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Saying 'NO' to a farm-free future [WFJ #69]
In his new book, Frome author Chris Smaje reasons against George Monbiot’s 'utopian' vision of a world without traditional agriculture
Before the planet irreversibly veers towards the distinctly unenjoyable scenario of ecological collapse, farming – as perceived through the eyes of journalist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot – should be recognised and addressed as its most potent cause.
He may well be right – there’s little doubt agrochemicals are the main contributor to the 60 percent decline of flying insects in the last two decades, while farmland runoff is devastating UK rivers and other waterways (an expensive transgression, as discovered by one local farmer).
What’s much more controversial, however, is George Monbiot’s solutions to these problems, as detailed in his book Regenesis, published to much acclaim this time last year. In this vision of a farm-free future, we’d manufacture protein in vats, grow little else but perennial crops, and seemingly undergo a large-scale removal of human activity from rural areas.
And so arrives farmer and social scientist Chris Smaje’s forthcoming book, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future. Set to publish next month, the short but comprehensive read is the biggest, most important rebuttal to George Monbiot’s (and his fellow ecomodernists’) proposals yet.
The book explores what flaws exist in George Monbiot’s reasoning, and what approaches might be more desirable, based from Chris’ research and experiences on his smallholding (known by locals as Vallis Veg) just outside Frome. Where George Monbiot argues for a food-as-software kind of revolution, for instance, Chris posits that actually a return to the land could address some of the problems ecomodernists flag, if not help us rekindle a better relationship with it.
Cruellest of these observations however is that George Monbiot’s key pieces within a farm-free future might actually cause more environmental damage than they seek to prevent. In the case of lab-cultivated proteins, recent research suggests that the associated carbon footprint might be up to 25 times larger than what it aims to replace.
That’s why I picked the following extract – as environmentally benign as Vallis Veg’s philosophy is, I find it interesting that it’s mostly incompatible with George Monbiot’s vision of food production and nature restoration, which rather favours urbanised, unproven, and energy-intensive innovations.
Monbiot’s idea of the future, it seems, is more than a little over-engineered in the main context of producing sustenance in a responsible manner. Sure, we could, after spending billions of pounds carpeting the countryside in millions of hectares of solar panels, provide the energy needed to fulfil a global microbial protein quota. Or we could, as Chris writes in his book, “manufacture food that can easily be grown with free sunlight.”
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Extract from Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, by Chris Smaje
Chelsea Green Publishing, June 2023. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
On my holding, we grow potatoes and wheat by hand for our own consumption, but in the commercial market garden we grow mostly higher value crops like salad leaves and green vegetables. Growing wheat and potatoes by hand without synthetic fertiliser, we wouldn’t compete on price with conventional farmers, or more mechanised organic ones (though the gap is narrowing). Aside from the numerous hidden and not so hidden subsidies available to the bigger operators, our main cost is our labour time – and there’s no point labouring for next to nothing on someone else’s behalf when you’ve already grown enough to eat for yourself. Across the whole of our cropland, this means our per hectare calorific output is quite low. But that’s not because we’re yield blind. It’s because we’re cost aware.
I doubt the scores of crops we produce in small quantities on our few acres make it into national farming statistics, but in the event they did, no doubt it could help fuel the narrative of the ‘inefficient’ small farm, at least if the efficiency indicator was chosen poorly (in terms of producing the overall means of daily life from a wide range of food and fibre crops, I suspect our farm does quite well). Those big-scale statistics have their place. Indeed, I’ve used them in this book. It can be helpful to know how much protein, energy and other nutrients global humanity needs, and what kinds and quantities of crops can furnish them.
But ultimately, I reject the narrative of the most efficient Global Standard Diet that can meet the needs of the Global Standard Consumer from the Global Standard Farm. That question fragments into endless local questions about how to reconcile food for people, reward for farmers and respite for wildlife. It’s possible that due to climate change or other factors, global per acre demand for food will increase in the future. In that situation, getting existing farmers to increase their crop yields – especially the small number of existing arable farmers in the Global North who currently cultivate mostly just a handful of arable commodity crops – is only one possible response, and not in my opinion the best one.
A world with many more people living on the land producing the food and fibre they and their communities need might be a better and more land-efficient response to aim for. It might result in a more land-sparing, more land-sharing, more wildlife-friendly and more peopled countryside. And such people would probably be constantly juggling with a more nuanced and multiple conception of yields more suited to local needs – not only yield per hectare, but per unit purchased input, per unit carbon output, per unit household labour, per bad harvest year, etc. And yields of what? Not principally money, calories or protein, but of a worthwhile local diet and habitat.
Monbiot comes close to some of these considerations in opposing the ‘dangerous homogenization that creates the Global Standard Farm’, but ultimately, he stays inside the comfort zone of business-as-usual, labour-sparing, high-yield production and low-price consumption, whose principal beneficiaries are the owners of capital, not farmers or the public, nor wildlife.
Then, oddly, he veers into promoting the possibilities of Kernza, a perennial grain developed by breeders at the Land Institute in Kansas. It’s odd because one thing you can definitely say about Kernza is that it’s not high yielding. Its perennial growth habit gives it environmental advantages over annual grains, but this comes at the cost of yields of around 20–30 per cent of annual wheat. This yield penalty is probably ecologically hard-wired. People have been trying to grow high-yielding dry perennial grains for a long time with little success, and there’s a reason why.
That doesn’t necessarily matter. Kernza might spare land in the sense that it mitigates the destructive impact of annual ploughing and agrochemical inputs (some argue that, as with manufactured protein, its best use is as livestock feed). But if Monbiot is right when he says that the majority of species can’t survive in farmed landscapes of any kind, then you wouldn’t expect him to be championing a grain that may require five times more land than annual wheat to grow an equivalent amount.
Even perennial grain breeders at the Land Institute have conceded that, ‘In sparsely distributed garden-sized patches, annual grains would have limited negative impact.’
Their work seems directed at remedying some of the bad environmental consequences of modern, conventional, landextensive, low labour-input, highly mechanised farming, rather than challenging that kind of farming by embracing the implications of peasant agricultures and ‘garden-sized patches’. A cynic might say that’s where Kernza truly meshes with Monbiot’s vision. He seems to be seeking agricultures that are as land-sparing and nature-friendly as possible, provided they also keep as many people as possible out of garden-sized or small-farm-sized patches in the countryside.
The alternative I’m proposing is to unleash ordinary people and trust them to start developing local food systems in which they make themselves part of a renewable local ecology on ‘garden-sized patches’. Not less implication in nature, but more, because unpeopled wilderness is an untenable oxymoron of modern culture, and we’re unlikely to succeed in rewilding farmed landscapes if we don’t start rewilding ourselves – not through idle contemplation of nature but through generating our livelihoods judiciously from our local ecological base. It’s a challenge, of course, and it will definitely impact wildlife. But not necessarily more than other available options. Probably less.
A book launch will take place at Rye bakery in Frome on the 22nd June (tickets via Eventbrite), while Chris will also be around to chat/peddle books on the Frome Food Network stall at the Frome Small Publishers Fair on the 8th July.
Also worth nothing Chris regularly blogs at smallfarmfuture.org.uk – which shares the name of his debut book.