Where the wild things are (part 1): Land
Updated: Nov 10, 2020
“Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about ‘what’s needed.’”
Rumi knew what was up in the 13th Century. 800 years later it is no less dangerously easy to lose sight of the forest, especially with all these burning trees around. George Monbiot’s latest piece tastes disturbingly of this fear and urgency, declaring, “Lab-grown food will soon destroy farming – and save the planet.” Generally I think he has a lot of good things to say, is well-researched, and has been a valuable proponent of Rewilding and the UK flagship project at Knepp Estate. But how does lab-grown food fit into a wild, wilding, or re-wilding schema? Is this all simply about finding the final one-size-fits-all solution? The exact ratio of give to take? Where does wildness begin and conveniently end? Where’s the mud between our toes?
It’s great that the UK’s new Agriculture Bill is promising to put soil health at the heart of farm subsidies. But calls for land to be divided between intensive farming and biodiversity, or rewilding and food laboratories, seem to me to be missing the essential opportunity. It doesn’t look good for George that pesticide giant Syngenta are also enthusiastically backing such ghettoisation.  What they’re both denying is the invitation to expand their perspective, to stop delineating artificial boundaries, and to finally start holding up our end of the sacred covenant with all life. Not as a territorial concession in the great, ongoing war with nature, but as a fundamental reimagining of who and how we are. This isn’t just about agriculture or the resource crisis or the climate. What might a truly nature-connected culture look like? An agriculture of truly soulful people? “The ultimate goal of natural farming is not the growing of crops but the cultivation and perfection of human beings”.
Monbiot claims that, “Because farmfree foods will be built up from simple ingredients, rather than broken down from complex ones, allergens, hard fats and other unhealthy components can be screened out. Meat will still be meat, though it will be grown in factories on collagen scaffolds, rather than in the bodies of animals. Starch will still be starch, fats will still be fats.” However, even without commenting upon how analogous this is to building up an agri-monoculture from the simple ingredients of NPK fertiliser, glyphosate, tilled soil, and modern cloned/modified genetics, with the ‘unhealthy’ fungi, wildlife, and weeds screened out… Nutrition is a famously complex and murky science. Meat isn’t necessarily meat even if grown in a conventional fashion: beef cattle raised on grain have a radically different nutrient-profile (from what we can measure), including a much less favourable Omega 3:6 ratio, than cows fed on pasture. And cows fed on pasture are correspondingly healthier (and undoubtedly happier!) if that pasture features a diverse mix of herbs and legumes with access for browsing trees and shrubs, rather than the typical over-grazed grassland of only a few species. You are what you eat.
Monbiot is rightly concerned with our disruptive consumption of the world. We also absolutely need more, bigger, better, and joined-up wildernesses. However, in attempting to do the carbon-calculus and measure land-use efficiency, the binary he draws between farm intensification and extensification is a false one. The Nature paper he cites admits that, “We were not able to examine complex agricultural systems (such as mixed farming or agroforestry) that might have relatively low externalities.” Such complex systems are understandably much harder to analyse and compare and prescribe. Like forests, wetlands, and other intricate life-webs, they are also exponentially better at cycling resources, improving soil health, providing wildlife habitat, and inspiring a sense of connection and wonder. And they are adaptive and specific to each place; what works well in one place will require tweaking in another, but the principle of humbly learning from the dynamism of the natural world remains constant. This is why we can’t unequivocally say “veganism good” or “animal grazing bad” – it’s a question of context and approach. The neat pictures painted by abstract statistics are mercurial, and the Sustainable Food Trust aren't the only ones to have called out Monbiot's anti-grazing position. Ditching farming for ‘ferming’ is to throw bathwater and baby out together.
We simply don’t know what we don’t know. The thing is, if we set out right now to create the perfect soil (as we are attempting with aquaponics and soilless Japanese cleverness) , we would do an imperfect job, at great expense and effort. So much effort! And we wouldn’t necessarily even know how or how far we’ve fallen short until many decades hence. Or what’s ineluctably slipped through our ever-finer nets. Take micronutrients like magnesium: how far have they declined, and with what repercussions? We weren’t even measuring them until the 1940s. And we still don’t know with any depth or clarity what role they play in the health of our individual or wider ecology. Meanwhile the living world is in a process of dynamic inter-relationship and constant adaptation, building in complexity and fertility season by season.
Similarly, from a conservation standpoint if Knepp had set out to specifically create Turtle Dove habitat, they would almost definitely have fewer breeding pairs than they do now. And likely no purple emperor butterflies. Nor ultra-rare fungi. Or any of the other surprise wonders that unpredictably and spontaneously emerged once they stepped back from doing battle with their Sussex clay. The web of life has been evolving and changing for untold aeons – what better example of test-engineering is there?
What we keep discovering, over and over, is that if anything is important, it’s every blessèd, sacred Thing, and the myriad relationships between them. Every trembling quaver in the song of reality. Turns out nature is essential to our bodily and mental health. Turns out so is the gut microbiome. And touch. And feeling connected, feeling valued, feeling loved. Turns out soil works best undisturbed except by the ceaseless living of organic life. Turns out 99% of soil microbes can’t even be grown, let alone studied, in a lab. Turns out trees communicate. Turns out old trees shape and strengthen the resilience of the forest. Turns out soil sinks carbon. So do forests. So do wetlands. So do whales. Turns out fungi are essential after all. Turns out too much stress kills, turns out so does too little. Turns out wolves are in cahoots with rivers, as are beavers with wild fish and birdlife. Turns out there are disproportionately influential ‘keystone’ species, which are not apparent until they disappear.
Consider Mao Zedong’s war on sparrows as part of the Great Leap Forward – declaring them ‘public enemies of capitalism’ because they ate grain, seed, and fruit. Within 2 years he was forced to retreat by the resulting severe ecological imbalance, and famine.
Alternatively, consider the remarkable and tangible successes – including but not limited to quality of harvest, food nutrient-density, genetic diversity, wildlife, and deep relationship – of people like zen-farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, no-dig pioneer Charles Dowding, seed freedom advocate Vandana Shiva, mob-grazing poster-boy Gabe Brown, and Allan Savory Holistically Managing near-deserts back into vibrant life through (paradoxically) grazing them. People who sought and seek to humbly learn from nature rather than dominating it. People whose philosophies grow corn.
Consider indigenous wisdom traditions and mystics through the ages. Chief Seattle may never have actually said, “We did not weave the web of life – we are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves,” but it resounds with timeless truth.
Maybe it’s time we started listening.
“As the crickets' soft autumn hum
is to us
so are we to the trees
as are they
to the rocks and the hills.” 
4 Masanobu Fukuoka, One Straw Revolution
6 Isabella Tree, Wilding
13 Gary Snyder, ‘Front lines / as the crickets’ soft autumn hum’