Agriculture Ecology Food Regenerative Soil Wilderness


Whatever your thoughts on him, and he is undoubtedly a controversial figure, George Monbiot has given ample proof over the years that he is a principled and conscientious individual. His relentless attacks on inequality come from a position of personal integrity and profound sincerity. In ecological terms Monbiot thinks that he has seen the future. And he’s absolutely terrified. His book Regenesis is his solution to the question of how the world is going to feed itself in the light of the potential climate catastrophe which is bearing down upon us. It goes into the manifold problems at the heart of agriculture. Good guy. Radical ideas. However, as a fellow armchair farmer, the book inspired too many thoughts for my to just leave it there.

Monbiot himself flags up the comment of one of his friendly antagonists who argued that “the green movement has torpedoed itself with numbers”. It’s not his fault but if there’s a problem with Regenesis it’s not the amount of data or its quality, it’s one’s nagging suspicion that any moment now someone is going to round the corner with an equally massive amount of statistics to contradict his argument.

90% of the time I’m happy to go with Monbiot, but that’s probably because what he says confirms my bias on those matters. Broadly speaking that’s the position he takes on the severity of climate change, the evident inequality in society, and the necessity of everyone eating less (or no) animal produce. His championing of Iain Tolhurst, a farmer who doesn’t use any animals or even manures on his farm, was cool too (even if him being singled out for sainthood was unusual – I’ve personally come across two farms, OrganicLea and Chagfood which both use identical techniques – it’s not uncommon…)

That 10% where I feel uncomfortable with the figures is where I’ve read extensive and statistically cogent arguments to the contrary. Almost all of this is around the question of ethically and responsibly farmed livestock. Books I’ve read like Paul Hawken’s “Drawdown”, Gabe Brown’s “Dirt to Soil”, Allan Savory’s “Holistic Management”, and especially the landmark future classic “What Your Food Ate” by Dave Montgomery and Anne BiklĂ© provide what feels like overwhelming evidence that well-managed grazing, and the judicious slaughter of cattle and sheep is part of solving the puzzle.

To summarise the arguments in favour of livestock briefly – this is dependent on specific conditions: where livestock is not over populous and is carefully rotated; when it is not confined in horrible feed-lots, when it’s alongside horticulture which can use the manure; where the manure is either left where the livestock is grazing or is properly composted (where it doesn’t rot or go anaerobic in a huge pile of shite); where the livestock compacts herbal leys in the process of grazing, where the livestock eats grass (it’s convincingly-argued that it is grain-fed animals that are doing all the methane farting), where the terrain and climate is more suitable for pasture than cultivation in other ways etc. These are all common-sense ethical farming techniques which are widely followed. When livestock is farmed like this it’s contended that it draws carbon back to the earth and regenerates the soil.

Monbiot has caused more anger on this point than he could have imagined. In many cases these objections are raised by people that are his natural fellow travelers. It’s a bit sad to see. They might not be vegans, and might not be squeamish about slaughtering animals, but they are conscientious, compassionate, and knowledgeable. Where I stand on this is nuanced. I don’t eat dairy and eggs but I do enjoy a beef burger or some lamb once a week, so it would be easy enough to take sides with George, wag my finger at the livestock farmers, and congratulate myself on my self-righteousness.

However, since time immemorial we have farmed with and eaten animals. The problems started with industrial agriculture and the population explosion. Not for the first time reading the book I came away with the impression that two wrongs don’t make a right. Chemical agriculture and human overpopulation are wrong – but to try farm without livestock too is possibly also a mistake. And try telling the Indian smallholder to be without their cow, that animal is sacred partly because it is the central fixture in the constellation of their farm, around which everything is arranged.

The other place in the book where it felt that the same maxim, two wrongs don’t make a right, is applicable is in the subject of industrial protein. It’s not because I’m entirely against it in principle. Some things I eat come very close to it, for instance vegan cheese (made with cashews, water and salt – delicious) or my vegan Omega-3 supplement (made from algae blooms grown in a vat – much better than having fishy burps) – these are both useful enough.

However, by Monbiot’s own admission industrially-grown food is not as carbon-efficient as soya. He’s pitching his argument in terms of a realism: that people want to eat meat, that they won’t eat soya, pulses or nuts, and therefore we should create fake meat. But two wrongs don’t make a right. As much as we could dream that industrial protein will be open-source, it obviously won’t be. These substances will be patented and their prices will be gouged. Not only are they energy-intensive to grow, I didn’t see any calculations for the feed that must go into these machines.

Will this foodstuff ever be nutritious? And not just as slabs of protein but containing all the correct micronutrients. This is what Michael Pollan refers to as “food” – a concept which Monbiot has a bit of joke with. I don’t think anything not directly or indirectly connected to the infinitely complex soil biome can be healthy nutrition. And how could we be surprised if, once perfected as a process, again a scenario that doesn’t get mentioned in Regenesis, the industrial protein was fed to animals? We’d be right back where we started.

Monbiot wants solutions and he’s right to think big and bold. But people need to be part of the picture – not pushed to the margins. I haven’t caught his book “Feral” about rewilding, but reading a bit around the experiences of early European settlers in North America one thing in particular stood out. The new arrivals thought the land they had come to was an untouched garden of Eden. In truth it was an ecosystem that had been meticulously managed in the manner of Natural Farming by the American Indians. Monbiot argues, with what evidence I didn’t see, that the preponderance of Bison is now thought (in one one paper?) to be owing to the Indians killing off large predators. But we need to ask ourselves of that, what was the harm there given the immaculate condition of the land? But still, I for one am grateful that Monbiot spent so much time and energy thinking about the topic.

What would my solutions be? It’s a bit like Fantasy Football innit. The first thing to be clear about is the UK’s farmers generally farm like they do because they don’t believe there’s any other way to survive. It’s all very well for people who don’t actually farm having an opinion on the subject (and I don’t mean growing a few apples and some beetroot) – but the real thing is different and very hard. It’s always worth remembering before one casts stones that there are vanishingly few actual bad people in this world.

I couldn’t pretend to be some global authority but, since you’re asking: Land reform which created a lot of cheaply rentable small holdings (inherently more productive). Some digital infrastructure linking them together. Subsidies more helpful to smallholdings than big estates. Some mechanism for encouraging more people to work on the land. Minimal or preferably no fertilizer or pesticides (everyone will moan but it’ll work out in due course – my friend a farmer in Sri Lanka says things are fine there now). R&D for seed strains which don’t require chemical inputs. Small smart machinery. Compulsory composting. Compulsory tofu. Nature integrated in all this (hedgerows, woods, wild parks but not nettles everywhere). As totalitarian as I get is the thought that meat should be rationed somehow. Would that save the world? Dunno. Unlikely.