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.