Agriculture has to change if we are to save the planet. The depth and scale of that change is enormous, far beyond that being proposed in any current agriculture transition plan. Sustainable farming that does not contribute to global warming, nor the mass extinction of species, let alone that treats other animals with the respect their sentience deserves, means adopting an approach that is completely opposed to market-driven agriculture. Not only that, at an even more fundamental level the change in farming practices needed to save the planet must overturn beliefs shaped by seven thousand years of agriculture.
Back in 1972, the anthropologist-turned-systems-theorist Gregory Bateson wrote that humanity was heading for catastrophe because our methods of production were constantly accelerating without any means of self-regulation. Unlike steam engines, which are designed with governors to release pressure before a runaway explosion takes place, modern agriculture has no failsafe.
Among his many prophetic statements, Bateson argued that if humans see themselves as outsiders, acting on the environment rather than sharing it with other minds (e.g. animals), we would be heading for certain extinction:
As you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will seem to be yours to exploit. Your survival unit will be you and your folks or conspecifics against the environment of other social units, other races and the brutes and vegetables.
If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over-population and overgrazing. The raw materials of the world are finite.
If I am right, the whole of our thinking about what we are and what other people are has got to be restructured. This is not funny, and I do not know how long we have to do it in. If we continue to operate on the premises that were fashionable in the pre-cybernetic era, and which were especially underlined and strengthened during the Industrial Revolution, which seemed to validate the Darwinian unit of survival, we may have twenty or thirty years before the logical reductio ad absurdum of our old positions destroys us. Nobody knows how long we have, under the present system, before some disaster strikes us, more serious than the destruction of any group of nations.Gregory Bateson, Steps to An Ecology of Mind.
The Evidence that Farming has to Change
Modern agricultural business practices are calamitous and their consequences might have already brought us beyond the point of no return. They are a major contributor to facts like: the sea contains six times more plastic by mass than plankton; the global market for food has been concentrated to the point that 40% of the world’s people are dependent on food from other nations; crops have lost 75% of their genetic diversity since 1909, leading to devastating global outbreaks of plant diseases; just four companies control 90% of the world’s grain trade; in 2021, 41 million hectares of land were given over to producing food to be burned as biofuel; four billion people suffer water shortages for at least a month a year; desertification affects a third of the world’s population; and rainwater across the whole planet is now unsafe to drink.
While Bateson’s prediction was based on a simple but powerful generalisation about systems without inbuilt mechanisms of self-correction, he did not provide specifics other than a case study of the insecticide DDT. DDT was discovered in 1939, leading to a massive commitment by industry to its production and thus its continued use long after the harmful consequences of using it were identified. It is easier to understand the particular farming practices that have driven us into an age of mass extinction from the standpoint of 2022 than it was in 1972 and these are identified and explained with great lucidity by George Monbiot in his 2022 book Regenesis.
Overall, the main problem with intense capitalist agriculture is that it has created a global monoculture in terms of diet and farming practice. Crop production has concentrated in certain regions: four countries harvest 76% of the maize exported to other countries. Five countries sell 77% of the world’s rice; five countries supply 65% of the wheat; three 86% of the world’s soyabeans. Instead of a world where a great deal of self-sufficiency exists, we live in one highly dependent on international trade. And this means that vulnerability to shocks has increased.
Furthermore, as food culture converges on certain diets, so farming practices converge on the same methods, with the same seeds, equipment and chemicals. The suppliers of these universal means of farming have evolved to be immensely powerful multinationals with commensurate political power. Four companies control 90% of the world grain trade, a different four control 66% of agricultural chemicals, and three of these plus LimaGrain own 53% of the seed market. Three companies sell nearly half the world’s farm machinery. Four companies control 99% of the chicken-breeding market. Four firms run 75% of the world’s abattoirs. And so on for all livestock processing.
It’s well known that wealth is concentrated into a few hands. The three wealthiest men in 2022 had $26.3bn, more than that of the poorest 222.4 million people combined. What is less well appreciated is how handfuls of humans, members of the boards of these agricultural mega-businesses, control food production. Most have never even set foot on a farm.
And the farming landscape has been utterly transformed. If you ever pick up a child’s book with farm animals – the friendly pig, the happy cow, the rabbits and birds – the pictures are of fantasy realms that don’t exist. The last place you would want to take that child is to a modern farm: whether to acres of bleak fields with a lone tractor in the distance or to sheds with animals in stalls packed close together, feeding on soya products and waiting to be killed.
The issue of animal feed is crucial. While the planet is producing more calories of food than ever before (for now), humans are receiving less of it. The world’s livestock population is rising at about twice the increase in the human population. In the last 50 years the number of cattle has increased 15%, pigs 100% and chickens 500%. These animals are consuming crops, mainly soya, and this rate of growth is unsustainable even if plant production continues to increase at current rates.
Moreover, we are likely to hit a ceiling in crop production, due to diminishing effectiveness of pesticides and fertilizer as well as global warming. Monbiot points out that when temperatures relative to moisture (called the wet-bulb temperature) reach a certain point, humans can’t function. We die of heat stress at a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees. This kind of temperature is being registered more and more, meaning that in regions like the Persian Gulf, India, Pakistan and the Gulf of Mexico, outdoor daytime work has to come to a halt.
As the planet heats up, dramatic weather events occur with greater frequency, with cyclones, hurricanes, droughts and floods disrupting the globalised food chain and market speculation then amplifying the difficulties.
Another ceiling which we have bumped up against is that many countries rely on meltwater from glaciers to feed the rivers that irrigate their lands. These glaciers are rapidly disappearing or, as with the Gourgs Blancs in the Pyrenees, have already melted, never to return
Agriculture Must Change to Save the World
Other dynamics at play which illustrate that Bateson’s predictions have come true include the rapid decrease in the effectiveness of antibiotics due to their overuse on farms (75% of antibiotics sold in the US and Europe go to farm animals); the extinction of life in fresh-water rivers due to slurry being washed into them from fields; Insectaggon (the collapse of insect life); and vast dead zones on the sea where oxygen has fallen below levels necessary for sea life. Probably this is due to oxygen being drawn out of the water by algae that has spread uncontrollably with all the fertilizer that is washed into the sea. Such algae stretches around a quarter of the planet.
George Monbiot has a proposal for how farming must change to save the planet: we need to transition to the mass production of flour via microbial fermentation: protein from bacteria. This new technology, he says, represents ‘the beginning of the end of most agriculture.’ The reason for such a dramatic statement is that protein produced by growing bacteria requires only a tiny fraction of the land needed to make it by growing soya. Every 1,700 hectares of soya could be replaced by 1 hectare of fermenting bacteria. In theory, our needs could be met without farms, allowing huge tracts of land on the planet to be rewilded. Widespread adoption of bacteria-farming technology has the potential to provide the new chicken. Only, instead of 66 billion animals being killed a year (after a life of suffering), the basic staple protein block could be fermented from bacteria with no animal being constrained or harmed.
This welcome news, argues Monbiot, adopted as it becomes increasingly cost effective, will flip the way we farm, much as the advent of the pill changed western culture.
The pill accelerated the liberation of women. It intensified impatience with the status quo, hastening a transition that was already beginning to happen. It helped to drive a virtuous spiral of social change, making what was scarcely imaginable quickly seem inevitable.
As meat is challenged by plant proteins, then plant proteins are challenged by microbial proteins, and as farmfree products become cheaper, better and healthier than the food with which they compete, the existence of good alternatives will sharpen our growing disquiet with the treatment of livestock, the destruction of our life-support systems, and the pandemics caused by animal farming.George Monbiot, Regenesis
It would be wonderful if this vision could be realised. And perhaps it will be. But to me it reads like wishful thinking. Monbiot is well aware that the agricultural mega-companies are powerful political opponents. As he points out, faced with the rise of non-meat products, legislators have been lobbied to ban terms like burger and sausage for foods that aren’t made from animals. Even the packaging styles of traditional foods have been protected. Just like with technologies that have threatened the car industry, the established interests – that is, the boards of the major food companies – will act strategically to continue to expand their organisations as effectively as they can, whether by using political influence or by taking over rival technologies in order to snuff them out.
Also, impressive as the potential savings in land use are by this technology, we don’t need it to avert the extinction catastrophe we are currently faced with. Simply addressing the shocking waste of land that arises from including meat in the human diet would be enough.
It is sometimes claimed that vegans are to blame for the destruction of the Amazon and biodiversity, because of all the soy grown in the deforested Amazon. But the reality is that a mere 4% of the soy grown globally is fed to humans. The vast majority of the soy grown globally is fed to factory farmed animals. The conversion rates from the feed grown specifically for nonhumans to produce meat and dairy to feed humans is pathetically low.
Chickens have the highest conversion ratios with 4.5 kilos of feed to produce edible kilo. For pigs it’s 9.4 kilos of feed edible kilo and for beef it is a lousy 25 kilos of feed per kilo of meat. But perhaps an even better measure is the energy captured by the plants and the protein they make that ends up on our plates that we could have otherwise captured with human edible plants. By that measure chickens still have the highest conversion with 11% of the calories and 20% of the protein in the feed ending up in the meat. Pigs aren’t far behind at 10% for calories and 15% of protein. But cattle are just awful at 1% of the calories and 4% of the protein in the animals feed ending up in the edible portion of the animal.https://awfw.org/feed-ratios/
All told two-thirds of all of the energy in the plants humans harvest are used to feed animals, yet those animals only contribute 13% of the total food calories that people eat.
So Monbiot is right that ending the reliance on animal agriculture will allow for huge percentages of the ice-free land on the Earth to be rewilded, and allow biodiversity to thrive and avert the extinction catastrophe we’re currently faced with. But there’s no need to go developing any new technologies to do this. A wholefood plant-based diet takes up a fraction of the land, uses a fraction of the water, and is healthier for the environment, and better for human health.
Perhaps Monbiot’s enthusiasm for the bacteria fermentation technology is not so much based on the additional land it could free for rewilding as the hope that it might become prevalent without any other revolution being required, other than that which sometimes takes place within culture thanks to the dynamics of the global market. But I don’t believe that any new technology will come to save humanity and the millions of species we are exterminating unless we ourselves take control of production and quite deliberately and defiantly take that control away from the elites dominating agriculture.
This should not be read as an attack on farmers: they are caught up in a system that is making it increasingly difficult for small farmers especially to make a living. Farmers can be rescued from ruin and incentivised to help restore the land with the right societal changes and a just transition.
Which brings me to Marxism.
Does Marxism Show How Farming Must Change to Save the Planet?
If we are talking of class conflict, of us, the great majority, taking control of farming from them, the boards of the mega-corporations, then surely Marxism shows how to do this? For of all the alternative philosophies to market capitalism, Marxism appears to be the most radical. Yet even if we rescue the spirit of Marx’s writings from the actual experience of Communism by claiming that Stalin, Mao, et. al. crushed genuine revolutionaries to implement policies that were state capitalist, a problem remains.
Marx, like all of us, was a product of his time and place. In the way that he frames the argument against capitalism are assumptions that are very much derived from a post-Enlightenment tradition of Western philosophy. Marx saw the rise of international capitalism as calling forth extraordinary powers from the ground, but because of the fundamental flaws of the economic system, it would take revolution and working class power, followed by the abolition of all classes, to harness those powers so that humanity can realise its true potential.
Sounds good? Well, yes, except that the whole notion of the human mind as outside of nature and acting upon it is – as Bateson understood – liable to lead to humans seeing everything else around us as mindless and not deserving of ethical consideration.
In Capital I.8 while explaining how only labour adds value to a commodity, Marx wrote: ‘The coal burnt under the boiler vanishes without leaving a trace, so, too, the tallow with which the axles of wheels are greased.’ We live in times where the traces of burned coal are all too evident. As Timothy Morton observes about Marx, he was anthropocentric: the way to obtain knowledge of the world is from the standpoint of human activity, specifically economic activity. This anthropocentrism, argues Morton, is a bug in Marx which should be acknowledged and addressed rather than defended as if Capital were a sacred text.
The brand of Eco-Socialism I’m familiar with in Ireland is explicitly Marxist (of the kind that says Marx was already on the case and anticipated both the environmental crisis and how to solve it). While supporting a transition from beef and dairy farming, these Eco-Socialists do not see animals as beings towards whom we should feel solidarity and with whom we should share the planet. In this they are accurately following the nineteenth century advocate of revolution, albeit at the cost of having genuinely revolutionary solutions for how to change agriculture to save the planet.
Marx wrote a famous passage in which his belief in the mindlessness of spiders and bees was clear:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.Karl Marx, Capital I.7.
This statement is an almost exact rephrasing of the idea of Descartes, that the difference between men [sic] and beasts is that the latter are like machines, acting without thought purely from the disposition of their organs. And it is an idea that is quite wrong, not only scientifically and morally, but also from the standpoint of bringing about revolution.
It’s increasingly evident that insects like spiders and bees are sentient. A recent paper found REM-like activity in the sleep patterns of spiders, while bees are, ‘clever, sentient, and unique beings.’ It’s even possible that the massive networks of certain types of fungi that spread out over acres of forestland and manage the chemistry of the trees above them have sentience.
Once you accept that animals have sentience (even if you don’t accept the evidence for sentience in insects), then how can their mistreatment be justified? Necessarily, by having some kind of hierarchy of sentience with humans at the top. Rather like the origins of modern racism, which evolved to justify slavery by arguing black people were not fully human and therefore had no claim to equality with whites, those who stand over the farming of animals have to make an argument along the lines that, ‘well, yes, cattle, pigs and sheep are sentient, but they are at a lower level than humans. And you never see them on picket lines, so let’s change the human world first and then society will be more humane to animals.’
I’ll address the second part of that argument in the conclusion of this feature, but with regard to some kind of pyramid of sentience, it’s pure story telling. No one knows what it is like to be a fly. Perhaps Blake was right:
Seest thou the little winged fly, smaller than a grain of sand?
It has a heart like thee; a brain open to heaven & hell,
Withinside wondrous & expansive; its gates are not clos’d,
I hope thine are not: hence it clothes itself in rich array;
Hence thou art cloth’d with human beauty O thou mortal man.William Blake, Milton I 20/22:27–30.
If you try to get humans to come out on top by organising the pyramid of sentience based on the extent to which an animal has neurons and connections in the brain, you have a problem, because humans are not at the top: the African elephant has three times the brain weight and number of neurons as a human. You also have a problem arising from the following thought experiment. If aliens arrive on Earth with demonstrably greater brain matter than humans, does that give them the right to enslave and farm us for food? No? Then at what level of sentience do you lose that right? That’s a very difficult line to draw, especially when (as research into the social impact of Artificial Intelligence shows) we don’t have a successful model of what a mind is, even a human one. What we do know is that the part of the brain that is concerned with consciousness is about half a billion years old and shared with most vertebrates.
How would we know, for instance, that cattle are the wrong side of a threshold for the exploitation of other sentient beings? The film Cow is extremely moving in this regard, because it is touching how the cattle in the film rejoice at being let out into fields. They skip and leap and dash away from the sheds in which they are usually constrained and later are clearly at peace, facing a deep red sunset.
There are no ethical grounds for our farming of animals and a truly revolutionary demand has to be to stop it altogether and treat all sentient life as non-human people. If humans have inherent rights – not rights given on the basis of passing some kind of test but rights that are intrinsic to being a human – then so do animals. As long-time animal rights advocate Tom Regan puts it:
Other animals have a life of their own that is of importance to them apart from their utility to us. They are not only in the world, they are aware of it, and also of what happens to them. And what happens to them matters to them. Each has a life that fares experientially better or worse for the one whose life it is. Like us they bring a unified psychological presence to the world. Like us they are somebodies, not some things. In these fundamental ways the non-human animals in labs and on farms for example are the same as human beings and so it is that the ethics of our dealings with them and with one another must rest on some of the same fundamental moral principals.
Adopting this approach also has revolutionary consequences that are more profound than those of the Marxist Eco-Socialists who would save the Earth… for humans. Once we lose a sense of companionship with animals and instead see ourselves as farmers with a mission to maximise the use of the land for the greatest possible outputs we can achieve, we are on the start of a journey of extinction for the reason that Bateson gives. Our goal should not be a revolution that leads to more efficient exploitation of the land than capitalism can achieve, but a radical rearrangement of our relationship to the land and to the other non-human beings of the planet.
It is perhaps because of the harmful consequences of an anthropocentric approach to the environment that for thousands of years early human societies moved back and forth and sideways in their farming practices. As Wengrow and Graeber have shown, the ‘severing’ (to use a term from Morton which is entirely compatible with their approach) was not a short, sharp moment in pre-history. It was not V. Gordon Childe’s agricultural revolution but a much more drawn out affair where we only settled into our disastrous exploitative relationship to animals and crops after considerable experimentation and social upheavals in which proto-rulers were often held in check or overthrown.
The eventual predominance of settled farming also brought with it the development of rigid hierarchies and large-scale warfare. And these wars were possible, not only because the materials existed to make weapons as well as the social structures to coerce bodies of warriors to march against each other. But also because treating other beings as food to be farmed (as opposed to being killed out of necessity, with reverence and sacrifice to the gods for the crime) crosses a fundamental moral chasm that allows for the enslavement and murder of humans.
It has long been established that those who would harm animals would also find harming humans acceptable. In 1997, for example, a study sponsored by Northeastern University and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found that those who abused animals were five times as likely to harm other humans. Or to put it the other way around, if you wouldn’t hurt a fly, you certainly wouldn’t mutilate and execute a human being as we see happening in some appalling videos of Russian soldiers and their Ukranian captives.
It is in this sense that an approach to changing farming practices based on treating non-humans as people is more revolutionary than demanding workers’ control over the farming industry. Of course, bring on the day when workers take over the means of production. But that day will be hastened and have the kind of transformative power that might yet save our species if the workers’ movement is inspired as much by a sense of solidarity with non-human beings as with each other.
 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0025326X0100114X; George Monbiot, Regenesis (Dublin, 2022), pp. 34 – 5, 41, 47, 53; https://www.independent.co.uk/climate-change/news/rainwater-cause-cancer-forever-chemicals-pfas-b2137020.html.
 Regenesis, p. 33.
 Regenesis, pp. 35 – 6.
 Regenesis, p. 41.
 Regenesis, p. 71.
 Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People.
 https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/spiders-seem-to-have-rem-like-sleep-and-may-even-dream1/; https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/jul/16/bees-are-really-highly-intelligent-the-insect-iq-tests-causing-a-buzz-among-scientists; Rupert Sheldrake, Entangled Life.
 Mark Solms, The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness.
 David Graeber & David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything.
Independent Left have adopted an Animal Rights policy inspired by the goals of the National Animal Rights Assocation.
In August 2022, Independent Left hosted a Zoom meeting led by Laura Broxson, animal rights activist and founder of the National Animal Rights Association.