Losing sight of the agricultural finish line

In The Guardian, Joanna Blythman pokes an important pin into the frustrating but unsurprisingly durable bubble of vegan cuisine and the low-hanging fruits of ethical eating:

These days it’s fashionable to eulogise plant foods as the secret for personal health and sound stewardship of our planet. But in the process of squaring up to the challenge of climate breakdown, we seem to have forgotten that plant foods too can be either badly or well produced. … As long as we demonise animal foods and eulogise plant foods, any prospect of a natural food supply is shattered. We are left to depend for sustenance on the tender mercies of the techno-food corporations that see a little green V and the word “plant” as a formula for spinning gold from straw through ultra-processing.

Hopefully – though I hope for far too much here! – her article will sufficiently puncture the global elite’s bloated righteousness over eating healthy, especially vegan and/or organic, in order to save the planet, when in fact it’s just another instance of doing the bare and suspiciously photogenic minimum to personally feel better.

My own grouse is directed at tech-driven agricultural targets that speak about the producer and the consumer as if there was nothing in between, such as R&D, processing, storage, supply, distribution and trade, all in turn resting on a wider substrate of political-economic issues. The defensive technologist and/or investor might say, “You have got to start somewhere,” but innovators frequently start by targeting a demographic for which the situation might never been too late, instead of the people for whom it already is. Even then, their rhetoric also quickly forgets how misguided and off-target their ambitions are, leave alone losing sight of the problemy problems in desperate need of resolution.

I do think vertical farms are an interesting idea but I also think their wealthy investors and wealthy publicists have made a habit of horribly overestimating the extent to which these contraptions are going to be part of the solution – which in turn has contributed to a widespread sense of complacency among the elite and blinded them to the need for more better and radical changes to the status quo.

Sure, pesticides suck; I am also familiar with accounts that describe how the world produces enough but wastes too much, the tactics of companies like Monsanto; and I recognise agriculture is arguably the oldest human activity contributing to global heating. However, most narratives that provide the counter-view, and some of which also offer supplementary alternatives, gloss over important features of modern agriculture like scale and cost-effectiveness, enabled in turn by the various -icides, as well as the ways in which it is enmeshed in the economies of the developing world.

Ideas like indoor farming have become increasingly trendy of late: just two startups in the US raised $300 million as of last year but their products seem to cater only to upper-class westerners content with a salad-centric diet, seemingly mindless of the millions in third-world countries grossly underprepared to deal with climate change, water shortage, undernourishment and deepening economic inequality at the same time. (Not to mention: the more it costs to produce something, the more it is going to cost to buy without subsidies.)

For many – if not most – of India’s children, eggs are often the sole affordable source of protein. As an elite, upper-caste Indian, I have both privilege and responsibility to change my lifestyle to reduce my as well as others’ carbon footprints1; but in addition, to what extent could I be expected to fight against non-free-range egg production in the absence of guarantees about alternative sources – including lab-grown ones – when ultimately human welfare is our shared concern?

1. I can reduce others’ carbon footprints by reducing the amount of materials I consume to maintain my lifestyle.

The midday meal programme for instance feeds more than 100 million children, with the per-plate cooking cost ranging from Rs 4 to Rs 7; each plate in turn needs to have 12-20 grams of protein. We know pesticide-fed agriculture works because (together with government subsidies) it makes these costs possible, not when it does not damage the world in whatever other ways.

More broadly, there is a limit to which concerns for the climate have the leeway to supersede crop and cattle-meat production in India when the government will not sufficiently protect members of these sectors, often belonging to the more marginalised sections of society, from poverty, insolvency, suicide and death. Axiomatically, “breakthroughs in the development of food” will not move the climate-action needle until they provide alternate livelihoods, upgrade storage and distribution infrastructure, improve access to capital and insurance, and retool the public distribution system – a slew of upstream and downstream changes whose complexity towers over the technological options we currently have on offer.

Fighting climate change is, among other things, about replacing unsustainable practices with sustainable alternatives without sacrificing human development. However, the most popular media and business narratives have given this ambition a Malthusian twist to suggest it is about saving the planet at all costs – and not out of desperation but sheer ignorance, albeit with the same consequences. The dietary movements that promote organic farming, anti-meat diets and, quite terribly, genetically modified foods among the rich are part of this rhetoric. The technologies they bank on are frequently riddled with hypocrisies, most of all concerning external costs, and their strategies are restricted to regimens with their own well-established economies of profitability, such as keto, paleo, detox, etc., over anaemic, stunted, malnourished, etc.

The story here is quite similar to that of electric vehicles. If you are driving an electric scooter in India today, you are still far from helping cut emissions because coal is still the biggest source of power in the country. So without undertaking efforts to produce cleaner power (an endeavour fraught with its own problems), all you have done is translocated your share of the emissions away from the city where you are driving the scooter and to the faraway power plant where more coal is being burnt to provide the power you need. Your purchase may have been a step in the right direction but celebrating that would be as premature as getting to Kathmandu and tweeting you are on your way to the top of Mt Everest.

Claiming to be on the path to resolving the world’s food crisis by putting food on the plate of the already well-fed is similarly laughable.