November 29, 2011
The Future of Food
Ending Agriculture to Feed and Re-Wild the Planet
In the Age of Gore, environmentalists have been focused primarily on the problem of anthropogenic warming of the earth’s atmosphere. But we should not neglect another environmental problem: the competition of humanity and domesticated plants and animals with wild species for vast areas of the earth’s surface. We can feed 10 billion people and re-wild our landscapes if we reverse farm and ranch sprawl and support the manufacturing of food.
I have criticized him before for investing in projects like sovereign libertarian island-states, but I am glad to see that Paypal founder Peter Thiel is investing in the worthy cause of in vitro food production. The sooner we manufacture most of our food from stem cells or chemicals, rather than grow it, the sooner vast amounts of land on the earth’s surface can be partly or wholly “re-wilded.”
In the Age of Gore, environmentalists have been focused primarily on the problem of anthropogenic warming of the earth’s atmosphere. But we should not neglect another environmental problem: the competition of humanity and domesticated plants and animals with wild species for vast areas of the earth’s surface. This competition resulted from the invention several millennia ago of agriculture, which replaces wild biomass with domesticated biomass—crops and livestock—in the same territories, particularly zones that are temperate and well-watered. Agrarian civilization was powered by photosynthesis, converting sunlight into plants and animals that provided not only food but also energy (wood and straw), materials (wood, wool, leather and bone), and motive power for transportation and construction (human and animal muscle power).
Because sunlight is such a weak and diffuse source of energy, the spread of agrarian civilization meant the eradication of enormous stretches of pre-existing ecosystems in one area after another, including China and Europe, where forests were felled to make room for rice patties, wheat fields and sheep and cow pastures.
Thanks to the industrial revolution, we have shifted from land-consuming biomass to mostly subsurface minerals as the basis for energy, manufacturing and communications. Hydrocarbons and nuclear energy and, to a much smaller degree, renewable energy sources, both directly and through electricity generation, have replaced the muscles of slaves and serfs and draft animals, and we no longer send messages by Pony Express or carrier pigeon. We continue to grow our food, however, the premodern way. What passes for modern agriculture is essentially Neolithic agriculture plus fertilizers, tractors and the occasional GM crop.
Because food is enmeshed in all sorts of taboos and personal obsessions, any discussion of manufacturing it rather than growing it tends to produce defensive and slightly hysterical ridicule, as a short survey of the literature on in vitro meat demonstrates. Even so, the technology of using stem cells to grow safe and healthy food in laboratories rather than in croplands and pastures is developing rapidly. And two trends almost certainly ensure its eventual widespread adoption: the increasing desire for meat, fruit and vegetables in the diet, as populations grow more affluent, and the limits to the land that can be used, particularly for free-range livestock. If a richer humanity is not going to go vegan, and if there is not enough range land to support free-range beef, chicken and pork for billions of people, then the choice between cruel and filthy and unsanitary feed-lots and clean, well-lit food factories will be pretty easy to make. (To be sure, human nature being what it is, there will no doubt be unsanitary food factories worthy of a future Upton Sinclair).
Phasing out agriculture as we know it over time would be good for human health and wild species, at the same time. First, human health. Here, according to Business Insider, are the top food crops in the world (other lists differ slightly): corn, wheat, rice, potatoes, cassava, soybeans, sweet potatoes, soybean, yams, plantains. In other words, cereals and starches — the very foods which should be minimized in healthy diets. You don’t need to be a “Paleolithic diet” zealot in order to acknowledge that bodies designed for hunter-gatherers tend to develop all kinds of health problems when fed a diet of modified grass seeds like corn, wheat and rice. This is food fit for livestock.
Including human livestock — the slaves, serfs and peasants who made up the exploited and repressed majorities in all historic civilizations until recently. From Europe to Asia to the Inca and Aztec empires, the upper classes enjoyed far more meat, vegetables and seasonal fruits in their diets than their rural work-forces with their carb-heavy diets full of empty calories. Potatoes, for example, went from being the food of Inca slaves to being the “feed” of European peasants. Most people in the world are a generation or two from peasant ancestors, and nostalgia encourages them to think that the fodder fed to their oppressed ancestors is normal and desirable cuisine. But in an advanced technological civilization, everyone should be able to eat like an aristocrat, and in vitro food production might hasten the day when lean, healthy meat as well as fresh fruit and vegetable servings are as cheap and abundant as cereals and starches are today.
In vitro food production can also free up vast amounts of the earth’s surface for purposes other than agriculture, including, but not limited to, partial restoration of wilderness. According to the U.S. government:
The United States has a total land area of nearly 2.3 billion acres. In 2007, the major land uses were forestland at 671 million acres (30 percent); grassland pasture and rangeland at 614 million (27 percent); cropland at 408 million (18 percent); special uses (primarily parks and wildlife areas) at 313 million acres (14 percent); miscellaneous uses (like tundra or swamps) at 197 million acres (9 percent); and urban land at 61 million acres (3 percent).
It is absurd for environmentalists to fret about the 3 percent of American land that is sacrificed to cities and suburbs, while ignoring the 45 percent of U.S. land area consumed by farms and ranches which, by definition, replace the pre-existing ecosystem, whose aboriginal inhabitants are redefined as “weeds” and “pests” if they survive in the territory they have lost to mutant plants and animals originally bred in the Middle East (cattle, sheep, wheat) or Mesoamerica (corn). Only constant campaigns of extermination by farmers and ranchers can prevent the native wilderness from reclaiming its lost territory.
At their most extensive, hypothetical food factories, powered not by photosynthesis but by electricity, would occupy only a fraction of the space that is now taken up by farmland and grazing land. If, say, half of today’s American food production could come from GM crops, or, better yet, in vitro food factories, we could free up more than 20 percent of U.S. land – more than six times America’s combined urban land area – for reforestation and other kinds of re-wilding.
To be sure, in the Age of the Anthropocene, no “pure” wilderness is possible. Even wilderness regions are best thought of as managed parklands. Still, it would be nice to have more prairies and more wetlands in the U.S. — particularly in the area east of the Mississippi, where, chiefly because of the engrossment of land by agriculture, there are few public or private wilderness parks and game preserves.
I for one think that a prairie with buffalo and prairie dogs is more interesting than a corn field or a cattle pasture. Unwilling to wait for in vitro food, I’ve spent the last fifteen years rewilding most of a 50 acre tract in the Texas Hill Country, while leasing the rest for conventional farming. It’s amazing how quickly native grasses, trees and shrubs return, once land ceases to be farmed or grazed, and how rapidly populations of turkey, blue heron, rabbits, skunks and raccoons, among other critters, have rebounded. I won’t live to see it, but I like to imagine a future in which tigers prowl Chinese forests where today there are rice paddies, and wild horses again roam in European forests where today subsidized sheep graze in surplus pastures. All of this, without preventing ten billion or so people from living in mid-density cities or low-density suburbs, if they prefer. We can have urban sprawl and wilderness sprawl together—but only if we roll back farm sprawl and ranch sprawl.
Design of a vertical farm by Chris Jacobs
About Michael Lind
Michael Lind is the Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., editor of New American Contract and its blog Value Added, and a columnist for Salon magazine. He is also the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States. Lind was a guest lecturer at Harvard Law School and has taught at Johns Hopkins and Virginia Tech. He has been an editor or staff writer at the New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, the New Republic and the National Interest. Lind has published a number of books on US history, political economy, foreign policy and politics as well as fiction, poetry and children’s literature.