Thanet Earth cannot replace Planet Earth

Hydroponics won’t stop food shortages

Eight years ago, The Guardian produced a report entitled ‘UK future food security threatened by complacency, MPs warn.’ The heading seems ironic now, given that things have become so much worse during the last decade. ‘Government and producers urged to create plans to meet challenges of climate change’, the report said. It’s very doubtful whether the government had much idea of the effect of heatwaves and drought such as we have seen in the summer of 2022. And it had not anticipated the effect of the pandemic or the war in Ukraine.

Instead, the MPs fell back on the tried and tested idea that new scientific breakthroughs would carry us through. Farmers should seek to extend growing seasons, they suggested, by using giant greenhouses such as the Thanet Earth building, a glass cathedral that aims to producing one-third of all the UK’s cucumbers and tomatoes. This vast complex of greenhouses in Kent in the south of England has not been without difficulties – accusations of an eerie night-time glow amounting to light pollution, sweatshop labour conditions and a shortage of pickers (it needs 800) post-Brexit that has led to tons of produce going to waste. There are also arguments about its effect on local ecosystems. But it shows the way some people think about the future of farming. It will be hauled out of old-fashioned fields and put inside rigidly controlled and monitored mega-complexes which will be immune to the vicissitudes of weather. Is the UK heating up? Are its green fields turning yellow? Not inside Thanet Earth. Perhaps we will eventually manage agriculture on Earth in the same way that we’d have to manage our lives if we ever colonised the moon, packed inside artificial zones of protection from a hostile environment.

Even if we can’t grow everything that we need by hiding away from an increasingly hostile environment, the report also recommends ‘precision farming’ which will enable us to make the most of the overheating environment we find ourselves living in. We can use sophisticated GPS devices, the report tells us, to tailor irrigation, pesticide and fertiliser use to best effect in our remaining fields.

By now it is clear that the approach of those MPs eight years ago simply won’t do. Ways of squeezing the last drop of benefit from the normal processes of farm management won’t be enough to keep us from food shortages. Retreating behind the screen of huge artificial farming zones away from an increasingly hostile natural environment is implausible and impracticable. The only way forward is to reverse the present trend of making Earth about as easy to live on as Mars or Venus.

Though the point of this blog is to argue the merits of food reserves and buffer stocks, it is worth reminding ourselves of what makes it possible to have food at all. In 2022 it is clear that conflict, drought and the pandemic have made food supplies unreliable. But it is worth pointing out that even if the world becomes more peaceful and the pandemic dies down, there is no escape from food insecurity through trying to step outside nature itself. There is no long-term advantage from retreating inside Thanet Earth because Planet Earth has been left to overheat and wilt.

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