In Regenesis, the campaigning journalist George Monbiot addresses what he has come to see as ‘the most important of all environmental questions’, yet among the most neglected—the question of land use. ‘Farming’, he explains in a stark declaration, ‘is the world’s greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of the global loss of wildlife, and the greatest cause of the global extinction crisis.’ Until quite recently, Monbiot argues, people in different countries and regions ate radically different diets, shaped by their discrete farming systems, landscapes and traditions. But a massive cultural shift has been underway towards what he calls a ‘Global Standard Diet’, dense in fats and proteins, and heavily dependent on a handful of mega-crops: wheat, rice, sugar and, as animal feed, maize and soybeans—a fast-growing livestock population now consumes half the calories produced in the world food system. In Monbiot’s account, food for this Global Standard Diet is produced on the ‘Global Standard Farm’. Pioneered in the us, agribusiness has propelled a dramatic concentration of mega-crop production—above all in the us, but also in Brazil, Argentina, Canada, France, Australia, China—under the aegis of a handful of powerful corporations that have gobbled up smaller players. Four companies, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge and Louis Dreyfus, now control 90 per cent of the global grain trade; another quartet—Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina and basf—have cornered two-thirds of the agricultural-chemicals market, and the same handful own over half of the world’s seeds.
These multinationals have overseen a standardisationin agricultural techniques, crop varieties, chemicals, machinery and so forth, driven by the search for yield. As a result, national food production systems are becoming less modular and more vulnerable to global shocks—disease, drought, floods, their impact magnified by financial speculation or fragile supply-chain chokepoints. In Monbiot’s view, a complex system begins to ‘flicker’ as it approaches a tipping point. This is now happening to the global food system. We have little idea where its tipping points may lie, or what combination of shocks might trigger a breakdown, Regenesis warns: ‘Somehow we need not only to reduce the external pressures bearing upon the system—environmental breakdown and rising demand—but also to change the system itself.’
How, then, can the world’s population be fed without destroying the planet? Regenesis lays out a radical programme: Monbiot wants us to replace livestock farming with a with a protein powder made from fermented bacteria that can substitute proteins and fats in human diets, to concentrate remaining food production into high-yield enclaves and to re-wild the remaining land. But Monbiot is a seasoned journalist and sweetens the pill with lively experiential accounts. Regenesis begins in Monbiot’s Oxford allotment, with a 5,000-word paean to a clod of earth:
Soil, which we once saw as a homogenous mass, is composed of structures within structures within structures. Earthworms, roots and fungi create clumps of soil, glued together with the fibers and sticky chemicals they make, called aggregates. Within these aggregates, tiny animals like mites and springtails create smaller clumps. Within them, bacteria and their microscopic predators—creatures I cannot see even with my loupe, such as tardigrades, ciliates and amoebas—form still smaller aggregates . . . it has taken us until now properly to grasp that the substrate on which our lives depend is a biological structure.
The disregarded majesty of the soil inspires him ‘to tell a new story, a Regenesis, about what we eat and how we grow it’. Monbiot proceeds to detail the great environmental damage done by agriculture. He begins close to home, with his beloved Wye River—recently turned into ‘a filthy gutter’ after chicken factories were permitted in its catchment. Monbiot then sets out to meet a series of innovative farmers: Iain Tolhurst in South Oxfordshire, who has developed a model of growing fruits and vegetables free of chemicals or livestock outputs that avoids decreasing yields through careful harnessing of the soil; Tim Ashton in Shropshire, who uses ‘no-till’ methods for growing grain that limit the soil destruction of ploughing; Ian Wilkinson, whose experimental agroecological farm in West Oxfordshire, FarmED, has created a ‘profitable circular economy’. Monbiot is particularly excited about the work of The Land Institute in Kansas, which breeds perennial varieties of annual field crops that would otherwise need to be replanted each year, such as a wheat relative named Kernza. Any reconfigured food system must also consider the needs that have to be met. Monbiot paints a vivid portrait of a foodbank near his home and the community’s struggle with food poverty, leading to a consideration of the relation between environmental protection and food justice. Campaigns for food sovereignty, he concludes, must recognise the clash between environmentalism and agriculture, as well as the fact that local food production in a country like Britain could never meet modern food requirements.
Finally, Regenesis tackles protein and fats. While previous chapters considered alternative methods of farming, this one is entitled ‘Farm Free’. Travelling to Helsinki, Monbiot is enthused by the work of Pasi Vainikka, ceo of Solar Foods, who deploys a procedure pioneered by nasa in the 1960s to produce proteins through the ‘precision fermentation’ of micro-organisms that reproduce rapidly in vats without sunlight, so that ‘For the first time in human history . . . we will have a staple food that did not arise from photosynthesis.’ The unpromising yellow sludge churning in Vainikka’s fermentation tank dries into Solein, ‘a golden flour that smelt like scrambled egg’. ‘It represents’, Monbiot joyfully declares, ‘the beginning of the end of most agriculture’. Producing food in this way—and he explains that Solein is only one of dozens of options, the soil bacterium used here only one of thousands of candidates—would free vast tracts of land from farming, permitting rewilding on a previously unimaginable scale. Such a counter-agricultural revolution would be hugely disruptive; governments would need to support those who need to find work elsewhere, hopefully in new industries that would be better employers than the meat industry. But the change would be an epochal one: ‘The age of Extinction could be succeeded by an age of Regenesis’.
Monbiot addresses obstacles of various kinds to the onset of the new age. Among them are the pastoral mystifications that run deep in Western culture, the emphasis of contemporary ‘foodie’ culture on authenticity, the innumeracy of many environmental campaigners and their insufficient emphasis on yield. The new movement will need to acknowledge that farming is the world’s major cause of ecological destruction, and judge any new system by three criteria: does it develop more food with less farming? Who controls and owns it? Is the food that it produces healthy, cheap and accessible? In a final vignette at his allotment, hit by a freak frost, Monbiot reflects on the frustrations of environmental campaigning: ‘We assemble the evidence, explain the problem, propose a solution, and are received like Dr Stockmann in Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People: with anger, denial and obloquy.’ Yet success depends on a movement’s preparedness at the moment of possibility, and his sense is that with the alignment of new technology, systemic fragility and growing public disquiet: ‘We are, I think, soon to encounter a moment when conditions change.’