Tag Archives: sustainability

Feeding the world without breaking the planet

The Little Shepherd Boy by Carlo Dalgas (1840). Held at the National Museum of Denmark. Image through Wikimedia Commons.

One of the greatest threats to life on Earth is poetry. George Monbiot, in Regenesis (2022).

Our pastoral stereotypes conjure up a picture of a shepherd boy patiently tending to his flocks, probably sat cross-legged on a rock, playing a rough-hewn flute, while flower-dappled meadows stretch into the distance. This trope can be tracked back to the Classical era, bolstered by later Christian iconography, but is a long way from the prosaic reality of livestock farming. Western culture has fixed upon pastoralism as the epitome of harmonious living with nature when it is anything but. As George Monbiot points out early in his latest book, Regenesis, the real population challenge faced by the world today is of livestock numbers, not humans.

The goal of this book is to find a path towards an agricultural system which is simultaneously more robust and sustainable, while providing humanity with sufficient food that is nutritious and affordable, but not trashing the planet in the process. That he has named the problem and engaged with it so constructively is impressive, and I recommend that everyone reads this book. Personally I’m not wholly convinced by his solution, although it would be a lot to ask to split this Gordian knot all at once. Despite my misgivings there is a lot to support and recommend.

His solution for the livestock crisis can be distilled into three parts. The first is that our diets need to dramatically reduce their association with animal products. Not everyone needs to follow Monbiot’s own path and adopt veganism (I certainly haven’t), though there’s little doubt that it would be beneficial for the health of the planet and likely ourselves too. Excluding meat, eggs and dairy products is not essential but we certainly require far less of them than we currently consume, and First World levels of demand cannot be extended to the whole human population without running out of land area in which to produce them.

In one of his most strikingly counter-intuitive arguments, Monbiot provides convincing evidence that extensive, low-intensity or organic approaches to livestock production can only have a limited role in future food production. He is surely right here insofar as they inevitably require greater land areas, eroding natural habitats still further. If the outputs are only premier foods for elite consumers then they will do little to resolve the coming food crisis.

Rather than becoming an evangelical vegan, a position likely to be either mocked or ignored, Monbiot recognises the important cultural role played by protein-based foods and seeks out alternatives. He finds great hope in fungal fermentation. Meat substitutes are now becoming commercially available and increasingly accepted by a public who are at least curious and, if price becomes a factor, will likely embrace them willingly.

This is the first area where I have some scepticism. While it is certainly true that meat substitutes can effectively replace (and even be superior to) low-grade, mass-produced meat products such as burgers, mince or chicken nuggets, this is a low bar to reach. These foods are valued for their lack of inherent flavour and ability to absorb other ingredients; that they are derived from meat is almost incidental. The attachment to a real roast chicken, sirloin steak or mackerel is going to be harder to break. Still, replacing the large and growing fraction of the global food market made up effectively of interchangeable protein lumps would be a valuable service.

Then, however, comes the question of who produces it. Monbiot conjures an idealistic vision of small-scale, distributed technologies that place protein manufacture into the hands of communities throughout the world. Perhaps your protein lumps could be picked up on your local high street next door to the baker or costermonger. More likely, however, is that economies of scale will mean that such enterprises will be undercut by larger industrial manufacturers. This runs the risk of reducing the resilience of global food systems, reproducing one of the crises that Monbiot identifies in our current situation. Factories under the control of small numbers of corporations, investors or governments become sources of inequity and vulnerable infrastructure at times of conflict. I fear that we could simply end up transferring systemic risk from one limited set of power-brokers to another.

The book then turns to arable production. A staggering fraction of the world’s crops are used to feed livestock, and one of the immediate benefits of a reduction in animal consumption would be the freeing up of large amounts of land which could then be used to feed people, or turned over to nature. This is an easy win for conservation and humanity alike, and therefore hard to argue with.

Nevertheless, arable crops remain the major source of calories for most of humanity, resting upon high-intensity production of a few staple grains. We will need to continue to grow crops even in the absence of livestock. Once again Monbiot directs some unexpected friendly fire in the direction of those who advocate for various forms of low-intensity agriculture such as high-nature-value farming, organic production or no-till systems. These are all more beneficial to nature and more sustainable than conventional agriculture, but share the common weakness that they not currently profitable (nor likely to be under any plausible model), and increasing their scale would only reproduce the problem of extensive agriculture. Less bad farming is still farming. I agree with him here. There is a niche market for the expensive products of agro-ecological farms but they won’t feed the world.

Monbiot places his hope in another innovation: perennial crops. What if, instead of the wasteful and polluting cycle of planting, harvesting and ploughing, we could grow crops that would last for multiple years? Intensive arable cultivation will always be necessary but through natural weed suppression and reduced soil erosion it could be closer to sustainable.

For me this is the part of the story that is least plausible. The most likely problem with perennial crops is perennial weeds. For sure they will suppress the annual weeds that require the destructive application of herbicides and regular ploughing. But long-lived crops will offer opportunities for longer-lived weeds to invade, particularly woody plants, and those are much harder for agricultural machinery to cope with. It only takes a small opening in a field of perennial crops: a wet hollow, or some blow-down from a strong wind, and it will quickly be filled with a birch sapling. I hope that the trials and expanded production that Monbiot envisages will still take place but I can foresee many hurdles in the way of perennial crops as a panacea.

Alongside these practical considerations there is one notable omert√† that challenges Monbiot’s remedy. He implicitly assumes, by necessity, that the human population is a fixed term in the equation. It is of course possible to feed all the people currently on the planet on less land than we currently use, and we could do so more fairly and effectively using the approaches he advocates for. But can we assume that falling birth rates and the demographic transition will keep the problem within manageable parameters?

Moving into this area is fraught with moral peril and I don’t blame Monbiot for evading the issue. Personally I refuse to be drawn on the question of what a correct or sustainable human population might be. The answer depends on assumptions or ethical principles that are not widely agreed upon and all of which, once allowed to play out, lead to problematic outcomes. It’s not a question that science alone can answer. Nevertheless there is a simple truth which is that a growing population will, on average, lead to greater impacts, even if temporarily dampened by reduced inequality of consumption. A shrinking population raises further questions as to whose numbers are declining and why. The process is unlikely to be consensual and more plausibly involves mass suffering. Such are the grim repercussions of getting the equation wrong.

The danger of treating human population as a static term is well-illustrated by the example of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, when new crop strains and production techniques boosted yields worldwide. If the global population had remained at 1960 levels (around 3 billion people) then we would already be living in Monbiot’s world, one in which intensive agriculture could amply meet the needs of the majority while leaving land aside for nature. Understanding why this did not happen is the key to making sure the next agricultural revolution doesn’t amplify the results of the last. Would we merely defer the problem for another two generations?

Despite my concerns, I am happy to promote Monbiot’s solutions because they are undoubtedly better than the status quo and would buy us time to collectively agree upon what a sustainable future for the planet looks like. We can only begin to solve a problem once we dare to name it, and Monbiot has made every effort to consult not only the scientific evidence but the practical experience of the farmers who know what it takes to turn dirt into food. There is no silver bullet, only hard choices, and it is our responsibility to make them in the fairest, most equitable way we can.


The environmental impacts of music

Was there ever a book that you put off reading because you knew that it would change your worldview but you weren’t quite ready for it? Several years ago I bought Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music (Kyle Devine), then guiltily abandoned it in my heap of unread books. This spring I finally overcame my apprehension and began.

Is this the sign of a misspent youth, or of misspent income? Either way I’ve been hauling these records around for decades now. This is only a fraction of the collection. I have to distribute them to spread the weight after causing floors to sag in our old house.

Why was I so concerned? I am professionally an ecologist, and outside work a music obsessive. As a former small-time DJ (both club and radio) I’ve accumulated a substantial and likely valuable record collection which started in earnest in the early 90s and has grown ever since. Many of my 90s dance 12″s were given away when I had no further use for them(1) but for sentimental reasons the LPs have been retained through multiple house moves. I didn’t stop buying vinyl records in the CD age (I own both) and continued to do so until now. The so-called vinyl revival, of which there have actually been several, had no impact on my buying habits. I estimate that I spent roughly ¬£1000 on music every year for about 25 years. I still daydream of one day opening a record shop or starting a label.

In the back of my mind I knew, as most surely do, that vinyl is a petrochemical product. By way of self-reassurance I had assumed that it was a minority side-product, of limited environmental impact by itself. In the past I’ve been happy to cut ethically problematic products out of my life, including tiger prawns and vanilla, or drive an electric car, but vinyl records were too bound up in my identity. Buying records is what I do, it’s who I am(2).

The first thing this book made me do was to critically reflect on how record-buying as a hobby is merely an extension of the central capitalist drive to sell us things we don’t need, particularly petroleum products. Audiophile claims about the superior sound quality are tenuous(3) and, outside a few minority subcultures, almost all new music can now be bought in alternative formats (including digital). This leaves my preference attached solely to the ritual of the needle drop, a habit which connects me to my analogue childhood, a youth spent in sweaty clubs, and a lifetime of crate-digging in basement shops with fellow vinyl junkies. We love the feel of vinyl because we’ve been conditioned by our culture to do so. Is that reason enough?

The next discovery, perhaps unsurprising, is the degree to which my hobby is anything other than harmless. One point that Devine makes forcefully is that the music industry constitutes much more than the commonly recognised axis of artists, agents, producers, distributors and retailers. As a fundamentally material product, music relies on industries with far-reaching impacts. This all adds up to a hefty carbon and environmental footprint, both directly and through the activities it supports.

Even if you overlook the environmental impacts of oil extraction and transport, the industrial production of petrochemicals is inevitably polluting with harmful consequences for both human health and the natural world. A large proportion of vinyl for the US market was formerly produced at Keysor-Century‘s factory just outside LA, a plant which became notorious for breaches of environmental standards, and has left a legacy of contamination. Now the vinyl used in records is more likely to be made elsewhere, particularly in Thailand, where oversight remains less stringent.

The advantage of vinyl is its durability and resistance to decay. The very features that make it a wonderful medium for the long-term storage of music are simultaneously its downsides once its useful life has come to an end. Some records go back into second-hand circulation or are recycled. Most end up as landfill. There they are likely to remain for millennia, leaching the products of their slow breakdown into soil and water.

Alas, there is no simple solution. Although digital music carries the promise of separation from petrocapitalism, Devine points out that it provides a classic example of Jevons’ paradox that increased efficiency tends instead to increase total consumption. We now buy an array of material electronic products to listen to our immaterial music files, while the physical infrastructure of data storage, processing and transmission is largely hidden from view. The music itself may be increasingly digital but the impacts have simply moved elsewhere and capitalism has found a way of selling us new stuff.

In a particularly telling set of figures towards the end of the book, Devine pieces together the fragmentary and uncertain quantitative evidence to examine the environmental impact of the global music industry at the peaks of shellac, vinyl and CD sales, then compares them to data from 2016 including digital music. There is half of a good news story: the mass of plastics involved in the production of music is falling. On the other hand, thanks to the popularity of streaming services, the energy costs, and therefore the carbon emissions, are rapidly rising.

The book builds a case for what it calls ‘the slow violence of music’. While its consequences are less immediately obvious than industries such as mining, or have lower aggregate impact than activities like transport, it is linked to both of these and causes its own separate pathologies. It is tragically ironic that an activity so closely connected to many protest and counter-cultural movements is itself so inextricably entwined with the same forces they seek to oppose. Pick up a physical copy of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi and consider whether pressing it on a 7″ plastic disk manufactured from petrochemicals detracts from its intended message.

What then is the most ethical and environmentally responsible way to buy music? The obvious answer, as with all commodities, is of course to buy less. Beyond that, and assuming that you still want to support musicians and hear new music, my own best guess is that downloading and hosting music locally is the least harmful. This has the advantage, if you shop directly through record labels or hosting sites such as Bandcamp, that the producer receives a decent fraction of the purchase price, whereas streaming services only generate paltry revenue for musicians(4). You get to own the files and use them as you see fit without creating hidden energy costs.

So here’s my pledge. I’m going to give up buying new vinyl records and switch entirely to digital downloads. I have no qualms about picking up second hand records(5) but I won’t add to the existing problem. This habit will be harder for me to break than giving up smoking, but my conscience can’t maintain this blind spot any longer. Yes, it’s only a small thing, and very much a First World Problem, but we all need to start cutting back and I can’t pretend that my lifelong petrochemical addiction is necessary.

(1) Some might be shocked that I casually gave away large piles of records. Rest assured, the majority of 90s dance music was absolutely dreadful, and no-one wants to hear it any more, even ironically. The records were worthless. Some things are best forgotten.

(2) I hesitate to call myself a collector because my purchases are not linked to any concern about the value (present or future) of the records, nor to any completist accumulation of a particular genre or artist. I only buy what I want to listen to.

(3) You genuinely can hear the difference. I’ll happily prove it to anyone who has doubts. But to achieve this requires spending a lot of money on equipment and a well-pressed record made with high-quality vinyl. For the overwhelming majority of casual listeners there’s only downsides if sound quality is what you actually care about, and for the audiophiles among us we’re just spending lots of money on yet more unnecessary kit.

(4) I’ve heard it said that total royalties from physical record sales exceed those from streaming services, even at a time when vinyl is supposedly a legacy format. No wonder artists still want to release them.

(5) You can take many things but please leave me the pleasure of discovering a forgotten Crispy Ambulance 7″ in a dusty box at the back of a second-hand record shop.