In The Rush To Solve Climate Change With Lab-based Foods, Do Not Write Off Farming

Posted: Jan 10, 2020

Like many of us, I have one eye permanently fixed on the climate crisis these days. As fires rage in Australia and deadly floods overwhelm parts of Indonesia and Israel, there’s an undeniable, urgent need for concrete, scalable solutions.

And because the food on our plate accounts for around a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, rethinking what we eat, and how we produce it, is one logical place to turn.

But when Guardian environmental columnist George Monbiot argued yesterday that the solution is a near-total move toward laboratory-produced, “farmfree” food, it raised an enormous red flag for me.

In the piece, Monbiot describes a new fermentation technology that he says is poised to replace the vast bulk of the food we grow—from meat to dairy to grains—ushering in “the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years.”

Farmfree food, he writes, “will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale.”

Technology has a role to play in making our diets more sustainable, and some lab-based food may well help us shift away from the kinds of farms that are more destructive than beneficial. But, as I see it, writing off agriculture isn’t going to solve our problems; it might even make them worse.

Monbiot is an outspoken environmentalist who many in the conventional farm world are likely to dismiss before giving him their ear. But he has a major platform and he often offers cogent analysis of the climate crisis. (For example, this video he made with The Guardian in collaboration with Greta Thunberg is spot on.)

And when he wrote, in the op-ed, “nowhere on Earth can I see sensible farm policies developing. Governments provide an astonishing £560bn a year in farm subsidies, and almost all of them are perverse and destructive, driving deforestation, pollution and the killing of wildlife,” I know deep down that he’s not so far from the truth.

Here in the U.S., the trillion-dollar farm bill has made small moves toward sustainability, by routing more food to local producers and funding for research into organic agriculture, but the bulk of the money is still spent on maintaining a brittle status quo built on massive payments to commodity corn and soy producers who are increasingly vulnerable to climate change. Even the ongoing effort to tie subsidized crop insurance for commodity production (i.e., corn and soy) to mandatory conservation efforts that improve soil and water quality—seemingly a no-brainer—keeps failing to make it into the final bill.

And the only truly encouraging, hopeful agricultural policy I’ve seen is explicitly focused on farming in response to climate change.

By Twilight Greenaway
January 9, 2020
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