In 1987, not long out of university, George Monbiot travelled to Indonesia to investigate president Suharto’s transmigration programme. Two years later, aged 26, Monbiot moved to Brazil to live in the Amazon jungle. Time in East Africa with the nomadic people of Kenya and Tanzania followed. Today, the environmental activist, Guardian columnist and author lives in Oxford. He has renounced flying to far-flung locations to reduce his carbon footprint. Instead, he spends his time digging down into the soil (literally and intellectually) – a vertical journey of discovery he believes is vital for the future of humanity.
“There are times when I struggle to understand myself,” Monbiot muses in his new book Regenesis. “Why, when I have spent over half a century immersed in the living world…have I neglected the substrate that provides, directly or indirectly, roughly 99 per cent of the calories we consume?” Few of us take much time to consider soil, yet its health is utterly vital to life-sustaining processes – determining the quantity and quality of our food as well as regulating the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. We enthuse about exotic forests and dismiss local soil as “dirt”. But “English soils could be as diverse as the Amazon rainforest, and as little studied,” writes Monbiot.
Our ignorance and incuriosity about the details of food production is the more remarkable given that, as Monbiot remarked when we spoke over Zoom, “how we feed the world without devouring the planet is possibly the greatest predicament we face”. Yet decision-making about agriculture and land use is clouded by what Monbiot terms “magical thinking” – a tendency to romanticise the countryside and agrarian practices.
This idealisation has a long precedent in pastoral literary traditions – in the rural idylls eulogised in ancient Greek poetry, the Old Testament and the poetry and plays of the Renaissance. Sentimental portrayals of rural life are especially prevalent today in children’s books and television, Monbiot told me. “There’s this repeated trope of the farmyard being a place of harmony. You’ve got your rosy-cheeked farmer and one pig, one horse, one cow, one duck and one cat, and they are a happy family together. Of course, there’s no indication of what the farmer has got planned for them.” Agri-tourism – petting farms where people bottle-feed lambs and hold little chicks – helps to “reify” the distortions of this literature, Monbiot warned.
These childhood images and experiences, often highly disconnected from the reality of contemporary farming, become “deep-rooted metaphors that govern our perceptions of the world” as adults, said Monbiot. We see “cattle and sheep grazing in lovely flowering pastures” and absorb the idea that that’s what we need to preserve. Regenesis is a call to raze this pastoral imaginary so that we can begin to think clearly about how we produce food and steward the soil, and how we might do these things differently. In particular, Monbiot insists, we must end meat and dairy production. “The biggest population crisis is not the growth in human numbers, but the growth in livestock numbers,” he writes.
It is estimated that global agriculture production will need to increase by 60-70 per cent from the current levels to meet the food demand in 2050. All these animals must be fed – in Western countries, largely on imported soya, the intensive cultivation of which devastates rainforests, wetlands and savannahs. Monbiot is not only opposed to factory farming, whose inhumanity and polluting consequences are well-documented, but, more controversially, to supposedly benign forms of livestock farming. Organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb, Monbiot insists, “is arguably the worst of all agricultural products” because of the vast tracts of land required for grazing cows and sheep. Livestock is a “phenomenally profligate means of producing food,” Monbiot told me. Animals cover 77 per cent of the world’s agricultural land, yet produce only 18 per cent of the world’s calories.
But livestock is far from the only problem. Ploughing, seeds dressed with pesticides, overuse of the land, and increased drought because of climate change are also weakening the soil’s resilience and fertility. In Regenesis, Monbiot explores alternative farming techniques being trialled by maverick agriculturalists. These include an organic grower who regards biodiversity as “the driver” of his farm and the vegetables he harvests as “a by-product”, plus a farmer who eschews ploughing. Monbiot also discusses experiments to multiply, as cheaply and efficiently as possible, a bacterial protein to replace meat, and a new perennial crop called Kernza, which, persisting over several years, would end the need to clear and sow the ground for every harvest, meaning “we would not depend on smashing living systems apart to produce our food”.
Popularising these innovative food production practices isn’t straightforward, however. Farmers have significant “cultural power”, said Monbiot, and many insist measures to protect the environment will “destroy our way of life”. In Britain, farmers account for just 1.4 per cent of the labour force. Yet on many rural issues, “we have granted them, and landowners in general, almost a monopoly,” Monbiot remarked. “There are loads of people living in the countryside who want things done differently, but they’re almost disenfranchised.” Difficult discussions can “demonise townies and incomers” and even produce an “ugly politics” of “ethno-localism”. “We cast the countryside as a seat of innocence and purity, but it can be just as cruel and corrupt as a city.”
Clear-eyed scrutiny and reform of our farming practices “gives us possibly the best chance we have of avoiding environmental catastrophe this century,” said Monbiot. Ending injudicious subsidies for agriculture would trigger this shift, he believes. Every year, around $500-$600bn is spent worldwide on “perverse, destructive” farm subsidies, which buttress “arguably the most destructive industry on Earth”. Cut off these funding streams and meat production would virtually end, Monbiot told me. Farmers could then instead be paid to restore the land by rewilding it – the subject of Monbiot’s 2013 book Feral – planting trees and growing crops and vegetables in ways that encourage wildlife to return.
I ask Monbiot how he reconciles his devotion to the natural world with his advocacy of technology-enhanced industrialisation of food production. “There are trade-offs,” he replied. “There’s no pure and perfect solution.” He agrees “there’s a real danger” new food technologies could end up in the hands of a few large corporations. Weak patents and strong anti-trust laws would be a “pretty good formula” to help forestall monopolisation. His vision of factories powered by renewable energy serving local markets with farm-free produce “could deliver food sovereignty, food justice and food security far more effectively” than the current system.
Monbiot’s proposals are radical and some are contentious; he acknowledges that the “counter-agricultural revolution” he envisages “will be extremely disruptive” and would encounter “bitter resistance”. But he is correct that voluntary lifestyle changes – “micro-consumerist bollocks”– such as buying plastic-free cotton wool buds or planting a few trees in a field are inadequate. To have any chance of turning the age of extinction into an age of regeneration, systemic reform, based on the facts, not pastoral myth-making, is essential.
George Monbiot will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival on 18 November. Tickets are available here
This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato