OWe farm our planet to death. Half of the world’s habitable land has already been colonized to produce our food. Nature, the millions of other species, is forced to survive in the polluted, over-hunted and degraded fragments of what is left. Extinction rates are about 1,000 times the natural background rate, largely because wild land has been lost to or polluted by agriculture, or because of conflicts with farmers. Still, around 800 million people suffer from hunger, and 150 million children under five suffer from stunted growth.
In the coming decades, we will need to feed more people – at least doubling current food production by 2050 – at a time when all the best land has been taken and during a deepening climate crisis.
Concluding that our food system needs fixing is neither new nor controversial, and a forest of downed books has been produced by proponents of niche diets or experimental farming techniques. Today, environmental activist and writer George Monbiot threw himself into the cause of overhauling the global food industry, dragged, unusually, into the fray by the perilous state of our rivers. And there is a huge provocation: Britain’s rivers are filthy and deteriorating, largely due to agricultural dumping and leakage. Fertilizers, sewage sludge, pesticides, microplastics and other biochemical effluents are killing our rivers. While the toxins don’t directly extinguish life, the overabundance of nitrates causes an algal bloom that starves the rest of the life in the waterways of oxygen. By our attempts to improve the production of a few domesticated species, we are killing the ecosystems that support them, ultimately threatening our own survival.
Never harassing, always very readable, Regenesis is a smart, deeply researched piece of passion that ranges from microbiology to social justice to apple trees and GM wheat. There is a temptation when writing on huge topics to oversimplify, to distinguish one’s own approach by promoting one definitive solution. Monbiot resists it. It recognizes, even embraces, the complexity of the crisis we face.
That’s the book’s greatest strength: Monbiot’s beautifully simple explanation of why none of this is simple. Human food production is part of a complex socio-economic and ecological system. Complex systems of any type can achieve things that their individual, dissociated entities cannot – they are greater than the sum of their parts – and to a large extent these systems hold together, one part compensating for the other. other. But with that magic comes a vulnerability: push a system too far and it will collapse, toppling from one state to another. Today, we risk not only pushing our global food system too far, but also collapsing the great earth systems we all rely on, warns Monbiot.
Its glorious opening chapter, which should be required reading for anyone who makes or, indeed, eats food, deals with the ecosystem that sustains all life on earth: the soil. It happily details the complexity of an evolved relationship between bacteria, fungi, plants, tiny organisms (including members of an entire phylum I had never heard of called symphylidae), and chemistry. and the geology of the planet. It is this complexity that we work with when we build our bodies from the energy of the sun using photosynthetic plants as an intermediary. And today’s farming practices are ruining it.
“Soil behaves like dust in a Philip Pullman novel: it spontaneously organizes itself into coherent worlds,” he writes, “and yet we treat it like dirt.” Plowing, fertilizing and even irrigating cultivated fields can harm the self-sustaining complexity – and health – of this vital dust.
Systemic problems require systemic solutions and Monbiot wants us to completely change what we eat and how we produce it. He visits maverick farmers who are trying different ways of farming with minimal disturbance to soils and biodiversity. Their revitalized lands are surely more attractive than the barren monocultures that blanket most of the countryside, but farmers don’t till for fun, they do it to clear the land of competing weeds and improve productivity. To produce even similar yields – remember, we need more food on less land – and to keep a business commercially operational, farmers need to be confident that no-till farming can be effective. Based on the evidence presented here, this cannot be the case, certainly not as long as the harmful practices remain eligible for subsidies. Hopefully, perennial versions of our annual cereal crops, already in development, could change this equation, removing the need for regular soil invasion.
Regenerative agriculture has a better chance as part of a larger system change. Environmentalists are increasingly accepting that most livestock farming is unsustainable and Monbiot, a vegan, believes the industrial meat system could collapse remarkably quickly, in part because of a booming industry in the meat-like proteins and fats made from plants, fungi and, its preferred candidate, genetically engineered bacteria that can be produced in huge quantities in fermentation tanks, taking up negligible land. Microbial proteins, when 3D printed into steaks and cutlets or made into sausages and nuggets, will change the world, freeing up valuable farmland for nature to return. I wish some of my favorites – algae and insects – had been included, but the point Monbiot makes so skillfully and so necessarily is that system change is both essential and possible through a complexity of solutions.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. If any book can change hearts and minds on one of the most critical issues of our time, it is this rational and humane polemic.
Gaia Vince is the author of Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval (published by Allen Lane on August 25)