• Matteo De Vos

George Monbiot's bet serves as a warning to farmers— adapt or perish

"Don't shoot the messenger " is George Monbiot's response to the criticism of #ApocalypseCow — his new documentary that argues lab-grown meat will destroy farming and save the planet. The wheels are already in motion, it seems. New technologies that will replace farmers have arrived in the “nick of time”.

According to Monbiot, "Ferming" — not farming — is the future of food. A process of brewing microbes through precision fermentation, ferming literally makes food out of thin air. It sounds like science fiction, but thinktank RethinkX expects these rapid advances in precision biology to all but replace animal feed and agriculture within the next decade.

Betting on the wrong horse.

Over the past decades, agricultural policy and international institutions have favoured the industrial model of agriculture over small-scale subsistence farming. This stems from a (flawed) belief that only large economic units are capable of achieving significant productivity gains needed to feed a rapidly growing world population through the use of modern cultivation methods, chemical inputs and machinery. Small subsistence farming is understood as a ‘backward “phase-out” model of a pre-industrial form of production’ (Global Agriculture, 2017).

In recent years, significant progress has been made in recognising the rights of peasants and their vital role in the fight against hunger and malnutrition and the realisation of a regenerative, just and lasting food system. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas, adopted in November 2018, is the result of decades of political mobilisation, organising and persistence in championing the rights of peasants, spearheaded by La Via Campesina.

Monbiot's bet in support of lab-grown (corporate) food reinforces deeply-held prejudices against rural people and props up a set of problematic beliefs surrounding the inutility of small-scale subsistence farming.

The last acceptable prejudice is the prejudice against rural places and people — Wendell Berry

Make no mistake. These beliefs are not benign. They directly threaten the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of men and women who, in the name of progress and development, are rendered irrelevant, sidelined and displaced.

A warning, not an inevitability.

The good news is that there is nothing inevitable about Monbiot's bet. It is, after all, still a bet. A technological shift towards farmer-less lab-grown food may be becoming increasingly likely, but a radical socio-political transformation of our food system — with more farmers farming regeneratively— is also still possible. More importantly, it is what we truly need to avoid climate breakdown, and can help us build climate-resilient farms, farmers and communities.

Using the principles of agroecology, farming can come to mimic nature. Building on ancestral and local knowledge, native seeds can grow into biodiverse crop mixtures, regenerating local ecosystems and drawing down carbon to build rich healthy soils that are much more resilient against frequent droughts and floods. With less animals farmed better, livestock fed and raised on permanent pastures and food scraps can make efficient use of agricultural wastes and surpluses. Their manure in turn nourishes the soil, completing a natural carbon cycle that binds together the world's ecosystems and its inhabitants. With agroecology, we can farm in harmony with nature and still feed a growing world population.


Monbiot is right about one thing: the slow pace of change in agriculture is utterly demoralising, and self-destructive. Globally, we spend $1 million per minute on subsidies for farming. That's $700 billion per year. A recent studyfound that only 1% of this total is used to benefit the environment — the rest are perverse subsidies that fund the climate crisis and global wildlife destruction. Governments continue to show little appetite for change.

With agroecology we can farm in harmony with nature and still feed a growing world population

Without transformative change on our farms, technological alternatives will become the only alternative. If farmers will not — or cannot —radically transition towards farming with nature — they will be replaced. Monbiot's bet serves as a dire warning: adapt or perish.