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Against a Dystopian Farm-Free Future

In an effort to make diets and agriculture “sustainable,” urban bureaucrats make policy based on industrial agricultural data, completely ignoring experience and practices coming out of holistically managed operations.

Farm with barns and silos dot the Thornburg Virginia landscape near where Stonewall Jackson died
(Photo by: Visions of America/Joseph Sohm/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Some green activists have come to the conclusion that agriculture itself is necessarily destructive to the climate, biodiversity, and soil health. Thus World Economic Forum–adjacent thinkers call for a “farm-free future” with food primarily manufactured via precision fermentation and other scientific processes that result in products like lab grown meat. This idea, that we could simply eradicate the entire class of farmers, the land stewards who produce the world’s food—84 percent of whom are smallholders—in favor of corporate processed food products has been spiking in interest, especially among Silicon Valley types.

Chief among these “farm-free” advocates is George Monbiot, a vegan activist and, naturally, a Guardian columnist. A champion on the other side of the debate is Allan Savory, the originator of the idea of “Holistic Management” for livestock systems who has spent his life managing game reserves and ranchland around the world. Monbiot and Savory have engaged in an ongoing debate, which represents two very important poles in the fight for the future of our environment: reductionist eco-modernism versus a holistic, regenerative approach to land management.

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An eco-modernist like Monbiot sees humans as the enemy, a fundamentally flawed and dangerous creature meant to be removed from pristine nature if that ecology is to have any chance. The holistic approach, typified by Savory, sees human beings as stewards of the Earth, a force for good when guided by the right principles. How did the environmental and conservation movements become so divided?  

The most recent iteration of the debate was a Guardian interview wherein Monbiot took Savory to task over his claims that Holistic Management can reverse desertification and sequester carbon by mimicking natural, symbiotic relationships between grasslands, ruminants, and predators to build topsoil, increase biodiversity, improve nutrient content, and hold water to prevent soil runoff. Monbiot himself used to agree with this argument. But he has made a surprising about-face in recent years, going so far in his recent book Regenesis to argue for a “farm-free” future where our food is grown in labs—presumably under the control of a handful of corporations—and humans can exit “nature” to allow it to rewild without us, while we live in dense, urban environments eating manufactured lab food.  

Intellectually, Monbiot’s approach is in the lineage of Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes and Kant, who claimed that we can know the world by reducing it to measurable parts. This is also the root of the oft-repeated “follow the science” phrase, which puts its faith in the ability of experts to reduce all complex questions into isolatable variables that can be measured and analyzed with a result of clear indications for how to act in the world.  

Allan Savory’s approach, meanwhile, hearkens back to the thought of Goethe or to Francis Bacon and his natura naturata. Their approach to understanding the natural world rivaled the rationalists’ scientific method, which was oriented to the study of an inert nature; instead it suggested we should take an interactive approach to vital nature, or natura naturans, through experience. Holistic Management attempts this more naturalistic approach to science, assuming that to understand complex and interconnected processes, we must interact with them in situ and observe them through time.

The way Holistic Management works is not a specific standardized set of practices, like those found in industrial agriculture. Instead, Holistic Management presents guiding principles for agricultural management that will adapt to the specificities of the land: rainfall, current soil health, latitude, sunlight, climate, and many other factors. It is therefore very hard to collect standardized data, which require isolatable variables that can be measured in the same way everywhere. Thus if, like Monbiot, you require rationalist inert data to assess a system, it simply won’t be as readily available in Holistic Management as the data resulting from industrial agriculture. Even soil scientists whose day-to-day work involves trying to make regenerative agricultural practices knowable in reductionist scientific terms acknowledge conclusions cannot be generalized; they remain place- and ecosystem-specific.

Monbiot and his fellow Cartesian rationalists handicap their ability to understand complex ecological systems as soon as they make measurement of inert nature, out of context, a condition for understanding. In argument with advocates of holistic agriculture, this leads to all sorts of name-calling—“pseudoscience,” “greenwash,” “climate denial”—and also draws dangerous conclusions about the future of food, conclusions that would, in effect, eliminate all local food sovereignty and put control of basic sustenance in the hands of a few “precision fermentation” corporations.

This is where draconian calls for a global diet or global agriculture come from. In an effort to make diets and agriculture “sustainable,” professional managerial class bureaucrats in cities make policy determinations based on aggregated industrial agricultural data, completely ignoring experience and practices coming out of holistically managed operations, because those are not standardized or able to be aggregated globally. In an ironic twist considering the moralizing with which these bureaucrats justify their overreach, in the name of sustainability, these elites from the Global North end up seek to advance industrial agriculture and food centralization at the expense of small producers, often pastoralists, in the Global South.

It is through something like Savory’s approach, with its holistic understanding of natural processes in-context and promotion of the positive role humans play as stewards of their environment, that the most self-sufficient societies on the planet have maintained a balanced relationship with the ecosystems on which their lives depended. It is the false promise of the Enlightenment that we can control nature to the extent that we will be free from the burdens of its limits. But limits will persist. As we face an uncertain future, instead of subjecting the world to quantification and measurement, we can attempt to understand complex, place-based processes of nature through observation and iterative experimentation, natura naturans.