Jim Thomas’s must-read essay: “George and the Food System Dragon”
Jim Thomas has kindly given GMWatch permission to publish his brilliant essay about George Monbiot’s promotion of genetically engineered bacteria grown in bioreactors as the techno-fix for the world’s food needs, in which Jim highlights the gaping holes in Monbiot’s argument and the disturbing way Monbiot has taken to dealing with those who dare to point these out.
Jim originally wrote this for his scanthehorizon.org substack. There he has begun writing about new technological trends, biodiversity, and food justice, drawing on his many years of research and activism in these areas. This includes being until recently the Co-Executive Director and Research Director of the influential ETC Group – or Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, to give it its full title.
For nearly thirty years, Jim has been at the forefront of international policy debates and campaigns related to emerging technologies, helping to achieve, for instance, United Nations moratoria on geoengineering and Terminator seeds. It’s an understatement to say that he is highly regarded, with even Mark Lynas, the ecomodernist critic of the environment movement, praising Jim for his “integrity and honesty” and his willingness to engage in dialogue.
Talking of Lynas, about the only point in Jim’s essay that we disagree with is where he says that George Monbiot began his crusade to revamp the world’s food production by “picking a fight not with agribusiness but with the food sovereignty movement” and then riding “alone into the food battle behind a sword and shield of science, statistics and shiny technologies”. In our view, George Monbiot very deliberately avoided crusading alone by choosing to ally himself with Mark Lynas and other ecomodernists that he had previously condemned for their obsession with techno-fixes. And he has actively promoted and vigorously defended his new allies, rebranded with his help as the faux environmental group RePlanet, in the face of exactly the kind of criticisms that he himself once levelled at them.
That small caveat aside, we cannot recommend Jim’s essay too highly. Apart from being a very good read in itself, it’s full of the kind of information and analysis that repays not just reading in full but re-reading. You can also explore all the links in Jim’s essay at scanthehorizon.org, where you can also subscribe to Jim’s substack.
George and the Food System Dragon
Folks from the UK (and activists from beyond) have likely heard of George Monbiot. He’s a left-wing eco-intellectual opinion leader with a weekly column in Britain’s Guardian newspaper. I recall a newsletter writer in Oxford who used to regularly refer to George as “the Greatest Living Englishman”. He may well be right – personally I quite like the guy.
I mean personally as in I do know George a little bit. For some years we lived on the same street in Oxford and I used to be invited around to supper occasionally since we were two of the only people in our social set who ate meat. That’s ironic because George has since become a firebrand vegan evangelical of the most eager kind. Indeed, George’s latest book – Regenesis: Feeding The World Without Devouring the Planet – presents livestock production as one of the worst things. (I appreciate his direction of travel, but not all the specifics). Animated by his strong conclusions about livestock, George nowadays argues for replacing farming (yes, all of it – especially where animals are part of the farming mix) with high tech industrial food production. Specifically, he advocates for harvesting protein from genetically engineered bacteria grown in bioreactors. He calls this “precision fermentation” – a recent PR term for “synthetic biology” (itself a hype term for “genetic engineering”). It’s the sort of sci-fi corporate technofix I have fought against my entire career.
George first flagged his bullish backing for biotech-brewed bacterial banquets by way of a slightly bizarre and bombastic episode. In early 2020 he barrelled into the Oxford Real Farming Conference (a UK agroecology gathering) to confront the assembled small farmer crowd. Accusing them of being as outdated as typewriters, he informed them that they would soon be crushed under the wheel of inevitable progress as “precision fermentation” relegated farming work to the sidelines of history – and none too soon. It was not a good way to open a constructive conversation, nor was subsequently caricaturing his audience as a braying pack of backwards-looking, pitchfork-wielding reactionaries unable to hear the new gospel. In focusing his considerable powers of intellect and communication towards addressing problems of our food system, George appeared to have decided to open his crusade by picking a fight not with agribusiness but with the food sovereignty movement. He regards their celebration of peasant and small farmer production as an impediment to the one true way. Claiming that bucolic visions of farming life hide an ecological hellscape, George provocatively declared that “The greatest threat to life on earth is Poetry”. To slay the dragon of a harmful food system, the Greatest Living Englishman decided to sidestep the peasants as allies. He instead rode alone into the food battle behind a sword and shield of science, statistics and shiny technologies.
Shortly after that Real Farming Conference confrontation I met up with George for lunch; I was passing through Oxford and thought it a good opportunity to explore in a friendly way our disagreements over the role of synthetic biology. But I was surprised to encounter George in full battle mode: armour on, hackles raised, self-righteous. Despairing of political progress on climate, he told me that he felt that there was now no choice but to gamble on technological fixes. He accused me of not really grasping how dire the climate crisis was. He told me he was offended that I was eating an avocado. I was thrown off by the hostility. I had sought out George because I had always been impressed by him as someone who did disagreement well: kindly, gracefully, with humanity. I was particularly a fan of an exchange of letters between George and musician/activist Theo Simon in which they debated nuclear power. I thought of it as a model of how activists could publically air differences respectfully while agreeing the real enemy remained systemic.
Zoom forward to this month – a whole pandemic later – and George has recently published a 5,500-word essay on food and agriculture. Again the armour is on and crusading George is riding forth. Entitled “The Cruel Fantasies of Well-Fed People”, George boasts on X/twitter that he is proud of writing this new piece. I confess, by contrast, that I feel pretty nauseated by it.
The target and reason for the essay is to battle a key critic of Regenesis (George’s “Food” book), British agrarian writer Chris Smaje. Like many in the UK food sovereignty and agroecology movement, Chris, an admirer of Monbiot’s earlier work, had been sideswiped by George’s turn to advocating high-tech industrial food. In the tradition of radical pamphleteering, Chris then published Saying No to a Farm-Free Future as a direct response to Monbiot’s Regenesis. At the heart of Chris’s critique is naming the inappropriateness and infeasibility of trying to move global food production away from the land towards electrically powered hydrogen and biotech vats. He frames this in the context of the already large energy requirements needed to manage a green energy transition. Chris advocates instead for a return to small-scale rural food economies as the better path forward though the jaws of the climate and biodiversity crises. When I read “Saying No to a Farm-Free Future” (I recommend it – it’s a slim volume), I was relieved that Chris had remained consistently gracious and respectful towards George throughout (like Theo had on nuclear power) – even while taking apart his arguments. In these days of twitter cancelling, online trolls and mirror-world conspiracist culture war, I think it very much matters how we conduct our disagreements.
There is a popular online meme that focuses on what makes a productive disagreement versus a degraded spat. This triangle diagram called “Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement” is based on a short essay by Paul Graham called “How to Disagree”. It encourages people to move away from unhelpful tactics such as name calling, ad hominem attacks and overly focusing on tone, towards more substantial engagement and refutation of actual arguments. At the pinnacle of a good robust disagreement, claims Paul Graham, is engaging with and refuting your opponent’s central point. It’s a helpful metric for assessing how well a writer has engaged their opponent, or just thrown up mud and theatrics.
I feel that George’s article, “The Cruel Fantasies of Well-Fed People”, doesn’t do well when measured against Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement. George spends a lot of rhetorical huff and puff questioning Chris’s morality – trying to present Chris as a callous “well-fed” ideologue, leading an unnamed movement, who “treats billions of people as disposable” and “promotes what appears to be a recipe for mass starvation” or “formula for mass death”. Chris is described by George as peddling “the great cruelty – common to colonialism, capitalism, communism, Nazism, neoliberalism”. And so another online disagreement meme becomes relevant here: namely “Godwin’s law”, known as “the rule of Nazi analogies”, which states that as an online discussion grows longer (regardless of topic or scope), the probability of a comparison to Nazis increases. Personally, I feel that, Nazi name-calling aside, accusing anyone of causing mass starvation is a pretty serious accusation – best kept for accusing actually powerful people: e.g. the states and corporations bombing civilians, forcibly grabbing land in central Africa, or inflicting crippling debt and austerity measures. Accusing a rather unknown and mild-mannered ruralist writer of clearing the way for the third horseman of the apocalypse is a pretty low blow. Coming from a journalist with a big public platform, it comes off petty, defensive, even defamatory. But that’s all about tone – low on the triangle.
Back to what makes a good disagreement. It is notable that George’s 5,500 word defence is absolutely silent on one of Chris Smaje’s two central points: that brewing bacterial protein for the masses is energetically infeasible and unwise in the context of the necessary green energy transition. George reserves some of his most sneering huff and puffery to accusing Chris and other food sovereignty advocates of being unable to deal in hard numbers: “If there is one habit that incites fury more reliably than any others” he writes, “it is to put numbers on the problem. Hectares, yields, nutrients, calories, inputs, outputs, costs, emissions, hunger, death: any form of quantification is as welcome in this arena as a tambourine in a Bach sonata.”
Yet Chris absolutely DOES put numbers on a problem that George studiously avoids acknowledging – the problem of wishfully thinking that we can bacterially brew our way to food security. In his book, and then more fully online, Chris carefully lays out the maths for why George’s calculations about the energy input to produce bacterial foodstuff is off by a factor of four. He shows that every kilo of bacterial protein will require at least 65kwh of energy - twice the daily energy use of an average US household. This is electricity use which in aggregate would then have to be added on top of expected additional electricity demand for electric vehicles, electric heating of our homes, running an ever-ballooning internet, cloud and AI infrastructure and much more – all from clean energy sources without damaging mining and extraction for the infrastructure build out. Food would seem to be an unnecessary use of additional electricity generation since for now agroecological land-based food production doesn’t require electricity at all. Incredibly food really does grow on trees.
Besides the electricity use challenges, I can suggest other reasons why feeding the world with synthetic biology protein may prove unfeasible or problematic. Some I did mention in passing to George but he either didn’t grasp them or felt too confident that the tech-boys will find a clever way around them. Anyway, here are three – I admit I haven’t put numbers to them:
1. Nutrients - In Regenesis and elsewhere George likes to present his bacterial banquet as a free ride on thin air, surf and sunshine. Hydrogen producing bacteria, in his version, consume only oxygen and water and transform this into magical edible bacterial biomass to offset land-based farming. It’s not that simple though. All living things use DNA and RNA – nitrogenous nucleic acids which arrange themselves on a phosphate backbone. Therefore, bacterial protein production, like land-based food growing, requires ongoing nutrient addition of phosphate and nitrogen as well as other elements – which must be acquired, mined, carried etc. with additional energy and biodiversity costs. Of course, industrial agriculture already requires large amounts of these artificially acquired inputs but not agroecological farming which draws nutrients from soil and animal wastes. In seeking to decouple food production from soils and animal agriculture, George is implicitly arguing for a greater take of phosphate and nitrogen through artificial and extractive means (e.g. phosphate mining).
2. Contamination – So-called “precision fermentation” is not a virginal industry, it’s been around well over a decade as “synthetic biology”. Companies such as Gingko Bioworks, Amyris Biotech, LS9 and Solazyme (the last two no longer exist) promised that they would engineer bacteria to produce biofuels, plastics, food ingredients, textiles and more. Despite billions of dollars of investor funds and plenty of “steel in the ground” the industry hasn’t succeeded in creating an endless flow of bulk biofuels, food oils or industrial chemicals. Instead, most of their profits are from smaller niche markets – flavours, fragrances, biopharmaceuticals – that are high value but small volume. Several of the Syn Bio startups who launched promising high volume bulk production either failed or switched to these more niche compounds. One reason is contamination. Wild bacteria and yeasts are a constant foe of fermentation processes. Once they get into a fermenter, wild type microbes can change and spoil the production and if you contaminate a batch of bacterial protein or speciality engineered foodstuff that may have safety issues. For commercial survival, Syn Bio companies pivoted to products that could be profitable in small tightly controlled volumes. The bacterial food future that George dreams of is not such a small manageable niche. It will pose a significant technical and feasibility challenge to scale up bacterial protein without the problem of contamination – and even harder to do so without exorbitant financial and energetic investment in ever multiplying numbers of steel tanks. For this reason, at least one company in Canada wants to do away with steel tanks for bacteria and use genetically engineered flies as bioreactors instead – I kid you not.
3. Chlorine, fossils, platinum – George’s preferred technology is brewing hydrogen-eating bacteria. The hydrogen for this has to come from somewhere and the two most likely sources are processing fossil fuels or splitting water with electricity. George unsurprisingly prefers the latter route even though in the real world most hydrogen is fossil-derived. Another common means of commercial hydrogen production is the chloralkali process which produces the toxic chemical chlorine with hydrogen as a byproduct. Basing the food supply on a process that manufactures excess chlorine may be asking for trouble but the chemical industry would love to have more chlorine produced under such a green smokescreen. For now, hydrogen production requires a catalyst such as platinum, with problematic mining impacts. Catalysts based on nanoparticles may be possible but bring their own novel toxicity challenges.
None of these challenges are the killer argument against handing our food system to biotech breweries – but as you start to add them up then feasibility and desirability falls quickly away. More significantly sourcing food in biotech factories requires a reorganization of the food system to be highly centralized, arranged into corporate-mediated value chains flowing from industrial processing facilities. To my mind that is exactly the corporate industrial food chain model at the root of so many of our current problems. We don’t want the food system concentrated in the hands of less and bigger corporations. Such a concentrated food system is unfair, extractive, easy to monopolize and very vulnerable to external shocks – which we are going to see more of in our unfolding century of crisis. Consider which food system is more likely to fall over in the face of climate catastrophe, dictatorship or cyberattack: a handful of large electrically dependent food brewers or a distributed network of millions of small farms and local food relationships spread across diverse landscapes?
Which brings us to Chris’s other central premise in “Saying No to a Farm-free Future” – the one that George does attempt a partial response to. Chris argues that the way to organise food to survive in the face of climate crisis is to withdraw away from the corporate controlled industrial agrifood chain and attempt instead to put power back into the distributed local “food web” of small growers, local markets and peasant-type production. This “food web” may sound “backwards” to modernist global north sensibilities of someone like George but it is what still characterizes much of the food systems of the global South. It is also better suited to our times of crisis and challenge. Strengthening food webs is not a “one stop” bold breakthrough. Rather its a distributed social process of “muddling through” together in diverse and different ways that are at best agroecological and collective, culturally and ecologically tailored to different geographies. The food web (or “agrarian localism” as Chris terms it) can’t be summed up in one shiny totemic widget. It doesn’t fit a formulaic “stop this, go that” campaign binary (“stop eating meat, go plant-based”). Leaning into the complexities of local agroecological diverse food webs is maddeningly unsellable as a soundbite. George presents agrarian localism as a “withdrawal” but it’s more in the gesture of “staying with the trouble” – a phrase feminist scholar Donna Harraway so brilliantly coined to dismiss big, male, over simplistic technocratic solutionists who claim to have the “one big answer” to our global polycrisis (sound familiar?). Staying with the trouble and leaning into food webs means embracing a messy politics of relationship, nuance, context, complexity and co-learning. It means a single clever journalist sitting in Oxford can’t dream up a cracking saviour formula all by himself in the space of a two-year book project. It’s why (and how) we build movements – to figure this stuff out collectively. So relax – take off the armour – make friends.
I think that understanding the difference between the food chain and the food web offers the opportunity to unpack assumptions that lie beneath George’s rather crude and emotionally loaded attack on Chris Smaje as a hunger-monger. Doing such unpacking destabilizes George’s core arguments in Regenesis. It’s ultimately about that insistence on numbers.
As I understand it, at the heart of George’s arguments in Regenesis (and now restated in his “Cruel Fantasies of Well-Fed People” essay) is a contention that the titanic of our current food system is on a crash collision with the iceberg of global heating which will sink much of our food supply in a conflagration of heat stress, drought, flood and rising climate catastrophes. In broad strokes I think George is right up to this point. George, who claims to have read over 5,000 academic papers in writing Regenesis, lays out the numbers that describe this catastrophe in more detail and shows that if we are to launch his preferred lifeboat of “rewilding” nature sufficiently to rapidly recapture Co2 then the land and resource footprint of the food production enterprise is going to have to radically shrink. Using numbers from FAO, often by way of neoliberal website Our World in Data (who he seems to quote approvingly at every turn). George sketches a picture of a food supply struggling to keep up with a growing global population and climate pressures. In his neo-Malthusian telling, understanding rising hunger and managing food futures within this situation is a simple matter of maths: Take the 9.5 billion tonnes of primary crop production reported in the commercial global market, minus both the billion or so tonnes fed to livestock and the amount of grain and oils diverted to biofuels and then divide the remainder by 8.1 billion people and see if there are enough calories per person to be fed, while acknowledging the distributional effects of high prices. Given that he wants to launch rewilding lifeboats, this approach is why George is so keen to remove livestock from the picture – if land is not being wasted for livestock protein, it could be rewilded without impacting hunger. That improves the overall maths – feeding more people on less land.
In the latest essay George goes further. He stakes out an additional view that within this equation monoculture industrial agriculture, while exacting a heavy toll on the planet and people, is nonetheless the tool that has kept more and more folks alive and staved off famine – so we mess with it at our peril. Noting the lower percentage of populations dying in acute famines, George claims that the lower levels of hunger as a percentage of global population stem from two key features of the industrial agrifood chain: the growing of large amounts of grain in certain “breadbaskets” and the success of long distance food value chains to move food (grains anyway) from those breadbaskets to the rest of us. George acknowledges that the industrial monoculture of those breadbasket regions is problematic but says we have to acknowledge that system is what’s keeping hunger from the door. It’s what I’ve heard called the “abusive husband” argument for agribusiness – as long as this horrible abusive system still puts food on the table, we shouldn’t walk away from the relationship or go to the police. We should be grudgingly grateful. It’s premised on the idea that There Is No Alternative (TINA).
Specifically, George claims: “Much of the world’s food is grown in vast, lightly-habited lands (US plains, Canadian prairies, Russian steppes etc) and shipped to tight, densely-populated places.”
I think George is dead wrong here. Wrong because what he perceives as “much of the world’s food” is not “much of the world’s food” at all – at least not much of the food the world actually eats. In all of his writing about food and agriculture George systematically invisibilizes two thirds of the food that actually feeds people. There isn’t one unified food system to talk of – there are two (or maybe many). The formal statistics and data that George holds up for his assertions actually count only the food in one of these systems – the industrial food “chain”. The chain is the commercially structured food system that organizes its activities along an economic value chain. It is relevant and important but it’s a woefully incomplete picture of the food system.
While he was writing Regenesis, I pointed out to George that 70% of the food that people actually eat is grown in another system – by small producers in peasant and local food webs – in gardens, urban agriculture, small plots and through fishing and gathering. This 70% figure is a common statistic first calculated by Pat Mooney of ETC Group. George replied that this just wasn’t credible, pointing to a paper by Vincent Ricciardi et al which models food flows and concludes that small farmers actually only produce 30% of the food supply. Ricciardi’s article was, in fact, written as a direct response to ETC’s 70% statistic. It was an arresting article and on the face of it seemed to be backed up by another paper from FAO authors that also came to a similar sounding “30%” statistic. Yet when my colleagues and I dug into these two papers, they began to fall apart under scrutiny. I knew Ricciardi’s thesis supervisor personally (Navin Ramankutty at University of British Columbia – oddly, like George, another former neighbour of mine) and, when we talked in person, Navin acknowledged that some of our critique was right and the paper shouldn’t be overly-relied on. The bigger problem, we both agreed, was that we didn’t have all the right data about informal provisioning to reach reliable conclusions.
In the end I helped draft a critique of the two “30%” studies which ETC Group and others published here under the title “Small Scale farmers and Peasants still feed the world”. The reasons we defend and double down on the broad message of the 70% claim is spelled out in that paper, but basically both papers had serious methodological flaws. The Ricciardi paper was biased heavily towards over emphasizing European food systems. Both papers drew only on formal FAO and national statistics about commercial production, which systematically invisibilized the many other ways that people grow, gather, access and provision food outside what is counted in the marketplace – especially in the global South where peasants and small producers are most numerous. Researching and writing that response helped clarify for me that we still don’t have much hard data about the real food systems that actually feed people and keep them from hunger. Not acknowledging this other system of the “web” leads to careless invisibilizing of billions of people and mountains of food. Until the invisible is made visible and the uncertainty acknowledged, basing policy proposals on the partial statistics of the industrial food chain may create deadly decisions about our food system.
So when George writes that, “Much of the world’s food” is grown in a few breadbasket regions and shipped to cities, he is making an unsupported assumption looking at very partial evidence. By contrast, he should consider the implications of this 2015 study: McDonald et al, Rethinking Agricultural Trade Relationships in an Era of Globalization. This shows that (after non-food uses are accounted) only enough food calories were traded across borders to feed 1.7 billion people. That’s less than a quarter (23%) of the global population that year (2015 global population was 7.3 billion). Indeed, 23% likely overstates the nutritional role of the international food trade since it assumes that all of those calories equally reach consumers. The FAO calculates that 17% of calories in food value chains are in fact wasted at the grocery or household level. A further 17% of food is “over-fed” to the same people leading to obesity and metabolic disorders. So the real number of calories traded across borders that actually feed people may be somewhere closer to around 15% (around one sixth) of the global nutritional needs (equivalent to feeding 1.1 billion people). Much of that flow (according to trade flow analysis) heads to the global north. The remaining 85% of people (mostly in the South) were presumably fed “locally” from territorial food webs including territorial markets – not kept alive by long global food chains of grain, as George presumes. Here’s what the FAO says about the relative importance of long food chains vs territorial markets in food security: “The available research and information on markets that are embedded into local, national and regional food systems confirms that they are crucial not only for ensuring market access to smallholder farmers, but also for food security and nutrition, since only 10–12% of all agricultural products are traded on the international market (FAO, 2015).”
George cites a study in Nature to back up his contention that long food chains are needed to feed people. The study looks at 6 key crops (so called “staple” foods) and concludes that only “11-28% of the global population can fulfil their demand for specific crops within a 100km radius”. Weirdly, George claims this study shows that, “Most of the places where large numbers of people live do not have sufficient fertile land nearby to support them”. It doesn’t show that at all. Once again, like the Ricciardi paper, the study works only with data available from the traded commercial food system, invisibilizing much of the food web. More significantly, it doesn’t actually speak to food security at all – as George misleadingly represents it – rather to food preferences. It notices that people like to buy rice or tropical root crops in locations far away from their key growing regions and shows that those far away regions need to be supplied by long chains to meet the multiple market preferences of people in those locales. It’s the sort of study that food traders would use to structure their marketing and logistics activities but it’s not about combatting hunger. To answer that question the study would have had to ask if there was sufficient nutritious food available (not just six select commercial value chains) for all populations within a 100km area – including through counting subsistence and non-market sources. It didn’t attempt that.
Since George mostly drew his conclusions on the food system from reading (but seemingly not questioning) 5,000 academic food studies it’s not hard to see where his invisibilizing bias against the 70% comes from. Academics need reliable comprehensive numbers to write reviewable articles and the easiest numbers to hand are about the food chain and food trade. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organisation and others such as the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism (CSIPM) are right now trying hard to point to the importance of these previously invisibilized and undercounted territorial markets and territorial food systems of the food web, since accounting for them changes the overall global food picture. In a recent FAO report on Mapping Territorial Food Markets it is noted that, “A number of studies show that the majority of fruits and vegetables in low-income countries (LICs) are still purchased through territorial markets. Territorial markets are not only key retail outlets for fruits and vegetables, but also for animal source foods and staple foods. These trends indicate the relevance of these market outlets on a macro-level. However, data concerning the availability of the different food groups and characteristics of food retailers and consumers in territorial markets are seldom considered in national data collection systems”. The same report reiterates that “the markets in which smallholder farmers most commonly operate are systematically neglected, often due to pervasive gaps in information about these markets.”
There are case studies that do start to look at this question of the territorial web versus the industrial chain. For example, FAO reports the following: “Karg and Drechsel (2018) studied the dependence of urban centres on their ‘hinterland’ over several seasons for more than 50 commodities in several cities in West Africa. According to an analysis of more than 40 000 records of food flows in two cities, about half of basic urban food needs were met by farming within a distance of 100km. Extending to 300km, 80 to 90% of all food items were sourced for Tamale, Ghana and 60 to 80% for Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. In comparison, an average processed food item found in shops and supermarkets travelled 3700km before reaching local shelves.”
The same statistical biases may unfortunately also creep into some of the abstracted data on hunger that George cites. I want to be clear that I have absolutely no doubt that hunger is a very real, terrible and growing force in our food system today, and tackling hunger should be at the core of how we address the multiple challenges we face – indeed, it is at the heart of the food sovereignty approach, which demands food be treated as a human right not a commodity. Many people see and feel hunger firsthand in both urban and rural settings. However, the metric by which George refers to hunger in his essay “Prevalence of Global Undernourishment” draws on estimates of the total caloric supply per country taken from FAO’s food balance sheets that in turn do not account for availability of subsistence and non-commercial food sources. So, for a real accurate picture on hunger that metric has to supplemented with other types of information such as household surveys and more qualitative on the ground reporting. The data we have only gets us so far.
What this means in practice is that not only do we not have any good statistics on how most people in the world get their food, we also don’t have a very full statistical picture of who is and isn’t starving once non-commercial and subsistence territorial food systems are acknowledged. With numbers alone, it’s hard to discern what is causing or softening hunger. George argues in his essay that the reduced bite of famine events is thanks to the increased trade in food across borders moving calories quickly to where they are needed. This makes some sense in the specific case of short-term emergency food aid but it’s a stretch to generalize that the long chain food trade is responsible for generally rounding down hunger between these acute events. The reduced bite of famine may even be thanks to stronger territorial food economies and concerted decade-on-decade action to support small famers and local food markets. When famine hits many emergency relief organizations now prioritize buying local food first and redistributing that (to protect territorial systems) – not moving grains from the other side of the world. Equally, it was instructive that through Covid governments and movements alike moved to strengthen local food economies and territorial co-operation in face of the clear vulnerability created by dependence on long food chains.
Worryingly, I notice in George’s writing on food that while he forcibly presents his assumptions as fact, and demands that food sovereignty folks back up their views with numbers (that just may not exist), he then doesn’t present much compelling evidence to support his own big counter-assertions. An example of this appears in his “Cruel fantasies” article where George argues the need for long food chains (and bacterial production?) specifically to feed cities where over 50% of the global population now live. George asserts that long chains are needed because “Cities can grow only a tiny fraction of their food,” pointing out that urban areas occupy only 1% of the planet’s land, and this land is in high demand for other uses.
But do cities grow “only a tiny fraction of their food”? Again, I think George is wrongly bringing his narrow experience and assumptions from a UK context into misrepresenting global food systems more broadly. In the global South newly urbanized peasants living in favelas, townships and large towns routinely continue to raise animals such as chickens and pigs and grow food in back gardens and urban spaces. Much of what are considered “urban areas” are actually big towns and sprawl contiguous with peri-urban space and peri-urban growing is also important to how a city subsists. Cities are not just the downtown core he is imagining. There are back gardens, wastelands etc.
While he was writing Regenesis, George took issue with an aspirational target ETC Group and IPES food had made in our Long Food Movement report. We imagined it could be possible that by 2045 up to 25% of the world’s small livestock and fruit and vegetable consumption could be supplied by urban farms and households”. George wanted sources for the feasibility of this target and so my colleague Pat Mooney, who has continuously studied food systems and fought hunger since George was in nursery school, passed on a few relevant references. This included a 1996 report that 15-20% of global food output is grown in cities (Smit et al 1996), which was updated in 2001 here and another that estimated eight hundred million people were practising urban agriculture (UNDP, 1996). Another OECD study, Pat referenced, reported that in the US in 2005 over 56% of GDP from farming, forestry, and fishing was produced in “metropolitan areas”. A further example was a study from Detroit that found that if all the empty urban land in that city was assigned to vegetable growing “even amateur gardeners should be able to produce twice as much fresh vegetables as the city can eat”. The point was to show that this stretch goal of 25% by 2045 was not unfeasible.
George’s response to these examples was to attack them as “ridiculous”, out-dated and likely based on unhelpful classifications of what constitutes a “metropolitan area”. Interestingly, looking back at our correspondence, I see that George also attacked me for passing on these references along the lines that he now portrays Chris – as a fantasist hunger-monger.
Specifically, he wrote, “I guess the hard maths of where food can and cannot be produced explains the handwaving about urban agriculture: if you can’t grow it you must invoke an urban miracle. But I would urge you to recognise just how dangerous this position is. It’s a prescription for mass starvation”. He then wrote in Regenesis that he had asked an “old friend” (presumably me) for hard data on the potential for urban agriculture and that I had answered him amicably but couldn’t provide the evidence to back up our claims. Which isn’t quite accurate. (Although I was amicable ;-)
Yet what strikes me now is that George never presented any data either – not then in our email exchange, nor in Regenesis, nor in his recent attack on Chris. He just presumed and asserted that urban growing is a non-starter for food security and glossed over the key point that I had tried to make that cities in the South are filled with resourceful peasants who know very well how to eke food out of marginal situations. As a result, he invisibilizes these urban peasants and their ingenuity yet again (even while he celebrates and imagines the ingenuity of urban biotech brewers). Instead in Regenesis, he spends several paragraphs dwelling on the energetic infeasibility of corporate high tech “vertical farms” (I agree with him) and making some non-sequitur jokes about cannabis grow-ops – again rooting his analysis firmly in his limited northern/UK experience, yet drawing unsupported global generalizations. It’s one thing to dismiss a set of studies from 25 years ago as not up to date but he fails to explain why they are wrong today nor does he provide any counter-data, recent or otherwise while just forcibly reasserting his own assumptions. This is exactly the sort of behaviour George accuses others of: Big claims, no numbers. The difference is that he additionally accuses those who differ from his assumptions of enabling “mass starvation”. Ouch.
Actually, some newer datapoints support the “urban miracle” that George can’t imagine: The US Department of Agriculture (not known for its romantic food sovereignty bias) reports that, “Around 15% of the world’s food is now grown in urban areas. City and suburban agriculture take the form of backyard, roof-top and balcony gardening, community gardening in vacant lots and parks, roadside urban fringe agriculture and livestock grazing in open space.” The FAO has also published updated work on urban and peri-urban agriculture. A recent FAO survey reports that, “the latest data indicate a global farm area of more than 60 million ha within urban agglomerations” and that “it is likely that well over one billion people in urban and peri-urban areas are growing food or are engaged in other agricultural activities”. Do we have comprehensive numbers now on urban growing? No. Do George or his neoliberal pals at “Our World in Data” have those numbers either? Probably, no. The conclusion when there is lack of data shouldn’t be to look away or dismiss it as ridiculous. The better conclusion is that some of the most important things we need to know about food systems we just can’t conclude yet with numbers, and so we have to look to other kinds of evidence – experience, case studies, farmer knowledge, maybe even culture and poetry(!). Unfortunately, the shield and sword of statistics, science and quantification might not be much use by itself.
And maybe the peasants who have been in the countryside for centuries have even learned a thing or two about how to keep dragons at bay and how to get through difficulty and hardship without waiting for the Greatest Living Englishman to come along and tell them what’s what.
Coda: This is a far long enough essay but I wanted to end on a more personal note. As I mention, George has been kind enough to feed me at his home in the past – sometimes with his own delicious food. He is part of a small group of friends who planted and grew a food orchard that he writes about in Regenesis – and I’d always thought that was a wonderful act of hope and long-term vision in these times. This summer my family and I were lucky enough to also stay on Chris Smaje’s smallholding in Somerset England and eat some of his delicious food too and I learned what a modest, self-effacing, principled person he is. But looking around his holding, where he also grows food for a community veg box and offers allotment plots for locals to grow their own food, what I was most astonished by was a wide 20 year old swathe of woodland. Chris and his family had planted this from scratch. Full of nuts, berries, fruits etc., they had transformed empty fields into an agroforested oasis. I find anyone who plants trees and makes long term plans to increase food production and biodiversity in the landscape very inspiring – whether it’s George’s Oxford urban orchard or Chris’s Somerset agroforest. Some part of me thinks that if these two smart and principled people met, not as intellectuals sparring over the toxic mirror world of the internet but as orchardists sitting among long term landscapes, then at least the tone of engagement may be more productive.