Climate breakdown, neoliberalism and wild futures for farming

Preamble: this piece contains some disparate threads of thinking going on this week for me, on climate breakdown, capitalism, ferming and farming. 


My recently-departed colleague Iain Watt, who amusingly, possibly accurately, describes himself as “eco-curmudgeon” on twitter, gave a presentation about climate change in our workplace before Christmas. Since then, I keep thinking about a slide (below) which shows a non-linear history of the Earth’s temperature through different climatic periods. It projects forward into what scientists recently announced as our new geological epoch: the anthropocene. It shows how we’re about to undergo the biggest shift in farming for 12,000 years. 

We’ve never farmed in a +3 or +4 degree world before. Runaway climate change, we know, will have severe implications on civilisation. Human migrations, access to water and future food production. Every day, more and more people are grappling with this. Resilience. Transition. Adaptation. Deep adaptation.

A few weeks back I watched George Monbiot take to the stage at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). His opening gambit is that nobody at the conference was really acknowledging the juggernauts that are about to hit us. Climate breakdown. Crashing biodiversity. Partly, I felt in agreement. And I thought about the slide deck for my presentation on animal feed sustainability that very morning. Monbiot happened to be in the room when I was presenting. Perhaps I should have included Iain’s slide and gave the audience a rousing provocation. Had I wrongly assumed that people already understand this and felt the urgency? More on George in a second.

Conscious capitalism?

It’s in response to this grave predicament around climate breakdown that we must seek radical solutions. New rules and structures for our economy and society. The hallmarks of capitalism: profit, growth and market competition, don’t sit comfortably in a future society that’s responding rapidly to climate breakdown.

Neoliberalism has been described as “capitalism with the gloves off”. It’s an ideology that seeks to maximise the freedom of the market by removing all barriers to the private accumulation of wealth. The problem is that many companies and governments have become wedded to neoliberal principles and are stuck designing their strategies and policies within this wrong-headed system. Every day, as I work with companies on their sustainability ambitions and plans, I feel like we’re rubbing-up against these limitations.

The other challenge is that because of the enormous power that large companies hold over society (the same companies that have benefited the most from neoliberalism), there seems to be an unspoken expectation that they must be engaged in designing tomorrow’s economic system. As happened in Davos last week, where the words “conscious capitalism” were thrown around. There was even a Tomorrow’s Capitalism conference a few weeks ago. These are fascinating discussions to be having and perhaps expose the cracks appearing in today’s system. But are we really reimagining the foundations of economics, or just rebranding capitalism to be a little more friendly – not wishing to shake things up too much?

These musings are a gentle reminder to myself to spend more time learning from the communities engaged in discussing steady-state and de-growth economics.

Ferming not farming?

Back to radical solutions and George Monbiot. Monbiot is a journalist I have enormous respect for and have learned so much from over the years. In his latest provocation, as set out in his documentary Apocalypse Cow and this article, he is advocating for a future food system in which farming barely features. In this future, technological wizardry will mean large quantities of our food will be synthesised in labs, combined with urban-based vertical hydroponic farms, this will enable us to rewild large swathes of our landscapes, helping avert the ecological collapse that we’re currently on track for. 

Monbiot is not the only one with this vision. A few months ago, I received an email from an excited colleague about RethinkX, who have written a provocation not too dissimilar about the future of food. 

While provocations like this can often stimulate a much-needed debate. I’m not enjoying this one. It feels too polarising, too far-reached and rather unhelpful. We need to find common ground on the future of agriculture. My old colleague, Mark Driscoll, wrote an excellent piece about this here, which I whole-heartedly agree with.

Perhaps some of us are not thinking “big” enough around the future role of synthesised foods? I don’t doubt the capacity of humans to make incredible leaps forward through technologies. However, what I’m hearing from these novel ingredient companies is different.

Putting subjects such as food culture, agroecology and the weak demand for synthesised foods to one side. Through my work, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with various novel ingredient manufacturers. While I haven’t spoken to Solar Foods (the start-up Monbiot is particularly excited about), I have spoken with various insect producers and fermentation-based technology companies using algae and single-cell proteins. These companies are starting to receive good investment and scaling-up beyond demonstrators.

Solar Foods: advert found on their Facebook page

However, with the exception of Impossible Foods, who claim they won’t stop until they eliminate the need for animals in the food chain, I’ve not heard claims from novel ingredient companies that they are capable of significantly displacing existing ingredients such as soy or palm.

Indeed, many are dependent on crop-based feedstocks. Algae, for example, typically uses sugar beet as a feedstock and as one professor explained to me, the sheer quantities of steel required to build manufacturing facilities to contend with palm oil, make it a difficult technology to provide a major substitution. Together, I’m not seeing a set of synthesised or novel ingredients that will make a serious dent in today’s agricultural system. I want to be proved wrong. Perhaps Solar Foods have a unique proposition that will overcome these sorts of barriers – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Not to say we shouldn’t invest in novel food ingredients. They will have an important role in the future of our food and be valuable in helping ease pressure on land. But they are one of a large suite of solutions that we need to invest heavily in. Helping us move towards healthier diets, food access, fairer incomes, increased biodiversity, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Just on the emissions front, the variety of solutions we need to massively shift agricultural emissions is demonstrated well by WRI’s analysis:

Why can’t we embrace the “less” of “less and better”?

Taking a step away from production to consumption. I’m frustrated that I still find myself having to tip-toe over using the words “Less and better” which in the UK, is advocated by coalitions of NGOs such as through the Eating Better Alliance. In the Q&A of my animal feed session at ORFC, a farmer in the audience suggested that we shouldn’t say “less. His suggestion, which I’ve heard many times before, is that we should focus on “more of the good things we want. 

Partly, I can understand where he is coming from. The word “less” is unpopular, particularly with businesses. It anti-growth. It sounds negative. Yet we really could do with less. There is widespread agreement on this across academia and in large sections of the general public. 

Tara Garnett makes the point wonderfully in her article “Has Veganism Become a Dirty Word”, where she proposes that “there isn’t a single environmental problem that I can think of that wouldn’t be improved by there being fewer farmed animals”.

Modelling future world meat production scenarios, based on FAO data.

The plant-based protein movement is happening, but it’s a microcosm against of backdrop of rising meat production. Overall there are 70 billion farmed (terrestrial) animals on our planet. This figure continues to rise and these animals need feeding. While livestock are incredibly valuable in mixed farming systems, many farms are not mixed and are incredibly degenerative. The feed, which is the biggest component of the ecological and carbon footprint, is often treated separately. Intensive livestock producers (particularly in chicken and pork) are disconnected from the impacts of animal feed and it’s often purchased with little scrutiny of its origins.

Example of the greenhouse gas footprint of chicken meat

Governments, retailers, traders and feed companies need to start saying with confidence the word “less”. “Less of x, more of y”. We need to start talking about “peak” livestock and mechanisms to facilitate a de-growth of the most damaging production systems. We’ll literally eat our civilisation to destruction if we fail to do this. It’s a hard conversation but we shouldn’t shy away from it.

I recently asked the “sustainability manager” of a major UK fish-farming company if they (or the wider industry) had ever considered environmental limits to their growth. His response: “are you seriously asking me this question!!!!”. Yes, I was completely serious. Why should this be a bizarre question to be asking?