Thursday, June 2, 2022

In defence of farming

With a rather strange twist George Monbiot, columnist at the Guardian, promotes regenerative agriculture practices and dismiss farming as harmful altogether – and worst of all is grazing livestock. Instead of farming we should produce foods in factories through fermentation or other modern technologies. But millions of farmers and pastoralists have shown over centuries that farming can be very sustainable. Meanwhile the ecological credential of lab foods are doubtful to say the least.

In the recent article The secret world beneath our feet is mind-blowing – and the key to our planet’s future, George Monbiot describes some aspects of the tremendous life in soils and how a living soil can sustain fertility and itself. Lately, soil health and regenerative agriculture is on the lips of many food and agriculture professionals, even if they often mean very different things. The CEO of Syngenta, a multinational producer of herbicides and other agro-chemicals as well as seeds, including genetically modified seeds, recently went on record promoting regenerative farming as an alternative to organic farming.

Meanwhile the organic farming movement points out that it is the origin both of the term regenerative as well as most of its practices. The importance of a living soil has been promoted by organic farmers for a century now. Living soil is even the title of a book written by Lady Eve Balfour, founder of Britain’s leading organic movement Soil Association. The importance of a living soil was also for a long time common knowledge of gardeners and farmers all around the world. Science is now finally catching up after a hundred year detour along the chemical lane (with keen support of the likes of Syngenta), where soil was seen just as a substrate for the plants to grow in and nutrients was supplied by added chemicals and plants were protected from pests by a nasty mix of poisons.

So welcome to the team George! Or? In the latter part of the same article Monbiot points to many shortcomings of modern agriculture and livestock production, rightly so. I will not repeat those here as I assume my readers are quite familiar with them (if not, I have written a book about it). Monbiot’s conclusion, which he has aired for some years, is that farming is inherently bad. Either it is intensive and destroys the environment, or it is extensive and needs more land, which in his view is equally bad, if not worse:

“Campaigners, chefs and food writers rail against intensive farming and the harm it does to us and the world. But the problem is not the adjective: it’s the noun. The destruction of Earth systems is caused not by intensive farming or extensive farming, but a disastrous combination of the two.”

Monbiot’s suggestion to the “farming problem” is four-fold: First, we should take as much land as possible out of farming. New laboratory foods come to rescue, things like precision fermentation and electro-foods. Second, livestock production should be substantially reduced or even totally abandoned. Realizing that it might be a bit boring to live on lab food alone Monbiot leave some space for (veganic) horticulture and perennial grains, the third and fourth suggestion respectively (Why we should make fat and protein in laboratories while getting the carbohydrates from perennial grains is not explained, but perhaps Monbiot likes bread and pasta more than olive oil and steak?).  

The idea that farming is seen as the Fall of mankind, an epic mistake, is not new. It has been promoted by Jared Diamond, Yuval Noah Harari and many more. It is likely that the transformation from foraging to farming had many negative implications, such as less nutritious foods and shorter lifespan. Many agro-ecosystems are simplified and poorer than most natural ecosystems. In many cases farming has not been sustainable and farmers undermined the long-term sustainability of their own production. The plow, in particular, has a very bad reputation. There are strong indications that many ancient civilizations collapsed as a result of bad farming practices.

But it may be the case that it is exactly because the civilizations where powerful and centralized that the farming systems were less sustainable. The farmers in these civilizations were under a triple pressure. First they should not only feed themselves but also big numbers of soldiers, lords, priests and others. Second they had to pay taxes or rent to the central authority and third, they had to supply the central powers with labor. This forced farmers to overexploit the resources including their land and their own bodies. It also made it impossible to invest in either the land or the farming system as a whole, condemning farmers to a rather miserable life.

Farmer selling bananas, Samoa, Photo: Gunnar Rundgren

In contrast,  many if not most, traditional and indigenous agriculture system have been sustainable and adapted themselves to changes in climate and population over centuries and even millennia. The farming households produced for their own needs and the local market and the cycle of nutrients was self-contained within the system; production and consumption were more or less the same. Many of the rice growing cultures in Asia have remained productive for a very long time. Forest gardens, silvopastoral systems in the Mediterranean, ruminant agriculture of Western Europe, chinampas by the Aztec, Hopi farming, transhumance and many other examples show that sustainability “was so self-evident that people did not even need a word or a theory for it” as expressed by environmental historian Joachim Radkau in Nature and Power. Still today, there are many farmers demonstrating that it certainly is possible to farm in some kind of harmony with nature. We know quite well how to do it and a better understanding of the soil and its properties can lead to improved methods.


Even worse than arable farming, in the view of George Monbiot, is the grazing of cattle or sheep because this requires a lot of land. He writes:

“While 1% of the world’s land is used for buildings and infrastructure, crops occupy 12% and grazing, the most extensive kind of farming, uses 28%. Only 15% of the land, by contrast, is protected for nature. Yet the meat and milk from animals that rely solely on grazing provide just 1% of the world’s protein.“

But the figures Monbiot present are dubious or simply inaccurate. To determine how much grassland there is on the planet is tricky and it is even more difficult to ascertain how much of the grassland that is actually grazed by domestic livestock. A recent article in Nature by Jinfeng Chang and colleagues estimates that there is almost 5 billion hectares of grasslands in the world, but that only 1.6 billion hectares are grazed by domestic animals – that is only 12% of the world’s land area, not even half of the area claimed by Monbiot.

The statement that only 1 % of the world’s protein comes from animals that rely solely on grazing comes from a report which also clarifies that this is not a very relevant figure. While it is true that nowadays many grazing animals also get some supplements or that in cold or dry climates they often get hay or silage part of the year, grazing still provides 55 % of the feed of all ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc.) which in turn provides more than 15% of the protein in human diets, grazing thus provides around 8% of the world’s protein, eight times the figure used by Monbiot. It is also a protein of very high quality and bio availability. The vilifying of grazing animals is also not supported by the ecological footprint calculations where grazing lands comprise just 5% of humanities ecological footprint, while croplands and forestry have much bigger ecological footprints.

It is true that only 15% of the land is protected areas, but approximately 27% of the protected areas are grasslands and many of them are grazed by domestic animals. In Sweden, where I live, almost all protected areas are in the mountains and are grazed by domestic reindeer. The semi-natural grasslands of Europe are considered very important for bio-diversity and the considerable reduction in grassland area the last seventy years is a major problem from a nature conservation perspective. Most of the grasslands used in the world and most of the sheep and cattle are not part of any industrial livestock production. A big share is managed by pastoralists and their livestock management entails a lot more than just producing meat, wool or milk. The undifferentiated attack on livestock in general and on grazing livestock in particular is therefore an assault on the livelihood and culture of between 100 and 200 million people in more than 100 countries. Pastoralists are important ecosystem managers; as a result of pastoralism “biological diversity is enhanced and ecosystem integrity and resilience is maintained”, according to IUCN. Another important role for hundreds of million oxen, horses, buffalos and camels is to carry loads, pull carts and plows and thereby helping farmers to grow more crops.

George Monbiot cites that just 4% of the world’s mammals, by weight, are wild; humans account for 36%, and livestock for the remaining 60% (interesting enough the weight of arthropods is ten times more than the weight of livestock and the weight of all the organisms in a living soil is much higher than any animals grazing on the land). Most people using these figures and probably most people hearing them, draw the conclusion that domestic livestock has squeezed out wild animals. But that is a far too simplistic assumption. For sure, there are many cases where the expansion of farming causes habitat destruction and loss of wild life. But in many cases hunting is the number one reason for reduction of populations of wild life. (There is a difference between the causes of extinction of species and the causes of reduction of populations of mammals and fish. Habitat loss caused by expansion of agriculture, forestry and other human activities is the major reason for extinction of species while hunting/fishing is the main reason for reduction in populations). Only one third of the grasslands of the world are grazed by domestic livestock and the reason there are few wild animals on the rest of the land is that they have been hunted for centuries.

In Sweden the number of wild animals have increased tremendously the last 200 years. In the mid-19th century there were just a few hundred roe deer, moose and red deer and now there are around 300,000, 240,000 and 26,000 respectively. Wild boars had been exterminated in the 17th century and now there are some 350,000. Beavers were gone by 1870 and now we have 100,000. Hunting of cranes and swans have just started again as their numbers are causing problems. Even the predators are making comeback. Meanwhile, the number of people, pigs and poultry has increased many times and the number of cattle is more or less the same. This remarkable comeback of wild life is a result of many factors, but hunting regulations is the most important one. For fisheries and whaling the role of hunting and overexploitation is perhaps even more obvious than for the land living animals.

To make general statements that grazing livestock is good or bad is pointless. The local context determines which role grazing livestock can and should play in the food and agriculture system. Grazing can be managed in a good or bad way. In general, grazing is a system of food production that requires a lot of land but the main reasons for its low productivity is that exactly that it leaves a lot of living space for other life under, on and above the soil.


Veganic horticulture may work under specific conditions, and even more so if humanure is re-circulated to the fields. Ian Tolhurst, the farmer mentioned in the article, is well known for being a very good farmer. His veganic cropping system uses according to his own statement 400 cubic meters of wood chips annually. While it is independent of any animals it is still dependent on additional land use and out-of-farm resources. It is therefore hard to see that this system is superior from a land-use perspective than a system with crops and animals integrated. The fact that there has been no single veganic food system in the word is a clear indication that it isn’t more resource efficient than mixed systems.

Perennial grains have been promoted for decades now and they are still quite far from being competitive on a commercial scale. If George Monbiot is concerned about the land use for agriculture, he should be concerned by the fact that they yield of Kernza, the only perennial grain so far in advance stages of development, is about one quarter of the yield of wheat. Ironically, one of the arguments for Kernza is that, in addition to the small grain crop, it also produce a lot of forage. That means that the advantage of Kernza is dependent on ruminant livestock, exactly those animals that Monbiot wants to cull. There is nothing wrong with perennial crops, on the contrary they are good, but they are no silver bullet for feeding the world.

The claims of environmental benefits of bacterial protein, fermentation of fats, indoor farms and other novel tech foods are not backed by facts. The main reason is the energy, water and land nexus. In-door production of lettuce requires in the range of 2000 kWh per square meter growing area (more is required for the production of tomatoes or potatoes). Only 1.5 square meter per capita of such production would consume the total global production of electricity, which in itself shows how absurd the idea is that it could “feed the world”. While water and land are possibly “saved” at the site of production, the land and water footprint of energy production is huge. Exactly how big varies considerably between the various forms of energy and how you calculate. The “saving” of water is also questionable in many cases as advocates of tech food routinely compare the use of drinking water with rain when they tell us how much water they save. Rain falling on fields is not saved in any meaningful sense if you abandon the field or plant forest on it.

One of the promising new laboratory techniques mentioned by George Monbiot is hydrogen oxidized bacterial protein from electricity. The technology is actually known since the 1960s and has not taken off because of the prohibitive costs. In a research article it is concluded, that only the cost of energy required to produce microbial protein is higher than the price of soybeans, even if capital and other operational costs are not taken into account. The production of 1 kg of microbial biomass would require 10 kWh of electricity. On an energy basis it will require five times as much energy to produce the bacterial biomass than is contained in the product. The electricity needed “to feed the world” with this kind of product would be more than the total electricity production in the world according to my calculations. And you would still need to produce the fat, the carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins and mix them into something that you could call “food”. 

Of course, there are constantly new technologies being promoted, and once you have debunked the environmental credentials of one of them a new one is promoted with promises of sustainability. But it is wise to be skeptical. Quorn remains the only real “lab food” that has reached commercial scale and it is based on technologies known for a century by now. Judging from its hefty price it can hardly be more resource efficient to produce than beans or even tofu and meat. The health effects of tech food products are uncertain and untested. Undoubtedly they will increase even more the share of ultraprocessed foods as most lab foods products are single ingredients and not food.

Tech food ingredients can be seen as a refinement, a continuation of the conventional industrial agriculture system. To confine fungi in a vat to convert corn into Quorn is not much different than industrial chicken production (but better for the chicken). The food system is already working by converting crops and sometimes livestock into ingredients which are put together and constantly reformulated in to brand products. But in my view, this development is already a mistake and instead of continuing on this path, we need new directions for the food system, something I have elaborated in many of articles as well as in my book Global Eating Disorder.


Considering that George Monbiot is a staunch opponent of capitalism, it is hard to understand that he can’t see that many of the ills of farming, that he rightly describes, are not a result of farming as such but of capitalism. Industrial livestock systems, giant monocultures where whole landscapes are dedicated to one crop, be it soy, corn, oil palm, tomato, wine or olives, the massive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and the linear nutrient flow of the industrial food systems are all features of capitalism. Capitalism also plays an important role in deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia. In a similar way as farmers in the huge empires were forced to compromise the integrity of their farming system to supply the empire with manpower, materials, taxes and tithes, modern farms shape their production after the “market demand” (which has little to do with consumer demand). In the modern world, the pressure from the state is largely replaced with the pressures of the global market which forces farmers to constantly reduce costs and replace their circular and sustainable food systems with linear commodity production. “Capitalism, which sounds so reasonable when explained by a mainstream economist, is in ecological terms nothing but a pyramid scheme.” Words by George Monbiot in an article in the Guardian October 2021.

The factory foods that Monbiot promotes are just a final step in the total capitalist transformation of the food system and will (if they ever become commercially viable) contribute even more to this than conventional farming. The output is not food but commodity ingredients for industrial food products. The processes are standardized and technocratic requiring massive investments and high use of energy. If they will work as envisioned, they will release the food industry from the dependency of the weather, the farmers and the land, i.e. everything that is living. While Monbiot and other eco-modernists see this as something positive which will allow us to ”save nature” it is removing humanity even one step more from nature and the living and puts even more of our life under corporate control. And there is no evidence whatsoever that any nature will be saved by these new technologies.

To increase the distance between humans and the living world which is also our life support system is bound to aggravate the separation between humans and nature with devastating result for both humans and the rest of the living world. 


A couple of years ago I participated in a panel with  Walter Willett, George Monbiot, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Julia Lernoud which can be seen here:



1 comment:

  1. Insightful.
    George Monbiot is a clever guy and many of his writings are useful and good, but not all. Sometimes he is out on an exploration of a subject on which (I suspect) he will later change his mind.
    I very much liked his live on-line-youtube-documentary about a river in Wales, where chicken factory eutrophication had killed the river.

    I am also very skeptical of indoor-grown, substrate isolated foodstuffs. It is a sign of hubris when we think that we "know" what plants need to grow healthy food.

    The most beautiful critique of the vertical-farming idea is the art/science project that Kris de Dekker and friends did a last year, when they grew a loaf of bread of indoor wheat.

    I have also heard a slightly different critique regarding substrate grown tomatoes here in the Netherlands where I currently live. The fertilizer companies know what to put in, but many trace elements like molybdenum are expensive, and the customers anyways don't notice the difference. Therefore, to save cost and improve business margins, those elements are excluded. However, I wonder, is it then still a tomato?