Food & Water featured

Enough of experts? The farming climate narrative as class conflict

August 18, 2023

I’m going to continue my present mini-theme concerning emerging class conflicts around agrarian localism with a few words about current antipathies between farmers and ‘experts’. This suggested itself to me during some sessions at the Groundswell Festival, where my new book was launched.

One of those sessions was called ‘There Is No Planet B: the Implications for Food and Farming’ by Professor Mike Berners-Lee of Lancaster University, who’s written a book with that main title. The session is available to view here.

It was an interesting talk, backed up with lots of data. Prof Berners-Lee began with the honest admission that he wasn’t a farmer and there was much he didn’t understand. I thought he said a lot of sensible things. But at around 35 minutes he spent some time enthusing about lab-based macronutrient production as an emerging technique which, he said, is promising because it’s 10-100 times more efficient than anything you can produce via photosynthesis.

Then at around 43 minutes he said that all land needs to be optimised for soil improvement, biodiversity, food production and climate impact. He argued on those grounds that even seemingly benign livestock systems can’t be seen as sustainable because of the opportunity cost of increased productivity from plant-based alternatives, and the marginal (displaced) demand for meat products from high-impact systems such as Brazilian rainforest beef caused by the low-productivity, low-impact approach.

He went on to caution against the dangers of the newer GWP* accounting method for comparing greenhouse gas climate impacts in shifting the burden away from methane reduction to carbon dioxide reduction which, he said, isn’t helpful when “we’ve already got our foot to the floor trying to do what we can with CO2”.

I’ll come back to Prof Berners-Lee’s remarks in a moment, after mentioning a couple of other sessions at the conference. One of them, picking up on that methane point, was a panel of slightly downhearted livestock farmers and agronomists bemoaning (rightly, in my opinion) the superficiality of the anti-livestock climate narrative, and arguing for better metrics to show the true extent of greenhouse gas sources and sinks across the food supply chain, so that they could make their case to the government. Glumly pointing skywards, one panellist remarked there were a million people flying at that moment, yet it was farmers who were mostly in the firing line of public opinion for their climate crimes.

The other session I want to mention was this panel, in which I was involved along with Mallika Basu, Sue Pritchard and Catherine Tubb. I mentioned in my remarks that I’d looked into the lab-based methods of macronutrient production of the kind mentioned by Prof Berners-Lee (specifically, microbial biomass – MB – derived from hydrogen-oxidising bacteria) and I didn’t believe it stacked up energetically as a viable way for producing food at scale. Dr Tubb demurred, stating that the facts were against me, that MB technologies were already here, and that we could expect to see MB production facilities atop grocery shops in the future.

So, what to make of all this? For starters, when it comes to the prospects for MB I want to state a blunt opinion: Prof Berners-Lee and Dr Tubb have simply got this wrong. We’re not going to be seeing MB replacing farmed food at scale in the coming decades because its production is a massively energy-intensive process that uses scarce low-carbon electricity rather than free sunlight (but we probably will see lots of cheerleading for it, and public money being tossed into the corporate begging bowl). The issue isn’t the relative efficiency of PV panels over plants at capturing photons, but the total cost (energetic and financial) of producing food by the respective methods, which is much greater in the case of MB. I’ve written a short paper explaining the basis of this here. I spoke with Prof Berners-Lee and Dr Tubb about this issue at the conference and sent them both a copy of my paper about a month ago inviting their comments, but I’ve had no response from either of them to date.

Prof Berners-Lee said in his presentation that “it takes a bit of getting your head around” manufactured food, which is true enough. I spent a month reading papers about it and bouncing ideas off other people. But I’m just a random guy on the internet – or, to give me my full honorific so as to match as best I can the illustrious people I’m discussing here, that’d be Doctor random guy on the internet. Or Doctor random guy on the internet who happened to write a book about it, to go the whole hog.

Anyway, point is what I’m not is a senior professor at a university with a reputation as an expert in carbon counting with numerous high-profile public and private platforms to amplify whatever it is I want to say … whereas what I am is someone with a modicum of education and knowledge who was able to figure out with a little bit of digging the weakness of the case for manufactured food as a saviour technology. So it bugs me that what Prof Berners-Lee is saying on some of these influential platforms is wrong, or at least misleading. He’s boosting another flawed technology of prevarication which is vainly attempting to preserve the non-preservable status quo of the consumer-focused global food system. In the long run this kind of thing merely drains another drop or two from the half-empty glass of downhearted farmers, who we shall soon be needing to step into the role of keeping us fed rather than worrying about how they’re going to stay in business.

Them, and a cast of thousands. For as I’ve long argued on this blog, I believe that soon enough people are going to have to turn to predominantly rural lives oriented to furnishing a material livelihood for themselves and their local communities. Which brings me to Prof Berners-Lee’s point about the need to optimise land for soil improvement, biodiversity, food production and climate impact. I agree, with the partial exception of climate impact (where I think the importance of land use gets rather too much emphasis over the importance of fossil fuel non-use), but I believe the key here is the need to optimise land locally to deliver those benefits to achieve renewable local livelihoods and wellbeing.

Prof Berners-Lee’s remarks and his opportunity cost framework operate from a more top-down, ‘expert’ perspective geared to renewably meeting the demands of generic global consumers by managing landscapes worldwide to balance food and wildlife needs via centralised diktat. I’d prefer to see experts putting themselves in service to local agrarian communities to assist them in determining the optimum answers for their own needs and livelihoods in their own landscapes. It may, for example, be true that high-cost low-impact meat displaces marginal consumer demand onto low-cost high-impact meat. But if so, I’d argue it should draw our attention to problems with marginal consumer demand in the present economy, which is going to have to change radically anyway, not so much to problems with low-impact meat production.

During the Brexit imbroglio, government minister Michael Gove notoriously said that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. No doubt it was a bad faith appeal to his base and its dislike of the so-called ‘liberal elite’ but … well, here’s a thing … I’m finding myself increasingly in agreement with Gove on this.

I don’t dispute that there are certain facts and expert knowledges that can’t and shouldn’t be thoughtlessly swept aside by appeals to the ‘people in this country’. Nevertheless, I think we need to build up new kinds of society from the specifics of place, and the kind of expertise deployed by the likes of Prof Berners-Lee, with its fatal attraction to things like MB, may not be up to that job. In the words of the late David Fleming, “Experts can drive the car, but they don’t know the way. The future is safer in the dirty hands of harmless lunatics”, whereas experts can “generally be relied on to endorse established institutions, to defend the paradigm of the day and to advocate large-scale technologies and standard procedures” (Lean Logic, p.153).

I don’t mean to particularly single out Prof Berners-Lee here. He’s written some good stuff that I’ve drawn on in my own writing in the past. However – note to self – the fact that a carbon counting expert so casually embraces such a flawed technology that’s driven by corporate agendas has somewhat dented my inclination to take on trust expert knowledges or statistics concerning the food and energy systems. I’d say the same about much of the discussion around MB and other technologies like renewable electricity in the academic literature, which in my opinion errs too little towards scholarly scepticism and too much towards breathless boosterism.

But talking of singling out, a group that I believe really mustn’t be singled out for climate blame is farmers – peasant farmers particularly, but also jobbing UK livestock farmers, and farmers in general. There are several reasons why. On the grounds of fairness, we – that is, wider society – have asked farmers to produce abundant food to meet often luxury demand at low cost with minimum labour inputs. Responsibility for the resulting ecocidal landscapes of contemporary agriculture falls to us, wider society, just as much as to them. And on the grounds of self-interest, we’re going to need all the accumulated agricultural expertise at our disposal – which is hard won and easily lost, even if it has to be adapted to new circumstances – in order to weather the present crisis. Most importantly, the tendency of ‘reboot food’ ecomodernism to dismiss farming as an intrinsically problematic and ecocidal method of food production and to favour high-energy technologies like MB is leading us astray. Instead of refocusing our efforts around renewable farming as the necessary base to an ongoing civilization, we’re wasting time with improbable techno-fixes that hold out a promise to ‘save’ existing modern urban civilization by largely or wholly substituting agriculture. We don’t need substitutes for agriculture. We need more of the real thing – and less of the compromises foisted upon it by the modernising drive for overproduction and low price.

So when it comes to something like methane accounting, for sure it may be a good thing at the margin if farmers cut ruminant numbers (depending on the wider ecological and economic consequences). But we do not, as Prof Berners-Lee claims, have our ‘foot to the floor’ trying to do what we can about CO2. I can buy a litre of petrol for about as much as a loaf of bread, and do more or less whatever I please with its 34.5 million joules of energy. Or for the price of about twenty loaves of bread I can buy an air ticket to the furthest corner of Europe, no questions asked.

When farmers complain about such frivolities in the face of the public narrative for them to put their house in order, they’re typically dismissed for their special pleading, whataboutery or parroting corporate meat industry narratives. Prof Berners-Lee’s remarks about GWP* somewhat exemplify this, albeit mercifully more sotto voce than many. Yet as I’ve argued for example in this short series of essays, all these ‘special pleading’ or ‘foot to the floor’ arguments are basically diversions from the need to cut fossil fuels and build low energy agrarian localisms instead.

So I’m with the downhearted farmers who are trying to change the narrative, but I’m not sure how much traction they’ll get in their calls for wiser governmental approaches to agriculture in the face of the experts advocating ‘large-scale technologies and standard procedures’. Meanwhile, I really feel for those farmers – especially, in the UK, upland livestock farmers – whose thoughtful attempts to juggle local livelihoods with wildlife needs are met with so much ignorant disdain concerning the inherent destructiveness of farming.

Maybe Monbiot’s ‘sheepwrecked’ narrative from the days of Feral started a worthwhile debate about land management – nobody and no farmer is above criticism – but it seems to have devolved into a concerted effort to dispossess farmers and advance the corporate enclosure involved in manufactured food, carbon offsets and all the rest. This could be another arena where the dialogue is almost over and we’re heading into the terrain of class conflict – doubtless an uneven one that’s prefigured by centuries of expert and top-down government-corporate efforts to ‘improve’ agriculture at the expense of rural people and local ecologies, pitting the remnants of rural agrarianism and culture against the modernist machine and its modes of value extraction. If so, it’s a class conflict we could really do without right now as we head into an uncertain future where agrarian localism is going to be so critical.

However that conflict pans out, one thing seems pretty certain: individual shops won’t have their own local MB manufacturing facilities. Devolved local replication of production systems is how small farm societies work, but it’s not how modern manufacturing systems work.

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, class conflict, ecomodernism, manufactured food