Economy featured

George Monbiot on factory farming: a Simpler Way critique

August 26, 2023

George has a long and heroic record of fighting for the environment. His latest campaign is to reduce the huge burden that farming inflicts on global ecosystems, by shifting much food production to high-tech “factory farming”. But he fails to see The Simpler Way solution.

“Factory farming” involves growing nutritious substances in vats and processing them into edible forms, thus enabling large areas of farmland to be returned to nature.

George’s case against contemporary farming, especially the production of meat, is sound. He insists that the already worrying global food supply problem, the deteriorating soil and climate situation, and population growth, leave us with no choice but to face up to radical change.  But he assumes that the only alternative is the factory. He fails to see that there is a better one.

The Simpler Way perspective.

Here’s a quick outline of our situation, detailed elsewhere.

The basic cause of the many alarming global problems we face is the pursuit of affluent “living standards” and economic growth … the determination to produce and consume more and more, without limit, even in the richest countries.  There is no possibility that the per capita levels of resource consumption in rich countries can be kept up for long.  Only a few of the world’s people have these “living standards” and the rest can never rise to anything like them. (See Degrowth: How much is needed? )

This is the basic cause of the big global problems, including resource depletion, ecological destruction, the deprivation and poverty of poor countries, resource wars and deterioration of social cohesion.

These problems are inevitable consequences of a society that is driven by acquisitiveness, competition, the profit motive, market forces and above all by economic growth.  Technical advance etc. cannot solve these problems, because growth cannot be decoupled from increasing GDP, let alone enable the enormous degrowth needed to get rich world per capita consumption down to levels all could share. Governments and people in general have no idea that this is the situation, and they are not capable of doing anything about it. We are heading into a time of mega-breakdown and great troubles, possibly terminal for this “civilisation”.

The problems cannot be solved unless this society is largely scrapped and we transition to some form of simpler way that allows everyone to live well on maybe 10% of present rich world per capita resource use. This could easily be done … if we wanted to do it.   Following are some of the necessary elements in the required social form.

–       Simpler lifestyles, much less production and consumption, focusing on non-material sources of life satisfaction with no interest in luxury, affluence, possessions and wealth or getting richer.

–       Many mostly small, highly self-sufficient local economies, largely independent of the global economy, putting local resources to meeting local needs.

–       Cooperative and participatory ways, enabling communities to take control of their own development, to include and provide for all. There must be commons, town assemblies, local committees and referenda making the important decisions about local development and administration, and working bees must do the building and maintaining.

–       A new economy, one that is not driven by profit or market forces, produces far less than the present one and does not grow, and focuses on needs and rights and is geared to maximising the quality of life of all. There might be many small private firms, and markets, but there must be (participatory, democratic, open and local) social control over what is developed, what is produced, and how it is distributed, exercised via town meetings. There must be no unemployment or poverty; all would have a livelihood enabling a valued and respected contribution.

–       Some very different values, especially cooperative not competitive, caring, more collectivist and less individualistic, and concerned with frugality and self-sufficiency not acquisitiveness and consuming.

This is not a utopian wish list. These are elements and conditions that are essential for a globally sustainable town or suburb. A high level of community self-sufficiency dramatically reduces transport of goods and workers and wastes, largely eliminates the need for sewers and fertilizers (because nutrients are recycled) and for international trade, enables recycling of materials, provides substitutes for energy-intensive leisure and travel and cuts the need for industry, finance, “welfare” and social services such as commercially-provided aged care, high-tech systems and expensive professionals. Our study on the dollar and energy costs of the agribusiness-supermarket path for egg supply found that these were around 100 times those of the backyard and cooperative path.

The Dancing Rabbit ecovillage in Missouri following these kinds of principles has cut resource use to 5-10% of the US averages. Ecovillages report higher than average quality of life.

Even more importantly, in small communities aware that their quality of life depends not on their personal wealth but on the town working well, all would realise that they must be caring, cooperative, conscientious and determined to make sure everyone is cared for. That eliminates most of the present tonnage of “welfare” problems and expenditure…the unemployment, struggle, alcoholism, drug abuse, homelessness, suicide, prisons, and the depression that is now our biggest health problem.

One of the many benefits of this way is that because a) we would be consuming far less, thereby not needing to build much industrial and transport infrastructure, and b) because many goods would be free from the commons, we would probably only have to work for money a couple of days a week.

In his important book Small Farm Future Chris shows how small farms could meet UK food demand with a small proportion of the workforce. As noted above they would play a vital role in the simpler way.

As consumer capitalist society deteriorates and descends into its final depression people will realise that they must develop these kinds of local self-sufficient and self-governing communities. Governments will not and cannot do it. Large and increasing numbers are moving in this direction, in the ecovillages, transition towns and degrowth movements within rich countries, and more impressively in the Campesino, Ubuntu, Zapatista, Swaraj, Catalan and Kurdish communities mostly within poor countries.

Implications for factory farming?

The point George, is that there would be no need for it. Food will come from home gardens, community gardens, edible landscapes of free fruit and herbs on the commons (incl fish tanks and poultry pens) throughout the town maintained by the committees and working bees, and from the nearby small farms … and all nutrients in food scraps, animal manures, fish tank water, and human “wastes” will be recycled to nearby soils. Thus the one-way energy squandering soil-mining, polluting agribusiness system will be replaced by a circular flow of a more or less constant amount of nutrients from soils to kitchens and back again. This would also produce energy (from the methane digesters) and eliminate the need for packaging, marketing, sewers, artificial fertilizers, trucks, computers, soil-damaging practices, techies and expensive experts in suits.

Note how these huge resource savings and social benefits are due to the small scale, proximity of functions, complex networks of causes and effects, overlapping functions and connectedness/integration of functions that are possible at the village scale. Kitchen scraps can be recycled to nearby poultry pens and compost heaps by bucket, eliminating the need for sewers and fertilizer. In cities they cannot be recycled to the soils on the other side of the world from which some of them came. Proximity and overlapping functions enable the scraps on their way to the gardens to also produce methane for kitchens. The nutrient-rich water from the fish tanks can go to nearby aquaculture and then to the nearby gardens. Poultry can provide eggs, meat, manure, pest control, vege garden clean ups, firebreak maintenance, chicks, and entertainment. No “marketing” is needed in the village. Neighbours can informally discuss poultry rosters, bypassing the need for armies of techies organising logistics, insurance, inputs etc. …and reinforcing social mutuality and cohesion.

But would this way still be land-hungry? Not very, because the new settlements will be what the Permaculturists call “edible landscapes”. They will be full of food producing plants and animals. For instance, the parks and roadsides will grow many fruit, nut and olive trees, with herb patches underneath, beside ponds full of fish and ducks. Small largely craft based family firms will produce preserves, honey etc. My Remaking Settlements study estimated that such designs could provide most food needs from within an outer Sydney suburb. Obviously significant reduction in red meat consumption is highly desirable and would increase the viability of this vision.

It is no good targeting isolated faults within this society and attempting to fix them one by one. Many of its core structures, procedures, assumptions and values are mistaken and the focus must be on replacing the system with one that does not generate the present range of problems leading us to destruction. A satisfactory alternative must be some form of simpler way.  We will get nowhere unless and until this is widely understood and willingly accepted.

Ted Trainer

Dr. Ted Trainer is a Conjoint Lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, University of New South Wales. He has taught and written about sustainability and justice issues for many years. He is also developing Pigface Point, an alternative lifestyle educational site near Sydney. Many of his writings are available free at his website The Simpler Way.

Tags: alternative agriculture, farming