Apocalypse Cow and techno-saviours? Time we thought about people & planet, not products

9th Jan 20 by Daniel Jones, Policy Researcher

Lab-grown foods - the future of farming? Daniel Jones is concerned about the triumph of industrial, corporate agriculture in another guise.

“Put simply, there’s no way to produce enough meat for 9 billion people. Yet we can’t ask everyone to become vegetarians. That’s why we need more options for producing meat without depleting our resources.” Bill Gates

Old white men have been worrying about who’s going to eat what for a long time. But ever since a bloke called Malthus started fretting back in the late 18th century, a slightly more optimistic set of thinkers started confidently talking up the power of technology to provide more and more and more food, from the latest pesticide, to drone crop husbandry and high yield – but highly restricted – seeds genomes.

The quote opening this blog, from the plutocrat Bill Gates, shows the latest iteration of this philosophy. In Apocalypse Cow, screened last night on Channel 4, George Monbiot doubles down on this argument. In his vision, a vastly reduced global footprint of farming through new technologies can spare land for rewilding and feed a growing population.

The concern about rising meat demand plugs straight into familiar worries about population growth. As populations grow and GDP rises, an unstoppable desire for more meat is seen as inevitable. More meat undoubtedly means more land, more water – and less forest. Meat, in short, is inefficient. This is why sci-fi ideas such as cultured meat have gained so much traction. They allow us, as historian Warren Belasco neatly puts it, to believe we can have babies and steaks too.

And we really need to talk about it. In short, if like Bill, we try to solve issues of food security and environmental destruction through a product, or technology, we forget about the politics.

The kind of agricultural practice we adopt at once reflects and reinforces the approach we will utilize in all spheres of industrial and social life. It is therefore vital when considering ‘future foods’ to ask what forms of industrial and social life they would create. For those of us working on food issues, transforming the food system is a process of moral and political persuasion. It’s messy. It’s diverse. It involves being wrong. And at its core, it involves engaging people actively in the food system, not further divorcing them from it.

Those that use science to suggest that new food technologies and products will provide a magic fix for environmental and food security problems fail to understand that a technology is only ever as strong as the political, social and economic forces that promote it. A new meat-analogue is not automatically a “win” for the environment, a “win” for animals and a “win” for people. Tech-burgers will only ever do good in the world, for people, planet and animals, as part of a wider movement for human rights and social, ecological, animal justice.

These new meats are a like for like replacement of the old, but not only in taste. They do not aim to change the economic model or challenge the concentration of power in our food system.

George Monbiot acknowledges this risk but fails to fully grasp it. This is because the ideas that go into the bio-reactors of this new wave of tech foods dictate the ideas that come out. Techno-utopianists in richer countries provide the starting “culture” for this new wave of products. The products they will create will reflect their tastes and worldviews.

Despite its good intentions, the rewilding movement so central to Monbiot’s thinking has long been blinkered to the broader social justice implications of its work particularly in the Global South, failing to interrogate how its arguments can be co-opted and adopted to reinforce long-held and problematic visions of an environment without human influence.

It is therefore disappointing, but not surprising, to see Apocalypse Cow’s European bias exclude any reflection of what the potential impact would be on countries whose economies are centred around agriculture, forestry and fishing, where most of the world’s poorest also live. What would a rapid de-agrianisation mean for climate and food justice?

In my mind, products like the Impossible Burger and a 3D printed steak are analogous to geo-engineering technologies: carbon capture and storage and blasting mirrors into space to deflect the sun’s rays. Technological fixes that simplify the stupefying complexity behind global problems, providing hope for those with the luxury to contemplate – and buy it. These technological fixes have, in the past, largely been rejected by environmentalists like Monbiot because of the risks, not only environmentally, but in the delay afforded by faux-optimism and the potential for detrimental impacts. “Farm-free” foods will be just the same, a new hobby horse for venture capital while investors continue to provide financial fodder to industrial animal agriculture.

The past is littered with foods of the future. So, for the time being, invest in people, not in burgers. Innovation doesn’t always mean shiny new bio-reactors. It can be simple, new constellations of long-held wisdom; it can be new voices amplified and empowered and shifting away from problematic patterns of (Western) consumption. It could also, simply, be distributing the food we already produce more equitably: gleaning, feeding livestock on leftovers, reducing consumption of meat in countries that eat more than their fair share. Animals not alchemy; Ecology, not engineering; Planet and people, not products.

Image credit: Fabrice de Nola, 2008. Flesh Lab, digital C-Print, cm 60×90.

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