Farm-Free Folly — Local Futures

“Beware of simple solutions to complex problems. That is a crucial lesson from history; a lesson that intelligent people in every age keep failing to learn.”[1] Having wisely counseled thus just 5 years ago in a trenchant critique of ecomodernism, environmental journalist George Monbiot’s recent op-ed in The Guardian surprised a lot of people. In fact, one is left dizzingly disoriented by Monbiot’s recent about face, in which he promotes farm-free, ‘lab-grown food’ using the very arguments he previously deconstructed and debunked when they issued from ecomodernist precincts.[2]

Monbiot and other cheerleaders for lab-grown food promote it as a quick way to arrest the juggernaut of industrial agriculture, skirting the messy and slow realm of politics. Without question, industrial agriculture — and the globalized, industrial-corporate food system more broadly — is an unmitigated environmental and social disaster. In order to tackle climate chaos, soil loss, water depletion, biodiversity destruction and much more, this system must come to an end, quickly. Yet in promoting what Monbiot terms “farmfree food” as a solution to these crises, a key word from his analysis goes almost entirely and mysteriously missing: ‘industrial.’

Proponents of lab food and other technological fixes fail to clarify that the many environmental problems they enumerate stem from large-scale, industrial agriculture and the globalized food system — whether of plant crops, animals, or their various entanglements. They completely elide the hugely substantive differences between small-scale, diversified, agroecological and organic farming on the one hand, and large-scale industrialized agribusiness on the other, instead citing controversial papers that argue, for example, in favor of confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs) on the theory that they have lower GHG emissions vis-à-vis open grazing (the findings of which are at best debatable ), or that high-yielding agricultural systems generally have lower emissions than low-yielding ones. Sadly, even though the authors of the latter study have made it clear that they were not arguing that organic farming is necessarily low-yielding — and thus their paper shouldn’t be seen as an endorsement of status quo industrial farming — this is exactly how it has been appropriated by chemical industry propagandists like the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH). This notorious anti-environmental front group — which “defends fracking, BPA, and pesticides” and is funded by a rogue’s gallery of corporate polluters — approvingly cited the same paper in an article with the provocative title, “Conventional Farms Are Better for Environment Than Organic Farms.”

Farmfree foodies as well as agribusiness hacks like the ACSH extrapolate from that study to conclude that the choice now is between intensification (meaning more production on existing farmland, usually through heavy inputs of chemicals) and extensification (assuming that eco-friendly farming necessarily is less productive and thus will need more land, in turn displacing wildlands). This is sometimes referred to as the “land-sparing vs. land-sharing” debate — a simplistic, controversial and far from settled debate, but one frequently deployed by industry apologists to greenwash agribusiness. A lot of the assumptions from the so-called land-sparing (i.e. intensive, industrial farming) side are questionable: for example the supposed universally low productivity of small/organic/agroecological farming; and the erroneous contention that intensification of existing farmland means wildlands will automatically be ‘spared’ (rather than being colonized by capitalist forces with chemical-intensive agriculture regardless, i.e. intensification plus extensification, or with concrete, asphalt, subdivisions, et al). Monbiot’s stance today in support of lab grown food not only ignores the flaws in these assumptions, it also runs counter to the arguments he made so well in his 2015 take-down of ecomodernism.

Regarding the impacts of agriculture on biodiversity — the destruction of which Monbiot is rightly panicked about — it is surprising that the lab-grown food crowd neglects research demonstrating the promise of interwoven ‘matrices’ of highly productive, small-scale agroecological farms and biodiversity, and the high compatibility of small-scale agroecology with biodiversity conservation — research that undermines his blunt generalization that “Every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.” (See, e.g., here, here, here, here, and here). He really means, every hectare of land used by industrial, chemical-intensive, monocultural farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.

The benefits of small-scale diversified agriculture are well-established — including that it’s more productive per unit of land and creates more livelihoods. Why are proponents of lab grown food embracing a narrow technofix for our environmental crises, while ignoring the burgeoning movements of agroecology, food sovereignty, permaculture, indigenous food systems and so much else collectively comprising the worldwide local food movement? These represent a florescence of initiatives that not only address ecological concerns, but also help heal the disastrous alienation of people from nature and from each other.

It appears that promoters of this technology posit that even the best of farms, no matter how diversified, regenerative, and wildlife-friendly, represent a diminishment of the wild, a simplification of nature — an impact — that lab grown food can miraculously free us from. How? By ending farming and fishing, removing farmers from the countryside and fishers from the oceans and depositing them in cities. In other words, lab grown food heralds an acceleration of urbanization. But does urbanization magically efface our impact on the living planet, does it spare the countryside and wildlands, releasing them for ecological relief and restoration? Hardly. This is a popular ecomodernist fantasy built on spurious and fanciful claims of the ‘dematerialization’ and ‘weightlessness’ of a future globalized, high-tech society.

Eliminating farming and farmers, especially in the global South where they still comprise majorities and thus putting urbanization into hyper drive, would merely hasten the projected need for a doubling of the global building stock — that is, adding 2.48 trillion square feet (230 billion m2) of new floor area — by 2060, or “the equivalent of adding an entire New York City every month for 40 years.” All this new construction will mostly be of concrete, the “ most destructive material on Earth “, behind only coal, oil and gas in carbon emissions and accounting for almost 1/10 of the world’s industrial water use. This spells ecological armageddon.

That ‘farmfree food’ is also farmer-free food is not an insignificant matter in places where the majority of livelihoods are still in small-scale farming. A conversion to lab grown food would lead to mass displacement of farmers. For those lucky enough to find other forms of employment, what would those be, exactly? Sedentary service sector jobs tied to middle-class standards of living via consumerism? This is no environmental boon, no material ‘decoupling’ of society from the planet, but rather a diffusion, externalization, and thus intensification of net impacts.

Worse, this echoes the prescription of those who would grab tribal and peasant agricultural lands for corporate or state-led industrialization in ‘fast-developing’ countries around the world (e.g. here and here), and of course mimics the industrializing, anti-farmer prescriptions for agriculture that have afflicted much of the global North. Apart from their environmental impacts, such land-grabbing, dispossession, and forced migration in search of work exacts devastating psychological, linguistic and other cultural losses in the process of estranging people from their traditional territories and lifeways. This is an anti-people and anti-environment agenda, and it’s clear that those swooning over lab-grown foods and high-tech agriculture really haven’t thought through the catastrophic and violent ramifications — especially for the still-farming majority in the global South.

Urbanization is an environmental wreck for other reasons. For one, urban living produces more waste: “A city resident generates twice as much waste as their rural counterpart of the same affluence. If we account for the fact that urban citizens are usually richer, they generate four times as much.” Urbanization and its outsourced ecological footprints do not spare forests, either, but rather hasten their demise, according to science journalist David Biello:

“ a statistical analysis of 41 countries revealed that forest loss rates are most closely linked with urban population growth and agricultural exports from 2000 to 2005 — even overall population growth was not as strong a driver …. In other words, the increasing urbanization of the developing world — as well as an ongoing increase in consumption in the developed world for products that have an impact on forests, whether furniture, shoe leather or chicken fed on soy meal — is driving deforestation, rather than containing it, as populations leave rural areas to concentrate in booming cities.”

Similarly, research has shown that urbanized, affluent, consumerist countries are the primary threats to biodiversity ‘hotspots’ around the world — threats linked to production for international trade.

What about the mental health implications of pulling people off the land and into urban zones? Many countries today are beset by an epidemic of loneliness as well as increasing rates of depression, schizophrenia and chronic stress — afflictions that are closely linked to high-stress, competitive neoliberal economies and exacerbated by urban living. Not surprisingly, research has shown that human psychological health is better-served by small-scale, rural, and community living.

Community is a “potent cure” for mental illness and loneliness , but the lab-grown food craze disregards the important role played by local food economies — which link local farmers, consumers, and institutions in mutually interdependent webs — in rebuilding communities torn asunder by the heartless advance of the global consumer culture. Community can be built in other ways besides local food systems, but the latter — being based in substantive, material interdependency — are key to forging robust, durable, resilient bonds.

Moreover, gardening and small-scale farming — especially when done cooperatively in groups (thus preventing the labor from becoming onerous for any one person) and in conditions of economic security (i.e., not the kind of highly exploitative conditions endured by many farmworkers on industrial farms) — are known to be good for physical and mental health precisely because of their relative lack of technology and ‘labor-saving’ devices. “Despite the popular prejudice,” Robert Netting pointed out in his classic book Smallholders, Householders, “labor-saving is not the chief end of life, and farm work is not a bad thing.” These activities involve manual labor, bodily exertion and movement, expose us to microbes beneficial to health, and enable us to connect to nature and other people. By simply supplying people with factory-derived sustenance, lab grown food will rob us of this potential source of meaning and health.

An important factor underlying today’s ecological crisis is our alienation from the natural world, which leads to our ignorance about and thus indifference towards its destruction (e.g. here and here). We — and crucially, our children — need to play in and interact with the natural world, including throu gh “ fieldwork in the countryside.” The expanding technological sphere has already alienated us disastrously from the natural world. Deepening the technologization of agriculture through developments like lab grown food will hasten this separation in one of the last vocations where the rift could, with a shift towards small-scale agroecology, be repaired.

It’s true that one can interact with the natural world in ways other than food production, and more and more research is revealing the powerful health and social benefits of spending even small amounts of time in natural areas. Yet as Chris Smaje observes, “making people mere spectators of the natural world is unlikely to do either people or the natural world a long-term favour.” If the spectator-recreationist model of connecting with nature were sufficient to the cause of mending our estrangement from the world and provoking its salvation, we should have already solved the ecological crisis based on national park visitation numbers alone. The fact that we haven’t reveals the model’s inability to materially alter our economies and ways of living. Wendell Berry argues that good stewardship of land and a healthy relationship with the rest of nature “turns on affection”, and affection requires intimate, long-term, physical interaction with the land and the kind of dense ecological knowledge and wisdom that only such interaction produces. By obviating the need for hands on the land — more “eyes per acre” as Berry has called for — lab grown food is inimical to forging this affection, and can only accelerate our alienation from and indifference to nature, to its detriment and ours.

Dealing with these myriad consequences of a boom in lab grown food — its potentially devastating effects on our communities, our mental health, and our societies — would not be a simple thing. Mass displacement of farmers and accelerated urbanization would have to be mitigated at a policy level, and the consolidation of corporate power within the lab grown food industry would have to be held firmly in check. Yet pessimism about governments’ ability to properly regulate our food systems is why some people are giving up on the entire constellation of ecological farming possibilities in the first place, and becoming attracted to techno-fixes. But will regulating lab grown food be any less messy, political, or slow than simply changing agriculture for the better?

Stepping back and looking at all these strands together, it seems clear that what we urgently need — for both holistic environmental and social protection and well-being — is precisely the reversal of high-tech, farmer-displacing developments of the lab grown food ilk, and political-economic support for the sustainable re-inhabitation of the countryside through localization and decentralization of our food systems. In the face of unemployment, the potential of small-scale, diversified, less-mechanized agriculture to generate jobs and livelihoods is considerable; what’s more it’s necessary to effect a transformation toward a regenerative, fossil-fuel-free agroecological future. This is exactly what the international food sovereignty movement is calling for through networks like La Via Campesina, what so many young people are aspiring to through organizations like the National Young Farmers Coalition in the US and the Landworkers’ Alliance in the UK, and what the local food movement is espousing all over the world. To support a ‘farm-free’ future is to pull the rug out from these, some of the strongest allies in the struggle against corporate agribusiness and globalization.

Hopefully those sincere environmentalists who are attracted by the siren song of lab-grown food will take a hard look at the multiple social and environmental implications of a world without farmers, and see that this techno-fix actually supports an industrial food system that is rotten to the core.

In addition to the work already happening at the grassroots, major policy changes will be required to radically transform the food system in ways that bridge the gap between humans and the land. This in turn will require massive pressure from below on policymakers who, for the most part, are servile to corporate power and under the sway of conventional economic assumptions.

This is not a ‘simple solution’ to the complex problems of food and the environment. But in the long run it’s probably the only real one.

Photo: Impossible Foods

Balmford, A. et al. (2018) ‘The environmental costs and benefits of high-yield farming’, Nature Sustainability 1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-018-0138-5

American Council on Science and Health (2018) ‘Conventional Farms Are Better for Environment Than Organic Farms’, 22 September. https://www.acsh.org/news/2018/09/22/corporate-farms-are-better-environment-organic-farms-13438

Pearce, F. (2018) ‘Sparing vs Sharing: The Great Debate Over How to Protect Nature’, Yale Environment 360, 3 December. https://e360.yale.edu/features/sparing-vs-sharing-the-great-debate-over-how-to-protect-nature

Kremen, C. (2015) ‘Reframing the land-sparing/land-sharing debate for biodiversity conservation’, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences Vol. 1355. https://food.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Kremen-2015-Annals_of_the_New_York_Academy_of_Sciences.pdf; and Kremen, C. and Miles, A. (2012) ‘Ecosystem Services in Biologically Diversified versus Conventional Farming Systems: Benefits, Externalities, and Trade-Offs’, Ecology and Society 17(4). https://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol17/iss4/art40/

Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. and Wright, A. (2019) Nature’s Matrix: Linking Agriculture, Biodiversity Conservation and Food Sovereignty, 2 ndEdition, London: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Natures-Matrix-Linking-Agriculture-Biodiversity-Conservation-and-Food/Perfecto-Vandermeer-Wright/p/book/9780367137816

See also, Kalt, T. (2019) ‘The Myth of the Green City: Mapping the Uneven Geographies of E-Mobility’, in Vormann, B. and Lammert, C. (eds.) Countours of the Illiberal State: Governing Circulation in the Smart Economy, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/distributed/C/bo46294983.html; and Hornborg, A. (2019) ‘A globalised solar-powered future is wholly unrealistic — and our economy is the reason why’, The Conversation, 6 September. https://theconversation.com/a-globalised-solar-powered-future-is-wholly-unrealistic-and-our-economy-is-the-reason-why-118927

Monbiot, G. (2014) ‘The age of loneliness is killing us’, The Guardian, 14 October. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/14/age-of-loneliness-killing-us; Monbiot, G. (2016) ‘Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart’, The Guardian, 12 October. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/oct/12/neoliberalism-creating-loneliness-wrenching-society-apart; Bond, M. (2017) ‘The hidden ways that architecture affects how you feel’, BBC Future, 5 June. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170605-the-psychology-behind-your-citys-design

Feldmar, J. (2018) ‘Gardening could be the hobby that helps you live to 100’, BBC Worklife, 10 December. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20181210-gardening-could-be-the-hobby-that-helps-you-live-to-100; Pretty, J.N. et al. (2017) ‘Green Mind Theory: How Brain-Body Behaviour Links into Natural and Social Environments for Healthy Habits’, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14; http://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567

Monbiot, G. (2012) ‘Housebroken’, George Monbiot blog, 19 November. https://www.monbiot.com/2012/11/19/housebroken/; and (2014) ‘Why we couldn’t care less about the natural world’, The Guardian, 9 May. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/may/09/why-we-couldnt-care-less-about-the-natural-world

Berry, W. (2015) ‘Farmland Without Farmers’, The Atlantic, 19 March. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/03/farmland-without-farmers/388282/

Ries, C. (2019) ‘A Green New Deal Must Prioritize Regenerative Agriculture’, Truthout, 9 May. https://truthout.org/articles/a-green-new-deal-must-prioritize-regenerative-agriculture; Heinberg, R. (2006) ‘Fifty Million Farmers’, Resilience, 17 November. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2006-11-17/fifty-million-farmers/

Originally published at https://www.localfutures.org on February 29, 2020.

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