Since I’m (almost) halfway through my ‘history of the world’ blog cycle, I thought I’d take a halftime break and write about something else this week. Especially since an urgent task has suddenly presented itself to me – the need to save George Monbiot from becoming an ecomodernist. Now, let me start by saying that, week in week out for more years than I care to remember, George has been almost a lone voice in the mainstream British media putting the case thoughtfully and iconoclastically for radical, egalitarian and environmental alternatives to a status quo that’s so fawningly celebrated by the majority of his journalistic colleagues. He’s even publicly endorsed my critiques of ecomodernism. So as far as I’m concerned he has a lot of credibility in the bank, and I’m not one to fulminate against him too much just because I disagree with him over this or that issue. But when it comes to his recent article enthusing about the advent of artificial meat as the welcome death knell for livestock farming…George, you’re scaring me, man.

Actually, I agree with most of the premises in George’s article – the present global livestock industry involves barbarous cruelty to farm animals, is a grossly inefficient way of producing protein and is not, contrary to ‘carbon farming’ claims, a good way of mitigating climate change. However, I don’t agree with his conclusion that we should stop farming animals, for reasons that I’ll set out below and that will also hopefully illuminate some wider themes – including those implicit in a brief Twitter exchange I had with Marc Brazeau, another antsy online ecomodernist, who was effectively challenging advocates of ‘alternative’ farming to put up some quantitative metrics by which to judge their approach or else clear the way for the ecomodernist onslaught represented by intensive conventional arable farming on the grounds of its superior sustainability. Which is pretty much the same as George’s argument.

So to summarise so far, rather than the Spielberg reference of my title, perhaps the strapline for this piece should paraphrase a famous quote from another old film – Flash Gordon, that marvellous bit of 1980s schlock: “George, George, I love you – but I only have fourteen paragraphs to save you from the ecomodernists”. And here they are:

1. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle, weighing up whether it’s environmentally sounder to buy a vegetarian dinner or that big juicy steak, the answer in that context is almost always going to be the vegetarian dinner. I say “in that context” because the choice is already framed by numerous background assumptions, which I’d summarise as the ‘ethics of the shopping aisle’. The ethics of the shopping aisle basically accepts that the consumer is the endpoint of a vast global corporate food system that relies on copious fossil fuel inputs across the entire production chain, and it also basically accepts that this system will continue in the long-term. If you don’t accept those propositions, you might imagine yourself instead living in a farm society in which people are producing their food from a few acres with minimal exogenous energy sources available to them. In these circumstances, you would probably grow crops in a rotation that included ruminant-grazed legume-rich grass leys and make use of the milk, meat, traction and fibre provided by the ruminants. You would probably also keep some poultry and pigs near the house or in the woodlands, to turn waste food, weeds and invertebrate pests into useful food. Almost certainly, you’d produce and eat less meat than we presently do in the UK. But, almost certainly too, you’d produce and eat some meat. I take the view that this omnivorous lifestyle is a better, and more sustainable, one than the vegan lifestyle commended by the ethics of the shopping aisle. Whether it’s better or not, I suspect it may be the best option available to us in a likely low-energy future – a future we’ll land in more easily if we prepare for it now. So I’d be willing to trade off a fair amount of ‘inefficient’ mixed organic agriculture in the present as a lead-in to a likely unavoidable mixed organic agriculture of the future.

2. I’d question his figures a little, but I wouldn’t dispute George’s general point that grazing is much less productive acre for acre than arable farming (although in the mixed organic ley farming described above the livestock add to, rather than subtract from, the productivity). But where is he going with all these figures about superior arable yields? There’s no critique of the productivist assumption that more is always better in his article. “One study,” he writes, “suggests that if we were all to switch to a plant-based diet, 15m hectares of land in Britain currently used for farming could be returned to nature”. But of course there’s no guarantee that it would – it might equally be turned over to car parks, golf courses or second homes. Or it might fuel further population growth, as he implicitly admits by arguing that the existing agricultural area could feed 200 million vegans. History would certainly suggest that rising agricultural productivity fuels population growth. Where’s the evidence that ‘nature’ would be the beneficiary here? There’s no theory of political economy behind George’s analysis to explain why maximising yields per hectare is the optimal agricultural choice.

3. And this sharp differentiation between farmland and ‘nature’ takes us into some murky terrain. As ecologist Joern Fischer has exasperatedly pleaded, people should stop using the simplistic duality of ‘land sparing’ versus ‘land sharing’ as the key trade-off in choosing between agroecosystems. In some situations it makes sense to increase productivity, in others to decrease it, and in others still productivity isn’t the main issue at all. Is it ecologically optimal to give over large areas completely to wilderness by developing intensive agriculture in concentrated areas, or is it better to create a matrix of less intensive agroecological corridors1? These are complex and context-specific questions. The land sparing/sharing debate echoes the ‘single large or several small’ nature reserve debate of the 1970s, on which Fischer says ecologists wasted a decade of research energy. He fears that we risk the same fate with the sparing/sharing debate. And on this point, George, you’re not helping. As you’ve said yourself it’s not a case of either/or – it’s a case of both/and, and of other things as well.

4. Besides which, the idea that by stopping farming we’re ‘returning land to nature’ is problematic because nature hasn’t left our farms – though I’ll admit that it’s flouncing towards the exit gate on some of them. If you want to appreciate, explore, or get to understand nature as recommended by the Ecomodernist Manifesto, all you need is a magnifying glass and a few teaspoonfuls of soil from the fields (though you’ll have to look harder on the intensive arable farms that George recommends…and if you live in the UK you’ll have to go a long way to find the soya farms he favours). But I don’t think this is the kind of nature George has in mind – there’s a sense at play in his article that there’s something intrinsically superior about a nature that’s uninhabited by humans, probably one with large iconic predatory mammals, than the kind of nature to be found on the average farm. But this, ironically, is surely something of a human affectation – there’s nothing in the fabric of the universe to say that a place that lacks humans is better than one that does not. I’m not against preserving tracts of true wilderness. But how to trade it off against human agroecosystems is not straightforward.

5. Here’s my take on that trade-off, however. A world with more wilderness and a stronger focus on large-scale, input-intensive arable farming is likely to be less stable, less sustainable and less nature-friendly than one with less wilderness and more small-scale, labour-intensive mixed organic farming. People in landscapes of the latter kind are more likely to actually inhabit them, and rely upon them. They therefore have a greater chance of recognising when their activities are having deleterious effects, and doing something about it. People in landscapes of the former kind don’t inhabit them and don’t enjoy this kind of feedback – mostly, they’re tourists, consumers or system functionaries who have less stake in overall system health. They’re shoppers in the aisle.

6. A farm is also a system, whose health needs to be safeguarded. Generally, growing the same handful of arable crops that give maximum yields of protein or carbohydrate year after year is not a good way of safeguarding farm or soil health. There’s a lot to be said for a cropland rotation that includes legume-rich grass leys. And if you grow legume-rich grass leys, then you should really grow some livestock too.

7. Not many people in the contemporary world can truly dwell in the house of ‘nature’ when it’s defined as per George and the ecomodernists as a habitat that isn’t a farm. Not many of us, that is to say, can hope to subsist by hunting and foraging. I don’t dismiss the benefits that we can derive from visiting these wild, not-farm places as tourists or TV viewers, but I don’t see it as a major plank of beneficial interaction with the biosphere for contemporary humanity either. A lot of us can, however, interact beneficially with animals as key species for our self-provisioning with food and fibre – a lot more of us than at present if government policies would only allow it. Many of us could raise bees, poultry or rabbits, and some of us could raise pigs, sheep and cattle. You want to interact with the beauties of nature and the mysteries of the universe? Let me put it like this – my own two most memorable animal encounters of this sort were watching a leopard kill an antelope, and helping birth a lamb for the first time from my small flock of sheep, a lamb that I later ate with friends and family. Both amazing, but one of them an essentially idle tourist spectacle, the other part of an ongoing, life-sustaining practice.

8. Identifying livestock farming as a primary cause of environmental degradation is largely a diversion. The real problems, as George has admirably documented in some of his other writings, are the gross disparities in the distribution of economic resources between people and between countries, and the abundance of polluting fossil energy. This includes the abundance of polluting fossil energy required to produce the synthetic fertilisers that help make the kind of arable yield figures George cites so impressive. Address those two problems, and livestock farming will find its appropriate level as part of our ecological solutions and not, as at present, part of our ecological problems2.

9. It seems rather early to be heralding artificial meat as the solution to our problems. As I understand it, at present it’s not even less energy-intensive than farmed meat. I don’t doubt that eventually it will be – though I hope we’ll keep an eye not only on its full life-cycle costs but also on its cascading social effects so that it doesn’t go the way of driverless electric cars and 3D printing as a cipher of ecomodernist argumentation of the form: “Efficient new technology X shows that time-honoured method Y must now be jettisoned”. George has written some great critiques of ecomodernism along such lines, so I can only think that his article strapline “as the artificial meat industry grows, the last argument for farming animals has now collapsed” was written by some hapless sub-editor, and not by the man himself. Say that it’s so, George!

10. Ecomodernists don’t like the precautionary principle, but I’m personally unwilling to substantially abandon it (just as a precaution, you understand). I’m unconvinced that artificial meat will prove to be the nutritional equal of its (well-)farmed counterparts any more than the margarines of the 1970s proved to be the nutritional equal of butter – and I suspect that people rich enough to buy farmed (or wild) meat will continue to do so, so that poor quality artificial meat will become the preserve of the poor (along with conflicted vegans). The result could be to add further fuel to the fire of the health gap between rich and poor, and with no net reduction of farmland in favour of ‘nature’. It doesn’t have to be that way…

11. I can’t help feeling that for want of any considered analysis of political economy the ecomodernists (and George in his offending article, though not elsewhere in his writings) are constructing a world that, in the unlikely event it works as intended, enables the wealthy few to experience wilderness, country living and proper meat, while the hoi polloi have to make do with various simulacra of the same, which are sugar-coated as ‘modern’, high tech and thus superior. Enough of this. Small Farm Future says cut out the fossil fuels, spread the land and its resources equitably and the livestock issue will sort itself out. Does that make for plausible policy? Well, maybe not for tomorrow, but perhaps for the day after tomorrow, at least in the Jared Diamond sense3. More plausible at any rate than ecomodernist narratives of nuclear-fuelled meat for all. In the meantime, we need to keep the farm skills and the bloodlines going, and stop the ethics of the shopping aisle from undermining proper ways of farming.

12. In moist climates like the UK there is often, to oversimplify, an ecological gradation and temporal progression from high-disturbance/high-nutrient habitats to low-disturbance/low-nutrient habitats. Human agriculture essentially involves trying to hold up that progression – stopping cropland from becoming grassland, and stopping grassland from becoming woodland. It does this because per acre crop yields are higher the closer you are to the high-disturbance/high-nutrient point of the progression – and, as George rightly suggests, crop yield is an important consideration. But it’s not the only one. Other considerations include crop and wild biodiversity, the nutritional properties of the food produced, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the ecosystems in question, and the work and other resource inputs involved in maintaining them. Again to oversimplify, I’d suggest that these considerations generally all point in the other direction, favouring grassland over cropland and woodland over grassland. And ultimately all of these considerations are subsumed into a wider one – what sort of life do we want to lead? It’s a complex set of trade-offs and not one that, in my opinion, lends itself to single and simple resolutions favouring more soya, more artificial meat, more urbanisation and more untrammelled wilderness of the kind George proposes.

13. This brings me to Marc Brazeau’s argument that the food movement should commit to sustainability based on metrics rather than to what he calls “feelings, hand waving and magical thinking”. Well…the notion that we can choose the kind of farms we want and therefore the kind of society we want based on quantitative metrics strikes me as magical thinking of the highest order – magical thinking of the same kind that leads George to proceed from soya yields to pronouncing the death of livestock farming. The questions we should be asking are how can I lead a good and meaningful life, how can I reconcile my answer with the different answers that other people come up with, and how might expected or unexpected future events complicate those answers? The notion that we can devise some kind of correct quantitative answer to these ineffable questions is, frankly, ludicrous – one born from the weird cult of the modern that thinks cost-benefit analysis or lifecycle analysis represents some kind of Solomonic truth. I don’t deny that such metrics have their uses, but not if they’re used to ‘prove’ a preconceived worldview, as I think is the case with both Brazeau’s and Monbiot’s interventions. So my first inclination is not to get caught up in these number wars. But I don’t like to duck a challenge, so let me stick my neck out and suggest a couple of metrics. First, take any contemporary farming method, then reduce its permissible fossil energy use by 99% from its current level and ask if it would be possible to continue farming more or less in the same way. Second, take any contemporary food retail method, then reduce the proportion of items produced more than 10 miles from the point of retail sale to a maximum of 1% and ask if it would be possible to continue farming in the area in more or less the same way. If the answer to either question is no, then my metrics would suggest that the extant farming system is probably not sustainable.

14. So there you have it. If you’re standing in the supermarket aisle and want to make the most sustainable choice – maybe listen to George and put that meat back on the shelf, but do try to support your local small-scale mixed organic farmers because someday you might need them. If you’re standing out on your field and want to make the most sustainable choice – don’t listen to George, and get yourself some livestock. If you want to think about food systems in the abstract and are seeking an appropriately precautionary food sustainability metric, I offer you the Small Farm Future 99/1 test. And if you’re George Monbiot – please don’t succumb to the dark side of the force. Go into the wilderness and let the devil tempt you if you must, but come back to us. We need you.

PS. In view of Miles King’s interesting comments below, I added a picture of an experimental wood pasture, Vallis Veg style.

Notes

  1. On this point see I.Perfecto et al. 2009. Nature’s Matrix, Earthscan.
  2. For an argument along these lines see S.Fairlie. 2016. ‘Meat tax’ The Land 19: 33-6.
  3. J.Diamond. 2013. The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies, Allen Lane.