doesn’t work because of the social, political, and economic drivers that have shaped it: Our daily sustenance has been transformed into a commodity, something to be produced and sold at the greatest possible economies of scale in order to  maximize profit. For all the propaganda about solving world hunger, the boom in food production and industrialization of agriculture that started with the Green Revolution was driven by a desire to expand markets and fatten pockets, not out of any humanitarian charity. And it’s worth remembering how this happened, where, who funded it, and why.

Brief history of a technological breakthrough

In March 1943, as the Second World War raged on, the Vice President of the United States Henry A. Wallace was sent on a “goodwill tour” of Mexico as part of President Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy towards Latin America. One of the results of this trip was a significant investment by two of America’s leading industrial families—the Rockefellers and the Fords—into experimental agricultural research in Mexico. The program had two goals: increasing production[10] and reversing the progressive land reform policies enacted by Lazaro Cardenas (which had come at the expense of large landed estates and United States nationals, and in favor of smallholder farmers).

Henry A. Wallace shaking hands with President Manuel Avila Camacho of Mexico, 1943. Photo: University of Iowa

At first, the transformation of Mexican agriculture was concentrated in regions where smallholder peasant farming wasn’t dominant, thereby allowing large agribusinesses reliant on new fertilizers and pesticides (as well as an underpaid workforce) to expand in scale by growing newly developed, high-yield cultivars. These same technologies were combined with monocropping and extensive irrigation, and production boomed. The Green Revolution turned Mexico into an internationally-recognized powerhouse of wheat and maize production (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center was founded in Mexico in 1943 with investment from the Rockefeller Foundation), though this came at significant cost to the local ecology and the disempowered smallholder class.

The Green Revolution spread next to the Philippines and India in the early 1960s, where a new high-yield rice cultivar called IR8, or “Miracle Rice,” developed by the Ford- and Rockefeller-funded International Rice Research Institute, led to significantly higher production volumes. Both countries, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, recorded their highest population growth rates for any decade of the 20th century between 1960 and 1970, with the second highest population growth rate for both countries being the next decade, from 1970 to 1980, as the Green Revolution took hold[11].

U.S. President L.B. Johnson with President Marcos of the Philippines. They are being shown a stand of IR8, IRRI’s first named variety. Part of the image collection of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Image courtesy of IRRI

This revolution had its victims, too, first among them the incredible biodiversity of rice varieties that had been developed over millennia by farmers in those countries. These local varieties were generally grown by the same smallholder farmers whose lands were successively encroached upon and bought up by the big landowners, turning smallholders into tenants, creating significant social friction, and pushing many farmers to migrate to cities. The concentration of production on a handful of high-yield cultivars by a smaller number of larger farms may have boosted total production volume significantly, but it’s well known that these vast monocultures degrade the soil faster and have a higher risk of harvest loss due to pests. The massive quantities of pesticides used to counteract this risk lead to the deaths of millions of pollinators, including bees.

Urbanization and alienation

Though there are still hundreds of millions of smallholder farms around the world providing the majority of the sustenance for the Global South, the dominant demographic trend of the last century—beyond pure population growth—has been urbanization, which has had profound effects on both human society and the environment. While in 1960 two-thirds of humanity still lived in rural areas, today that figure is only 45%, and is expected to shrink further in coming decades, to perhaps as little as a third by 2050. The decade that just finished was the first in human history in which more people lived in urban areas than rural ones. The expanse of large-scale farming, industrialization, and availability of work in cities have all contributed to the greatest migration in human history: from the fields to the factories.

The world population is increasingly urban. Image: Wikimedia Commons

One of the inevitable consequences of urbanization is alienation from the food system, which is still almost exclusively rural. As the city dweller dedicates more and more time to working in the concrete jungle, there’s less time to think about food as anything other fuel, and less interest in its origins. While corporations go to great lengths to make their food products attractive with colorful packaging, psychologically fine-tuned marketing campaigns, high levels of sugar and salt, round-the-clock accessibility, and low prices, what consumers are not encouraged to do is think about where the food actually comes from, the people involved in its production, or the impacts of that production on the environment.

This is the kind of attitude towards food that leads commentators like Monbiot to say that extensive farming is “even worse” than intensive farming, and to decry “agricultural sprawl” as a greater threat to the world than urban sprawl. Yet the two phenomena are intrinsically linked: The world’s farms have expanded in size and yield to feed the growing urban population, more often than not as part of the corporate agribusiness system. And while intensive animal farms produce just meat and waste, and depend on huge external inputs (water, feed, electricity), integrated extensive farming systems provide not just meat, but also vegetables, grains, ecosystem services, and habitat for other wildlife, all while requiring considerably fewer external inputs.

Regarding the emissions produced, extensive farming systems are characterized by having a higher volume and diversity of plant life, which absorbs greenhouse gases. In other words, emissions are contained by the nature of the system, while intensive animal farming is a net emitter that, like so many big businesses, relies on distant carbon offsetting regimes that do nothing to tackle the immediate ecological problems they create: pollution of the water table through runoff, degradation of the soil, and loss of biodiversity and pollinators. The destructive consequences of many carbon offsetting schemes (like the mass planting of a few species of trees[12]) are also clearly evident: They lack resilience.

Greenhouse gas emissions vary massively among different food types. Image: EWG Meat Eater’s Guide, page 23

Then there’s the issue of what exactly the rural land is used for: As we all well know by now, there is a vast difference in the inputs required to produce a kilo of beef[13] and a kilo of lentils, with the former emitting more than 27 times more greenhouse gases than the latter. So to simply divide agriculture into intensive and extensive is unhelpful, and a false choice: our diets are the great variable to consider. The benefits of a more sustainable diet are not limited to the environment, but also directly to our health: Studies have shown that what’s good for the planet is generally better for us, too. Besides, as Monbiot is also aware, we’d need several planets’ worth of resources for the human population of almost 8 billion to all live like people currently do in the United States.

Problems to address

There is nothing inherently wrong with developing new, synthetic foodstuffs, and they may well have a role to play in feeding those sections of the urbanized population with no interest in food as anything other than an energy input, especially as the climate crisis renders agriculture more difficult and traditional foods more expensive. But it’s not going to be a realistic solution for feeding the world anytime soon, and even if it were, there would still be several problems to consider.

Firstly, the ownership models for advanced technologies are almost always corporate and therefore based on profit extraction (see also: GMOs). Slow Food advocates for the reduction, wherever possible, of middle-men and corporate interests in our food system, and for closer links between consumers and producers through farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture, consumer cooperatives, and community gardens. This strengthens local economies, stems rural-to-urban migration, and reduces inequality as less money is siphoned off by distant corporations. Of course the capital required to develop projects like Solar Foods or Beyond Meat is considerable, but the future of food does not necessarily have to be traded on the stock market.

A Slow Food Earth Market in Straupe, Latvia. Photo: Slow Food Archive

Secondly, the abandonment of agriculture means the abandonment of food culture in toto, which is a major, universal aspect of human culture. The traditional foods of different communities, ethnic groups, indigenous peoples, geographical regions, or nation states are a key factor in our sense of identity and connections with each other. And these food cultures didn’t just spring up overnight; it took us millennia to develop them. Yet within just a couple of generations much of this history has already been lost as the industrialization and corporatization of food culture has taken hold, first in the Global North but increasingly in the Global South, too. And it is the traditional knowledge systems that underpin our traditional food cultures, from the subsistence level upwards, that provide resilience by virtue of their diversity.

The value of these traditional knowledge systems will only appreciate as the planet heats up, so discarding them forever would be both negligent and irresponsible. Indeed, it is the corporate systems at the other end of the spectrum that need to be dismantled. As Barry Lynn of the Open Markets Institute says, “Just a few corporations control just about every single item [in supermarkets]. The choice that we’re presented with is a false choice, and if we want real choice, we have to take these systems that have been designed to manipulate us, and control us, and extract money from us, and break them down.”

False choice. Image: Wikipedia

Thirdly, there is something at best naive and at worst brazenly colonialist in the idea that we can or should “hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature.” There is a long history of oppression tied into the conservation movement, which has generally seen “nature” through the eyes of urban, Western men[14], disregarding the rights of tribal or indigenous communities, and poor people in general. From Conservation International’s debt-for-nature swaps that have pushed peoples off of their ancestral lands to the forced deportation of the Maasai people from the Serengeti in order to establish world-famous national parks[15], there’s a whole world of dark, racist politics lurking in the background of many Western organizations’ efforts to conserve nature. Time and again on every continent, native peoples were killed, abused, or forced into exile by colonial powers, and the early conservationists were no different in their supposedly noble search for the “wilderness”. But as environmental historian William Cronon writes:

“The more one knows of its peculiar history, the more one realizes that wilderness is not quite what it seems. Far from being one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history. It is not a pristine sanctuary where the last remnant of an untouched, endangered, but still transcendent nature can for at least a little while longer be encountered without the contaminating taint of civilization. Instead, it is a product of that civilization.”[16]

The Slow Food solution

If our right to good, clean and fair food is inextricable from our right to pleasure, as Slow Food has argued for over 30 years, then abandoning agriculture is an unacceptable proposal for saving the world. What world would we have saved, if it contained no gardens? Thankfully, there are solutions at hand, and they’re simpler than solar-powered fermentation of synthetic proteins. The solution is agroecology. Though it may sound like nothing more than the latest green trend to the uninformed ear, it’s what farmers had been practicing for thousands of years prior to industrialization, and in many places, they still do. The only difference now is that agroecology is something we can rally around, and as such it has become a movement, as well as being a science and a practice.

Successful agroecology implementation in the state of Sikkim, India. Photo: ASEED

So what exactly is agroecology? It’s a holistic approach to the food system which considers everything from the health of the soil, the sustainable use of resources and the organization of human society. It is a trans-disciplinary science that values different knowledge systems and their role in agri-cultures, a practice based on the promotion of biodiversity, ecosystem services and resilience, and a movement which unites small-scale farmers and rural communities in the defense of food sovereignty, local varieties of plant and animals, and the self-sufficient provision of quality local food.

Agroecology is an approach to farming that considers our fields and food gardens as ecosystems, applying ecological science to agriculture. It means planting a wide variety of plants whose coexistence benefits all, minimizing the use of pesticides and opting for traditional pest management techniques. There are numerous case studies that demonstrate its effectiveness[17], and rather than provoking migration to cities, its success encourages young people to take pride in continuing their local agricultural traditions. The socially beneficial aspects of agroecology are important to bear in mind when considering that the wholesale abandonment of agriculture would mean putting at least a billion people out of work.

In the Netherlands, farmers block a major highway with their tractors during a national protest. Protests like these could become the norm if there is increasing antagonization of farmers and the rural populace by urban governments. Photo: Vincent Jannink/AFP/Getty Images via NPR

 

So far, agroecology projects have largely been focused in countries where agriculture is still practiced in a similar way to in centuries past: Agroecology here is more of a theoretical framework for already-existing practices. The challenge for the future is to extend the spread of agroecology to countries where industrialized agriculture has a firm grip on the food system (there’s enormous potential in Europe[18], but also in countries like Brazil) and reverse the trends that have done so much damage to our health, our society, and our planet. This will mean a profound reevaluation of our social and environmental priorities, and perhaps a “back-to-the-land” movement the likes of which is already cautiously underway in some countries[19]. There’s no need to abandon technology to save the world, nor to rely on it either. The question is how we manage our presence on our planet in a way that benefits the entire ecosystem—this is a reciprocal relationship.

If we look after the Earth, it will look after us. Agriculture, one of the most important inventions in human history, is not something we should give up lightly, certainly not if the replacement concentrates even more power into even fewer hands; the social processes required to avert the climate crisis and ecological breakdown are precisely the opposite.

by Jack Coulton

 

[1] Wired magazine has played a key role in the development of what Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron called “The Californian Ideology”:  a belief among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs that emerging digital technologies could somehow “solve America’s pressing social and economic problems without any sacrifices on their part”.

[2] “Yet what is truly unique about the Burren is that its landscape has also been shaped by its human story, and is a living visual legacy of the interaction between natural forces and humankind for over 6,000 years. Humankind has been central to the formation of the Burren Circle of Life and farmers have been an integral part of the ecosystem here.” From the Burren Centre

[3] See “French Guianan coastal savannas: A landscape shaped by humans and by nature” in Science Daily

[4] “One third of Germany is covered by forests. This area has increased consistently over the past 40 years. These forests are no longer primeval forests, but production forests shaped by humans.” From Forestry in Germany.

[5] “ this mythical image of untouched nature is just that—a myth. Like humans everywhere, Native Americans shaped their environments to suit them, through burning, pruning, tilling and other practices. And the Amazon is no different: Look closer, and you can see the deep impressions that humans have made on the world’s largest tropical rainforest.” From Smithsonian Magazine.

[6] Read More at Landcare Australia.

[7] According to this FAO report, “over 1 billion people are employed in world agriculture”, or a third of all workers. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60% of people work in agriculture. In South Asia and East Asia, meanwhile, agriculture accounts for half of all female employment.

[8] See the ETC report ‘Who Will Feed Us’.

[9] See the FAO report Save Food: Global Initiative on Food Loss and Waste Reduction

[10] From the speech in which the term Green Revolution was coined by William S. Gaud: “One of the lessons we have learned is the paramount importance of the world food problem… the developing nations are beginning to apply this lesson. They are making their agriculture “more intensive, more productive”. Over the last five months we have seen new evidence of their progress. Record yields, harvests of unprecedented size and crops now in the ground demonstrate that throughout much the developing world – and particularly in Asia – we are on the verge of an agricultural revolution.

[11] The figure for India is extrapolated from the Indian government’s Census Data, while the figure for the Philippines is extrapolated from the Philippine Statistics Authority.

[12] “[A Turkish] government-backed programme broke the world record for the most trees planted in one hour in a single location, with 303,150 saplings planted in the northern Anatolian city of Çorum. The head of the union claimed, however, that 90% of the saplings his teams have inspected so far have died because of insufficient water. Speaking to the Guardian, Şükrü Durmuş attributed the deaths to the saplings being planted at “the wrong time” and “not by experts”, as well as a lack of rainfall.” From The Guardian

[13] Again, there is a question of how the animals are raised: what they eat, how much space they have, how long they live, and so on. Monbiot is quite right to say it requires less energy (and therefore emissions) to raise animals intensively, but such logic and reasoning is anathema to the philosophy of Slow Food. One of the reasons that, pound for pound, a factory farm cow produces less emissions than a pasture-raised cow is that the former are slaughtered at a significantly younger age: this is because they reach their full size much quicker by eating compound feed rather than their natural diet of grass. For more information on the emissions of the cattle industry, see this FAO report.

[14] There are historic links between the history of the conservation movement and eugenics, as in the case of Madison Grant.

[15] For more information see Chapter 3 of Conservation Refugees by Mark Dowie (MIT Press 2009). The eviction of the Maasai from the Serengeti was largely the result of one book—Serengeti Shall Not Die—by German zoologist Bernhard Grzimek. This led to the British to evict the indigenous peoples from the area to Ngorongoro against their wishes.

[16] From The Trouble With Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature by William Cronon

[17] The Oakland Institute has published numerous such studies, including from Kenya, where a “push-pull” strategy “significantly increases maize yields, helps control pests and reduces reliance on pesticides”, in Niger, where it “was critical in stemming ecosystem degradation resulting from climate change and human activities while improving livelihoods and increasing food production”, and in Zimbabwe, where one man’s water management system “has been widely adopted across the country, increasing agricultural productivity and resilience in this semi-arid region”.

[18]  A study by the Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations which modeled the impact of a generalized shift to agroecology in Europe, including the abandonment vegetable imports and healthier diets, found that by 2050 an agroecological food system would be able to feed all Europeans, reduce Europe’s food footprint, cause a 40% in greenhouse gas emissions and restore biodiversity.

[19] A Forbes article on the phenomenon in Italy cites Slow Food as one of the drivers of this trend.

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