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Preaching to the converted: or, my week in the science wars

July 31, 2023

I’m not the most enthusiastic of public speakers – I prefer public writing, which I find a better medium for crafting what I want to convey. When I have spoken in public, I’ve opted mostly to address sympathetic audiences likely to be receptive to my words. Sometimes, this has invited the accusation that I’m preaching to the converted.

It’s a strange metaphor, really. The proportion of all sermons that have been preached to the converted must surely be considerably north of 99%, and I doubt many congregations complain that the sermon they’ve just heard was wasted since they already believe. I’ll concede that preaching to the unconverted involves impressive skills and a fortitude I lack. Still, it strikes me that the ‘preaching to the converted’ jibe misses a large part of what preaching is actually for.

I’ll come back to that at the end of this essay. But first I want to narrate a few events from the past week or so, loosely connected by what I’ll call the science wars over food futures.

My tale begins with ‘The Debate’, as some are calling it (not generally in a good way) between Allan Savory and George Monbiot entitled ‘Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change?’

I don’t intend to say anything much about the debate itself, if that’s the right word for what happened. I’ll simply commend the essay ‘Two arrogant men’ by Gunnar Rundgren, a friend of this site, as the best of the postmortems I’ve seen.

There are interesting and important issues relating to grazing ruminants and climate change, but in my opinion these issues – along with the wider issue of meat and livestock – have occupied way too much of the debate around Monbiot’s book and around food futures generally. This has led to an over-emphasis on livestock and an under-emphasis on fossil energy as agents of climate and ecological harms, while obscuring various other issues too.

One of those other issues is the way that the concept of ‘science’ gets mobilised in discussions of food futures – indeed in political argument generally. In the aftermath of the debate with Savory, Monbiot and many of his supporters pronounced that science had been the winner. Monbiot tweeted,

…what counts in try (sic) to determine where the truth in such matters lies is not shouting matches but peer-reviewed science – the whole body of evidence across the scientific literature.

It’s a reasonable position on the face of it. Of course, there can be difficulties in weighing up the ‘whole body of evidence across the scientific literature’. Some issues like human-caused climate change are pretty straightforward, but across most of the issues that Monbiot discusses in Regenesis the evidence is more equivocal – often in my opinion a lot more so than he credits in his writing.

One small example is this peer-reviewed article in a scientific journal questioning the yield potential of the dry perennial grains that Monbiot extols. Perhaps he’ll update future editions of his book and acknowledge that the whole body of evidence across the scientific literature doesn’t unequivocally support greater yield potential in dry perennial grains. To be fair, this article criticises the one I’ve just cited, making a counter case. For reasons long ago outlined on this blog I don’t think its arguments are persuasive. But so it goes on. Turns out the peer-reviewed scientific literature itself can be an arena of debate, argument and uncertainty – not just a shortcut to ‘the truth’.

Indeed, one of the things that’s struck me about Monbiot’s approach to science in The Debate and in his recent writings is how often he invokes it too generically and sweepingly as a ‘whole body of evidence’ to claim support for his position. In this way, ‘science’ as a practice of knowledge-generation easily gets corrupted into ‘SCIENCE’ as an essentially rhetorical, political or even quasi-religious claim to higher authority – the difference between science and scientism, on which I and many others have previously written.

Where Monbiot did cite specific studies in The Debate, such as one about the lowered impacts consequent upon a worldwide turn to veganism, it seemed to me that with some knowledge of the field it’s easy to see how such a study, while plausible within its own framing, could also be implausible or irrelevant within other ones not mentioned. And so it goes, again. Not some capitalized and rhetorical appeal to SCIENCE as truth, but an arena of debate, argument and uncertainty.

What, then, to make of this further tweet of Monbiot’s:

They’ve thrown all their favoured champions at me – Allan Savory, Patrick Holden, Simon Fairlie, Minette Batters – to no avail. Now they’ve got so desperate they’re invoking imaginary heroes. Who is it? The Green Knight? Prester John? Gandalf the Grey?

You could say he was provoked, but this is a notion of science deployed to win rhetorical victory points, and debate as combat between the champions or heroes of a ‘them’ versus an ‘us’. It’s hard to imagine a less scientific mentality. They say you can judge the eminence of a scientist by the length of time they hold up developments in their discipline. Monbiot isn’t a scientist, but maybe it’s a mark of his eminence as a public figure that he’s holding up debate about food futures and turning it into this kind of showbusiness.

Anyway, so much for The Debate. Roll the clock forward a week, and instead we have The Conversation. In fact, two conversations, in London. Rather less feted occasions, I confess, involving me.

One of them was the interview I did with Oli Dugmore of PoliticsJOE, which is now available here – kind of a follow-up to an interview Oli previously did with Monbiot. My interview seems to have generated a bit of attention, but since it’s all I can do to keep up with the comments of you kind people here on my home website I must admit I’ve only skimmed a few of the online comments arising from it. In relation to the positive ones, thank you very much. Among the negative ones, there’s the old chestnut that low-input agrarian localism can’t scale to feed 8 billion+ people. On the contrary, I believe it can – in fact, I believe it may be the only thing that can. I wrote a brief thread on Twitter about it here and will perhaps try to write something a little more in depth about it on this site in due course.

Another issue in some of the comments runs along the lines that manufactured food is more efficient than plant-based agriculture, which is more efficient than animal-based agriculture and any farmer who says otherwise is speaking out of low self-interest. There are a lot of problems to unpack in such statements. I unpack them in my book, and I suppose I’ll try to unpack them in future blog posts here. But I do wish Regenesis hadn’t fed this level of ignorance. And, as I’ll outline further below and in later posts, I’m starting to wonder if this particular ‘debate’ has gone beyond the stage where talking is useful.

Anyway, moving on, the second conversation involved me and Vandana Shiva sitting on a sofa with our compere Flo Read from the Unherd Club, talking about the War on Farming in front of a packed audience. Not 100% within my comfort zone (see opening paragraph), but the sofa was pretty comfortable, thanks, and I quite enjoyed the occasion. Not least because I met a couple of valued commenters from this site in real life for the first time, proving that my blog isn’t just some holographic projection of my own disordered psyche (unless of course the entire event was itself part of said projection – gosh, science and truth … so difficult!)

Prior to the event the American Council on Science and Health wrote to Unherd, proclaiming “activist Vandana Shiva is a mortal threat to the most vulnerable”. It prompted a minor storm in my Twitter feed, seemingly mostly from people in the US claiming biotech expertise and complaining about her menace to the poor and needy.

I was a bit worried that a mob would be awaiting, but Vandana was supremely unconcerned and in the event the audience seemed thoroughly engaged with our shared agrarian localist agenda. A scan down the list of the ACSH’s objections turned up the usual kind of stuff that’s also been levelled at me over the years in my own lower profile way:

“Shiva rejects technologies which help farmers (mostly women and children) to alleviate the painful, back-breaking labour of hand-weeding” and “invents misleading and deceitful connections between useful agricultural tools and war, demonizing the use of fertilizers”.

Well, I don’t think there’s much doubt that the history of fertilizer is entangled with the history of warfare, and of agricultural enclosure (see Glenn Davis Stone, The Agricultural Dilemma; Vaclav Smil, Enriching the Earth; Aaron Benanav Automation and the Future of Work). As to technologies to alleviate back-breaking farm labour, a remark of Stone’s is worth bearing in mind:

“When you hear outsiders bemoaning the horrible toil of farming, it is probably not empathy you are hearing, but a self-serving pitch from people with interests in external inputs”.

You don’t need to probe too far into the ACSH’s background to gain a sense that something similar might be in play.

In the past, despite sometimes being perhaps over-argumentatively pro low-tech localism I’ve also been prepared to argue the scientific grounds around the case for corporate biotech vis-à-vis distributed community agrarianism, to acknowledge that it doesn’t always map straightforwardly onto the baddies versus the goodies, and to concede – heaven forfend! – that people like me and Vandana may sometimes get things wrong.

But I’m losing my appetite for such equanimity. As a sometime writer of peer-reviewed articles, reviewer of the same, and part-time spreadsheet-brained number cruncher, it’s not that I’ve become averse to evidence-mongering per se. It’s that I’m increasingly averse to the contexts and ways in which evidence is invoked. For example, the aforementioned book by Glenn Davis Stone is, among other things, a carefully argued case that the Green Revolution and the ministrations of Norman Borlaug contributed to the precarity of the poor, and to further building out the public money to private corporation pipeline. As I see it, Borlaug and his heirs have been a far more mortal threat to the most vulnerable than anything Vandana has done.

To substantiate that point would require a lot of detailed evidence presentation, along with the exploration of different worldviews that cannot be gainsaid by evidence alone. If I felt there were genuinely open spaces in contemporary political culture for such exploration in good faith, then perhaps I’d be inclined to engage more. I’ve already spent a couple of months writing a book in which I engage with the evidence and worldviews around manufactured food and agrarian localism. I’m glad I did it, so that there’s a consultable document in the public domain that lays out a localist alternative to the flimsy ecomodernist case for manufactured food. But I doubt it will change many minds. And, however much analysis you do, I don’t think you can ever do enough to stop someone else from saying “I think you’ll find the science suggests the opposite of that”. Frankly, I’m tired of disingenuous neo-Malthusian narratives boosted by corporate interests against food justice activists along the lines that scientists and corporations are holding the thin blue line against the hunger of the poor.

Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, it feels to me that the political space for such engagement and for so-called ‘evidence-based policymaking’ is closing. It was always vulnerable to subversion by ‘policy-based evidence-making’ in the words of the old joke, and that now seems to me the reality of the debate on food futures and the wider drift of politics. Maybe I’m overreacting to what I’m seeing in my own little bubble, but it seems to me that it’s rapidly becoming a class conflict in which the most important question facing environmentalists, farmers, consumers, citizens, corporations and politicians is not so much ‘what does the evidence suggest?’ as ‘who are my allies in the emerging fight over food and land?’ When that happens, the time for debating what ‘the science says’ is more or less over.

I’ll offer some more reflections on that in my next couple of posts. For now I’ll conclude by returning to my opening remarks. I lack the skills to preach to the unconverted, and in the present political moment it doesn’t seem like a good use of time. Hopefully my writing and maybe even my speaking might convince a few waverers from getting hoodwinked by some of the more preposterous ecomodernist claims, but mostly I’m happy to preach to the converted, to provide – in the words of Joel Salatin from his blurb for my book – some affirming angels to help give them strength for the battles which are surely coming.

Chris Smaje

After studying then teaching and researching in social science and policy, I became a small-scale commercial veg grower in 2007. Nowadays, when I’m not writing about the need to design low-impact local food systems before they’re foisted on us by default, I spend my time as an aspiring woodsman, stockman, gardener and peasant on the small farm I help to run in Somerset, southwest England Though smallholding, small-scale farming, peasant farming, agrarianism – call it what you will – has had many epitaphs written for it over the years, I think it’s the most likely way for humanity to see itself through the numerous crises we currently face in both the Global North and South. In my writing and blogging I attempt to explain why. The posts are sometimes practical but mostly political, as I try to wrestle with how to make the world a more welcoming place for the smallholder. Chris is the author of A Small Farm Future: Making the Case for a Society Built Around Local Economies, Self-Provisioning, Agricultural Diversity, and a Shared Earth, and most recently, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods.

Tags: agrarian localism, Building resilient food and farming systems, ecomodernism, manufactured food, small farm future