Small-scale farmers – not lab foods – can help save the planet

George Monbiot’s recent article in which he celebrates the rise of lab-based foods and the end of the agrarian age is highly problematic. It ignores important social scientific and scientific research about agricultural systems and minimizes the practices and struggles of small-scale, organic farmers. His position also represents a confusing departure from his recent critiques of the capitalist system. The global agriculture system is currently dominated by an industrial-capitalist model that is incredibly damaging to non-human nature, brutal to both wild and domesticated animals, exploitative of workers, small farmers, and peasants, and neo-colonialist in its approach to Indigenous people and poor rural people.

Over the past few decades there has been a consolidating of power and control in the food system into the hands of a small group of agro-chemical corporations, something that has been facilitated by governments especially those in the Global North and international bodies such as the WTO. People concerned with climate change, environmental degradation, defaunation of wildlife, abuse of animals, worker and farmer exploitation, and colonialism should oppose industrial-capitalist agriculture and work towards dismantling it as the dominant model of agriculture. 

Honey bees are embedded in, and also significantly harm by industrial-capitalist agriculture

The type of high-tech, venture capitalist-backed lab foods advocated by Monbiot represents an intensification of the industrial capitalist food system and a move towards further consolidation of power in the hands of a few corporations. Monbiot realizes this is a risk and advocates for a decentralization of this new system of lab foods. However, in the actually-existing world, this is not what is happening or will happen. This is because lab-based foods will require a huge amount of capital investment. Food will essentially be created in lab-factory hybrids which, to build at a scale to feed 7 to 9 billion people, will be incredibly resource intensive. Already, this emerging industry is being supported by venture capitalists, and other tech optimists, who believe firmly that high-tech capitalism will save humanity and the Earth. Of course those of us with a critique of capitalism know that the system is about wealth accumulation and private profit, not about feeding people or regenerating the Earth. In fact, we currently grow more than enough food for the world’s population. People starve to death and face chronic malnutrition not due to lack of food but due to the cruelty of the capitalist system (for a incisive critique of the industrial-capitalist food system, please see the work of Dr. Tony Weis). 

In all likelihood, with the requirement to provide profits for corporations and capitalists, lab created foods will either be a novelty food item for the rich, a cheap food item for the poor, or, perhaps most likely, fodder for industrially-farmed animals (this debate at a Conscious Eating conference about lab meats highlights this, and other, concerns). High-tech venture capitalism has represented a further commodification of all aspects of human and non-human life, to the extreme detriment of humans and the Earth. This can be seen in the ways in which Airbnb has increased housing insecurity in cities around the world, and the ways in which Uber has created an overworked, underpaid, vulnerable workforce, while also increasing the number of cars on the road. The promises made by these corporations and capitalists have not come to fruition, instead they represent neo-liberalism on steroids. 

The creation of any new technology on a mass scale will require the growth of extractive industries to gather the raw materials for the building of factories, machinery, and other physical capital. For some technology, this may be necessary to move humanity off of fossil fuels. For example, a massive growth in solar power technology may be justifiable. However, when there are millions of small-scale farmers, peasants, Indigenous people, and gardeners growing food in ecologically regenerative ways, the environmental risks posed by the scale of technology required to feed billions of people lab food is indefensible. Monbiot sees his advocacy for lab-based food as a way to allow vast amounts of land to be rewilded. However, the extraction of resources to build huge lab-factories (which he argues should occur in deserts) not to mention the distribution of that food, would further contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, destroy ecosystems, kill wild animals, and drive rural and Indigenous people off the land. 

In contrast, if most of the Earth’s people move to a plant-based diet in which the consumption of animal products and flesh, when it occurs, is peripheral we can feed the current and future projected population on less land than is currently farmed. As many studies, scholars, and activists have pointed out, a large amount of arable land is currently devoted to growing food for farmed animals not people (see “Ecological Hoofprint” for information about the environmental impact of industrial livestock agriculture). Further, if we transform the global agricultural system so it is not controlled by a small handful of corporations and capitalists, all people on Earth can eat a nutritious, culturally appropriate, and ecologically regenerative diet. 

Some gorgeous tomatoes grown at Black Creek Community Farm in Toronto, ON

I imagine Monbiot might interject with the claim that he is not advocating for a capitalist model of lab-based food but for a democratic, decentralized, possibly co-operative model. I support the nurturing of the radical imagination, which does entail pondering what could be, not only what is. However, I do not see anything hopeful about Monbiot’s vision. 

Many Indigenous peoples practiced agriculture and horticulture using innovative methods that enabled human agriculture to be mostly regenerative of the systems of the Earth. These methods continue to be used and expanded in innovative ways, even in the face of brutal systems of colonialism. The growth of agroecology, a philosophy and method of farming in which farmers work to regenerate natural ecosystems, presents a glimpse into how we can feed billions of people without destroying the Earth. Depending on how the term is defined, agroecology includes Indigenous farmers, ecological farmers, small-scale organic farmers and permaculture practitioners. It is a living and vibrant movement. Its practitioners face immense opposition from their own governments, neo-liberal trade organizations, and agrochemical corporations but, in spite of this, persevere. For example, the peasant and small-farmer organization La Via Campesina represents one of the largest and most transformative social movements on Earth.

Image from https://viacampesina.org/en/

In order for Monbiot’s full vision for lab-based food to be enacted, these people would have to be removed from the lands they nurture. Peasants, Indigenous farmers, and other small-scale farmers would have to be relocated and the land “rewilded” with minimal human activity (certainly not agriculture or horticulture). As has happened for decades, rural people would be forced into the slums of cities

Lab-based foods also presents a vision in which people at the regional, neighbourhood, and household-scale are not able to grow or produce food needed to adequately feed themselves. If large lab-factories (situated in the deserts of the earth, already vulnerable and rich ecosystems) dominated the food system, what would happen if those labs were destroyed by extreme weather or acts of war or faced technological failure? The industrial-capitalist food system, which relies on vast monocultures dominated by one crop, is already highly vulnerable to climate breakdown. A lab-based food system would be even more vulnerable. If humans lost farming and gardening skills and knowledges, we would be left unable to feed ourselves if the lab-based food system failed or was destroyed. 

To me, the most hopeful symbol for feeding a world of billions in the face of climate change is not lab-based foods, but open-pollinated, organic seeds in the hands of farmers, gardeners, and other seed-savers. People are growing food in ways that are healing to the Earth and ourselves, even in the face of climate breakdown. What farmers need most is for environmentalists and other eaters to support their struggles not to be seduced by the promises of tech bros. 

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