In his Channel 4 documentary ‘Apocalypse Cow’ and the op-ed that ran alongside it, 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, he said, will soon make dietary arguments irrelevant, and most of our food will come from ‘unicellular life’.
He’s 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 Monbiot describes may one day have its place in our societies, but it could be very expensive, difficult to scale up and there is no evidence whatsoever that there is a consumer market for this kind of food. The revolution about to take place is taking place within farming itself. Indeed, the story of agriculture, which gave rise to the first civilisations, is one of constant change.
Over thousands of years, through research and development driven chiefly by necessity and a natural human affinity for the land, farming practices have evolved and efficiency has risen continually. You only have to look at the changes that have taken place in 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. The number of farmers adopting science-led ‘precision methods’ grew to 60 percent. In 2018, there were 3.2million hectares of land within a UK government scheme to promote biodiversity and wildlife habitats. And animal welfare improved significantly with the growth of free range eggs, chicken and pork.
Imagine where we could be 25 years from now. We can say with confidence that at 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 farming practices and organic farming, but even conventional agriculture, through the use of technology and precision farming, is becoming more environmentally sustainable. We can predict data will play a growing role in maximising sustainability, and indeed 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 AI, 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. And this will all be supported by the Government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme, which will encourage the creation of conditions that support biodiversity, improve soil and water quality, and limit flooding and ecological damage.
All this is likely to become reality in the coming years. 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 and the wholesome food it produces should be consigned to history, along with the tens of thousands of jobs associated with it.
This is unnecessary. We are making progress and will continue to do so with Government’s new agriculture policy that will focus on achieving more sustainable productivity. 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.