Apocalypse Cow and the end of farming

For now, I will continue to sit on the fence: advocating much less meat, rewilding the least productive 20-30 per cent of land, more perennial food crops, a lot more dahl, and as much lab-grown meat as you can stomach.

If George Monbiot’s research is to be trusted, it is all over for farmers. Your food will be grown in labs using bacteria which live on air and electricity, generated by solar panels occupying 1/10,000th of the land currently used for agriculture.

This has been proven possible in a lab in Finland. Farmland can be rewilded, creating a carbon sink that could reverse climate breakdown and restore biodiversity. If, as Monbiot’s documentary Apocalypse Cow (broadcast on Channel 4 last week, and worth viewing) asserts, global catastrophe can be averted by sacrificing farmers and eating uber-processed protein, logically that must be a price worth paying.

I find it hard to question the benefits, as depressing as I may find the prospect on an emotional level. But I do have rational concerns, too. What will the health impacts be? How will our culture be impoverished if we abandon the centuries of knowledge embedded in farming? What will become of the quarter of the world’s population whose livelihoods depend on farming? And will we end up with a global food supply controlled by a small number of patent-owning corporations?

George says we and our veg will be alright for now, until vertical, indoor, soil-free farming does for us too. Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming Conference last week, he delivered his meticulously researched message eloquently and persuasively, inspiring irritation in many and admiration in a few.

I will always be glad of the disruptive fresh air he brings – and I find my own beliefs lie closer to his than to the carnivores who argue that all is fine so long as meat is grass fed. Both sides frustrate me by cherry-picking data to support their views; how many kilos of beef equate to one transatlantic flight? Somewhere between four and 100, it seems, depending on the beef and the plane.

For now, I will continue to sit on the fence: advocating much less meat, rewilding the least productive 20-30 per cent of land, more perennial food crops, a lot more dahl, and as much lab-grown meat as you can stomach.

Perhaps my biggest divergence with Monbiot is over his confidence that the future of our food and farming will be shaped by logic. Since Eve picked the apple, there seems to be precious little logic in what we put in our mouths. We already know how to grow better food with a much lower impact – but appear incapable of organising ourselves to do so. Let’s hope Monbiot is right, and one way or another, logic prevails.


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  1. i would strongly suggest not to eat food grown in labs. this is not what nature intended for us.
    and yet again we think we are more clever than mother nature.
    all we will get is a lot of very sick people.
    nourishing food needs sunlight. labs gives nnEMF. pills added as vitamins ? created in labs? are they any use?
    Natural light , sunlight go in nature is my answer ..that s my own belief, having looked at quite a few scientific papers,and adding common sense.
    to everybody their choice!

  2. Thank you for your comments, Guy. I can’t ethically watch the film, as it was recently on TV, and I don’t have a TV licence! I did, though, catch George Monbiot’s comments on Radio 4’s Farming today on 8th Jan (before the film was aired): https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000d206. It’s at 9:15 in the audio file in BBC Sounds. Subsequent editions have comments from attendees at the Farming Conferences.

    You do seem to have summed up the situation neatly, Guy. But I’m not so pessimistic about the “as much lab-grown meat as you can stomach”. As I (as a non-specialist) see it, the aim will be to grow muscle meat in a culture environment which will be identical to that grown by the animal, but – dare I say it? – in a vegan way.

    Vegan food already uses cultured protein foods from non-animal sources: soy products like tofu, of course, and also TVP, usually made from soya oil extractive wastes, extruded as a plastic to give muscle-meat-like texture. I’ve been eating that for decades, and it’s ok, though bland. This innovation would give us actual meat that has no relationship with the parent animal beyond the original culture being of cells donated by an animal that need not even be harmed. Then there’s Quorn, a filament fungus grown in tanks then similarly textured. Is that unnatural and artificial? The fungus itself is commonplace in UK soils, and we’re happy to eat the fruiting bodies of similar fungi: mushrooms! If you call TVP a third processing step from eating the natural bean (bean curd, then oil waste, then reforming), then this new protein is a much longer step from any animal, yet without all that processing.

    Meat, whatever the animal, bird or fish, is prized for its texture and flavour rather than, as with veggies, the whole vegetable experience of varied parts, varied tastes and varied textures in, say, a carrot or a calabrese head on your plate. So, in time, scientists promise us tank-grown cuts (literally) of prime beef, with the exact texture and flavour of our favourite cuts off an animal, including the differences between muscles on a single animal. The steak, they say, will eventually be indistinguishable on your plate from one cut from an animal that was slaughtered last week. That may be a long way off, but if TVP and Quorn are cheap and bland, yet acceptable, surely a lesser tank-grown substitute for sirloin steak will find a ready market? Maybe it will depend on the personal reasons for people to choose vegetarianism or veganism, whether they will eat meat that harmed no animal, needs no processing but simply cooking and – arguably – helps save the planet..

    @ elorac: almost all of our food today is “not what nature intended for us.” We are suited by nature to hunt and gather a wide variety of plants and animals, eating them raw and as we find them. Analysis of the bodies of such ‘hunter-gatherers’ of millennia ago shows them to be healthy, though often with short lives because of dangerous conditions and a seasonal lack of essential nutrients. By contrast, the early farmers had dreadful bodily diseases caused by monoculture and even worse deficiencies. Today, we have the opportunity to eat completely healthily – yet very few choose to do so. I think it’s not the source of our food that matters, so much as making sure that we choose a healthy balance of foods, with sufficient fibre, micronutrients and water to avoid deficiencies. And by far the biggest part of that is eating a diet which is around half veggies by weight. Not a five-different-2oz-portions-a-day diet!

  3. Can anybody remember the giddy days of last century when some few “scientists” came out with the idea that by the turn of the century all we would be eating would be little coloured pills? No restauants or home cooked meals, just those pills, grab a handful and wash ’em down and that’s you done for the day! Now fast forward some 70 odd years to today and what are we eating, more or less the same stuff in the same way as we were doing then. With that in mind does anybody think that things will change much? OK the presentation of the food will but generally it will be cooked in much the same way as it is now. Funnily enough it matters to most people what and how they eat – it is part of the experience of actually eating, along with the talking etc. etc.

    But now it seems the so called “experts” are telling us that times they are a changing! Right I’ll believe that when I see it, styles may be changing but not the actual foodstuffs – yes we may well suddenly change the actual foodstuff – Slugs will be the in thing, but they will still be raised the same, treated the same, prepared more or less the same and of course no doubt we will have the “odd ones” who will continue to tell us we’ve got it all wrong – they’ve been around for a long time, in different forms of course but still in the same style

    the Walrus

  4. As a homeopath of 30 years I have seen many vegetarians and now vegans patients who when they hit 50+ start to have health problems with lack of Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D found in Red Meat and Oily Fish. When you ask people about their diet very often they say its very good, but it wont be organic and it wont be varied. People want cheap food whether its vegetable or meat/fish and that comes at a cost as we have seen. I advocate eating the best quality meat and fish at least twice a week. If you eat vegetables has to be organic particularly if its raw.
    Synthetic meat or anything synthetic is not going to provide the human body with all its needs. This is just another way that big business hijacks the environmental crisis and makes people feel they have a solution. That is not it. I have talked endlessly with my patients on the issue of nutrition and the kind of food that we need to be consuming but in the end it all comes down to money and what people are prepared to spend on and prioritise.

  5. Guy does it again – such good points, so eloquently presented.

    I see the benefits of ‘techno’ food, and share your concerns.

    I think the bulk of our calories may well need to come from lab/factories in the future, if indeed they are so much more efficient. But we will always need some farms, hopefully diverse and well run like Riverford is, to provide variety, culture and a host of bioactive compounds we don’t even yet know we need.

    Side-note; It interesting to see some movements (e.g. shojin meat in Japan) trying to keep cell-based ag in people’s rather than corporate hands… But I doubt they will prevail.

  6. What brings me hope is work like that of the Savory Institute on Holistic Land Management, Using planned grazing that mimics the largescale movement of original herding animals, to conserve and sustain the soil, water, air, plants and animals of the grazed land. Using soil as a carbon sink to start to tackle climate change. Though this is a man made system, it works with nature, not against it.

    Dr Weston A Price’s research in the 1920s looking at traditional people’s diets showed how the health declined in those who followed western diets with refined and processed foods; white sugar, white flour and commercial vegetable oils, created for shelf life not nutritional value. Though the diets across the globe varied hugely in carb:fat ratio no traditional culture was purely vegetarian. They prised the organ meats and ate nose to tail. Deep wisdom we’ve ignored for a 100 years. Our problems come when we turn away from nature and remove ourselves from the basic elements of life. A loss of empathy, out-sourcing our food to large factories, causing immense animal suffering and ill health to ourselves. And yet we’re still seduced by the promise of pushing yet further onward away from nature, creating our own food without the slightest clue of how to recreate the sophisticated blend of nutrients, nature has taken millions of years to create (or even the acknowledgement that nutritional bio availability is critical to our health). Guy, you have proved with Riverford, that working with nature doesn’t have to mean turning your back on technology and innovation. Your concept of collaboration and partnership, along with a website which was way ahead of it time in terms of usability when it first launched IS proof of concept. Please don’t lose faith.

  7. Anyone remember the aliens with saucer shaped heads rolling on the floor watching a video of someone peeling a potato.

    “For mash get Smash”

    …. and it tasted disgusting !


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