Fragments of pottery excavated in Poland tell us that around seven thousand years ago Neolithic farmers were transforming milk from sheep, cattle and goats into a solid food that could feed them in the winter months. This ingenious survival strategy involved using bacteria from the environment and proteins from the stomachs of the animals to acidify and coagulate liquid milk, so preserving energy contained in the wild grasses of the landscape and releasing nutrients supplied by the soil.
In the millennia that followed, humans – from European farmers practising trans-humance around the Alps to camel herders in Ethiopia – continued to produce food from diverse landscapes by making cheese. Manure from the animals was used to fertilise soils and to help grow grains and vegetables. In some cultures, by-products of this system – meat, leather and wool – played a central role in diets, cultures and economies. There are parts of the world in which the ancient interconnection between plants, animals and humans remains intact. In others, as we know all too well, it has been dismantled and industrialised.
In his twelfth book, Regenesis, George Monbiot argues that this chapter in the human story – in which animals play a central role in agricultural systems – must come to an end. In the action plan he sets out, calling a halt to farming animals will dramatically reduce the amount of land used to produce food, while landscapes will be rewilded. In place of animals, we will in future rely on protein brewed in fermentation tanks powered by ‘fourth-generation’ nuclear reactors. The ‘desiccated bodies of bacteria’ will be 3D-printed into forms indistinguishable from ‘chicken nuggets, burgers, sausages’. Those previously working as farmers will be re-employed in tasks such as converting the land and serving the tourists who come to visit. Our other foods – vegetables, fruits and grains – will, in future, be produced in ways that harness the power of soil, a feature of the planet so poorly understood that ‘we treat it like dirt’.
It’s a radical and provocative argument, but for those who have followed Monbiot’s work in The Guardian in recent years, this vision of the future will come as no surprise. Nevertheless, although many of the book’s arguments have been rehearsed already in his columns, Regenesis provides a far more detailed model, one that promises to both satisfy our food needs and save the world. In addition to precision-fermented proteins, Monbiot profiles other pioneering ideas, such as ‘stockfree’ organic vegetable farming, in which no manure or animal products are used, and soil-friendly ‘no till’ techniques for growing wheat.
In the spell-binding opening chapter, we accompany Monbiot as he examines under a powerful lens a kilogram of soil he’s dug from the orchard he shares with neighbours. This deep dig into what lies beneath is eye-opening and poetic: ‘a chestnut centipede rushes past, carriage by carriage, into a dark siding. There are caramel beetle larvae and clusters of translucent globes, containing the faint white crescents of snail embryos.’ This is a hidden universe in which insects, crustaceans, earthworms, microbes and networks of mycelium that run for miles all interact in an intricate system that is partly fed by plants, which are in turn nourished by the soil. New science, Monbiot explains, is beginning to show how the zone of ‘narrow wards surrounding the roots of plants, known as the rhizosphere’, acts as ‘the plant’s external gut’. ‘Humanity depends’ upon this layer of soil, he observes. As he goes on to explain, it is these riches beneath our feet that we are now destroying. The main culprit is farming.
In Monbiot’s analysis, the global food system already produces enough to feed between ten and fourteen billion people. For this reason, ‘the biggest population crisis is not the growth in human numbers, but the growth in livestock numbers’. Biodiversity is being lost around the world as land is cleared to feed the global population of cattle, which has increased by 15 per cent in the last fifty years. Pig numbers have doubled and chicken numbers have increased fivefold. Rivers in the UK, notably the Wye, are being polluted by waste from chicken factories and cattle, resulting in life-killing algal blooms. Sheep farming has turned our national parks into ‘glorified sheep ranches’. Monbiot argues that organic farming, because of the amount of land taken up by it and its slow pace, is even more damaging than conventional farming. The solution put forward in Regenesis is for us all to stop eating meat and dairy and switch instead to plant-based diets. This way, ‘we would reduce the amount of land used for farming by 76 per cent’. Pastures could be returned to nature and the health of our soils saved.
The world-view in Regenesis is very much two legs bad, four legs worse. That view is uncompromising. For instance, a less well-known problem with our food, Monbiot explains, is the presence of microplastics, which make their way from synthetic clothes, through our washing machines and onto farmland in the ‘sewage sludge’ sold by water treatment companies to farmers. What isn’t referenced here is the potential contribution natural fibres from sheep could make to solving this problem. Any food system that includes animals clearly doesn’t fit Monbiot’s vision.
Regenesis is a book mostly populated by heroes and villains. Many of the ideas that are inspiring a new generation of farmers to look for more ‘regenerative’ ways of livestock farming are roundly dismissed. One exponent of new ways of farming, the rancher and ecologist Allan Savory, who has devised systems that replicate the movement of cattle in the wild, is described by Monbiot as ‘rambling and unconvincing’. The UK’s leading organic certification organisation, the Soil Association, is accused of having a set of rules on soil fertility that ‘makes a mockery of what organic farming claims to be’. We’re told that polluting farmers on the receiving end of criticism from locals often leave dead animals on people’s doorsteps or spray slurry over their accusers’ walls. Meanwhile, Monbiot’s main example of precision-fermented protein is that created by Pasi Vainikka of Solar Foods, ‘a brilliant scientist and visionary entrepreneur’ who is ‘fermenting a revolution’ driven by an ambition to ‘conjure food from air’. Solar Foods has claimed its bacteria-based protein is ‘100 times more efficient in converting energy to calories than animals’. What Monbiot doesn’t tell us is that the highly respected International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems has said that ‘there does not appear to be any publicly available data to substantiate the claim’.
What’s more, the concerns Monbiot raises earlier in the book about the concentration of power in the global food system are glossed over when he turns to the future of hi-tech protein production. In a gripping analysis of the food system, he describes how corporations such as Cargill and ADM exert huge influence over the world’s grain and livestock sectors. Yet it is these same companies that are becoming the most powerful investors in the race to develop new alternative proteins. ‘To the greatest extent possible, farmfree food should be open source,’ Monbiot states. The reality is the opposite.
And although we are invited to appreciate the mind-boggling complexity of soil, Monbiot doesn’t apply the same treatment to food and nutrition. We’re told that the protein produced by Solar Foods contains ‘all nine essential amino acids’, though ‘more assessments are needed’. Statements such as these are unconvincing, coming as they do at a time when we’re only just beginning to realise how little we know about the biochemical processes that unfold when we swallow a mouthful of food. A new research project, the Dark Matter of Nutrition, based at the Harvard Medical School, is attempting to identify the estimated 26,625 biochemicals known to be present in food. Currently, only 150 or so are tracked. The emerging science of the gut microbiome (the trillions of microbes we all host) is also encouraging a wholesale reassessment of our relationship with food. For Monbiot to highlight the complexity of soil but ignore the complexities involved in nutrition doesn’t make his faith in a protein techno-fix convincing. His belief that we will want to eat these novel foods is unwavering, helped by what he sees as an inevitable technological and ethical shift, similar to that caused by the arrival of the contraceptive pill. It’s not clear, though, why a shift in attitudes won’t lead us to increase our intake of beans, nuts and lentils instead.
Monbiot tells us that in researching Regenesis he read five thousand scientific papers, including the 2020 Living Planet Report, which he cites when describing how ‘the global population of wild vertebrate animals has fallen by 68 per cent since 1970’. However, even the report’s authors (WWF and ZSL) have stressed that this figure represents an ‘average proportional change in animal population sizes tracked over 46 years – not the number of individual animals lost’. A paper in Nature reported that ‘this estimate is driven by less than 3% of vertebrate populations’. This matters, because in his conclusion Monbiot states that we need to ‘become food-numerate’.
Nevertheless, Regenesis is an important book, and with a conclusion perhaps intended to polarise, it will prompt and provoke a much-needed debate on the future of farming and food.