By Dr Tara Garnett, Table, 8th July 2021
Following are notes from Dr. Tara Garnett’s presentation at the EFN Retreat for funders in May 2021. Thanks to Tara for giving the talk and letting us publish the notes here.
Tara began by saying that, whether you’re Oxfam, the World Economic Forum, an academic — everyone seems to think the food system is ‘broken’. Other than a few rogue thinkers, almost everyone buys into this idea.
That begs the question: if the food system is broken, how do we fix it?
Generally discussions about this fall into three categories:
1) How we eat — that we should be eating differently. The discussions in this category are a cacophony of discourses. For some people, veganism is the way to save the planet and more important than any other action an individual can take. For others, veganism exemplifies the corporate takeover and ultra-processing of our lives. For some, eating meat is healthier than not, and the only way to feed the world. Some think lab-grown meat is the way forwards; other studies suggest it’s worse for the environment.
2) How to produce — that we should be growing/raising/producing differently. For some people, this is all about precision agriculture, the role of artificial intelligence, big data, being able to do whatever we want to do very precisely with far fewer inputs. A narrative of ‘more for less’. For other people, it’s all about regenerative agriculture: it’s not enough to sustain, we have to restore, and the soil provides this Messianic function. Others are focusing on different and novel technologies like Solar Foods making food out of thin air. And finally others believe that industrial agriculture will save us.
3) How change should/does happen — whose job is it? There is a lack of clarity sometimes about whether we’re talking about how change does happen or how it ought to happen. There are lists of different things people should do: labels, taxes, bans, standards, markets, certification… Some approaches that capture the different camps are ‘Do it via the market,’ ‘Governments should govern,’ ‘It’s all down to the consumer,’ and ‘We the people’. It all comes down to three different ways of thinking: ‘capitalism is the answer,’ ‘capitalism is the problem’ and ‘capitalism is what there is’.
Tara argued that our discussions around food boil down into debates about:
- Health — meat/veganism is good/bad for you
- Feeding the world — land, yields, population growth; whether we can feed the world with our current population, whether we can do it without shifting our diets
- Climate and environment: greenhouse gas emissions, soil carbon sequestration, land degradation, biodiversity, water
- Animal rights/welfare
- Economy, jobs, livelihoods
- Power and justice
But thinks that when we talk about food, we are also, perhaps more importantly, talking about many other things. We’re talking about:
- What we feel is fair
- Which policies we feel are actually legitimate (e.g. tax or no?)
- Who or what is to blame (capitalism? selfish individuals? the system? — this analysis in turn informs people’s ideas of what a solution might look like)
- Whether big is better or worse
- Whether technology is progress or we ought to do the legwork ourselves
- What we think about animals and how important we think their well-being is
- Which metrics matter (suggesting whether things like carbon markets, payments for ecosystem services are useful/legitimate)
- Individual freedoms versus collective responsibilities
- What culture means — is it evolving and changing, was it ‘better’ in the past at some point?
All of these inform our discussions about what we want the changes to be and the future to be like.
From Tara’s conversations with many people whose views spread across these spectrums, she has seen glimpses of four different ‘futures’ that would result from different ideas of what the problem is and what the solutions are. She put them into four quadrants spread across two axes — the vertical axis of ‘More radical’ to ‘More tech’ and the horizontal axis of ‘More animal’ to ‘Less animal’.
- Bottom right: ‘Today Version 2’: a hyper-efficient, intensive-poultry, white-meat future
- Top right: Techno-utopia: a novel-proteins, high-tech, artificial-meat, AI-enhanced future
- Top left: Green Arcadia: plant-based, vegan-type future
- Bottom left: Salvation by Soil: holistic-grazing, regenerative-agriculture-type future
Depending on who you are, each of these may seem like the answer or part of the problem.
Tara talked through each future in turn, and why it appears by its followers to be a solution, as well as some of the problems and contradictions that might be inherent in them.
1) ‘Today Version 2’
The global population is currently eating more and more poultry, and this future has more of the same but more efficient and bigger. The rationale of this future is that people like meat, it’s good for them, it’s more efficient than ruminant meat, it lends itself well to scaling up, it’s low-cost and works well for children with nutrient deficiencies and it has a land-sharing agenda because you can raise the chickens so efficiently — thus sparing land for ‘nature’.
It raises questions about power, the countryside, the role of farmers (these operations provide very little employment), questions about animal welfare. All of these can be answered by the approach’s proponents, for example, ‘we can breed chickens to feel no pain’, ‘people don’t want jobs in the countryside, they want to be in cities’, ‘AI will help us with antibiotic resistance’.
Starts with the premise that people like eating meat and there’s nothing we can do about that, and that the government shouldn’t intervene in our food consumption choices (even if they wanted too), so let’s circumvent the animal. We can do this by developing plant-based burgers that mimic the texture and taste of meat, by circumventing soils altogether by growing plants in hydroponic, closed-water-system vertical greenhouses, and through techniques that produce cell-based meats. The vision is based on the idea that humanity has already been able to innovate just when we need to, that we can give people everything they want for no cost at all, that we can make lots of money out of this. It’s a dazzling, positive vision.
It raises questions about the concentration of power in the hands of (yet again) a tiny number of corporations; the unknown health impacts of eating foods that have not been tested with hundreds of thousands of years of interaction with our guts; where the energy will come from to produce these food (will it be decarbonised?).
3) Green Arcadia
This vision is based on the idea that people can change, that cultures do change, that livestock are the causes of all our problems (environmental, animal welfare, human health), and that a plant-based, vegan future can solve all these problems. It subscribes to the idea that it’s the role of governments and markets to help change our behaviour. This too is a very upbeat and positive vision about how we are going to eat, but it has rather less to say about how we will produce this food — for example, where the nutrients will come from in the absence of animal manure.
It raises questions of production, whether the diets will be adequate and sufficient for everybody (unless they are capable of doing their nutritional sums and getting a varied enough diet), whether it’s what people want, etc.
4) Salvation by Soil
In this view, the cow has received unfairly bad press and, far from being the source of all our problems, it’s the source of our solutions. If you graze animals right, you can sequester carbon in soils, foster biodiversity, and create closed nutrient loops. You can apply this regenerative approach not just to animal production but crop production as well, and it’s the integration of the two that will save us. It’s often popular where there’s plenty of land, e.g. the US. It’s based on the idea that people want meat, that that’s natural, that it’s good for us and our souls to be on the land, and that we don’t all want to move to the cities (or perhaps that we ought not to want to). Large corporations like Walmart and Nestle have enthusiastically taken up the banner of regenerative agriculture. It’s very much based on the idea that we should be supporting agro-biodiversity: that the farming landscape is the locus of life and regeneration. It sees a much less clear divide between human and natural worlds.
This vision raises questions about how much land we are going to be using for agriculture, whether we need to use more land, and whether this method of farming can sustain current consumption trends and trajectories. It’s focused on production, and fairly silent on what it is we could or should be eating.
Tara showed a slide where she had sketched out which stakeholders think what—e.g. Silicon Valley is firmly in the Techno-utopia quadrant; environmental organisations are hovering between the Green Arcadia (vegan) and Salvation by Soil (grass-fed meat) quadrants; and supermarkets straddle all four.
She then showed us where she stands — mainly in the Green Arcadia camp but seeing a role for Salvation by Soils and a small, delimited role for Techno-utopia.
She emphasised that the four visions are crude and not mutually exclusive. She finds the false dichotomies in the discourses around food to be dispiriting — e.g. ‘all meat is bad for you,’ ‘all vegans eat ultra-processed, air-freighted food produced by big business,’ ‘the way this landscape looks is the way it ought to be’. The world is complex, and the truth is usually ‘various and dispersed’.
She reflected that we cannot talk about different ways of producing things without discussing different ways of consuming, and vice versa — though some of the visions she described do just that.
The main questions that need far more attention are around power: who is winning, who is losing, who has a voice and who does not?
Tara concluded by saying that we need to be clearer about what evidence we are using, what we’re not using, and the context from which the evidence emerges. And we need to distinguish between what ‘facts’ are and what ‘values’ are. Values are hugely important, we just need to be clear about which is which.
Learn more about Table, and the many questions it chews over, at www.tabledebates.org.
In the discussion, Tara was asked about how fish and seafood map onto her quadrants. She said you can see the overlap to an extent — the fishless future of veganism maps onto the Green Arcadia quadrant; experimentation with things like closed, recirculating aquaculture systems fit into Techno-utopia; small-scale fishing overlaps somewhat with the Salvation by Soil quadrant.
Another participant asked, given the numbers of people facing malnutrition in low-income countries, how do you reconcile the need to improve diets with the consequences of intensive agriculture we’ve faced to date? Tara responded that no one she knows is suggesting that people should not be increasing and diversifying their consumption of foods in low-income countries — foods of plant as well as animal origin (it’s worth remembering that many diets are grain or tuber-based and don’t contain sufficient fruits and vegetables as well as protein). The question of what the route is to better diets is related to whether we’re looking for food security or food sovereignty: what is the role of agency and self-determination in deciding the food future of a region? Tara sees no point in taking an industrial agriculture route only to have to retrench down the line, but recognises the tensions. She mentioned the value of giving a child a nutrient-rich egg, cheaply produced, but reflected on the difference between giving a child nutrients, and giving a family agency. She acknowledged there are no clear answers but there’s a balance needed between quick fixes and more diverse, resilient food systems.
The final question Tara was asked was about her thoughts on food labelling and the role of supermarkets in facilitating dialogues across food futures.
On labelling, Tara said that, personally, she thinks it depends what you do with a label. If you think that putting a label on things is going to transform things, it’s not. Policymakers tend to love them because you don’t need to do anything structural, you just stick a label on. She pointed out that the fact that we need to look at a label to know if food is good for us or not suggests that something has gone wrong in our relationship with food. That said, we are where we are, and we have lots of health problems and environmental problems associated with our food systems, and insofar as these signals can help people make informed decisions when they do go to a supermarket, it’s a sticking plaster job, but we do need plasters.
More fundamentally, Tara thinks we need to rethink our relationship with food and have a different food system so we don’t need to look at labels to see if food is good for us, ethically produced, etc.
Take any form of certification and it has nothing to say about limits — it’s all about market signals. It doesn’t say how much area of land should be devoted to palm oil production globally, it doesn’t say, “Hang on, now’s enough, we don’t want any more palm oil.” It’s just a slightly better variant of the status quo.
As for supermarkets: Tara shops in supermarkets, ‘they’re there’. If they want to change things, they could; they’re very powerful. The fact is that they have so much control and dominance, and their business model is founded on more is better. In that sense, it’s hard to see how as a supermarket you can reformat your business model to sell us less and not grow.
Tara has 25 years of experience in academia and NGOs working on food systems. Currently director of Table (www.tabledebates.org), at the University of Oxford, which is a global platform for knowledge synthesis, critical thinking and inclusive dialogue about the future of food.