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Apocalypse Cow, Channel 4, review – George Monbiot presents a radical vision for the future of food

Apocalypse Cow, Channel 4, review – George Monbiot presents a radical vision for the future of food
10 Jan
Monbiot demonstrates the shocking facts and presents a vision for a new world, but can it ever be realised?

Was it strictly necessary to make avowed vegan, Extinction Rebellion activist and Guardian writer George Monbiot shoot a deer in the Cairngorms, weep over what he considered to be murder and then eat a venison steak, freshly butchered from the unfortunate animal? It seemed an incongruously personal and emotional addition to a documentary in which Monbiot otherwise played the role of the self-assured journalist and activist.

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Oddly though, it sort of worked. We can’t know the producers’ motivations for this bizarre segment, but if it was designed (and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t) to endear Monbiot to those of his viewers who might otherwise find him too preachy, too vegan and therefore be turned off his arguments, it probably did the job.  Here’s a man willing to face the hard truths, get his hands dirty, wield a gun – he’s a good shot too. It demonstrated that this is a bigger story than whether one man eats meat or not. It’s a bigger story than one animal’s suffering. Still, it was a risk. Some people probably hated it.

Aside from this controversal snippet – which focused on efforts to rewild the Glenfeshie Estate in Scotland (a process which necessitates lethal control of the deer population) – the documentary was a more standard piece of journalism. Monbiot set out the ways in which agriculture, particularly the rearing of animals for meat and milk, has rid the UK of the trees and shrubs vital for a thriving ecosystem. Grazing sheep in the Lake District prevent tree saplings from growing, cattle emit carbon and take up land that otherwise could be rewilded. What’s more, and most shockingly, Monbiot demonstrated that English cows are fed on imported food comprising palm oil kernels and soya – our consumption of meat therefore directly contributing to the devastation of rainforests all around the world.

It goes on. Fertiliser, excrement and pesticides run into rivers causing devastating algae blooms, the planet faces a life-sapping soil crisis, and we do not have enough space to feed a growing population. Monbiot’s earnest but straightforward delivery of these truths was compelling. The green rolling hills of England are not something to be prized he argues, they represent ecological collapse. We are the Amazon rainforest of the future – an entirely deforested land.

In the manner of a model railway enthusiast, Monbiot used a scale model of the country – forlornly sticking toy sheep and cows to fake grass – to demonstrate the sheer space devoted to agriculture. ‘Many people are rightly concerned about urban sprawl,’ Monbiot wrote in a Guardian article that accompanies the documentary. ‘But agricultural sprawl – which covers a much wider area – is a far greater threat to the natural world. Every hectare of land used by farming is a hectare not used for wildlife and complex living systems.’ It’s a stark picture, conveyed in an endearingly low-budget way.

Luckily, there are answers, Monbiot asserts – and the ones presented are radical. Many farmers in the UK argue that farming can work hand-in-hand with efforts to plant more trees and shrubs. Farmers cultivate and care for our land, they say. They add that carbon emissions from the sector are actually relatively small. But Monbiot has no truck with this argument. To save humanity, animals raised in fields must go, he says. Instead, we will produce protein and other nutrients in labs.

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Taking a rare flight (he claims not to use air travel for ecological reasons unless strictly, unavoidably necessary), Monbiot visited a lab in Helsinki in which a company called Solar Foods grows a flour-like substance from water, air and bacteria alone. The process requires electricity, but with the growth of renewables this too could be sustainable, so the argument goes. Currently, the resulting product is ready to be used as a flour-substitute (Monbiot enjoyes a pancake made from the stuff, declaring it indistinguishable from one made with conventional flour and eggs), but the scientists say that in the future, bacteria will be modified so as to produce the proteins needed for lab-grown meat, milk and eggs. This is the very cutting edge of the food revolution – a step further even than current lab-grown meat experiments, which Monbiot says are problematic because they still require crops to be grown and valuable land utilised in order to ‘feed’ the proteins.

It’s certainly a fascinating view of the future and one with obvious and undeniable benefits for the planet. As with any radical plans though – and these are plans that would fundamentally alter the UK economy and the way of life of thousands of rural people – it’s impossible not to dwell on the inevitable hurdles. Backlash to the documentary from farmers and agricultural workers is hardly surprising. In Monbiot’s vision of the future, it’s not clear what all these people are going to do for a living when their farms are gone.

Monbiot argues that the generous subsidies currently provided to farms by the government should continue, but be channelled into rewilding and tree-planting projects instead. But that alone can’t compensate for the resulting end to many livelihoods. On a visit to a rewilding project in the Netherlands, Monbiot says that that while some jobs have been lost, the scheme has reportedly lead to five times the number of jobs being created through ecotourism and its wider effects on the local economy, but no one asks whether these new jobs have gone to those same workers that lost out on the farms. It is perhaps for this reason that the dairy farmer who Monbiot visits has little more to say to him than – ‘shame on you’.

Neither does Monbiot place any importance on our appetites. There’s no two ways about it, the orange froth being produced in the Helsinki factory doesn’t look that appealing, and while it may well provide all the nutrients humans need – with the potential to also make us healthier by eliminating saturated fats – is anyone going to buy it? Monbiot says that this substance will eventually be the foodstuff for lab-grown meat, but even the ingenious lab-grown meat is a way off from replicating every cut of pork, beef, chicken, et al currently served up on British dinner tables. Questions such as these no doubt seem trivial to people who feel they have fully grasped the bigger picture – people who know that the wider climate and waste crises should overshadow our desire for a roast dinner – but demand matters, and current estimates state that global demand for meat will rise steeply as the world’s population increases.  

It’s unfair to lay these criticisms at Monbiot’s feet. He has presented a vision of what could be done, not a perfect summation of how exactly it should be implemented. The documentary is also only 45 minutes long (although removing the deer bit could have opened up more room). Nevertheless, it’s these questions that will need to be tackled – by governments and policy makers – if the vision presented is ever to be realised.

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