Outrage at UK documentary calling for end to all animal farming

Farmers, scientists and vegans alike have been outraged by a new documentary aired in the UK, which calls for farming to be phased out in favour of food grown from bacteria in factories. 

George Monbiot's Apocalypse Cow aired on Wednesday night (UK time) on Channel 4. It begins with Monbiot - who was arrested last year during an Extinction Rebellion protest - saying flying less and getting rid of plastic straws isn't going to be enough to save the world from ecological catastrophe.

"There's a bigger culprit that hardly anybody is talking about," he intones. "The food industry is destroying the living world and it appears to be insatiable."

The "way out", he says, is "doing away with agriculture as we know it" and taking advantage of new technologies which allow meats and other foods to be produced in labs.

The same day the show aired, UK paper the Guardian published a lengthy piece by Monbiot in which he claims "all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation", using only a "tiny fraction" of the area currently devoted to raising animals. 

"It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners," he wrote.

"It's our best hope of stopping what some have called the 'sixth great extinction', but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it's done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone."

Farming animals uses a lot more resources than just growing plants, and methane emissions from cows in particular have been blamed for exacerbating climate change. 

George Monbiot.
George Monbiot. Photo credit: Channel 4

Scepticism and rage

But Monbiot's views have come under fire from MPs, scientists and countryside groups. 

"Those of us who live in the countryside are absolutely sick of people with these minority faddy ideas about food given constant airtime," former environment secretary Owen Paterson told the Telegraph

"Channel 4 and BBC are giving disproportionate time to a tiny urban minority who don't have a clue what life is like outside the metropolitan areas."

Farming charity the Soil Association - which like Monbiot, opposes intensive farming - called it a "radical but misplaced vision".

"Radical change is needed across our food system, but Monbiot throws the baby out with the bathwater."

The group said eating food "chemical and nutrient components would also likely be a backward step for nutrition", with research showing "whole foods are more than the sum of their nutrient parts".

Pro-hunting and fishing group the Countryside Alliance told the Telegraph people won't want to eat "processed bacterial slush", describing Monbiot's vision as an "authoritarian nirvana  which he can dictate what people want to eat".

Monbiot also suggests banning patents on lab-grown food, to stop individual companies from cornering the market. Writing for The Conversation, Brunel University London sociology and science expert Neil Stephens said this might hamper a transition away from environmentally-damaging farming practises, rather than speed it up.

"This idea sits uncomfortably with the start-up culture surrounding much of the cultured meat industry. Many patents have already been filed... The idea of giving up intellectual property rights is difficult to contemplate, as selling or licensing technology forms part of potential business plans."

Stephens said Monbiot's hardline views could "undermine the work of keeping farmers on board", and they might be necessary in any transition to less-damaging forms of food production.

Vegan backlash

Vegans were shocked too at a scene in which Monbiot - usually a vegan himself - shoots and eats a deer. He did it as part of a cull of wild deer in Scotland, which have been reproducing in great numbers at the expense of other wildlife. 

Monbiot eats the venison burger.
Monbiot eats the venison burger. Photo credit: Channel 4

"I know this is the right thing to do but I feel like I'm going to go and commit a murder," Monbiot can be heard saying before taking a shot. He later justifies eating it, claiming its death "caused no ecological damage - quite the opposite in fact". 

Vegans took to social media to call him a hypocrite.

"I really don't think you should be calling yourself a vegan if you arrange to kill and eat a deer on your show, no matter how good you might think it is for conservation," one person wrote.

Another pointed out the deer would have been shot by someone else anyway - he didn't have to do it himself.

Channel 4 defended the documentary, saying it complied with broadcasting codes and was done from Monbiot's "personal view" as "one of the world's leading environmental campaigners".