Regenesis by George Monbiot review – hungry for real change

We are farming our planet to death. Half of the world’s habitable land has already been colonised to produce our food. Nature, the many millions of other species, is forced to survive in the polluted, overhunted, degraded fragments of what remains. Extinction rates are around 1,000 times the natural background rate, largely because wild land has been lost to agriculture or polluted by it, or because of conflict with farmers. In spite of it all, around 800 million people go hungry, with 150 million children under five suffering from stunted growth.

In the coming decades, we will need to feed more people more food – at least doubling today’s food production by 2050 – at a time when all the best lands have been taken and during an escalating climate crisis.

To conclude that our food system needs fixing is neither new nor controversial, and a felled forest-worth of books have been produced by proponents of niche diets or experimental farming techniques. Now, environmental activist and writer George Monbiot has thrown himself at the cause of remaking the global food industry, drawn, unusually, into the fray by the perilous state of our rivers. And there’s huge provocation: British rivers are disgusting and worsening, largely as a result of agricultural dumping and leakage. Fertilisers, sewage sludge, pesticides, microplastics and other biochemical effluence are killing our rivers. If the toxins don’t directly extinguish life, the glut of nitrates causes a proliferation of algae that starves the rest of the waterways’ life of oxygen. Through our attempts to improve production of a few domesticated species, we are killing the ecosystems that underpin them, ultimately threatening our own survival.

Never hectoring, always highly readable, Regenesis is an intelligent, deeply researched passion piece that ranges from microbiology to social justice by way of apple trees and GM wheat. There is a temptation when writing about enormous topics to oversimplify, to distinguish your own approach by promoting a single definitive solution. Monbiot resists this. He acknowledges, even embraces, the complexity of the crisis we face.

That is the greatest strength of this book: Monbiot’s beautifully simple explanation of why none of this is simple. Human food production is embedded in a complex socioeconomic-ecological system. Complex systems of whatever type can achieve things that their individual, disassociated entities cannot – they are greater than the sum of their parts – and to a large extent, these systems maintain themselves, with one part compensating for another. But this magic comes with a vulnerability: push a system too far and it will collapse, flipping from one state to another. Today, we risk pushing not just our global food system too far, but collapsing the greater Earth systems we all rely on, Monbiot warns.

His glorious opening chapter, which should be compulsory reading for anyone who makes or, indeed, eats food, is about the ecosystem that supports all terrestrial life: soil. With delight, he details the complexity of an evolved relationship between bacteria, fungi, plants, tiny organisms (including members of an entire phylum I’d never heard of called symphylids), and the chemistry and geology of the planet. It’s this complexity we work with when we build our bodies from the sun’s energy using photosynthetic plants as our go-between. And today’s agricultural practices are messing it up.

“Soil behaves like Dust in a Philip Pullman novel: it organises itself spontaneously into coherent worlds,” he writes, “yet we treat it like dirt.” Ploughing, fertilising, even irrigating crop fields can damage the self-sustaining complexity – and health – of this vital dust.

Systemic problems require systemic solutions and Monbiot wants us to entirely change what we eat and how we produce it. He visits maverick farmers trying various ways of raising crops with minimal disturbance to soils and biodiversity. Their revitalised land is surely more enticing than the sterile monocultures that cloak most countryside, but farmers don’t plough for the fun of it, they do it to clear the land of crop-competing weeds and improve productivity. To produce even similar yields – remember, we need more food from less land – and to maintain a commercially functioning business, farmers must be convinced that no-till agriculture can deliver. On the evidence herein, it can’t, certainly not while 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 more of a chance as part of larger system change. Environmentalists increasingly accept that most livestock farming is unsustainable and Monbiot, a vegan, believes the industrial meat system could collapse remarkably rapidly, in part because of a burgeoning industry in meat-identical proteins and fats made from plants, fungi and, his favourite candidate, genetically modified bacteria that can be produced in enormous quantities in fermentation vats, taking negligible land. Microbial proteins, when 3D printed into steaks and escalopes or formed into sausages and nuggets, will change the world, freeing up valuable farmland for nature to return. I would have liked some of my own favourites – algae and insects – included, but the point Monbiot makes so ably and so necessarily is that system change is both essential and possible through a complexity of solutions.

The stakes could not be higher. If a book can change hearts and minds about one of the most critical issues of our time, this rational, humane polemic is it.

Gaia Vince is author of Nomad Century: How to Survive the Climate Upheaval (published by Allen Lane on 25 August)

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