As environmental breakdown threatens to render large parts of the planet unfarmable, how can mass starvation best be averted?
By George Monbiot, published on monbiot.com, 22nd August 2022
This is my response to the open letter from my friend Jyoti Fernandes, published on the website of the Landworkers’ Alliance.
I’m not sure whether you expect or want a reply. While your public letter is addressed to me, it has not been sent to me: I stumbled across it online. But I’ll answer it anyway.
It’s good to hear your views. Thank you for responding to my book and articles.
You clearly believe I am hostile to agroecology. It’s hard to understand how you have come to this position. Here are a few quotes from Regenesis:
- “Agroecology means not only farming more sensitively, with fewer chemicals, less use of machinery and more reliance on natural systems, but also changing the relationships between farmers and the rest of society. It means creating food networks that aren’t dominated by seed and chemicals companies, grain barons or supermarkets, but are independent and self-organised. In other words, it seeks food sovereignty. Farmers use their fine-grained knowledge of the land to find subtler ways of producing food, and their fine-grained knowledge of the market to find better ways of selling it.”
- “Small farmers around the world are seeking such solutions, and have come together to build a global agroecology movement. But they lack the government support and funding Big Farmer has enjoyed. One paper found that the UK, while spending £6 billion of foreign aid across 7 years on conventional farming projects, provided no funds at all for projects whose main focus was the development or promotion of agroecology. In fact, not a penny was spent on organic farming of any kind: it was all poured into the sort of agriculture the private sector already promotes. This, the researchers found, was typical of the aid disbursements by rich nations.”
- “It can be transformative. In Karnataka, in southern India, a strategy called Zero Budget Natural Farming has released small farmers from the grip of money-lenders and banks: by replacing the chemicals and seed they bought with natural processes and seed they save themselves, they have almost eliminated their expenses. In Mzimba district in Malawi, research teams led by farmers have reduced the need for fertiliser, while raising their yields, protecting their soil, enhancing women’s power and improving children’s nutrition.”
- “Sometimes the yields from agroecology are higher than from conventional farming, especially when all the produce small farmers take from their land is counted: the leafy vegetables that might grow beneath the cereal crop, or the beans that might grow through it, the nuts and fruit on the field margins and the fish, crabs and snails that might populate rice paddies and irrigation channels. In some cases, growing a mixture of crops – such as grain and nuts and vegetables – produces more food than growing grain alone.”
- “foreign aid for agriculture should be redeployed, away from its almost exclusive focus on promoting the Global Standard Farm, and, if new research leads to the breakthroughs I hope to see, towards helping small farmers practice high-yielding agroecology.”
- Manifesto aim: “Research and develop a high-yield agroecology”
Moreover, you claim that my book promotes cultured meat. Again, this makes me wonder how carefully you have read it. It says the following:
- “the more I’ve read about cultured meat and fish, and the more I’ve come to appreciate the phenomenal complexities involved in growing cells on a scaffold to make something that looks and feels and tastes like steak or tuna, the more I doubt this vision will come to pass. As the anticipated cost curves fail to materialise, the initial enthusiasms of venture capital will give way to frustration and disillusionment. I doubt the money invested so far is patient enough to march through the hundreds of steps required to bring good products to market.”
So, from the outset, your claims about what I am saying and what I believe are unfounded. This is a shame, as false premises make useful discussions more difficult. They also create the kind of pointless division you say you oppose. Discussion and debate are essential. I would argue that any movement which allows no room for them is a movement that will sclerotise and fail. But these discussions should be founded on evidence, not groundless assertions about what you might imagine someone else is saying.
It is not agroecology itself I challenge in the book, but (among many other issues) forms of agroecology whose yields are so low that they fail adequately to feed people, while contributing to agricultural sprawl.
I don’t need to remind you that we are facing a planetary emergency. Earth systems are in grave danger of collapse. Ecosystems are being wiped from the surface of the Earth at terrifying speed. Extreme weather events triggered by climate breakdown are making large areas of the planet ever less habitable.
Among the first people to be driven off the land by environmental collapse are the small farmers you and I support. So even if you have forgotten the wider environmental principles on which we were once united, and are now exclusively concerned with agroecology and food sovereignty, you should engage with the issue of Earth systems collapse as urgently and seriously as I do.
As I explain at length in Regenesis, farming is the most powerful of all drivers of the environmental crisis. Perhaps the most important of its impacts is the sheer quantity of land it uses: farming’s land use greatly exceeds that of all other human activities put together. Every hectare of land used for farming or other extractive industries is a hectare that cannot be used by the great majority of the world’s species, that rely on wild ecosystems for their survival. It is also a hectare whose potential for absorbing carbon from the atmosphere has been diminished.
This is why, I believe, we should strive to ensure that all farming is both low impact and high yield. While the book explores the nuances in the sparing-sharing debate, there’s a mathematical certainty at play: the lower the yield, the more land must be used to meet our needs. If everyone were to adopt some of the very low-yield systems I’ve seen promoted by some agroecology advocates, we would need several planets to produce our food, and there would be no space at all for wild ecosystems.
At the same time, it’s hard to see how large numbers of the world’s people are going to survive unless we urgently develop alternatives. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed some of the profound instabilities and fragilities in the world food system that I warned about in Regenesis. Some nations are now entirely dependent on grain imports from a handful of super-exporters. Small interruptions in supply, amplified by shock transmission through a system that is losing its resilience, cause sudden shortfalls and major local price spikes. These appear to be the reason for the rise in global chronic hunger since 2015, which began, paradoxically, during a period of low global food prices.
Why have certain nations, especially in the Middle East and Africa, become so dependent on imports? Is it because of the dysfunctional, commodity-driven agricultural model you and I both contest? In part, yes. But, for many nations, the principal problem is more basic: they simply do not possess sufficient fertile land and water to feed their people, regardless of how that land is farmed. As climate breakdown accelerates soil degradation, loss of soil moisture, droughts, highly disruptive weather events and heat shocks that make outdoor work impossible, this fundamental issue will only worsen. Very large tracts of the planet will become unfarmable.
So what can be done? Do we sit and watch as hundreds of millions starve, while urging them, like the missionaries of old, to reform their practices, in places where no farm system, however innovative and sensitive, will feed all those who need to be fed? Or do we urgently help to develop new food systems, that do offer people a genuine chance of survival?
This is one of the reasons why I support efforts to develop precision fermentation: a technology to which I devote a substantial portion of the book, but which you do not mention in your letter, preferring instead, for reasons that escape me, to focus on a technology I do not endorse.
Precision fermentation could provide the only chance some nations have to break their dependency on food exports from distant places. As well as massively reducing food production’s land, water and fertiliser demands, it could greatly enhance food sovereignty and food security, far more effectively than any change in farming systems could do. Once established, the only ongoing import it requires is tiny amounts of nutrients. The primary input is sunlight, a resource that most hungry nations possess in abundance.
I would like to see a microbial brewery in every town, in which small local companies produce protein-rich, extremely low impact foods tailored to local markets. As this technology has such great potential to deliver food sovereignty, and you are a well-known food sovereignty campaigner, I’m surprised you have not engaged with this argument, which is an important strand in the book.
Altogether, I’m not convinced you have either properly read or understood my arguments, or the research they draw on. Could I ask you to take another look? I would like to ask you to read the book more carefully and to consider exactly what I am and am not saying. I would like you to apply the principles you claim to advance as even-handedly and objectively as possible. Then, I think, we could have the constructive discussion that I hope you are seeking.
You are welcome to publish this reply, alongside your letter, on the Landworkers’ Alliance website.