Reflections on George Monbiot’s Regenesis

monbiot regenesis cover

Two principles animate George Monbiot’s Regenesis: environmental sustainability, and feeding people. Sustainability here is not reduced to global heating, and indeed focusses more on biodiversity. Sustainability leads him first to the soil, which is spectacular in terms of unseen biodiversity. It leads him then to the land, because in his view most agricultural and pastoral land use is inimical to biodiversity; we farm ever more land – he calls it “agricultural sprawl”.

Adding to the sustainability problem the need to feed people, and feed them well, gives Monbiot a circle to square: how to reconcile biodiversity with the food supply. Not eating animal products is his first step, a venerable bit of advice. Having myself arrived at a venerable age I can say that I first saw it in Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet for a Small Planet (1971), a bad cookbook but an eloquent primer on non-meat protein. It grows from the simple arithmetic of the amount of land required to feed us indirectly (intermediated by cow) vs. directly. And, in addition to fostering biodiversity by using less land, cutting out lmeat does wonders in various ways for reduced greenhouse gases, water supply and quality, and so forth. But, says Monbiot, eliminating animal products is still not enough. What he proposes would shake up an order we’ve had since the Neolithic revolution, over 10,000 years ago.

I’ll come to the solutions he offers but I need first to say that I read Regenesis a few months ago, and have been moved to write this now by reading a really disappointing review it by Tim Flannery in The New York Review of Books. Flannery’s one of their regular writers, and sometimes their regulars seem able to submit some pretty thin stuff, at least by the usual high standard of the New York Review. Most surprising to me is that Flannery, a veteran and well-regarded writer on environmental questions, all but ignores Monbiot’s core claim about agriculture and biodiversity, and will brush aside carefully argued and documented arguments with no argument or evidence of his own. He sort of grumbles his way through the review. So, I’ll grumble back.

Monbiot is critical of many fashionable solutions to the problems he poses. His take on localism and on global food markets is (appropriately) complex, and I’ll save that for another time. His gentle takedown of Michael Pollan (“a man for whom I have great respect, though I find his rule hard to comprehend: ‘Don’t eat anything your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food’ “) leads us to meet Monbiot’s late grandmother and what she would have recognized as food which, for all his fond memories of fishing and foraging with her, is a list that does not include most of what Monbiot now eats or considers healthy. Similarly, he likes urban gardens on mental health grounds but dismisses their importance for feeding the world with a simple calculation of the amount of farmable surface they – whether traditional allotments or high-tech vertical farms – can provide. Flannery grumbles that mental health doesn’t provide much motivation for urban farming but doesn’t dispute – or for that matter, explain – Monbiot’s claims.

More consequential is Monbiot’s argument about grazing. When he says “agricultural sprawl”, you can take that as a signal that he sees extensive as a bigger problem than intensive agriculture.

We know that conventional livestock farming is unsustainable because its land footprint goes so far beyond that of the feedlot for cattle: deforestation today is proceeding largely to make room for agriculture, and most of that to grow fodder, as the number of farm animals on Earth explodes. Monbiot goes on to claim that grass fed beef is even worse in this regard than beef fattened in feedlots, because it requires more land; organic beef is, he says, worst of all, taking still more land because it grows more slowly and so occupies the land for longer before it reaches your table.

The point Monbiot is making here can be made into a two-part question. The first part is whether, on particular pieces of land, raising livestock does more, or less, damage via lost biodiversity and net contribution to greenhouse gases, than some other source of food would cause. Call that the “is this particular hamburger sustainable?” question, or the one cow at a time question. I’d like to think the answer is “yes”, if only because one of my sisters raises grass fed beef and we all like the product. Sadly, Monbiot says that the answer is generally “no”. I won’t go into the details – you can read the book, and it is pretty detailed. His assessment of Allan Savory’s Ted-Talk-famed rotational grazing system (“I like Allan. When I was diagnosed with cancer, he sent me a kind and charming email. I know he’s sincere and believes what he says. But…”) is a polite four-page takedown, tightly argued and thoroughly sourced. And so on with other aspects of the problem. Perhaps Monbiot once wrote “I like Tim, nice guy, love his work, but…”; it could explain Flannery’s review.

The second part of the question is: if some hamburgers can be obtained in a sustainable way – a big if from a climate standpoint because of the methane from cattle, but plausible at least in terms of biodiversity – how many people could be fed by them? His answer: not many, because it takes so much land; it would be a luxury product for a few, it’s not a serious way to feed the world. He arrives at this conclusion by extrapolation from a single well-known farm where the cattle and pigs frolic with wild animals; however, if he is correct about Savory and related points, the data is not much of a problem because this second question then answers itself. It is worth asking as a distinct question only because some people will frame the problem as a personal choice about consumption, and some will frame it as a collective choice about the nature of our food supply system.

Others will dispute Monbiot’s conclusions, going back to methods like Savory’s and claiming (as Flannery does) that “methods such as rotational grazing have led to impressive soil and biodiversity restoration.” Now, the New York Review is rare in that it will allow its reviewers to cite the occasional source, complete with footnote; confronted as he is with Monbiot’s considerable bibliography, Flannery might have taken the occasion to provide a source for his assertion, but he doesn’t, falling back instead on his authority as an Australian who knows a thing or two about grazing that an Englishman does not.

Much of Monbiot’s book takes the form of exploring different solutions to the sustainability/food supply conundrum. The book is organized around cases, practical efforts being implemented by particular people, most of whom Monbiot visits. Monbiot is always in the story, and he usually makes that story interesting. In this book, he has his presence a little more under control than he had in Feral (2013), his book about rewilding. Parts of Feral seem to have been written by a George Monbiot wilderness action hero – perhaps the whole point is that he’s a feral narrator – which wasn’t bad storytelling but clashed a bit with the social and scientific arguments he was trying to get across. In Regenesis the character he projects is more a person trying very hard to find solutions to this tough problem, and talking with a lot of interesting people about it. He makes films on the topic as well, and that shows in the style.

Feral is, though, good background reading for Regenesis, because it gives you a picture of what Monbiot would do with all that land he doesn’t want to have in agriculture. You will come then to picture, when he talks about agricultural sprawl, those large parts of Ireland and the western side of Great Britain where temperate rainforest once stood, and are now devoted to grazing sheep or cattle, becoming forest again.

Of the several cases Monbiot considers in Regenesis, three stand out because he seems to think they represent models that work, or will work. These three could be seen as his proposal, his three-legged stool to support a sustainable food supply. One of these is a vegetable farm in England, run by a man named Tolly; second is a facility producing proteins in a hydrogen-driven fermentation process in a vat in Finland; third are perennial varieties of rice and wheat (those we’ve eaten heretofore, which is to say since the Neolithic, are all annuals), grasses which set down deep roots and have friendlier relationships with soil, water, pests and variable weather.

I won’t try to relate the details of any of these. Tolly is doing intensive agriculture, mixed crops closs together, working with flowers and insects, doing some kinds of alchemy with the soil. He seems to be emerging from a long tradition, but experimenting relentlessly, studying the science, and adjusting the practice. He also teaches it. A nice story, and I’m sure more to tell a gardener or farmer than it tells me.

The attractiveness of Tolly’s farm is that it produces high yields (per area) without pesticides or chemical (or even animal) fertilizer, and enhances biodiversity both above and below ground, all starting with some low-quality, stony soil. Monbiot makes clear that Tolly’s farm requires a lot of labor and, while it grows and sells a lot of good food, it hardly makes any money. Flannery picks up this point, and it’s important that we understand what its implications are: it means that Tolly’s practices, as they stand, have lower labor productivity than conventional farming practices. That means that, if all our vegetables were grown as Tolly grows them, they would be more expensive; to put it another way, to feed the world with these methods would require shifting some of the workforce back into agriculture (or at least, the vegetable-growing part of agriculture), reversing a centuries-long trend. But the picture isn’t that bad if we take Monbiot’s ambition as a whole, which would substantially reduce the overall amount of agriculture, so we’d have more labor devoted to vegetables and less to other food.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. Back to Tolly’s farm: its present unprofitability does not mean that Tolly’s approach cannot become viable as a business model. If the world’s farmers were restricted to growing vegetables in a sustainable way, what is now conventional would be history, and Tolly’s model could be quite profitable. In this it is like many sustainable methods which look too expensive: internalize – or prohibit – the externality, and options suddenly look different.

The other thing striking about Tolly’s approach is that it seems to require not only a lot of work, but a lot of knowledge, and ongoing experimentation and adjustment. Some of that, of course, will be because he’s doing something unusual, and if it were to become a standard approach to farming some of the knowledge would become standardized. Even so, it does seem to rely on the ongoing application of science to particular local conditions and events; I would be surprised if, even as a standard practice, it did not require a higher level of education, and ongoing learning and decision making, than other ways of growing vegetables do. File that thought away for some future discussion of education for sustainability.

Growing protein in fermentation vats is something you’ve probably seen in the news. The science advances, they’re working on fats and the texture of “meat”, and so on. The process requires a hydrogen input, so is zero carbon only if there’s zero carbon electricity to produce the hydrogen, but that’s becoming cheap. Monbiot’s dream is local solar-powered “breweries” throughout the world; his nightmare is that corporations will have control over key patents and effectively tax this vital new global food supply. Flannery’s nightmare is that such a system puts all our eggs in one basket, vulnerable to whatever future pathogen finds its home in the fermentation tanks. Both nightmares strike me as sensible ones. As for the adoption of the technology itself, and its displacement of meat production, Monbiot is optimistic. As the cost of the fermented product comes down, he reasons, a tipping point will come, where the fermented product quickly replaces the cheaper cuts of real meat – what goes into ground beef and sausage and chicken nuggets and cat food. This will make the more expensive cuts (which can’t yet be replicated in the fermented versions) more expensive still, reducing the market for them. Meat, thus, would rapidly be replaced. Here’s hoping. It should be noted that this tipping point would be brought forward in the schedule by any policies which raise the price of real meat, for instance through restrictions on the environmental damage done by meat production, or the reduction of subsidies to its production; internalization of externalities, again.

Most exciting (to me, because it was new to me) is the third leg of Monbiot’s stool, perennial grain. Perennial rice has become a thing in China, its spread limited by the seed supply, and particularly popular where erosion is a threat (the roots grow deep, the soil remains covered year round). Wheat seems to be on the way.

Tolly’s methods and perennial grain both, for Monbiot, show the possibilities for an agriculture which is friendlier to biodiversity, both below and above ground. Both would represent big changes. But those changes look small when compared with the move away from animal products, to proteins from vegetables or from fermentation. Such a move would make possible a wholesale shift of land from agriculture to wilderness. Fermentation is so attractive to Monbiot not because it can replicate meat, but because it would free us from the rivalry between food supply and wilderness.

The new wilderness would have some benefit in terms of carbon sequestration, and a huge benefit in terms of biodiversity. Exactly how much of the planet needs to go back to wilderness to prevent the collapse of biodiversity is not something we can know; in Half-Earth (2016), Edward O Wilson said 50%, and the satisfying roundness of the figure tells you just how uncertain it is. But the problem is a serious one, less well quantified than climate change but similarly threatening. See Wilson’s The Diversity of Life (1992) for the biology, or Partha Dasgupta’s Economics of Biodiversity (2021) for … the economics. From either perspective, one of the requisites is setting a lot of land and sea aside. Monbiot’s project is showing how we could do that while still feeding everybody.

I could go on – there’s a lot in this book. The chapter dealing with a food bank is quite good, as is the material on localism and on the inter-connected global food system. I can’t say that Flannery dismisses what Monbiot is saying, it’s more that he ignores most of what the book does, and grumbles about what he doesn’t ignore. It is always tempting to criticise Monbiot, because he’s an enthusiast, he looks for solutions and gets excited about them. But he does put in the work, both to understand the complex and pressing problems we face, and to assess the possibilities and limitations of the different solutions he explores. This is an important book, and if you’re going to grumble about it you should show your receipts.

References

Dasgupta, Partha. 2021. “The Economics of Biodiverity: The Dasgupta Review | Royal Society.” February 2. https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/biodiversity/economics-biodiversity/

Flannery, Tim. 2022. “It’s Not Easy Being Green”. The New York Review of Books. September 22.
Lappé, Frances Moore. 1971. Diet for a Small Planet. New York: Ballantine Books.
Monbiot, George. 2013. Feral. Allen Lane.
———. 2022. Regenesis. Allen Lane.
Wilson, Edward O. 1992. The Diversity of Life. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.
———. 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. WW Norton & Company.

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