“Agriculture is good, the factory is bad”, we think. When it comes to the global food crisis, it’s not that simple | George Monbiot

NOTNo issue is more important, and none is so shrouded in myth and wishful thinking. How we feed ourselves is the determining factor of our survival in this century, because no other sector is so damaging. Yet we can barely begin to discuss it objectively, thanks to the power of comforting illusions.

Food has the extraordinary property of turning even the most progressive people into reactionaries. People who might accept any number of social and political changes may react with fury if you propose that our diets change. Stranger still, there is a chasm between ultraconservative beliefs about how we should eat and the behavior of people who hold such beliefs. I’ve heard people quote a rule formulated by food writer Michael Pollan – “Don’t eat anything your great-great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food” – while dieting (Thai one day, Mexican the next day, Mediterranean the day after) whose palette of ingredients no great-great-great-grandmother would recognize, and who would live all the better for it.

Something is blocking us, a deep repression that stands in the way of an honest conversation. It drives food writers, celebrity chefs and some environmentalists to offer answers to the planetary crisis that are even more damaging than the problems they claim to solve. Their solutions, such as grass-fed meat, with its massive demand for land, are impossible to scale without destroying remaining wild ecosystems: there just isn’t enough planet. What is this inhibition and how does it arise?

It’s been a year now since I published Regenesis, a book that sparked shocking levels of fury even for me. I spent a lot of that time trying to figure out what makes people so angry. I think it’s because the book challenges what cognitive historian Jeremy Lent calls a “root metaphor”: an idea so deeply embedded in our minds that it affects our preferences without our knowing it.

The root metaphor in this case is exemplified by King Charles III’s love affair with Transylvania, explored recently in the New Statesman. What he found there “was a perfectly bottled model of life before modernity.” “It’s timelessness that’s so important,” the king is said to have said. “The landscape almost came out of some of those stories you read as a kid.”

Agriculture in Transylvania looks (or was until recently) as it “should” look: tiny villages where cows with their calves, ducks with their ducklings and cats with their kittens share the dirt road with red-cheeked farmers driving horses and carts; alpine pastures where sheep graze and people mow grass and build conical haystacks. In other words, as the king remarked, it looks like a children’s book.

Making hay for animal feed in Zalánpatak, Transylvania, Romania. Photograph: JasonBerlin/Alamy

A remarkable number of books for pre-literate children deal with cattle farms. The farms they imagine are nothing like the industries that produce the meat, dairy and eggs we eat, which are usually places of horror. The stories they tell are a version of an ancient romance of herders with their animals, built over thousands of years in pastoral poetry and religious traditions. Breeding in this idyll is a place of safety, harmony and comfort, in which we subconsciously bury ourselves in moments of unease.

Much of the discussion of food and agriculture in public life feels like an effort to recreate that happy place. As a result, many of the proposed solutions to the global food crisis seek, in effect, to revive medieval production systems – to feed a 21st century population. It can’t end well.

For example, there is now a gastronomic obsession with free-range chickens. Chickens, the New Romantics suggest, should follow the grazing cattle, eating the insects that feed on their droppings. As in children’s books, farm animals of different species interact. But the chicken is a non-native, omnivorous bird in the pheasant family. Just as we begin to recognize the damage caused by the release of pheasants into the countryside – they work through baby snakes, frogs, caterpillars, spiders, seedlings – nostalgists seek to do the same with chickens . To the extent that chickens feed in such systems, they mop up wildlife. In reality, they cannot survive this way, so they continue to be fed soy, often produced in the ancient rainforest and savannah of the Cerrado in Brazil.

That’s what happens when people see the pictures and not the numbers. A scene that reminds us of our place of safety at the dawn of consciousness is used as a model for how we should be nurtured, whether or not it is evolutionary. Bucolic romanticism may seem trivial. But it leads, if adopted, to hunger, ecological destruction, or both, on a massive scale. Our Arcadian fantasies are devouring the planet.

Storytelling farming never worked out the way the romantics claim. Large-scale meat consumption in the 19th century became possible only through the colonization and clearing of Australia and the Americas and the creation, largely by the British Empire, of an aspiring world system meat in rich countries. The cattle and sheep farming that fueled our supposedly traditional diet led to the dispossession of indigenous peoples and the destruction of ecosystems on a large scale, a process that continues today. When you challenge history that masks these grim realities, it is seen as an attack on our very identity.

The real solutions to our global food crises are neither pretty nor comforting. They inevitably involve factories, and we all hate factories, don’t we? In fact, almost everything we eat has gone through at least one factory (probably several) before it reaches our plates. We are in deep denial about this, which is why in the United States, where 95% of the population eats meat, a poll found that 47% wanted to ban slaughterhouses.

The answer is not more fields, which means destroying even more wild ecosystems. These are partly better, more compact, cruelty-free and pollution-free factories. Among the best options, the horror of horrors, is the shift from farming multicellular organisms (plants and animals) to farming single-celled creatures (microbes), allowing us to do a lot more with a lot less.

King Charles would probably hate that. But there are 8 billion people to feed and a planet to restore, and nothing can be achieved with lingering fantasies. I found myself contesting on the one hand a cruel, polluting and self-destructive traditional agricultural model and, on the other hand, an idyllic daydream that would lead us to the double disaster of agricultural sprawl and hunger in the world. It’s hard to decide which is the worst.

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