Hope for a Humane Agricultural Future: A Review of Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future


Once someone accepts the significant human contribution to climate change, there are two possible options. The first option is to assume that things are too far gone so that exercising restraint is pointless. Based on this defeatist thinking we should either ride out the coming storm, hoping for the best, or accept that human extinction would be the best thing for the planet. The second option for those who recognize that the current form of human civilization is damaging the environment is to do something about it. What that something should be, however, is the subject of fierce debate.

Chris Smaje’s book, Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future: The Case for an Ecological Food System and Against Manufactured Foods has one clear solution in mind for climate change. He argues people should return to small-scale farming, incorporating ecologically sensitive methods to minimize the real impact of the human population. Unstated in the lengthy title, his primary opponent in the debate is George Monbiot whose 2022 book, Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet makes a case for urbanization, rewilding farmland, and manufacturing meat substitutes in a laboratory.

Though they have the same overall goal of mitigating climate change, the distance between Smaje and Monbiot is immense, especially as it is described in Saying NO to a Far-Free Future. At root, their proposed solutions reflect a vastly different understanding of humanity.

Statistical Disputes

Mark Twain is famous for his disdain of statistics. This debate shows why. The cases for urbanization and agrarianism both rely on statistics. A significant portion of Smaje’s book is spent undermining ecomodernist interpretation of statistics or, in some cases, showing exactly what those statistics would mean in reality.

For example, a suggestion by RePlanet, an organization that Monbiot has been closely aligned with, calls for 90% of the human population to move into high-density urban settings to permit the rewilding of agricultural and suburban land. This would require moving more than two billion people from their current homes into currently non-existent high-rise apartments. Smaje rightly points out the breathtaking political power this would take and the social costs of such a relocation.

Even if a move toward intensive urbanization were possible, it is questionable whether it would achieve the desired outcome. As Smaje notes, the carbon footprint of many rural citizens, especially those in more traditional cultures, is significantly smaller than that of city dwellers (53). The projected benefit of urbanization is dependent on additional social and economic shifts that would have to be simultaneously orchestrated. Many of the statistical arguments ecomodernists make are projections based on best-case scenarios.

Unrealistic Optimism

The optimism of Regenesis’s proposals is one of Smaje’s major targets through his book. Significantly, he believes that scalable manufacture of protein sources is unsupported by the current technology and unlikely in the future. One of Monbiot’s key arguments is that flatulent cows should be replaced by “precision fermentation”—that is, by making meat substitutes in vats populated by genetically engineered bacteria.

As Smaje argues, Mobiot’s case is “built on the questionable idea that consumers will happily embrace meat substitutes if they look and taste like meat” (97). We’re currently witnessing a refusal to make even modest lifestyle adjustments because of status signaling and consumer preference. Expecting people to replace their ribeye with even a well-presented byproduct of bacteria will be a tough sell no matter how loudly people shout about impending doom.

Moreover, it isn’t clear that lab-cultured meat substitutes are even viable. Smaje argues there are “endotoxins and high concentrations of nucleic acids with potentially harmful effects on human health” in the meat substitutes (35). Furthermore, even if technological solutions are found to that obstacle, he argues that Monbiot’s assumptions about energy consumption are much too optimistic (36–41). As a result, even if we can overcome the all the existing challenges, a synthetic meat future may not resolve the problem it set out to solve.

Honoring Humanity

The most compelling argument Smaje makes, however, is not his statistical rebuttal or his skepticism about technological development. Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future is fundamentally an argument for “agrarian localism: a turn to low-energy input, job-rich, diverse and predominately local self-provisioning of food, fibre and other material requisites of life, and accompanying forms of politics that don’t really fit within the contemporary left-right framings” (1). His argument is for a human-scale approach to farming and human existence.

The ecomodernist approach of Regenesis relies on a mechanistic understanding of humanity. The presumption is that humans are merely fleshy machines that can adapt to flourish in any environment as long as their basic material needs are met. That doesn’t match with most people’s experience of life.

For example, urbanization would require most people to become office professionals to make a living. Smaje argues, “Office work suits some people perfectly well, but Monbiot gives no space to the profound disillusionment that many have felt in the face of modern bureaucratisation, urbanisation, and industrialisation” (127). Furthermore, urbanization will undoubtedly result in more renters and fewer property owners. Smaje notes, “If the choice is between living in the city at the mercy of monopoly landlords and food corporations, or living a more self-determined indigenous life in the countryside, it seems likely the world could experience a surprisingly sudden surge in the numbers of ‘indigenous’ people” (120). In other words, people are unlikely to accept lifestyles that further alienate them from nature.

Moving back toward a localized, agrarian way of life would encourage human flourishing because it restores “a sense of everyday implications in the sacred,” which has been significantly undermined by modernity (141). Monbiot’s proposal is a headlong dive further into disenchantment and distance from nature. Smaje makes the case that the opposite approach is more likely to move humanity toward lifestyles that treat nature well.


Saying NO to a Farm-Free Future makes a solid case for agrarianism, which falls in line with the arguments of Gene Logsdon, Wendell Berry, and others sympathetic to the Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front. The opponent, in this case, is not status-quo agribusiness, but a similar technocratic model wearing new clothes.

Though the case is well made, this book is best read by those familiar with Regenesis. That book has been widely publicized and deserved response, but the nature of Smaje’s argument as focused polemic against Monbiot’s book limits the audience to a subset of Regenesis readers. Therefore, this book is more likely to reach the already converted than to convince a new audience.

Resistance to what Smaje calls ecomodernism is necessary. Due to sunk costs, it’s tempting to hasten down the road of modernization we’ve been traveling to find safety from an impending storm. But if we realize there is no shelter at our proposed destination, it would be much better to turn around now and run back toward the farmhouse we left behind.

NOTE: This review originally incorrectly identified Monbiot as the source of the 90% urbanization proposal. The error was on the part of the review author.

Image credit: “Farmer with A Pitchfork” by Winslow Homer via Wikimedia Commons


  1. This essay begins with an outright lie about my position, and goes downhill from there. You claim the following:

    “For example, one of Monbiot’s proposals is for 90% of the human population to move into high-density urban settings to permit the rewilding of agricultural and suburban land. This would require moving more than two billion people from their current homes into currently non-existent high-rise apartments. Smaje rightly points out the breathtaking political power this would take and the social costs of such a relocation.”

    I have never made any such proposal, or even suggested or hinted at such a thing. Nor would I support anyone else if they were to do so. Unfortunately, it is just one of many gross misrepreentations in Chris’s book, which you have now amplified.

    Given that his book claims to be a critique of my book, would it not be a good idea to read them both before writing about them? Could I please call on you to rewrite this article on an informed basis, rather than taking on trust a highly tendentious and misleading account of what I think?

    Thank you,

    George Monbiot

    • George, it’s true you don’t argue for 90% urban residence in Regenesis – and nor do I say in my book that you do so. To say that this is a ‘gross misrepresentation’ on my part is itself a misrepresentation. Instead, this is one of many areas in which you studiously avoid addressing the implications of your arguments. But the RePlanet organisation, with which you’re associated and whose messaging you’ve amplified, does envision a world of 90% urban residence by 2100. Presumably you’d be happy to repudiate their position? If your vision for the future of food were realised, what proportion of the population do you think would be living in rural areas, and what do you think they would be doing there?

      I’ve previously offered to debate with you in written format the issues dividing us. If you believe I’m misleading readers about your book, why not accept my offer? Perhaps Front Porch Republic would be willing to host it?

    • @George Monbiot

      Where is the energy coming from to make “lab meat”?

      The Energy Costs of Energy of fossil fuels is on the relentless rise.

      “Renewables” have never been manufactured WITHOUT using fossil fuels and are unlikely never to be. The possibility of the electrification of the mining and heavy transport industries is unproven.

  2. Moonbat, like John Holdren, Paul Ehrlich, etc, are great examples that lefty envirowhackos need never fear being held to account for their anti-human lunacy. They’re motivated by good intentions, don’t you know, so who cares if their policies lead directly to ruin. Let’s just happily go along pretending people who want to steal farms, grow sludge in vats for food, and ideally reduce the population by billions of people are operating in good faith for the betterment of humanity. “There will be fewer but better humans” to paraphrase the famous line…

  3. To be fair. It’s the reviewer who attributes the 90% figure to you George. The review doesn’t say its a claim Smaje makes. He does say Smaje takes issue with your statistical interpretations But the 90% figure is not attributed to Smaje. It’s the reviewer trotting that number out.

    Do you have a reference in the book for Smaje making that claim?

  4. George knows exactly what he’s doing by misrepresenting the reviewer’s claim as Chris Smaje’s. He has a responsibility to engage with the critique of his work in Saying No to a Farm Free Future but is this opportunistic sham smearing the only response so far?

  5. For info, the relevant passage in my book is on pp.7-8, where I write: ‘…Monbiot doesn’t spell out his social vision or say what he thinks the people moved on from rural livelihoods and supposedly outmoded agricultures – which potentially numbers in the billions worldwide – should do or where they should go. His heavy emphasis on rewilding and manufactured food seems consistent with his associates at RePlanet’s vision for the year 2100 in which 90% of the population lives in cities, yet Monbiot leavens his approach with an element of praise for farmers engaged in more nature-friendly forms of production like agroecology’.

  6. Soylent Green would be more practical. Do the math.
    It is difficult to be charitable towards the proponents of tech optimist arguments for future foods. Star Trek mindset of the affluent surely makes for comfortable ignoring of the present crisis due to industrial agriculture practices.
    Dr Smaje writes well and he should help newcomers to this thought process of how we need to change. I must say, however, that I am very disappointed in Dr Smaje’s profound lack of understanding, (contempt even), for the work of The Land Institute that is mischaracterized on his blog. Beyond curious target.

  7. IIRC, someone put a link to this video in a comment on another FPR food essay a couple months ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGG-A80Tl5g

    It’s a 23-minute interview debunking “less meat will save the planet”, with transcript and evidence (e.g., Proceedings of the National Academy of Science) available via download of this .pdf file https://www.patreon.com/posts/50493370

    Key points in debunking the pro-urban techno-fix include:
    1. a lot of land is not arable — for centuries ruminants like cows and sheep have grazed it, converting INedible plants into protein for humans
    2. tons of water is used for processing “alternative” milks — almond milk for example consumes more water than is needed to produce the equivalent volume of (more nutritious) cow’s milk
    3. huge energy consumption is involved in a lot of mass production of food

    You may have also seen elsewhere a flimy rebuttal of the fart debunk (termites produce more methane globally than cows) based on “containment” of the gas inside their nests. But termites often build hills above ground, which break or are abandoned after a few years, so the contained gas is released later instead of never.

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