Essay Society

The Anthropocene: a Challenge for Agriculture

by Bertrand Valiorgue , 19 April 2021
translated by Kevin Metz

What will farming look like in the future? Will there still be room for agriculture? What is certain is that the time has come for a complete overhaul of a model that is now obsolete. This essay considers the possible scenarios.

Agriculture is the oldest problem facing human societies. Throughout their history, Western societies and the institutions that governed them have struggled with famines, food crises, and food shortages that decimated populations and compromised all forms of social, cultural, and economic progress. This harsh reality still exists in many countries. The transition into the Anthropocene geological era brings these questions to the surface and imposes a complete overhaul of our agricultural model.

Agriculture, the first casualty of the Anthropocene

The food systems that the West managed to put in place at the end of World War II have proven to be an undeniable success in terms of the quantity and quality of food made available to the greatest number at a cost that has continually decreased. Since the early 1950s, the share of food expenses in France has been divided by five. The household food budget now represents a modest proportion of everyday expenses, which is around 14%.

Food systems did not become reliable overnight. It is the result of a gigantic agricultural transformation that has led Western countries to develop public policies to transform agricultural practices in order to simultaneously boost production volumes, generate food variety, and reduce the share of expenses allocated to food (Mazoyer & Roudart, 2017). The European and American agricultural policies are unique in the history of humanity and only a constant political will could have led to food sovereignty as we know it today in the West (Pisani, 1994).

Today in the West, we might be under the impression that food and agricultural issues have all been solved. However, one only needs to look at our food systems to see the immense fragility that could wipe out several decades of progress and efforts if nothing is done. This extreme fragility stems from a profound and irreversible transformation of the Earth system, which is reflected in the transition to a new geological era: the Anthropocene.

The most visible and discussed part of this shift into the Anthropocene is undoubtedly the increase in temperatures and climate change. However, this gradual increase in temperatures at rates and levels that are difficult to stabilize is only a fraction of the changes that are now happening. A multitude of changes are underway. They will bring about the emergence of a planet with unprecedented characteristics and modes of functioning (Bonneuil & Fressoz, 2016).

Agriculture is Directly Impacted by these Changes

Plants and animals that humans have taken thousands of years to domesticate are less and less adapted to the emerging features of the Earth system. This means two things. On the one hand, the knowledge acquired to control the biological cycles of today’s plant and animal species is becoming increasingly obsolete, because this knowledge is only valid under stable and familiar pedoclimatic [1] conditions. A new climate means new plant and animal behavior, new pathologies, and therefore new agricultural practices that need to be invented, tested, and learned. On the other hand, this new Earth system logically implies an interest in new varieties of plants or animals that are better adapted to the new climate and that have not been or only minimally mobilized in the framework of agricultural activity. It is thus necessary to begin using biological cycles (animals or plants) whose characteristics are unknown or poorly understood by farmers.

The Earth system is being transformed before our eyes and it will never again find the balance and great stability we have experienced until now. Agriculture and our food systems are massively involved because the transformations of the Earth system change the behavior of plants and animals who no longer react in the same way. There is less water, more light, more CO2 in the atmosphere, less biodiversity; there are also more extreme events. We are heading for a world in which agriculture will become more and more complicated, uncertain, costly, and in some regions, simply impossible.

Growing Opposition and Awareness

The transition to the Anthropocene is not a mere environmental crisis. It is indeed a major and irreversible transformation of the Earth system that considerably weakens the foundations of agricultural activity, but also its legitimacy. Under these conditions, if we are not able to reinvent agriculture, there is a non-negligible risk that it might disappear.

We are indeed witnessing the emergence and structuring of powerful social movements that attack agriculture head-on and condemn its contribution to the disruption of the Earth system. For example, Peter Singer, one of the leading theorists of anti-speciesism, maintains that the best way to fight global warming is simply to put an end to the industrial breeding of animals whose ecological footprint is particularly significant (Singer, 1995). In a highly controversial essay published in 1987, Jared Diamond asserts that agriculture is “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” For this internationally renowned intellectual, agriculture has considerably reduced food diversity through the selection of a few species; it therefore puts societies at risk of famine. Agriculture is also accused of having institutionalized class differences and social hierarchies in a way that has contributed to shape our contemporary societies. More fundamentally, Diamond’s perspective is conceived around a Malthusian vision. Agriculture supports the idea that the population of the planet can keep growing, and that it must be fed through an increasingly productive agriculture (Diamond, 1987, 2005, 2010).

These intellectual and philosophical developments have been widely embraced and developed by social movements and NGOs that inform and challenge Western public opinion in order to initiate more or less radical changes in agriculture. Eddy Fougier, one of the few specialists of social movements that are critical of agriculture, identifies five main categories of activists. These activists do not have the same identity nor the same modus operandi, but their actions aim to politicize the issues surrounding certain agricultural practices in order to obtain regulatory and legislative reforms (Fougier, 2016, 2018):

Specialized NGOs: These actors have extensive knowledge of agriculture and agricultural practices. They mainly target certain farms or actors of the agro-industry in order to denounce practices that they deem inappropriate. We find here organizations such as L214, Combat Monsanto, OGM Dangers, or Générations Futures. As Fougier points out, these specialized activists have developed professional communication techniques. They have high visibility and powerful media connections that support their causes. They have a strong and structuring impact on public opinion.

Generalist NGOs: These organizations are not specialized in agriculture, but their campaigns and reform projects involve agricultural issues from time to time. We find here a category of well-established NGOs with privileged access to decision-makers and to the political sphere (WWF, FNH, FNE, Greenpeace, Brigitte Bardot Foundation, Oxfam, Attac...). These structures have significant lobbying capabilities and some of their leaders navigate between the political and activist sphere through revolving door practices. Yannick Jadot, Nicolas Hulot, and Cécile Duflot are the most well-known personalities who take part in this type of crossover activity.

Opinion leaders and influencers: These are politically committed individuals who, because of their scientific or literary work, have an aura and an audience. They convey ideas and influence representations. Public authorities sometimes commission reports and send them on missions that give visibility to their views. They are also found in think tanks and foundations that support and publish their intellectual activities.

Victim associations: Fougier aptly notes that victims and legal defense associations are also actors that strongly influence the representation and understanding of public opinion. The campaigns that they lead and publicize have a large following. The multiple trials of the French farmer Paul François against Monsanto are an emblematic example of these victims and victim associations whose struggles are widely publicized in the media and which permeate throughout civil society.

Radical groups: This activist category is not satisfied with speeches and slogans circulating on social networks and in traditional media. They take action and often in a violent manner. We find here the Faucheurs Volontaires, Boucherie Abolition, and the Front de Libération Animale. These activists break into farms or certain retail outlets that they deliberately ransack. These violent actions are usually covered by the press and media. They have a strong impact on citizens’ beliefs and representations.

These social movements are spreading in France and in most Western countries. They now have considerable influence on public opinion and in the political sphere. They also have direct economic ramifications, resulting in the emergence of entrepreneurs and investors whose purpose is to propose alternatives to agriculture in order to cover human needs for animal and plant proteins.

Indeed, there are increased investments to carry out research and propose industrial projects around what is inappropriately called cellular agriculture. Agriculture as we know it today consists in controlling the entire biological cycle of a plant or animal from birth/planting, growth, to slaughter/harvest. These cycles range from one to several years. So-called cellular agriculture completely ignores these biological cycles and bases its food production on the multiplication of animal cells in laboratories using the knowledge and means offered by biotechnology.

Cellular agriculture is based on a very simple idea: to start with stem cells taken from a living animal and then multiply them. Through the injection of nutritive liquid containing proteins and growth hormones, these stem cells end up becoming real pieces of meat that are then consumed by humans. The first hamburger developed from a piece of cellular meat was produced in 2013 by the Dutch company Mosa Meat. Since Mosa Meat’s very first operation, the production costs of cellular meat have been significantly reduced.

With these technologies, one no longer needs to feed, care for, and slaughter animals—and all of these agricultural activities pollute and consume a lot of natural resources. Meat is “grown” in bioreactors, and it is possible to eliminate animal husbandry and all agricultural operations in the process before and after. This also eliminates all forms of animal suffering. Considerable amounts of money are now being invested in this technology, and some agriTech start-ups already see themselves as future agri-food giants, replacing the traditional operators who rely on animal husbandry.

Another technique is developed around vegetal proteins. This second solution is based on substitutes or “vegetable steaks”. In these products, vegetable proteins are made to taste and look like meat, and to have its texture. While the principle of vegetable steaks is relatively old, we can observe today real technological breakthroughs in this field. These new generation vegetarian steaks are produced from vegetable proteins using a technique called extrusion. The final result is difficult to tell apart from meat. Significant investments are now being made with these steaks by start-ups such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, but also by food giants such as Nestlé and Tyson Foods. This substitution movement concerns animal meat but also dairy products. These companies offer a whole range of alternatives to milk, yogurt, butter, cheese, etc., but also to eggs and seafood (fish, crabs, shrimp).
A third technology is emerging that consists in producing proteins from microorganisms, using the fermentation process. The gene for a protein present in milk or eggs is inserted in the genetic sequence of a micro-organism (bacterium or yeast). This microorganism is then placed in a particular environment in order to activate the production of the desired protein. One can then “harvest” this production. The California-based start-up Perfect Day is one of the most advanced in this field today. It offers a range of ice cream for which the milk is not produced by cows but by genetically modified microorganisms. Supported by the food giant Archer Daniel Midland, the company has obtained authorization to commercialize its products. In a version without genetic modification, the French start-up Les Nouveaux Affineurs offers a whole range of “cheese” made from cashew nuts and soy that is based on new fermentation processes.

Top business leaders such as Richard Branson and Bill Gates are very enthusiastic about the potential of these technologies, which can be described as breakthrough technologies (Gates, 2019). Investments and fundraising are substantial thanks to the attention that these alternative technologies have generated among wealthy entrepreneurs and investment funds. The American company Memphis Meats has received more than $180 millions since it was founded in 2015. The company has a significant lead in cellular meat, and its new investors want to position the company’s development on a global scale. The American company Perfect Day, which specializes in the manufacture of milk-based proteins, raised more than $160 million in 2019. Meatable, a Dutch company, also raised tens of millions of dollars in 2019. But the record for fundraising in 2019 goes to the U.S. company Beyond Meat, which raised more than $240 million from investors to continue its research and business development.

Traditional Agriculture is in a Tight Spot

Social movements and foodTech entrepreneurs are two sides of a vast and deep movement that aims to legitimize and bring alternative technologies to traditional agriculture in the Anthropocene era. These social and entrepreneurial movements necessarily call for a response from the agricultural sector. The status quo is impossible to maintain from a political and climatic point of view.

Like other sectors, agricultural activity undeniably bears some responsibility for the emergence of the Anthropocene. This responsibility cannot be denied and the growing sensitivity of public opinion towards climate change will shed more light and put more pressure on this sector. The various activists who attack this sector have an inherent advantage, because it is certain that in the years to come they will benefit from more and more political and financial support. They will amplify the criticism of agriculture. Farmers will have to react to these pressures and demands. They will have to provide clear answers and define a new approach in line with society’s expectations.

Farmers will also be forced to question the foundations of their activity. We have seen that the Anthropocene changes the behavior of plants and animals. Farmers will necessarily have to find answers to these changes, otherwise yields will collapse. Agriculture is on its way to become fundamentally uncertain again and professionals in this field must start to develop knowledge and institutions that can secure yields and incomes. Without this new dynamic of agronomic progress, the cost of food will rise considerably, leading to a great vulnerability of our economic systems and major political challenges in both developed and developing countries.

Three main scenarios emerge from these fundamental transformations affecting the agricultural sector.

Collapse: In this scenario, the Anthropocene era is the cause of very significant disruptions that lead to considerable increases in the cost of food in a context of urbanization and world population growth. Agriculture is no longer able to feed humanity. This is followed by considerable political and economic disruptions that lead to the collapse of societies as we know them today. Our economic system is overtaken by these contradictions and its structurally flawed relationship to nature. The “awakening of Gaia” generated by human activity makes it impossible to feed humans (Latour, 2017). We enter into a structural crisis that calls for an overhaul of the system. This is the scenario of the collapsologists, widely present in bookshops and discussed in civil society. It is difficult to see which agriculture will emerge from this scenario, which, depending on the degree of pessimism of the authors, ranges from the scale of a decade to that of a century. Should we then return to subsistence agriculture, which is capable of providing the means and resources for citizens to become more self-sufficient, or should we turn urban centers into places of food production? The authors who focus on the collapse scenario seem more concerned with describing the inevitable than with predicting and identifying solutions. This deeply pessimistic and paralyzing attitude is denounced by Catherine and Raphaël Larrère, who show that while the Anthropocene is indeed a certainty, the catastrophic scenario is not inevitable (Larrère & Larrère, 2020).

The big substitution: In this scenario, agriculture becomes an obsolete technology. Climate change leads to lower yields and higher food costs. Biotechnologies and cellular food develop through massive investments. Political tensions and concerns about climate change drive consumers to adopt cellular food on a massive scale. These substitute technologies also have the advantage of bringing down the cost of food and reviving consumption that promotes economic development. The share of food and protein from traditional agriculture becomes a distinct minority. Humanity reconfigures its diet and changes its very nature. This big substitution must be linked to the philosophical and scientific movements of transhumanism, which aim to bring about the emergence of a new Man who frees himself from his natural condition and redefines, among other things, the way in which he feeds himself. While cellular food activists [2] and entrepreneurs only see the merits of this technology that produces proteins, some researchers show that this technology has very important collateral effects on the environment (Lynch & Pierrehumbert, 2019). It requires substantial energy to achieve cell growth, and there is no evidence that its yields are superior to some traditional breeding practices, which are more concerned about their environmental footprint. In this respect, cellular nutrition has the potential to contribute directly to global warming and to the disruption of the Earth system. Furthermore, the nutritive elements and liquids that are used today to generate cell growth require the mass production and slaughter of living animals from which these nutrients are taken. Cellular food does not eradicate animal suffering and the need for intensive breeding. Other works more oriented towards social and political sciences also highlight the risks of a two-tiered food system. The wealthiest segments of the population will continue to eat a traditional high-quality diet, while the rest of the population will ingest cellular food to meet their physiological protein requirements. Behind the progressive rhetoric and the slogan “eat without destroying the planet,” which is the mantra of cellular food activists, there are many contradictions and powerful scientific and economic interests that are coalescing (Luneau, 2020). This substitution of traditional agriculture by cellular food poses major political and ethical challenges, the resolution of which is difficult to envision (Sexton, 2018).

The new social contract: In this third scenario, biotechnologies and cellular food do not keep all their promises, and are rejected by the people. Agriculture is preserved, but it must undergo a major transformation in order to maintain the cost of food in constantly changing pedoclimatic contexts. It must also show that it is capable of repairing the Earth system by adopting practices that go far beyond neutralizing impacts. Through the adoption of new practices, agriculture becomes an activity with a positive ecological footprint. It is likely to repair and offset the negative impacts of other sectors of activity. On the basis of this regenerative agriculture, the actors of the sector sign a new social contract whose terms are quite simple: feed the world while repairing the planet (Valiorgue, 2020).

The Four Pillars of Regenerative Agriculture

In any case, the transformation of agriculture is inevitable. It will have to do so for geological, economic, and political reasons. The scale and brutality of the changes are not the same according to the scenarios that will prevail. Nevertheless, the shift into the Anthropocene will in any event result in the more or less obligatory and rapid development of a regenerative agriculture built around four objectives:

Limiting the environmental footprint: The environmental footprint of agricultural activity is significant. We know its extent today. To limit or stop this environmental footprint, regenerative agriculture must go beyond certain technologies and invent new agronomic or zootechnical practices. The aim is to bring about what Michel Griffon calls “an ecologically intensive agriculture” (Griffon, 2011). Today, there are many industrial and scientific roadblocks to agronomic progress. Rather than being subjected to technologies and outdated agricultural schemes, farmers must demand new solutions from all private and public actors. Farmers must position themselves as militants of agronomic and zootechnical progress rather than supporting the inherent advantages that certain agribusiness industrialists have. One example suffices to illustrate our point. Legumes are protein-rich plants that also have the remarkable property of fixing nitrogen. They feed people and are likely to fix nitrogen in the soil. This nitrogen is then used by other more demanding crops such as cereals without having to add artificial fertilizers. However, the ratio of legumes to cereals is currently very low. This is the result of political and economic choices that have led to a preference for cereals. If companies and research organizations had devoted as much effort to promoting legumes, we could have considerably limited the effects we are seeing today. With this in mind, a set of technologies and know-how is now emerging around soil conservation agriculture based on a diversity of plant species and intelligent rotations that lead to soil regeneration. Similar synergies are possible in animal husbandry in order to reduce and/or intelligently use effluents and reduce the overuse of antibiotics. Regenerative agriculture limits its environmental footprint and paves the way for a new agronomic and zootechnical progress for which farmers are among the first proponents.

Repairing the atmosphere: One of the essential elements that explains the transition into the Anthropocene is global warming. This warming is largely generated by an increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Certain agricultural practices lead to a negative carbon balance, while others can lead to a clearly positive balance. This is the magic of living organisms, which, depending on the behaviors we induce, can behave in fundamentally different ways. The way in which the soil is cultivated as part of agricultural activity is decisive in its ability to store or release carbon. For example, plowing and tilling the soil is a practice that leads to the massive release of carbon into the atmosphere. The carbon stored in the soil by the activity of plants and their roots is released into the atmosphere in considerable proportions. One ton of carbon stored in the soil is equivalent to 3.6 tons of CO2 stored in the atmosphere. By adopting certain practices such as no tillage, permanent plant cover, and mixtures of plant types, agriculture can be a major contributor to removing CO2 from the atmosphere by storing it as carbon in the soil. Over an area of one hectare, a 1% increase in organic soil matter can lead to the storage of 21 tons of carbon. [3] This amounts to removing 75.6 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere (Toensmeier, 2016). By implementing certain practices, regenerative agriculture can powerfully reverse the trend and become a sector that extensively captures and stores CO2 from the atmosphere.

Reclaiming biodiversity: Reclaiming biodiversity as part of regenerative agriculture is essential. Today, 75% of the world’s food production is generated from 12 plant species and 5 animal species. Botanists have highlighted the existence of several hundred thousand plant species (between 300,000 and 500,000). About 30,000 of them are edible. Today 90% of plant protein intake is made from wheat, corn, and rice. And if we take wheat, four varieties alone account for 70% of production in France. If throughout its history agriculture has utilized thousands of plants and species, the current agricultural system has considerably reduced the range of possibilities, whereas we need to rely on new species and varieties as a result of changes in pedoclimatic conditions. The same dynamic can be observed in animals. We are dependent on a few animal species and the progress of biotechnologies means that within the same species we are dependent on one lineage and soon on individuals cloned indefinitely because of their exceptional yields. The concentration of protein sources on a few animal and plant varieties is rational in a natural environment where the pedoclimatic conditions are known, studied, and controlled. As soon as this natural environment is transformed, relying on this handful of species poses a major risk. The reintroduction of old or new species is an imperative of regenerative agriculture. This reintroduction should not take place in biobanks or museums, but in the fields and on farms.

Developing innovation: With the Anthropocene the behavior of plants and domestic animals used for human food will change. As we have said, it will be necessary to develop new knowledge to make them more adaptable or even to change them in order to have behaviors and nutritional performance in line with the new pedoclimatic contexts that will emerge. Behavioral changes will also take place in wild plants and animals, who will have new behaviors and reactions. Health crises caused by contamination between species or the multiplication of plagues such as locusts are to be expected, anticipated, and managed. In the end, all domestic and wild species will behave differently. Faced with the biological uncertainty of the Anthropocene, it seems essential to develop new knowledge to protect against risks and potential damage that can be very significant.

The agricultural and food challenge lies ahead of us. If nothing is done, our societies will face significant tensions. The future of the Earth system and our food systems is today in the hands of a profession and industrial actors who are encountering difficulties in integrating the challenges of the Anthropocene, as well as in branching off towards regenerative agriculture. If Western societies wish to control the way they feed themselves, they must politically reappropriate these challenges. They must consider agriculture not as a simple economic activity that is part of the primary sector, but as an essential activity that shapes our humanity and our way of existing in the world.

by Bertrand Valiorgue, 19 April 2021

Further reading

• Bonneuil, C., & Fressoz, J.-B., L’événement Anthropocène: la Terre, l’histoire et nous, Paris, Seuil, 2016
• Diamond, J., “The worst mistake in the history of the human race”, Discover, May, 95-98, 1987
• Diamond, J., Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed, New York, Penguin, 2005
• Diamond, J., The worst mistake in the history of the human race, Oplopanax Publishing, 2010
• Fougier, E., “Animalistes, zadistes, néo-luddites: nouvelles menaces pour la sécurité des entreprises en France”, Sécurité et stratégie, 24(4), 32-39, 2016
• Fougier, E., Le monde agricole face au défi de l’agribashing, Paris, FNSEA, 2018
• Gates, B., How we’ll invent the future, MIT Technology Review, MIT, 2019
• Griffon, M., Pour des agricultures écologiquement intensives, Paris, Editions de l’Aube, 2011
• Larrère, C., & Larrère, R., Le Pire n’est pas certain. Essai sur l’aveuglement catastrophiste, Paris, Premier Parallèle, 2020
• Latour, B., Facing Gaia: Eight lectures on the new climatic regime, New York, John Wiley & Sons, 2017
• Luneau, G., Steak barbare; Hold-up vegan sur l’assiette, Paris, Editions de l’Aube, 2020
• Lynch, J., & Pierrehumbert, R., Climate Impacts of Cultured Meat and Beef Cattle. Frontiers in sustainable food systems, 3(5), 2019
• Mazoyer, M., & Roudart, L., Histoire des agricultures du monde. Du néolithique à la crise contemporaine, Paris, Le Seuil, 2017
• Pisani, E., Pour une agriculture marchande et ménagère, Paris, Editions de l’aube, 1994
• Sexton, A., “Eating for the post‐Anthropocene: Alternative proteins and the biopolitics of edibility”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 43(4), 586-600, 2018
• Singer, P., Animal liberation, New-York, Random House, 1995
• Toensmeier, E., The carbon farming solution: a global toolkit of perennial crops and regenerative agriculture practices for climate change mitigation and food security, White River Junction, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016
• Valiorgue, B., Refonder l’agriculture à l’heure de l’Anthropocène, Lormont, Le Bord de l’Eau, 2020

To quote this article :

Bertrand Valiorgue, « The Anthropocene: a Challenge for Agriculture », Books and Ideas , 19 April 2021. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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[1Conditions that refer to the internal climate of a given soil based on seasonal conditions of temperature, humidity, and composition of the atmosphere.

[2See the militant and extravagant book by Paul Shapiro, Clean Meat: How Growing Meat Without Animals Will Revolutionize Dinner and the World published in 2018.

[3Soil specialists consider soil storage capacities to be between 30 and 50 tons per hectare.

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