Channel 4 documentary, Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed The Planet, has divided opinion. Will eradicating farming and replacing it with lab-grown vegan food really help the planet? Here, environmental journalist Anna Turns argues that the solution is not that simple.
Amidst a social media furore, George Monbiot’s controversial Channel 4 documentary, Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed The Planet, claims that the agricultural age might soon be replaced by a new era of lab-grown ‘food’. But can ultra-processed factory protein really solve the global environmental catastrophe?
On the surface, the argument makes sense. After all, agricultural sprawl is a far bigger cause of habitat destruction than urban sprawl, with a shocking 51% of the UK’s surface dedicated to grazing livestock and growing grass. Furthermore, more than one third of crops grown worldwide are used to supply animal feed. If we didn’t have to grow crops to feed our livestock, could our food system be much more resilient?
Provocatively, Monbiot’s vision is to make meat farming totally redundant, to rewild the countryside (assuming landowners wouldn’t opt for more financially lucrative opportunities such as housing developments), allow wolves to roam the land as top predators and for natural balance to follow suit. It might seem to some that he wants to step back in time, but in fact, he looks to the future and visits a hi-tech Finnish lab where scientists are making edible protein powder, made by soil bacteria fed on hydrogen split from water by (hopefully low-carbon) electricity.
The vegan journalist and environmentalist is one of the first people to eat a sci-fi pancake made with a tasteless lab-produced protein flour called Solein. Could ‘ferming’ (brewing microbes through precision fermentation) be the new farming? Will this technofood be the new tofu? More likely, it could be developed into a cheap alternative to livestock feed and save the rainforests being further decimated to grow more soya. But so too could insects and seaweed.
The question has to be asked: would lab-grown food even be nutritious? The science is still emerging but common sense must prevail. Consider the rapid rise in obesity since the 80s – generally, chemically processed foods aren’t good for us. Food so disconnected from nature will be deficient in the essential micronutrients that maintain our bodily systems and the microorganisms that contribute to our healthy gut flora, a crucial part of our immune system.
Right now, there’s enough food to feed everyone living on the planet – it’s just not shared out fairly. The sheer scale of food waste is astonishing – the UN’s FAO estimates that one third of the world’s food is wasted every year – so we need to consider the supply chains and distribution systems as well as food production.
Of course, the current inefficient and unsustainable food system will struggle to support more than 10 billion people on a hot, resource-stressed planet so we do urgently need a step-change in how we feed the world.
In the future as space becomes even more limited, food production will no doubt become more entwined with urban spaces. It’s highly likely we’ll see more urban rooftop allotments, sky farms, aquaculture and potentially more processed manufactured protein sources – but this alone is not the solution. Farming systems are incredibly complex.
Yes, we’ve gone too far with huge, intensive, low welfare farms – but it doesn’t seem fair that small-scale, ethical food producers are lumped together in the same naughty corner.
At one Welsh farm, Monbiot refers to cows as “carbon-releasing machines” before touching briefly on the idea of agroecology, which I’d argue could hold way more promise than any lab-grown protein. The human species, once nomadic hunter-gatherers, has farmed in some form for 10,000 years. As mammals, we live within this ecosystem, not above it or apart from it.
As a biologist and an environmental journalist, my gut instinct tells me the focus of this documentary is all wrong. Surely, the crux of any ecologically-sound solution lies in reconnecting with where our food comes from, valuing every morsel and restructuring the unsustainable food chains?
Farming has the potential to be restorative and rewilding doesn’t have to be separate from agriculture – as shown fleetingly in the documentary, some pioneering regenerative farms are taking wonderful steps to work with nature with amazing results – long-rooted nitrogen-fixing weeds enrich the topsoil without any need for fertiliser or animal manure, and as a result biodiversity increases, pollinators thrive and the land stores more carbon from the atmosphere.
As with any ecosystem, the sum is greater than all its parts – so dismantling our food system and pinning all hope on one chemically-produced element of this seems so counterintuitive.
If Apocalypse Cow aims to challenge the status quo, provoke us, stimulate debate and make more of us question what’s in our lunch, then great. The more eco-conscious we can all be as citizens, the better. But keep in mind that this advanced new technology – so new that as yet, the protein powder isn’t even classed legally as food – is just one small piece of an enormous, complex jigsaw puzzle.
Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet is available to stream now