The Greatest Mistake in History

The Greatest Mistake in History

Was Not Agriculture. (But It May Be What We've Done to Agriculture.)

Be it resolved: because of its negative impact on the atmosphere, the oceans, wild ecosystems, and human and animal well-being, farming should be abolished.

 This is the argument being advanced by some of the most influential proponents of lab-grown protein. The industry, according to a recent essay by journalist Joe Fassler in The New York Times, had US$3-billion of global venture capital poured into it between 2016 and 2022, and yet today has very little to show for it in the way of edible calories.

It’s an argument that is not only misguided, but also detrimental to those who strive to farm food in a sustainable way.

 The case against agriculture is built on valid criticisms of its many harms. Runoff from monocultures is indeed polluting rivers and lakes, and producing vast dead zones in the oceans. Synthetic fertilizers and herbicides really are impoverishing the soil, the foundation of all food production. The emissions from factory farms and vast acreages of corn and wheat are demonstrably hastening climate change. And confined-animal feeding operations are cruel not only for the pigs, chickens and cattle crammed into sheds, but also for the workers in slaughterhouses, as well as those who live next to festering lagoons of manure.

Taste-test of the world's first lab-grown hamburger, 2013.

In Britain, activist and Guardian journalist George Monbiot has memorably argued that the problem with “intensive agriculture” is not the adjective, but the noun. It is farming itself that brought us to the brink of environmental breakdown; our caloric needs would be better met by what he calls “precision fermentation,” a process more commonly referred to as bacilliculture. In the documentary Apocalypse Cow, Mr. Monbiot was filmed at the headquarters of Solar Foods in Helsinki eating a grey pancake synthesized using electricity, oats, and bacteria.

“That is lovely,” he declared to the camera. “I would eat that every morning.”

For ammunition, proponents of lab-grown protein draw on the work of such science popularizers as Yuval Noah Harari and Jared Diamond. In his non-fiction bestseller Sapiens, Mr. Harari called the Neolithic era’s agricultural revolution – when humanity started to domesticate plants and animals 11,700 years ago – history’s “biggest fraud.” Mr. Diamond has written: “With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence.” Stewart Brand, the influential author of Whole Earth Discipline, advocates for an “eco-modernism” founded on nuclear power, dense urban living, geo-engineering, restored wildlands and genetically modified crops and livestock.

Agriculture, from this perspective, was our original sin: it caused our numbers, and with them our miseries, to multiply. There may be no going back to our species’ Edenic hunter-gatherer days, this line of thinking goes, but lab-created protein can save us from doom. Mr. Monbiot argues that when bacilliculture replaces agriculture, farmland will revert to a state of nature, allowing wolves, beavers, and other keystone species to reappear, a process he calls “re-wilding.”

The obvious problem with such techno-culinary cure-alls is that there’s no proof that they work. As Mr. Fassler’s piece revealed, billions have been pumped into an industry that promised “kill-free” bluefin tuna, foie gras and prime rib, and so far, what’s come out of the reactors is a cell slurry supplemented with plant protein: essentially, overpriced veggie dogs and faux chicken nuggets.

Mr. Monbiot’s most vociferous critics are the working farmers of Britain, among them Chris Smaje, a social scientist who runs a small farm in Somerset, England. In his book Regenesis, Mr. Monbiot writes that bacilliculture works with manageable inputs of electricity: to be precise, the 16.7 kilowatt-hours he claims is sufficient to yield a kilogram of protein. He imagines compact nuclear reactors distributed around the countryside powering the process. Mr. Smaje questions this vision: in his own book, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future, he writes that Mr. Monbiot’s calculations are off by a factor of four, and feeding the world this way would eat up 89 per cent of the world’s current supply of nuclear power and renewables. (In a blog post entitled “The Cruel Fantasies of Well-Fed People,” Mr. Monbiot attacked Mr. Smaje for laying out a “formula for mass death,” but failed to explain the formula he’d used to arrive at his own energy projections.)

To outsiders, all this could seem like a tempest in a teapot, with few real-world consequences. But the food-security issues facing humanity – the United Nations expects our numbers to reach 9.7 billion by mid-century – are serious. People who have thought deeply about agriculture and soil health, among them anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone, essayist Wendell Berry, and geomorphologist David Montgomery, make the case that agriculture needs to be de-industrialized. Farmers need to reduce their dependence on purchasing outside inputs – hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, expensive fossil-fueled farm equipment, and herbicides like glyphosate – that drive them into debt. For his part, Mr. Smaje argues for “agrarian localism,” and the revival of a peasant economy that would return farmers and farmworkers to the land.

At the heart of this vision is a call to deploy the techniques, some of them age-old, collectively known as “regenerative agriculture.” These include the combination of no-till farming (eschewing the ploughs that cut apart roots, fungal networks and earthworms), cover crops and manuring, a powerful trifecta increasingly applied in the water-challenged states of the American West. Small, multi-species farms, like the one movingly portrayed in the 2018 documentary The Biggest Little Farm, can be powerful engines of plenty, providing a good living for families and surplus food for markets.

Critics argue these techniques can’t be scaled up to feed the world, but in some places, they already are. In his book The Agricultural Dilemma, Mr. Stone points to the farming techniques of the Kofyar people in Nigeria, who use a form of intensive sustainable agriculture in which terraced hillsides, planted with millet, sorghum, yams and cowpeas, and manured by sheep and goats, support astonishingly high population densities. Mr. Smaje calculates that by using only organic methods, small farms could supply the food needs of Britain’s population using just 32 per cent of the country’s existing farmland. In my own writing, I’ve described the chinampas of Mexico City: raised-bed gardens bordered by canals that in pre-colonial times kept an urban population of more than a million fed with several harvests a year. That technique is now being deployed in Poland and Bangladesh.

In other words, we need to forget about techno-mirages. Lab-grown protein, like the hyperloop and flying cars, will probably always belong to an ever-receding future. It is in the wisdom of the past, much of it rooted in indigenous traditions, that we can find solutions to our food-security worries.

A mixed farm in Yorkshire Dales that preserves a critically endangered breed of cattle, while enriching northern meadowland ecosystem (and producing Wensleydale cheese).

The animus that Mr. Monbiot, who is a committed vegan, has against conventional agriculture is rooted in its reliance on animals. There’s no question that people, especially in developed countries, eat far more meat than they should, and that people everywhere would be better off getting the bulk of their calories from plants. But for regenerative farmers, keeping livestock is not primarily about the meat. Cattle, poultry and sheep provide a steady supply of milk, eggs and wool. Around the world, horses, mules and oxen do the heavy hauling, without burning fossil fuels, while their selective grazing increases plant biodiversity. And farm animals provide the manure that returns minerals to the soil, keeping it productive without chemical fertilizers.

One thing is certain. An Oxford Union-style debate about the value of agriculture, writ large, is worse than a distraction. Though farms under two hectares are still in the majority around the world, in wealthy countries the small family farm is on the endangered list. The number of farms in the United States dropped from 6.8 million in 1935 to 1.89 million in 2023. The average age of BritishAmerican, and Canadian farmers is creeping up toward 60, and their children aren’t taking up the family trade. From Saskatchewan to Rajasthan, those who have chosen to remain in the fields, pastures and orchards are facing an unprecedented mental health crisis. The last thing small farmers – the ones who are striving to do it right – need to hear is that agriculture itself has no reason to exist.

Across Europe, and now in Quebec, farmers are gathering to protest against the decline in prices they get for their produce, increasing costs, and unfair competition from countries whose agricultural sectors aren’t as strictly regulated. They report being misunderstood not only by bureaucrats, but also, increasingly, by the public. In Europe, their rage is being exploited by Far Right populists, who are driving a further wedge between rural producers and urban consumers, many of whom are now hard-pressed to explain where their food comes from. This is a recipe for pushing an already dysfunctional food system into chaos.

There is a lot to criticize about agriculture as it is currently practised. Yet farming remains humanity’s best hope for the future. And, given the conspicuous absence of lab-grown protein on menus and supermarket shelves, it is your only hope of getting something to eat today.

This is a subscribers-only version (slightly adapted) of an essay published in The Globe and Mail (Canada) on April 20, 2024. Here's the link. You can read more about my critique of the eco-modernist take on agriculture here. And more on the folly of pinning our hopes on lab-grown protein in this post.