I have an immense admiration for George Monbiot, columnist of this newspaper. His work has highlighted the urgent need to reduce our CO2 emissions and switch to greener energy. It also showed the role of intensive agriculture in dramatic levels of species decline and biodiversity loss. I wholeheartedly agree with much of what he writes – but when it comes to the solutions we need to change our agricultural and food systems, we have radically different views.
It is indisputable that the agricultural “revolution” of the 1950s, with its generalization of ammonia fertilizers and herbicides, pesticides and fungicides, waged war on nature. These intensive, monocultural modes of food production not only contaminate our lands and waterways, but are warming our planet and contributing to a human health crisis (more people die of food-related diseases globally than smoking, according to a study published in the Lancet). Animals in factory farms aren’t having fun either. The decline of insect life is incredibly disturbing: without the earthworm, the beetle and the bee, life as we know it could cease. Arable land, which we use to grow 95% of the world’s food, is being depleted at an astonishing rate. We need to change the way we eat and produce food, and we need to do it quickly.
So far, Monbiot and I are in agreement. But in a recent article, he wrote that organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb are “the most harmful agricultural products in the world.” He criticizes “chefs and foodies” like me for focusing on regenerative grazing, which he calls “rebranded animal husbandry.” His alternate vision includes a revolution in food creation through precision fermentation: growing food in the lab from microbes and water. “Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from single-celled life,” he wrote in this article in 2020.
While I’m not opposed to the idea of lab-grown food, I’m much more for small-scale, community-based farming, because I believe in the potential of food as a force for good, for health. human and environmental. Methods proposed by regenerative farmers such as writer Gabe Brown have shown how non-intensive livestock farming, when well managed, can increase topsoil more than previously thought, which can then accumulate biomass (carbon) and retain valuable rainwater. Monbiot’s argument that it is not possible to produce enough food this way is often used to denounce better food systems, but according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, small farmers currently produce about a third of our food. .
Monbiot’s enthusiasm for precision fermentation worries me greatly. “Virtually all of this new food tech is heavily funded by tech oligarchs, venture capitalists, or the occasional celebrity,” writes retail podcaster Errol Schweizer in Forbes. Precision fermentation claims to break us out of our destructive addiction to cheap meat, but not without potential downsides. These inventions are heavily patented, pushing the future of our food supply into the hands of an increasingly small and powerful set of multinational food players.
There is very little transparency on the amount of energy and materials required to build the system of factories that would be required to adopt these foods to the extent desired by their proponents. How dependent are they on fossil fuels? How many other chemicals and compounds are needed to make them, and where will we get them from and how? In our race to find better food production systems, it’s tempting to look for miracle cures, but we can’t afford to ignore the risks.
Ultra-processed foods make up half of the UK’s calories, and their impact on health gets very little attention from government or medical schools. We know that other ultra-processed foods – even some plant-based meat alternatives – are high in protein, but can also be very high in salt and fat.
Companies that practice regenerative agriculture, such as Hodmedod in the UK, produce affordable pulses and cereals rich in protein and fibre, through a cooperative of small farms that almost all use grazing animals in their systems to facilitate nutrient cycling. in their soil. In these types of farms, small herds of cattle or sheep graze on various cover crops, increasing the biodiversity on their land, not reducing it (as Monbiot argues in his article). Cover crops replenish soil quality and eliminate the need to use pesticides. The presence of livestock adds nutrients through their manure and saliva. They also add nutrients to our diet: animal fats from grass-fed animals are difficult to replace in the human diet. Additionally, livestock adds an additional source of income to farmers, making them more resilient.
Through the work we do with the Chefs in Schools charity, I’ve seen firsthand how it’s possible to give people foods that are high in fiber and flavorful, and that cost less than ultra foods. -transformed that the children received before. . With the political goodwill (60% of secondary schools currently fail to meet school food standards and food plays no role in the actual Ofsted assessments) we can provide people of all incomes with better nutrition, no only in schools, but also in hospitals, prisons and social canteens. If we continue to go the ultra-processed route, food may well continue to make people sick, which Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Plan says is costing the economy an estimated £74billion.
I love donuts and crisps, but we can’t live on that alone. I’m open to plant-based foods if we can get away from making them with the monocultures that are so destructive to animal life and soils. And I’m all for technology, but as long as it works with nature, not against it. We need better funding for soil science and to properly feed low-income people.
We need to change our diets. We need to eat a lot less meat. But evidence from the past 70 years suggests that when we replace nature’s complex biology with a tunnel-eye view of some aspects of chemistry and ignore others, it has profoundly negative and often unintended consequences. In nature, the animal and plant worlds are never separated – we should get something out of this.