Guest article by Soil Sisters, Miche Fabre Lewin and Daphne Lambert
Foreword by Rob Verkerk PhD
It’s a great pleasure to able to feature this exclusive article by Soil Sisters, Miche Fabre Lewin and Daphne Lambert, from Lewes, East Sussex, UK. Their thought-provoking article offer Miche and Daphne’s considered and expert perspectives on why society shouldn’t blindly accept arguments and mounting pressure to rid the world of farming and the production of natural foods on which our species has relied for the entirety of our evolution. British environmentalist and Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, has been among the highly vocal proponents of the need for system change in farming systems, these including the elimination of farming as we know it.
Monbiot is an advocate of farm-free foods that include the industrial scale fermentation of genetically-modified bacteria that generate protein sources (i.e. ‘ferming’). The justification given for this radical shift in food production is the mounting evidence for the damage industrial farming has wreaked on soils, other aspects of the environment and on biodiversity, not to mention its significant contribution to carbon emissions.
Novel farm-free food technologies, including lab-grown ‘meat’, are seen by an increasingly prominent sector of the population as the only viable way forward for both people and planet.
The Soil Sisters offer a different perspective, arguing that a transition from industrial farming, not to farm-free foods, but to agroecological farming, holds the key to planetary and human survival. It is of course an approach that we at ANH have also always advocated, it being the field of my own research as an academic prior to founding ANH in 2002.
Allow me to let Miche and Daphne introduce themselves (and you’ll find out more about them at the end of their article)…
We (Miche and Daphne) have been working together as Soil Sisters for over two decades. I, Daphne, am an eco-nutritionist, founder of Greencuisine Trust, and Visiting Tutor for the Forest Food Garden at the University of Sussex. I, Miche, am an artist-philosopher, co-founder of Studio Fabre Hardy, and Research Associate with the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University, and Sustainability Institute, Lynedoch, South Africa.
Living soils are fundamental to the interconnected health of ecosystems, to agroecological farming, to cohesive communities, and to human well-being. Soil Sisters’ regard this as ‘whole health’ and we refer to the art and knowledge involved in the preparation and eating of good food that is created from whole health systems as ‘ecological gastronomy’.
The perspective we give here is in response to George Monbiot’s acclaimed book, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet (2022, Allen Lane) and his disturbing vision of the future for food and farming. Monbiot, recipient of the 2022 Orwell prize for journalism, claims that livestock farming must be stopped to arrest further ecological degradation and to prevent animal cruelty, and that abandoned farmlands should be rewilded. He also proposes that bio-engineered protein sources are required to replace traditionally farmed and fished animal proteins and fats.
We offer two interconnected perspectives in addition to those of others who have presented strong cases against Monbiot’s arguments (Miers, Langford, Smaje, Young: see References).
Firstly, we must consider the nutritional and human health implications of eating novel, laboratory-derived foods. Secondly, we must highlight that mixed, agroecological farming systems which combine the cultivation of a diversity of crops with animal husbandry are integral to the genuine regenesis of soils and agricultural lands, as well as human culture.
Disregarded by the narrative of Monbiot's Regenesis tome are the life-affirming connections between the health of humans, soil and food, and the vital interdependence between small-scale farming and regenerative cultures. It is these relationships that are the lifeblood of agroecological farming. Soil Sisters acknowledge the challenge of providing health-giving food for increasing populations, especially in urban environments. However, across the globe, rural and urban small-scale initiatives already contribute to viable and ethical models of sustainable food cultures. This encompasses a vibrant food justice movement which integrates traditional knowledge and indigenous wisdoms with science and practice-led research to produce nutritious food from fertile soils that restore whole health.
Human beings are evolutionarily adapted to eat and thrive on diverse foods grown in living soils. A healthy soil biology is the foundation of the entire food web, affecting both the quality and quantity of food grown. The complex nutrition in nature’s food arises from the reciprocal health-giving relationships between soil, food and animals which have been evolving over millennia. When humans are in direct contact with a richly diverse soil ecology that is teeming with microbial life, this relationship benefits the health of the human gut.
Biologically we are capable of digesting and benefiting from a vast number of compounds found in these natural foods, many of which work, not in isolation, but synergistically within a whole food matrix, where all components interact. Fundamental to a healthy gut microbiome and strong immune system, is the diversity of compounds provided in the diet by soil-grown plants. While so far around 150 distinct compounds found in plants have been proven to be beneficial to human health, there are likely many thousands of others that are likely to support and enhance human health.
Agroecological practices evolve within, and adapt to, the specific biodiversity and environmental conditions of their indigenous habitats. Flourishing local food cultures support these intimate inter-relationships between soil, plants, animals and humans.
In stark contrast, Monbiot proposes using the technology of precision fermentation to manufacture ‘replicates’ to replace the proteins and fats that would otherwise be derived from farmed livestock. This energy intensive process feeds bacteria (typically genetically-modified) in a bio-reactor and their harvested waste is turned into an ultra-processed powder. This sterile product then becomes the substitute for foods of animal origin. However, by removing animals from our farmlands we also eliminate the health-giving aspect derived from the living ecology represented by the interaction between our bodies, the soil, animals, plants and microorganisms.
It is highly unlikely that the complex nutritional synergies found in nature-based food can be translated into laboratory-generated food. The full impact of transitioning to lab-grown foods that are novel to our species would also not be understood for decades - probably more than a generation.
Generating food in labs and factories also alienates us even further from our natural origins and from the soil, oceans, lakes and sunshine that have been the substrates and energy source that have brought our species to this point in our evolution. Without natural foods we would potentially impoverish our gut biology, compromise our immune systems, and negatively affect our emotional, mental and physical well-being.
We must question on what basis farm-free foods spawned by chemical engineers instead of farmers meet the full extent of people’s physical and cultural needs? Our connection with the land, with farming and with our food, has been central to creating human health and cultural resilience. Human interactions and the sharing of life-supporting skills which arise from mixed, small-scale farming and animal husbandry contribute to individual and community well-being and are deeply embedded within our cultures and traditions, our stories and language, and within the human psyche. The activities of tending, feeding, growing, harvesting, preparing, cooking, presenting, eating, digesting and composting involve us humans in a vital and sensuous relationship between the earth and our own bodies, minds and souls.
Ultra-processed foods are at the heart of our current health crisis. Yet we are supposed to accept that ultra-processed, standardised foods from precision fermentation techniques, devoid of diversity or place-based flavours – imprinted with the unique terroir of soil - should be our saviour. Replacing nature-based food with technologically-based food would erode the richness of global food cultures, while ex-communicating us from ancestral wisdom, traditions and instinct born out of millennia of co-evolution between humans and our natural food sources.
A future comprised of bio-engineered foods devalues the mythic dimension and vital expression of our human relationship within the natural order of the cosmos. It is often said we become what we eat. If that is so, how will laboratory food influence our actions, ways of being, feeling, and thinking? Will human identity become more synthetic, automated and lacking in energetic vibrancy if we are further disconnected from the soil?
Human beings are part of a complex web of life, and we need to recognise that there is no single solution that will restore balance within the ecosphere.
With humility and respect for collective knowledge, Soil Sisters advocate for citizen-led ways of living which cultivate connections between food, the natural environment and social justice. With this comes a shift in our responsibility and relationship to food and the land. Access to nutritious, wholesome natural food is a human right, and by becoming active ‘whole health’, food-aware citizens, rather than passive industrial food consumers, we can re-orient our relationship to sustainable foodscapes, and reclaim all-important food cultures.
At the heart of the food sovereignty movement is a vision of co-operation between citizens, farmers and growers to generate ecologically sound, locally-adapted, culturally-appropriate food and farming systems. Re-orienting agricultural policy and investment to extend these existing small-scale food economies is the pathway to flourishing and bountiful landscapes. Such resilient, sustainable farming practices are to-date the only known methods capable of yielding the nutrient-dense, diverse, seasonal foods associated with long, healthy lives. These foods are typically are comprised largely of a diversity of plant sources, and they may include small to modest amount of food of animal origin from non-industrial scale farming or fishing systems. There are many lineages of agroecological, regenerative food and farming around the world, all of them helping to support biodiversity, to build healthy communities and generate thriving food cultures based on sound ethical values. It is these abundant, courageous and nourishing stories of interdependence that are the stories we need to inspire us and to live by.
About Soil Sisters
The Soil Sisters’ practice honours the living soil. Miche and Daphne’s convivial food experiences are thanksgiving feasts of the season which have been shared on the land, in kitchens, in warehouses, in a greenhouse and in a geodesic dome. Drawing on artisan traditions from diverse cultures combined with fresh produce harvested from farms of the region, local gardens and mindful foraging, they make visible the living food cycle from seed to compost. Their work is commissioned by art galleries, food festivals, educational institutions, environmental conferences and cultural gatherings. Daphne is the author of Living Food: A Feast for Soil and Soul (2016, Unbound) and Fermenting: Recipes & Preparation (2016, Flame Tree Illustrated); she is a contributing author of The Cancer Revolution, The Role of Nutrients in Mental Wellness in Mental Wellness by Neals Yards Remedies, and has co- authored a series of papers for Beyond GM with Pat Thomas including Food Sovereignty, GMO’s and Farm Animals, and GMO and Corporate Control. Miche’s PhD explores the artful bodymind through food rituals. She authored ‘The Art of Food Rituals as a Practice in Sympoiethics’ in Subtle Agroecologies: Farming with the Hidden Half of Nature; and ‘Soil Culture at Create: Soil Saturdays and Food Happenings’ in Soil Culture: Bringing the Arts Down to Earth. Other image-text works appear in the online journals, The Learned Pig, The Ecological Citizen, and The Environment magazine of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management.
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Langford, S. (2022) ‘A revolution in food and farming’: Radio 4 Start the Week
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Smaje, C. (2022) ‘From Regenesis to Re-exodus: of George Monbiot, mathematical modernism and the case or agrarian localism.
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Young, R. et al (2022) Sustainable Food Trust ‘Considering Regenesis - A perspective from the Sustainable Food Trust’
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