Food for thought: Writer George Monbiot, left, and farmer and Prospect columnist Tom Martin. Photography for Prospect by Paul Black

George Monbiot and Tom Martin on the end—or rebirth—of farming

Humans have raised livestock for millennia—but is it time to stop? We asked a writer with a radical idea and a farmer with faith in his industry whether the age of animal agriculture needs to end
September 8, 2022

Ellen Halliday, deputy editor: The big question is, can farming be part of the solution to the climate crisis or is it contributing in large part to that crisis? Tom, why don’t you give us your opening take on that question?

Tom Martin: There’s no doubt that there have been some mistakes in farming and the industry has contributed to where we are. During the postwar years we just focused on yield. We were paid by the government to remove meadows and hedges. Now we could look back and think, “gosh, that was the worst thing we’ve ever done. We’ve been absolute vandals.”

Farmers are producers of food and, deep down, they are also stewards of the countryside. But they’re steered by the government and led by the market. That’s probably how we’ve got to where we are.

The reason I’m really excited about being in farming is that I think the industry has a huge role in tackling the climate crisis. Last year on our farm we emitted about 600 tonnes of carbon but sequestered about a thousand tonnes.

George Monbiot: I think that the most important shift—on the scale that we need—is to stop animal farming altogether. Only this degree of system change is commensurate with the scale of the challenge that we face. It’s a land use issue. We rightly campaign against urban sprawl because it damages the countryside, but the entire area occupied by humans is only 1 per cent of the terrestrial surface of the planet. Farming, by contrast, occupies about 38 per cent of land—but only 12 per cent of that is arable (and on some estimates almost half of arable land is used for growing food for livestock). The rest—the other 26 per cent, which is basically all the land you can use that aren’t protected
areas or forests, ice caps, deserts or mountain tops—is grazing land.

Animals that survive by grazing alone produce just 1 per cent of our protein. This is a phenomenally profligate way of producing food and a wasteful way of using land. If that 26 per cent of land were instead rewilded and ecosystems were restored—and our economy significantly decarbonised—we might be able to draw down enough carbon to survive the 21st century. In fact, it’s very hard to see how we will get through the 21st century if we don’t consider rewilding on that scale.

Tom: I’m not a confrontational person, George, but I’m going to say something confrontational. You’re a great speaker and I would almost say an idealist. Farmers have different motivations. I could wax lyrical about regenerative farming—on my farm we’ve had our best-ever yields on half the nitrogen input, because we’ve become obsessed with making our soil more resilient—but as a collective, our motivation is profit. That’s what leads our human ecosystem.

We need idealists. But for me, the idealist begins with I. You’re an anti-capitalist who wants everybody to be vegan and is a bit chippy about landownership. That means your variety of solutions [to the environmental crisis] is different to my variety of solutions. I want to be the realist but equally, I don’t want to be asleep. And I think that’s the danger: in lots of different areas, we could be asleep.

George: I would turn it the other way around. I call myself a realist because I’m an idealist. I believe the only realistic approach is system change. There’s a hopeless realism in pursuing incremental change—in doing a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s hopeless because it offers no hope. Tweaking existing systems is just not going to get us there.

It’s very hard to think of examples of incremental change that have led to dramatic shifts of the kind that we need, but there are many examples in history of rapid and effective system change. Look at marriage equality, which just a few years ago was considered an abomination by many people across Europe. Then gay rights campaigners very effectively widened the circle of social acceptance until it reached a tipping point of support from 25 per cent of the population. Within a few years, only a bigot would oppose marriage equality. People perceive when the status quo is changing, and they tack round to catch that wind. That’s the only way that significant change can happen.

Ellen: Compared with other big shifts in society, this change in the provision of food and farming… I mean, we’re talking about a global scale. We’re talking about action from governments across the world. Gay marriage—that’s not been a global shift. That’s been here and there.

George: It’s European, primarily.

Ellen: So how plausible do you think a global shift is?

George: There’s already been a major shift in food consumption towards what we call the global standard diet. Away from local cuisines, towards a diet where people of a similar income level are eating basically the same food, wherever they might live on Earth.

That’s happened with tremendous speed, led partly by the availability and price of these globally standardised foods, partly by the development of global marketing by global corporations. But whatever the reasons for it, the fact stands that it has happened. It can be done. And we are far more flexible about the diets we might be prepared to adopt than we tell ourselves we are.

As it happens, the technologies required to enable that system change [away from livestock farming] have come along just when we need them most. Precision fermentation—the creation of protein-rich, fat-rich foods from single-celled organisms, rather than from the flesh and secretions of animals—uses a tiny fraction of the land footprint, the water footprint, the nutrient use and other environmental metrics. It gives us the opportunity to address three great crises, all at the same time. One, how do we feed everyone? Two, how do we prevent the collapse of life on Earth? And three, how do we draw down carbon emissions? It is the most important environmental technology ever developed.

George Monbiot: Farming’s the only industry which attacks its own consumers for changing their taste

Ellen: Tom?

Tom: I think it’s great if the cost of producing alternative protein falls below the cost of meat. Globally, we’re led by price. It’s not a case of farmers vs vegans; I grow food for everybody. So if the market wants to pay me a bit more for lamb and a bit less for grain, I’ll probably produce a bit more lamb. And if the market wants to pay me a bit more for grain, but less for lamb, that’s where I think the—

George: Farming’s the only industry which attacks its own consumers for changing their taste.

Tom: Well, I think we’re led by consumer taste, as well as by government. And when you say that farming’s the most destructive thing, I mean, farming has also fed 8bn people.

George: That’s absolutely right.

Tom: It’s feeding mankind which has caused the negative impacts that we absolutely see. It’s not that farming’s bad and everything else is good. Incidentally, milk, meat and eggs provide 13 per cent of energy and 28 per cent of protein globally.

But I think we need that variety of solutions. We need idealists, we need realists, and we need idealists who are also realists. I was reading through some of your final chapters [of your book Regenesis] in particular, and I was thinking, gosh, we’re going to need to rewrite our regulations for countries all around the world. We’re going to need to overthrow capitalism, really. I mean, if we’re boiling it down, we’re going to have to change the structure of how we do things. We’re going to be seizing land because it needs to be rewilded.

George: Rewilding isn’t about seizing land—I’ve never proposed any such thing. It’s about changing economic incentives. Farmers, as you rightly pointed out, are highly adaptable. You’re really great at responding to economic incentives. The great majority of livestock farming on Earth is entirely dependent on farm subsidies—there wouldn’t be any in this country without them. Worldwide, we spend half a trillion dollars a year on them. And the great majority—in fact, almost all—are environmentally destructive. I’m calling for a repurposing of that money. We could continue to pay farmers but pay them to do something entirely different, to restore ecosystems. There’s no coercion in this. It’s just a better use of public money. Public money for public goods, not for public harms.

But at the same time, I think there will be other economic and cultural burdens on the system. There’s a great latent disquiet about animal agriculture, partly because of the horrendous welfare implications of killing around 76bn animals a year, the great majority of which are kept in atrocious conditions in factories—but also because of people’s growing awareness of the environmental implications.

I foresee a techno-ethical shift taking place: the moment we have a better, cheaper, healthier, and a much, much kinder—in terms of environment and animal welfare—means of producing our protein-rich foods, this idea of keeping and eating animals in order to produce our food will become, for many people, intolerable.

Tom: I take your point on subsidies—though we can disagree about whether they are a cheap food policy or a pretty blunt economic instrument. But I do think farmers for a long time haven’t engaged with the public. We’ve sold stuff off the farm, and that’s it. And actually that’s terrible. Farming’s the fourth industry I’ve worked in, but it’s the only one where we’re not engaged with our customers. We’ve got middlemen—people buffering us from our consumers. They’re the real decisionmakers, the people who are buying the food.

Sarah Collins, assistant editor: It sounds to me like what you’re saying, George, is that as soon as a cheaper, environmentally friendly product is available, the tipping point will be reached. People will want that product. There’ll be such huge demand, it’ll just happen. But what you’re saying, Tom, is that until consumers show farmers that there’s demand for this really cheap, environmentally friendly food, farmers have to keep working with what’s going to make them profit. How do both of you square that? How do you start that process when the incentives aren’t there at the moment?

George: I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction there. Obviously, we can’t eat new foods until they’re available. We can’t survive on promises. My own approach as a consumer is to say, “I don’t want to eat animal products anymore. I have switched to a plant-based diet because of the environmental impact.” I’ve become a vegan not because I’m an idealist but because I’ve become aware from a huge canon of evidence about the environmental impacts of an animal-based diet. We could reduce our land use by 75 per cent by switching to a plant-based diet. The problem is that the global appetite for meat is outstripping the shift—in a few nations like ours, among a small number of people—towards veganism. We need something very big and global, and we’re going to have to do it blinking fast.

Tom: You know, you’re dead right. And the pace of change in farming has never been as great as it is now. We’re recovering things that we’ve forgotten about. And we’re bringing in new technology. That’s what’s exciting about it.

George: I would challenge that, Tom. I think even if farmers were able to take things as far as they can possibly go along that route, my estimate is that you might be able to reduce impacts by 5 to 10 per cent. We need to be reducing impacts by 90 to 95 per cent plus. Otherwise, we really don’t stand a snowball’s chance. It’s not going to happen through incrementalism, however brilliant some of that incrementalism is. I applaud what you’re doing. Absolutely. I just don’t think it’s enough.

Tom: And I hear that. But I think there is a lot happening. We have halved the amount of nitrogen that we use on our fields. Throughout the year at different times, we are using certain bacterial and fungal inputs that help a plant to be stronger, so it can better deter attack. We haven’t used insecticide in five years on the farm. We’ve seen some great results—you’re more than welcome to visit!

So I do think farming is part of the solution [to the climate crisis], but we’ve got nuclear, we’ve got solar and that kind of thing. In your book, you’ve pitched a solution. But it feels like it would just be so easy for [precision fermentation] to become controlled by big companies. And if we want to bring this to farmers around the world, having microreactors and vats and various different things… I just can’t see that happening.

I try to be malleable and flexible, but I’m just not seeing that. And that’s why I talk about [your idea] being part of the solution. But equally, I wouldn’t say [my approach is] just “incrementalism.” I think there are pockets of revolution happening all over the place. And those, together, actually amplify and make significant differences.

George: Sure. It’s absolutely true that there is a real danger of big business taking over. We urgently need to ensure that antitrust laws are strong and intellectual property laws are weak. Unfortunately, in every sector, it’s gone the other way around, which is why we’ve got Amazon and Google and a lot of other monopolists. The other point is that big business has already taken over the existing food system. Four companies control up to 90 per cent of global grain trade. My conclusion from that is not that the global grain trade is wrong—because without the global grain trade, most of the world’s people would starve.

Tom: Yeah. Lebanon would be in a different position…

George: Absolutely. But we can’t afford to have that monopolistic control of any essential commodity. And that applies as much to the existing food system as it does to the new food system that I want to see implemented. So you’re absolutely right to bring this up as a real and important issue, but it is in no way unique to novel foods. It’s a real and important issue we need to deal with right across the spectrum of production.

The global food system currently looks highly fragile. It looks like the global financial system in the approach to 2008. And part of the reason for that is corporate concentration—companies have become too big to fail. You could bail out the financial system with future money, but you can’t bail out the food system with future food. So this is a very dangerous situation, and for the reasons that you raise. But they have to be dealt with everywhere, not just in novel foods.

Tom Martin: The opportunity for change is broad, and farming is a significant part of the answer

Ellen: You talk about ending livestock farming. What are the levers that need to be pulled to make that change happen?

George: We have very little time. The great thing about the industrial transition that I proposed is that it could be scaled extremely rapidly… You would need governments to get behind it to make the shift happen fast, but technically it could be done really quite easily.

Transition from one industry to another can happen rapidly—it would likely follow the trajectory of what business strategists call an “S curve”: slow at first and then very fast, before slowing down to a plateau of general use. It’s typewriters to computers. It’s Kodak to digital. It’s that speed of transition which is entirely plausible. And then, because so much of the existing system depends on state subsidies, that too could be changed very quickly indeed.

Tom: I would argue it’s so beyond the bounds of plausibility. I don’t want to be anchored in where we are now and just say, “well, too bad.” But I’m hearing elements of lots of different things that we’ve failed to do in the past. I mean weakening property rights, developing antitrust laws. Changing our regulations. Moving away from capitalism. We’re somehow going to outlaw oligopolies. We are going to disseminate technology. I mean, are we going towards anarchy?

George: No, no. We’re going towards social democracy.

Tom: We’re talking about complete political change—that’s what it would take. And, I mean, it sounds really exciting, what you’re proposing. But I’m not with you on the premise. I think the opportunity for change is broad. It’s diverse, it’s multifaceted. And I return to the point that farming is a significant part of the answer.

I don’t want to be a moderate because I hate the idea of being lukewarm. But I think I come back to that multiplier effect of technologies, options, solutions and outcomes. I’m incredibly positive about where we are, and also incredibly terrified about where we are as well. But you can’t be a farmer if you aren’t positive. Whatever happened last year, whether there was famine or disease, or feast and high yields, we put a seed in the ground the next year. And we hope.

George: I don’t deny what you’re saying: that everything I’m proposing is highly ambitious. It frightens me, the scale of the change that we need to make in such a short period. I’m not saying this is going to be easy and I’m not saying it’s even the most likely outcome. But it’s the only hope we’ve got. And if we don’t pursue change at this scale and at this speed, then I see the window closing—the window which permits human life and most of the rest of life on Earth to persist.

Ellen: Tom, in one of your recent Prospect Lives columns, you wrote about farmers’ “instinctive vision for a green and pleasant land,” which immediately reminded me of William Blake. And in one chapter in your book, George, you write that we have an idea of a pastoral idyll deeply ingrained in us through poetry, the Christian tradition and so on. How important do you think that connection to a pastoral idyll is, in terms of both driving change within farming, but also, potentially holding back progress?

George: We’ve been trading in pictures when we should be trading in numbers. We’re prepared to ask hard questions when it comes to the use of fossil fuels, for example, and the greenhouse gas emissions that they produce. But we are reluctant to ask hard questions about yield, land use, water use, about fertiliser use. We are, as a world, quite food innumerate.

The problem is that we are so lulled by the poetry of farming, which goes back to Theocritus in the 3rd century BC, looking back nostalgically to the shepherds in his native Sicily from the busy cauldron of Alexandria where he was living, and casting them as the seat of innocence and purity and the city as evil and corrupt. A very similar strand of thinking went through the Old Testament. Then Jesus comes along, who’s simultaneously Agnus Dei, or the lamb of God, and the good shepherd. These two strands were brought together in the European Renaissance. And then they came roaring back in the 20th century with books for very young children, so many of which are about the idealised livestock farm, with one rosy-cheeked farmer with one horse and one pig and one cow, and one cat and one chicken. All that creates an idyll that we latch onto and say, “We want farming to look like that.” We latch onto the pictures when we should be dealing in numbers. We should be saying, “How much land is being used? How much is being produced on that land? What are the carbon emissions? What is the fertiliser use? What’s the amount of pollution going in the rivers?” All of those questions are the questions which we neglect because we are seduced by the poetry of farming.

Tom: We can agree and disagree on those points. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I think you would probably much rather have opposition than a lack of interest. You’d rather have people who want to engage. When people fill their cars with fuel, they don’t think about what they’re doing—that they’re digging up stuff out of the ground, burning it. What I think is really important now is that we’re actually aware [of where our food comes from]. I’d rather people disagree with me than they were lukewarm and not interested.

George: I feel the same.

Tom: Right now, we’ve never been more divorced from where our food comes from, yet we’ve never been more interested in it. I run a project called Walk the Farming Year, where people can pay to come and walk with me every six weeks during the year for two hours on a Saturday morning. We talk about everything—they’re learning and they’re engaging with where their food comes from. They’re making decisions rather than just getting up every day and putting the same clothes on, putting the same things in the shopping basket.

I think, deep in all of us, we’re all drawn to the land, the soil, the outdoors, nature. I would say I’m for anything that reconnects us. And so if part of the solution to the climate crisis comes from a vat, great. But that would put more things between people and that deep-seated understanding of where their food comes from. That would allow them to become lukewarm.

George: I totally get that, Tom. And listen, I strongly applaud what you’re doing there. I think that’s a really important part of the picture. But you never get intensive livestock farmers taking you around their chicken factories with 40,000 birds or their 3,000-strong pig factories.

The great majority of our livestock products come from those factories—but people don’t want to believe it and they don’t want to see it. They live in a bubble of delusion. Farmers say if people understood our business more, they’d be more sympathetic. But I think it would be a total disaster for livestock farming if people understood where the great majority of livestock is being produced. They’d be far less sympathetic.

Tom: I mean, I encourage farmers to show people what happens on the other side of the farm gate. All in. What we want is a realistic portrayal of what’s happening. That’s why I say to farmers, “Open the farm gate.” We haven’t done that for years because we have those middle people, but actually, it’s important that we do it. And people are interested. They want to understand where their food comes from. They’re passionate.

George: They’re definitely interested in the outdoor farming that you show them. But I think people are actively uninterested in the intensive factory farming which produces a great majority of our livestock products. They don’t want to know any more than they want to visit a slaughterhouse. In fact, there’s a remarkable stat from the US, where around 90 per cent of people are meat eaters and 47 per cent believe that slaughterhouses should be banned. Because we want to have it both ways. It’s livestock cakeism.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity