keywords: agriculture, environmental issues, food
Do you eat? Then you might wish to consider that farming is destroying the planet. Or so argues Guardian columnist and environmental campaigner George Monbiot, who is never one to shirk controversy. I have a lot of time for Monbiot. I might not agree with everything he has written over the years, but I find his ideas to be driven by sound logic and appropriate scepticism. He is neither afraid to admit his mistakes nor to piss people off by saying things they do not want to hear. In that sense, Regenesis is a necessary provocation.
Many farmers, food critics, and activists will be dog-piling on this book, so to be clear: Monbiot is not blaming farmers who, he knows full well, are trapped in an exploitative system, even if there are cases of misconduct from their side too. This is a grounded and long-overdue critique of our food system. You want facts? Monbiot has plenty. He knows he is sticking his head above the parapet and has come prepared with 98 (!) pages of footnotes, backing up every claim.
Industrial farming of plants and livestock has a deservedly bad reputation. Issues such as animal welfare, antibiotic resistance, habitat destruction, insect declines, soil loss, and wildlife extinction have been well-publicised over the years. Furthermore, livestock consumes vast amounts of food fit for human consumption. Even knowing this, Monbiot manages to shock with some of the facts he has dug up. Many people rail again intensive farming, but, writes Monbiot, “the problem is not the adjective. It’s the noun” (p. 90).
Many solutions proposed by well-meaning environmental organisations and individuals are often equally bad, if not worse. Free-range and organic farming suffers an undeniable yield gap meaning you need more land for the same amount of food. What about rewilding? He is friends with the people running the much-praised Knepp Estate, but is critical of what they do: “while it provides an excellent example of rewilding, it offers a terrible example of food production” (p. 79). Livestock numbers here are so low that this simply cannot be scaled up to feed the world. What of locavorism then? Though there are good reasons to eat local, transportation is only a fraction of the emissions budget of produce, and local is not by definition better. And regenerative farming? Once Monbiot starts digging into it, the claims that planned grazing can reverse soil erosion and desertification and even draw down substantial amounts of carbon dioxide just do not hold up. Urban farming and vertical farming are similarly despatched as pipe dreams*. Monbiot is merciless: “as so often in this field, passionate debates about how we should grow our food take place in a numerical vacuum” (p. 146). There is a lot of wishful thinking, and we love to fetishize both the past and the countryside.
“Industrial farming of plants and livestock has a deservedly bad reputation [but] many solutions proposed by well-meaning environmental organisations and individuals are often equally bad, if not worse.”
The part that terrified me was Monbiot’s examination of the global food production system through the lens of network science. Complex systems have a habit of taking on a life of their own, showing emergent properties and unexpected tipping points. We have come to understand them to the extent that, once you know their topology, you can predict how stable they are. Since the 1960s, we have increasingly globalized both food production methods and our diets, relied on fewer crops that we grow as monocultures, concentrated power in the hands of fewer and larger corporations, and relentlessly chased efficiency, which “is another way of saying that we are reducing its redundancy” (p. 31). Many countries are no longer self-sufficient and the whole system relies on just-in-time delivery. In other words, we have created a food production system that is highly vulnerable to shocks such as wars, pandemics, and extreme weather events, and governments seem hell-bent on making it even larger and more interconnected.
Fortunately, Monbiot does more than sound the alarm and the second half of Regenesis considers solutions. None are perfect and he is frank about their shortcomings. But together they can point the way toward a resilient and diverse food system that produces abundant, healthy, and affordable food. Land use is the key metric in this discussion and he argues we need high-yield, low-impact methods.
He thus meets farmers who are pursuing less destructive ways of growing food. What their different methods have in common is that they put the health of their soil first. This is why Monbiot opens Regenesis with a chapter on the fascinating and incredibly neglected fundamentals of soil science. One of the most exciting developments he covers is the use of perennial rather than annual plants, i.e. crops that can be harvested multiple years in a row. Our ancestors cultivated annuals because they grow quickly and invest all their energy in seeds rather than roots or foliage. But “large areas dominated by annual plants are rare in nature. They tend to colonize ground in the wake of catastrophe […] in cultivating annuals, we must keep the land in the catastrophic state they prefer” (p. 179). This idea had never occurred to me.
“we have created a food production system that is highly vulnerable to systemic shocks […] and governments seem hell-bent on making the system even larger and more interconnected.”
At the other end of the spectrum, Monbiot discusses the high-tech method of microbial fermentation that grows proteins in vats and has a tiny land footprint. Interestingly, he has become less convinced by attempts at growing cultured meat, instead hoping for completely new cuisines. I was left wondering about the nutritional value though. Monbiot seems fixated on the protein this technology can provide and dreams of a farm-free future in which vast tracts of land can be returned to nature. But we live on more than protein alone. Though he mentions that bacteria could produce the vitamins we need thanks to genetic engineering, he does not mention all the other macro- and micronutrients. I am thus left thinking this could either be a stumbling block or at least something that needs looking into.
At this point, you might be left with two questions. First, what about addressing food waste? Having talked to a food bank and to Britain’s largest food redistributor, Monbiot has more counterintuitive gems up his sleeve. As a solution, this is somewhat of a red herring; before and after the supermarket shelves, much of that food is unrecoverable. Second, and more importantly, what about vegetarianism or veganism? This is my only major critique: Monbiot is largely vegan and at several points mentions that switching to a plant-based diet would be an environmental win, but he never explicitly writes why he is not promoting veganism. If you read deeper, he argues this means changing people’s habits, which is notoriously difficult: “the less we need to rely on moral suasion, the more successful a shift is likely to be” (p. 150).
“Monbiot is largely vegan and at several points mentions that switching to a plant-based diet would be an environmental win, but he never explicitly writes why he is not promoting veganism.”
Though I appreciate Monbiot’s pragmatism, I disagree. The ideas explored here are all techno-fixes which only get you so far. In my opinion, cultivating an ethos of self-limitation has to be part of the answer. Monbiot admits that his proposed solutions will likely face stiff opposition, so changes of heart and habits are on the menu anyway. Furthermore, when discussing microbial fermentation, he gives recent examples of rapid social change. Since most people align with the status quo, all you need is a critical mass. This seems like a lapse in logic: if he thinks we can change people’s minds on eating microbially fermented food, we can change their minds on veganism, and people are exploring pragmatic ways to do so. By ignoring it, other options do not get a look-in, such as the awkwardly named flexitarianism or reducetarianism that treat meat as the luxury product it should be. Could they contribute to the solution? Plus, it leaves the floor to e.g. The Great Plant-Based Con, which argues in favour of regenerative farming and flags up the health risks of veganism. Monbiot skewers the former here, but the latter is minimally mentioned and is one of those perenially confusing topics on which there is much contradictory information.
This notwithstanding, I have nothing but praise for this book. Monbiot calls out injustices, wishful thinking, and illogical ideas on all sides while remaining sympathetic to people’s motivations. That he angers pretty much everyone in the process is a price he is willing to pay: this is not a popularity contest. Regenesis is an incendiary page-turner, in the best possible sense of the word.
* I would be curious, though, to know what Monbiot thinks of the archaeological evidence that tropical jungles were once home to thriving civilizations practising a form of agrarian-based, low-density urbanism. With current population densities, this may no longer be a pragmatic solution.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: