Book review: Saying No to a Farm Free Future by Chris Smaje.
The pale green cover of ‘Saying No to a Farm Free Future’ is simple, if maybe a little wordy. The extended subtitle, ‘The case for an ecological food system and against manufactured foods’ neatly summarises the intention of this book. This is a book which really does deliver what it says on the cover. In presenting many detailed arguments, most of which are firmly pitched at refuting George Monbiot’s recent work, ‘Re-genesis' (1), the book packs a powerful punch but does sacrifice some readability as the carefully argued case, at times, runs little dry.
The book is almost worth buying solely for the foreword by Sarah Langford, the author of ‘Rooted’. Langford, a barrister, who in later life has become involved in the family farm, neatly sets the stage for the development of Smaje’s arguments by highlighting Monbiot’s ‘naming and blaming’ of farmers as ‘a land grabbing mafia’ while quoting Smaje’s reminder that ‘fossil-fuelled overproduction and maldistributed abundance’ has led to a situation where we produce 50% more calories than the world needs, when crops fed to livestock are factored in.
I particularly enjoyed her opening tale. Set at a time when the entire country was debating Brexit, Langford engages in a heated, lawyerly discussion with a London cabbie, whose parting shot, as she exits the taxi, is thought provoking. “Listen love,” he says “you can prove anything with facts.”
Smaje’s work is full of detailed facts that sometimes threaten to overwhelm. They steadily accumulate into a logical tirade that erodes Monbiot’s position. On several occasions Smaje strengthens his position by initially agreeing with Monbiot’s premise. For example, it is hard to argue against the negative impact of modern agriculture on the environment. Smaje accepts this but rather than blaming farmers he contends that the most powerful element in the countryside are ‘corporate, governmental and global geopolitical actors,’ who dictate pricing at the behest of urban dwelling consumers.
The opening paragraph of chapter one presents a need for change that Monbiot and most thinking people will accept: "that both fossil fuels and modern agricultural systems that rely on them are causing terrible problems, perhaps most importantly (to) climate change…..biodiversity…..human wellbeing.”
Monbiot’s chosen Re-genesis solution, the mass fermentation of bacterial protein in giant vats, is logically and effectively dismissed in a later chapter. Re-genesis presents a picture where the protein requirement of the entire planet could be manufactured in an area the size of Greater London. Smaje argues, convincingly in my opinion, that this technology is totally unproven on any sort of scale, that many people will reject such manufactured food and perhaps most importantly, the energy sums don’t add up. The basic energy inputs for extensive farming, thanks to photosynthesis, are free. Some detailed calculations debunk Monbiot’s fermentation energy inputs: Smaje calculates that to satisfy the world protein hunger by this fermentation method will require 89% of the world’s low carbon (2) electricity and nearly 1000% of current solar output. And this figure does not include the energy inputs of construction. Smaje concludes that it is ‘unlikely that anyone will be using……electrical energy to manufacture food that can easily be grown with free sunlight.’
Having dismissed Monbiot’s solution, does Smaje go on to deliver a convincing alternative? His concept of locally produced and distributed food feeding a population that doesn’t crowd into overpopulated central cities has a bucolic appeal. He states that local grain production, particularly in the southern hemisphere, currently feeds 70% of the world’s population. It is easy to forget this fact when, as Monbiot states when arguing against corporate influence, 90% of global grain (i.e. globally traded grain) is controlled by just four companies. Smaje goes on to make a strong case for the inclusion of animals in mixed farming systems, systems which were common until the advent of the post WWII green revolution. ‘Land-sparing’ and ‘land-sharing’ were, of course, implicit within these systems. And reducing the use of fertilisers and agro-chemicals, ensures a role for animals in farming systems (and leaves a lot of fossil fuel in the ground.)
In my opinion, Smaje’s facts have it. While not an easy or highly entertaining read, it is an intellectually satisfying, well argued work. He exhibits a strong bias in favour of local production and distribution of food, when surely, in the short term at least, some sort of ‘middle way’ compromise which balances the efficiencies of larger scale production with the efficiencies of local production is what is required? His concluding comment around our belief that ‘humanity’s technical progress’ will miraculously deliver ‘a life of ease to human and non-human species’ is thought provoking, as is his conclusion that it hasn’t happened yet!
The book logically presents a strong, fact based argument against “Monbiot’s wizardry” and as the London cabbie had it, “You can prove anything with facts!”
Lewis Griffiths - January 2023
- VetSalus Book Review. Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet, by George Monbiot | VetSalus
- low carbon = nuclear, hydro and renewables