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    Will Lab-Grown Meat Save Us?

    For a sustainable future, environmentalists like me should work with farmers, who live close to the land, to our food, and to local stories.

    By Elizabeth Wainwright

    October 17, 2022
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    • Sarah

      This article needs to be published in farming magazines worldwide, whether those magazines serve large farms or homesteaders. This author has caught the picture of what a farmer faces. There is pressure from "Big Food" to become a factory, and pressure from environmentalists to quit and let the factories make all the food. Farmers need to hear this message, because it hints at a viable solution that preserves the Creation order that flows in our veins: "Take care of these animals and this land, children, because I've made them for you."

    Two places I know well – Devon in the United Kingdom’s West Country and southern Zambia in Africa – share red soils, hidden-away farms, and layers of history. I am folded into these rural landscapes – in Devon as a local politician, in Zambia as a community worker, and in both places by being involved in farming and environmental work. These places and their rhythms help me think about the connections between people and their food, and between farming and nature – how they have frayed and how they might be rewoven.

    These landscapes were in my mind as I read British journalist George Monbiot’s much-discussed latest book Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet. Monbiot offers a historic and economic view on food and farming and proposes a techno-ethical shift in our relationship with the planet. In short, he calls for a world that is free of livestock, arguing that farming is “the most destructive force ever to have been unleashed by humans.” We have sacrificed the living world for our appetites, Monbiot charges. He thinks romantic images of shepherds and cowboys don’t help. They are so deeply embedded that they color our understanding despite grim news and industrial farming. Monbiot thinks that such pastoral imagery and poetry is “one of the greatest threats to life on Earth.”

    I wonder whether he has read the poetry of Ted Hughes. In his 1979 collection Moortown Diary, Hughes paints a picture of farming in all its death, mud, and roughness through the lens of a farm in Devon, where he lived for much of his life. In the introduction to the updated version, published in 1989, Hughes remarks on the changes he was witnessing. The old Devon farmers were “buried deep in their valleys.” But “how completely that ancient world and its spirit vanished, as the older generation died off and gave way to sons who were plunged into financial nightmares, the technological revolutions and international market madness that have devastated farmers, farms, and farming ever since.”

    cows and mud in a farm in Devon

    Devon, England

    Monbiot and Hughes would agree that intensification is destroying soil and nature, farmer and farmed. Monbiot looks at the debates surrounding food and farming, climate change, animal welfare, and biodiversity. He explores forms of organic horticulture, and suggests freeing up land for regeneration by replacing livestock farming with “precision microbial fermentation” – vat-grown protein from bacteria that can be made in factories anywhere in the world. He marvels at the complexity of soil (though oddly doesn’t seem to extend the same wonder to the food we eat). Monbiot’s statistics are compelling, and his work can help respond to some of the challenges of our time. But if Hughes were still alive, I think he would be cautious of Monbiot’s trust in an animal-free technological fix. His poetry whispers reverence and hidden realities. He recognizes animals as food but also as significant to our understanding of other things.

    Reverence and Reality

    I get down from the pickup and Chesney, a beef farmer, hands me the gun. It is nighttime in Zambia. A soft breeze stirs the grass and the air smells of warm earth and animal. It is the weekend, and we are helping out with the local impala cull to manage stocks. I take a deep breath and look at the impala which seems unbothered by the vehicle’s floodlights as it grazes a little way off. It looks like a sand-stained deer, saturated with sun and savannah. I bring the gun to rest in the crook of my shoulder.

    “Remember to lean into it,” Chesney says.

    Lean into what, the gun? The animal? The imminent death? Lean into this part of me I’ve not yet encountered? I lift the gun’s cold body to my face and look through its sight. The impala is looking at me. I breathe to steady myself.

    Crack. The gun declares itself. It kicks hard, but I have practiced and stay standing. “Shot! Now go to it.” Chesney reaches to swap the gun in my hand for a knife. The impala is the first animal I’ve killed, and I’d been told I should cut it open, find its liver, eat some – an act of reverence and connection to this land. The night gently urges me to communion with the animal. I arrive at its motionless body, kneel, say “thank you.” I put my hand on its warm head and trace the contours of bone and muscle down its neck. Life has left the body, but I wonder whether it has fully departed this place yet.

    I feel the creature’s chest, pause, and finally bring myself to insert the knife, grateful for the residual anatomy training I remember from a half-completed medical degree, trying to transpose the arrangement of human organs onto the impala’s shape. The smell of metallic blood and digesting food rushes to meet me. I scrunch my face up and rummage into the creature to find the liver, easing it out. It slithers hot in my hand. Chesney is now standing behind me.

    “Good on you! You should eat it if you can.” I wonder if this is all a joke, a way to test me. I learn that it is not.

    Impala

    Impala Photograph by Mikkel Houmøller

    I consider the liver. It is smooth, shining, and a deep purply-pink color. I think of cooking liver with gravy and onions, willing to eat it that way, detached. I lift the handful of creature to my mouth and bite a piece. It is hot in my mouth. I fight an urge to gag, chew, and finally swallow. Chesney slaps me on the back and smiles. We are so different but we have become friends. He walks back to the pickup and reaches over the side, finds the cooler, withdraws beer. There are two other farmers with us, and we sit together in the quickly cooling night drinking slowly warming beer, talking about how they’ll preserve the impala meat and share it with neighbors, and about their farms and the land they love. That night, I think about the food we eat, and the farming that makes it possible; I think about the links between growing and consuming, death and life. Taking the creature into my own body reminds me that the kingdom of God is not distant, it is among us and within us. If “you are what you eat” then I am the impala, I am the grass it ate, I am the sun that grew the grass, I am the stardust that made the sun – everything in intricate unity.

    I thought back to the impala and Chesney as I read Monbiot’s book. I wanted more recognition of the nuance and diversity of people and places. It is good to explore the scientific possibilities of food production if we are to feed a growing and increasingly urbanized global population. But stories and traditions are just as necessary to engage people and, crucially, to nurture relationships between farmer and consumer, between rural and urban, between past and future. Recently, these stories have been flourishing. Books by Grace Olmstead, James Rebanks, Patrick Laurie, Sarah Langford, and others ask readers to think about what farming used to mean, what it has become, and what it could mean again. And there are writers who have long warned of the dangers of disconnecting individuals from community, and communities from the land – such as Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry and Devon native Philip Britts. Theirs is not the “bucolic fantasy” that Monbiot warns against.

    False Narratives

    Monbiot is often cast as the embodiment of the environmental movement and opponent of farming, a narrative that feeds the seemingly intensifying culture war between farmer and environmentalist, rural and urban, local and global. I’ve repeatedly found that this simplistic us-versus-them narrative, which suits the media and corporate interests, crumbles when we actually speak to one another. I know plenty of farmers and ecologists who are working together for the good of people and place.

    As well as being an oversimplification, the narrative of farmers versus environmentalists leaves the back door unguarded, through which commercial interests are sneaking in. When the global financial system broke down in 2008, banks had become huge and operated in synchrony so that disaster rippled out. The system had lost its diversity and resilience. There are echoes of this in global food production, with four companies controlling 90 percent of global grain trade. Agricultural conglomerates post record profits while consumers pay record prices, family farms struggle to stay in business, and both the environment and rural communities suffer. Exploitative agribusiness co-opts how we shop, eat, and think, but we will not see Big Food’s reach as long as we believe the debate is between farmers and environmentalists.

    It is not farmer versus environmentalist, then. Paul writes to the Galatians “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” This culture war is holding us back – it blocks communication, relationship, and understanding while more powerful forces get their way. If we are to restore our soils, resist exploitative commercial interests, and ensure a fair and sustainable future, we’ll need to start by listening to each other and working together.

    Building Understanding

    Reading Monbiot, I’m transported back to 2019. I’ve recently been elected a Green Party district councilor in a rural, traditionally Conservative-voting district in Devon. I’m on my way to a summer fair in one of the parishes in my ward, but I’m new here and feel out of place as I step into the hall. The space is alive with community, color, and things made by people who shape raw material into flowers, bowls, shepherds’ crooks, quilts. I’ve arranged to meet Jim, a beef farmer and chair of the local parish council. He sees me and walks in my direction, weaving through the crowd, his height and movement bringing to mind a shark fin cutting through waves. He’s a seventy-something, Conservative-voting local cornerstone and I am nervous.

    As Jim nears, he beams at me. He has earth pressed into the creases on his face and hands. “Welcome. Glad you could make it.” His voice is gentle, rolling like the Devon fields he farms.

    We walk around the hall and Jim introduces me to some of the parishioners. They are curious. Afterwards, I learn some had assumed I’d be a “radical environmentalist,” unsupportive of farming. Writer John O’Donohue says, “Tradition is to community what memory is to the individual.” I represent a rift in that tradition, in the memory of this place.

    But presumably some of these people did vote for me; perhaps they were grasping at change because of how their rural communities are being threatened on all sides by economic, political, and cultural forces beyond their influence. Finding a way forward will require diversity of thought and experience, just as a healthy ecosystem needs biological diversity. Now, despite our differences – in experience, politics, age, and more – Jim and others here are my friends. We may live in divided times, but we don’t have to live in divided places. We can work together to reweave a frayed relational fabric, a fabric that forms the foundation of our connections to the land, to nature, and to the future.

    Many people have lost a sense of kinship and connection with the environment. A recent exhibition at the British Museum traces this disconnect back to the shift from hunter-gathering to farming, when animals came to be seen not as kin but as property to be traded and gifted. But having lived among and worked with family farmers in rural Devon and Zambia, I’m not so sure. For thousands of years, farmers stewarded land and fed communities. It’s only recently that farming intensified to feed profits and international markets. Stewardship became extraction, sapping soils, communities, and health. It’s not traditional farming but greed, speed, and reductionist thinking that have alienated us from the land and from each other.

    Putting our hope in technology is not a complete solution for a healthier future; top-down solutions are insufficient in a diverse and interconnected world, and flawed priorities and commercial interests will inevitably follow. Regenerative farming is one approach that is restoring soils and biodiversity, creating local supply networks, and strengthening community. But these farmers are busy growing food – we can’t also leave it to them to educate the public, create policy, and stop greedy corporations. I am hunting for a more complete answer that we can all participate in.

    Resistance

    Once, a man called Daniel was taken, along with other young Jewish men, to serve in King Nebuchadnezzar’s palace. Daniel and three others were given new names by the king, and were educated by him, but they refused to be fed by him. They rejected the royal diet and ate vegetables and water instead. “At the end of the ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food,” the ancient book says.

    This story isn’t a call to become vegetarian. It is about reliance on God, resistance to the king’s power, resistance to forces that would twist us and have us think we’re someone we’re not. Daniel is able to resist assimilation into the empire. As with bread and wine, or loaves and fishes, food is a way to understand something bigger.

    We too can resist. We can resist false narratives, like the one that says farmers and environmentalists are on opposite sides of a debate. We can resist the labels and judgment that so easily come with diet. We can resist the gravity of empire when it screams at us from screens and packaging, and instead search for what’s true. We can resist despair, and instead find beauty in this imperfect world. We can resist the ease of tribe, and instead see a neighbor in everyone. And we can, as Philip Britts said, “not make the mistake of capitalist civilization by considering our human business the sum of life. This error is responsible for who knows how much need, how much starvation of soul, how much lack of light.” Perhaps the real question then, as Britts suggests, is not “How should we farm?” but “How should we live?”

    Rejoining Soil, Soul, Society

    How to live is beyond the scope of this essay, but I’ve been thinking about the places I know, and the things they’re showing me about reconnecting food, nature, and people. There are many, but I’ll share three. Firstly, national and international initiatives must properly listen to and enable good local solutions. I’ve seen in local politics and international development the convenience and limits of outsiders doing things to fix communities, and of one-size-fits-all solutions. But Philip Britts says a good farmer is one who “realizes that for each part of the farm there is a best natural use of the land” and I think the same could be said for good solutions to shared challenges – looking at this particular land and its rhythms, people, soils, needs, and strengths. If “precision microbial fermentation” provides a solution for improving nutrition in some places, that’s good. And if pasture-fed cows suit other places – like here in Devon, where rainfall is high and the grasslands are lush and hilly and sequester carbon – that is also good. Monbiot says the problem with regenerative farming is that it is “yield blind,” requiring a lot of land to produce a small amount of food. I think parts of the environmental movement can be “place blind,” not taking into account locally incarnate wisdom. To suggest we do away with livestock farming feels blinkered and privileged – I have met women across Africa who have not been able to own land but could own a goat or a cow. As Diana Rodgers’s film Sacred Cow explains, a cow can be a source of income and a link to community. Viable solutions will be more complex than declaring “no meat,” because we live within complex systems – soil, social, economic, political – though we oversimplify, painting issues in black and white or in the colors of our preferred political parties, which can become ideological cages.

    Secondly, some local environmental projects and farms need help to engage effectively with the right information, resources, and partnerships. Localism is beautiful when it is restorative, but can stagnate when it becomes cut off, intentionally or not. Sharing skills and knowledge is vital, and we all have something to offer. In local government and in community development, I see how language and process can either engage or detach people. Rather than scripted and restrictive meetings, we need the language and spaces to have honest conversations and form meaningful partnerships that bring together our diverse strengths.

    Thirdly, we will not restore our relationship with the land if we do not restore our relationship with each other. This might include learning how to listen and disagree, and getting to know people who are not like us – farmers, politicians, environmentalists – creating a diverse whole full of creative tension and unexpected encounters that reveal old and new ways. I initially didn’t see how my story would intertwine with this ancient place of thick hedgerows and accents I sometimes struggle to understand despite growing up in Devon. But I’ve found that stories intertwine and solutions emerge through relationship – not leading with policy, technology, or money but with humanity, affection, and listening. It’s not a quick fix, but here in Devon it is slowly translating to things like local food networks, cross-party initiatives, and information-sharing among farmers and environmentalists. The bonds of community – offline and online too – can help consumers become more informed, can help young environmentalists engage with good local food producers as well as global net-zero campaigns, can help farmers nurture their spirits as well as their soils, and can help those using destructive practices (in farming, politics, or business) feel supported to change instead of, as one local farmer shared with me, feeling judged.

    Since that first conversation in the village hall, Jim and I have become friends. We walk around his farm, and I ride with him and his border collie Bob to visit other farms in his muddy blue Land Rover. My husband and I buy his family’s Red Ruby Devon beef. “We’re having our soil’s organic content tested soon,” he excitedly tells me over a cider. Jim and his family care deeply about their animals, their soil, their community.

    These patches of Devon and Zambia help me to listen, care, and understand – and then offer what they have given me back to the people and the land, back to a bigger whole. I am finding my place in that whole too. It might take more patience and cultivation than a technological fix, but everything we need is right here in us, in each other, in the world around us.

    Contributed By Elizabeth Wainwright Elizabeth Wainwright

    Elizabeth is a district councillor, writer, walking guide, and coach. She has a background in international development and has lived and worked around the world.

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