I agree with George Monbiot that it is essential that we curb the continuous expansion of industrial agriculture into precious ecosystems if Earth’s life-support systems are to survive. What concerns me is Monbiot’s solution (Embrace what may be the most important green technology ever. It could save us all, November 24). Close to despair at the failure of the world to take effective measures to curb this destruction, Monbiot is turning to technical fixes, such as precision fermentation, which can produce food without photosynthesis, practically from thin water. This means that 1,700 times less land is required to produce protein than in the world’s most efficient agricultural system.
But this hi-tech solution presents dangers. Even though Monbiot says that he would like poor countries all over the world to install fermentation tanks under local control, this seems unlikely. The technology, developed under corporate control, has been patented. Corporations driven by profits are unlikely to democratize control, and the technology is likely to be used by them to extend their reach over the natural world.
The only real hope comes from creating a massive global movement of climate activists, youth movements, traditional peasant movements, Indigenous activists and others. They have shown that it is possible to build resilient local food systems while protecting the ecosystem.
A sudden transition to the large-scale global production of cheap food by a tech fix could threaten the livelihoods of traditional communities when their knowledge is needed more than ever. While precision fermentation may have a supplementary role to play, it must be monitored and placed under public control. If not, it could do more harm than good.
Every time we have tried to simplify and rationalize the process of producing food, it has led to unforeseen and damaging consequences. Synthetic fertilizers, chemical pesticides, crop and grass monocultures, intensive livestock farming, herbicide-ready crops, reliance on antibiotics: the list is long. The George Monbiot who has long argued passionately for the protection of the full complexity of the web of life knows all this. But here is another George Monbiot who seems to think we can solve all our problems simply by messing about with a few chemicals in a lab. George mark one – Eco George – has often argued strongly in favor of the precautionary principle. Perhaps he should have a word with the mark two version – Tech Bro George.
Crossmichael, Dumfries and Galloway
George Monbiot’s brave new world of precision fermentation evokes a dystopian future of mega factories churning out 1,001 varieties of artificial food. The fundamental problem with this technology is that, given a choice, few people would choose it. The future of food production will involve major changes to protect the environment. However, abolishing farmed and fished foods, and replacing them with factory-made substitutes could not work, at least in countries where people are free to choose what they eat. The kind of extremist solutions proposed by Monbiot would require either nightmare, Elon Musk-style capitalism or Chinese-style state control. Please at least leave us some choices in what and how we eat.
Worthing, West Sussex