These are the notes from a talk I gave at the UK’s Association of Independent Crop Consultants annual technical conference in Northamptonshire on 16 January 2020. The actual speech was much more interesting … sorry!
Watching George Monbiot’s narcissistic epic, Apocalypse Cow, I realised this was an important turning point for the ag-tech community. Monbiot portrayed modern (“industrial”) agriculture as the great evil facing man and nature, one that must be stopped within the next two decades if the planet would ever have a chance of survival. The Guardian activist columnist used half an hour of British broadcasting time to portray farmers as poisoners, as nature’s nemesis and as our biggest obstacle to biodiversity and a low carbon future. Monbiot is no stranger to hypocrisy (a vegan who shot and ate Bambi) and his tunnel-vision was faithful to the Extinction Rebellion death-cult message: we need to stop all farming and leave nature to heal itself in some mass rewilding of the British countryside.
In Monbiot’s pretentiousness though lies a great opportunity. His precautionary calls leave demands on society that are unsavoury to say the least (not just meat, we will also need to give up the consumption of cheese, butter, eggs and thus most baked products). We would be expected, according to the food zealot, to acquire a taste for synthetic, lab-grown nutrients (don’t get me started there).
As it’s claimed that industrial agriculture has destroyed nature, the climate and biodiversity, it is this agriculture that must be stopped … completely.
Why attack farming?
Farmers are kind, honest, hard-working people committed to putting food on our plates. Why though, since the EAT-Lancet Commission, have they been painted as the scourge of the planet? Why are farmers attacked on their tractors? Why does Monbiot want to rewrite children’s tales to portray farmers as sources of evil? There are several reasons.
Far from the land. Two generations ago, most people in western countries either grew up on a farm or had grandparents who tended the soil. With the agriculture evolution over the last 50 years, the rural migration has left a large percentage of the population with no link to the land, no understanding of how food is grown and no concern for the challenges farmers face. Like Monbiot, many urbanites think food comes in a box from an app that can be dictated according to their moral sense of purpose and privilege.
No crises. The innovations in agriculture over the last 50 years have been impressive. When one sees how technology has secured harvests in even the most inhospitable conditions from before the seed goes into the ground to the cover-crops preparing the soil for the next harvest, the capacity to provide western economies with food security on less land with fewer inputs has been truly excellent. But agriculture is a victim of its own success. Millennials cannot recall a major global famine and believe that agriculture can easily adapt to their personal demands and food fashions. Food abundance, low prices and sophisticated logistics chains means the public does not understand the concept of scarcity or food insecurity.
Poor lobbying. In Brussels, many agricultural issues are handled by DG Santé – the health directorate. No farming interests are taken into account in the process. In the last few years, farmers have had tools like neonicotinoids taken away out of activist-fabricated concern for the bees, leaving them to either use older, less bee-friendly technologies or abandon pollen-rich crops like oilseed rape. New plant breeding techniques (that could provide countless sustainable farming solutions) have been branded as GMOs on the initiative of a French peasants association frightened by the competitive disadvantage organic farmers would soon face. And then there is the ‘glyphosate goblin’. Europe’s inability to help farmers in the battle against weeds will lead to a soil degradation that will throw agriculture back to the 19th century. The only voice farmers have concerns the Common Agricultural Policy and innovation is not one of the prime spokes in that wheel.
So Monbiot had an easy target in his pompous assault on agriculture. But in doing so, in fabricating a fear (that we must abandon agriculture so that humanity could survive), he has created a greater crisis than any famine could have delivered. In crisis comes fear that society will lose benefits. No one wants to give up naturally-grown food (Monbiot’s proposed solutions are plain stupid), so the focus is on agronomists to provide solutions to keep farming sustainable, to keep us from having to eat non-farmed synthetic tissue. Agriculture is now facing its moment of truth.
AIDS: When Precaution is not Enough
The Risk-Monger is a member of Generation AIDS. I was just coming of age when the scourge of AIDS swept through affluent, promiscuous societies. The precautionary solution (don’t have sex, take precautionary measures) was a knee-jerk reaction to the perception that humanity was facing imminent extinction. The alternatives proposed (essentially denying sexual pleasure) were not at all what much of the public wanted so the population looked to the research community to save them, to reassure them they could continue to enjoy such pleasures and be safe. As much as the pharmaceutical industry was suffering PR nightmare after PR nightmare in the early 1980s, they were looked upon as heroes when researchers showed how HIV could be contained. While no cure for AIDS has been found in the last 40 years, the public was reassured that the technology could allow for their lifestyle to continue practically uninterrupted. Armageddon avoided.
This present crisis is the agronomists’ equivalent of that AIDS moment.
Faced with the threat of ecosystem collapse and catastrophic climate change, a petrified public is being told it is all due to agriculture and their food choices; they are being told they have to give up naturally-grown food, meat, dairy and eggs in order to save the planet. In response, we are reaching out for help to save the pleasures no member of the (non-vegan) public would willingly give up.
Researchers have the next few years to show how innovations in agri-technology can solve these problems. We need to see a progress in innovation, a reduction in farm greenhouse gas emissions, improvements in the environment and a guarantee that agriculture is working for the future.
The audience is captive and concerned. Most of humanity does not want veganism imposed on them by a band of smarmy, virtue signalling, cosmopolitan zealots. Our practices and traditions are appreciated and the idea that we have been contributing to the destruction of humanity and the planet is disquieting. Like the AIDS crisis, agronomists need to deliver hope for continuation in western culinary tradition.
Some Reality Maybe?
Time for a rare dose of reality…
We are not facing an Apocalypse Cow end-of-days scenario due to modern agriculture. To the contrary, sustainable solutions are advancing at an impressive rate and more technologies coming up (from digital farming and precision agriculture to plant breeding solutions) will unleash a new generation of innovation to make our agricultural footprint even smaller. Pioneers in conservation agriculture are improving their soil each planting season and learning more about what farming can actually do to help nature.
The public, however, are influenced by an alarmist-driven media and activists controlling the narrative. They do not see these benefits and thanks to loud cartoon characters like Monbiot, farmers are being denied the already existing technologies to make agriculture fit for a climate-stressed world.
In other words, this is a communications challenge.
It is also a human nature challenge. The problem is quite simple. People rarely react unless their backs are up against the wall – when they are facing a crisis and risk of a serious loss. We need a crisis to spur us into action. Negotiations are only agreed upon five minutes to midnight. Students only get serious the night before the exam.
So now we are told the world is perched on the edge of an unthinkable crisis “caused by our food choices” and is facing a stark decision: a wholesale change in diets towards orange synthetic grains made in a lab that vegans like Monbiot want us to eat … or more sustainable, farm-grown natural food.
With our backs against the wall, if communicated well, that choice should be easy.