In his Channel 4 documentary last week “Apocalypse Cow” and the accompanying op-ed, the journalist George Monbiot both predicted and celebrated the end of farming.
“After 12,000 years of feeding humankind,” he wrote, “all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation.” He went on to say that food production was “ripping the living world apart”. New technologies, Monbiot argued, will soon make dietary arguments irrelevant, and most of our food will come from “unicellular life”.
Monbiot is right to say that we are on the cusp of a huge technological revolution in agriculture — but it won’t be this. The kind of food production he describes may one day have its place in our societies. But not only is it expensive and difficult to scale up — there is no evidence whatsoever that there is a consumer market for this kind of food.
Rather, the imminent revolution is taking place within farming itself.
The story of agriculture, which gave rise to the first civilisations, is one of constant change. Over thousands of years, driven by necessity and a natural human affinity for the land, farming practices have evolved and efficiency has risen. Whereas once it was forecast that population growth would lead to mass food shortages and starvation, farming has consistently risen to meet the challenges of the day.
You only have to look at the progress in the UK of the last 25 years to see this in action. We’ve become far more efficient with our use of resources — and are using far less fertiliser and pesticide for the same yield. In 2018, there were 3.2 million hectares of land within a UK government scheme to promote biodiversity and wildlife habitats. And animal welfare has improved significantly with the growth of free range products.
Imagine where we could be 25 years from now. A the heart of future food production will be a drive to bring farming into harmony with nature. There is rising interest in regenerative agriculture, agro-ecological practices and organic farming, but even conventional agriculture, through the use of technology and precision farming, is becoming more sustainable.
And of course, data will play a growing role in maximising sustainability. This is already the situation in horticulture, which makes the precise management of high-value crops possible.
The next frontier is the creation of advanced artificial intelligence, enabling remote decision-making, highly precise nutrient use and diet formulation, all of which will increase efficiency while dramatically reducing waste and environmental impact. Large tractors will begin to disappear, to be replaced by small intelligent machines able to work in all conditions and perform diverse tasks.
The government’s new environmental land management scheme will further encourage the creation of conditions that support biodiversity, improve soil and water quality, and limit flooding and ecological damage.
This isn’t futuristic sci-fi — these technologies already exist and will only improve. Meanwhile, Monbiot paints a gruesome picture of bacterial sludge being turned into food, exalting a technology that is in its infancy and has yet to produce anything approaching complex taste, texture or nutrition.
He is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, arguing that because of its flaws — flaws which farmers are addressing — farming, the wholesome food it produces, and the tens of thousands of jobs associated with it should be consigned to history.
This is unnecessary. We are making progress and will continue to do so. One wonders why Monbiot does not use his platform to help us improve existing agricultural practices, rather than to try to engineer the industry’s destruction.
Farmers want to feed the nation and protect the environment. We should all be on their side.
Main image credit: Getty