How to Feed the World Without Destroying the Planet

Alan Thornett reviews the latest book by George Monbiot.


Source > EcoSocialist Discussion

Review of George Monbiot’s recent book Regenesis – Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet, 2022 by Allen Lane

This excellent book is a no-holds-barred – and often provocative – critique of the global food and farming system. Agriculture, Monbiot tells us, is “the most destructive human activity ever to have blighted the Earth”. That “we are farming the planet to death” and that “agriculture is the greatest single cause of both climate change and species extinction.”

This is reflected in the strapline of the title: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet. This, he says, is the “grand dilemma” we face. It is a dilemma he confronts fearlessly, and with little regard to whose toes, or indeed vested interests, he might be trampling on. His alternative vision to this catastrophic situation is regenesis—the resurgence of nature—and he makes a very strong case for it.

The book marks a further development Monbiot’s thinking on agriculture, and on meat eating in particular. It caught my attention because its primary question it raises – how to feed the world without destroying the planet – because is the same conclusion that I reached in the agricultural chapter of my 2019 book Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for ecosocialism.

I put it this way: “The big question posed therefore is not just whether enough food can be produced and distributed to feed the existing human population of 7 billion, or indeed the 9 or 10 billion people projected by mid-century – which might be possible if today’s grotesque inequalities, corruption, and the market distortions, were resolvable – the question posed is whether such numbers can be fed without destroying the biosphere of the planet in the process.” (p249)

Monbiot says that he read five thousand scientific papers, including the 2020 Living Planet Report, in researching the book – which is his sixth. It is certainly packed with innovative ideas and important information that requires comment.

Agriculture – Monbiot points out – is responsible for 80 per cent of global deforestation and is the biggest single destroyer of biodiversity. Of the 28,000 species known to be at risk of extinction, 24,000 are threatened by agriculture. Half of the world’s habitual land has already been taken for the production of food, yet 800 million people still go hungry.

Over a third of GHG emissions  – Monbiot says –are also produced by agriculture. Roughly 70 per cent is caused by farming itself and the rest by transportation and marketing. Our World in data figures, he points out, show that even if GHG emissions from every other sector were disregarded food production alone would bust the entire carbon budget two or three times over in terms of staying within a 1.5°C maximum global temperature increase. (p82)

Out in advance

Several important sections of the book were published in advance of the book itself, including chapter one, for example, What Lies Beneath, which is a fascinating study of soil structure and ecology. Monbiot describes soil as “that fragile cushion between rock and air on which civilisations are built”, which he argues is being systematically destroyed by ploughing in particular, which, he says, destroys its complex structures and kills large numbers of earthworms, along with myriad other tiny creatures that are essential to its health viability.

This caught my interest since I started my working life as an agricultural labourer on a dairy farm in rural Oxfordshire. Of all the diverse jobs involved, the one I saw as most satisfying was ploughing, since it gives the impression that it is rejuvenating the soil. Only in recent years have I come to accept that reality was and is dramatically different – though it was always rather obvious why vast flocks of birds, like seagulls, crows, and plovers, arrived every time a plough appeared in a field.

Another section in the public domain in advance of the book itself was on the pollution of the pollution of the River Wye, which was caused by a rise in the chicken population in its catchment to over 20 million. As a result of this, Monbiot concludes, the Wye is being turned from a rich and complex eco-system into a filthy gutter”. He made a documentary about this in advance of the book called Rivercide – which was followed by a two-part investigation by ITV news journalists. (p60)

You might, after this, Monbiot says: “have decided that you want nothing more to do with intensive farming and that from now on you will eat only meat, eggs, and milk from animals that can roam outdoors (free range), or have been certified as organic (i.e., farmed to an agreed set of environmental rules). “If so, I can offer you little comfort.” (p74) Farming, he says, particularly since the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 60s, is “both too intensive and too extensive.” It uses too many pesticides, too much fertiliser, too much water, and too much land. ” He says campaigners, chefs, and food writers, rail against “intensive” farming and the harm it does around the world. “But the problem is not the adjective, it’s the noun.” (p90)

Land use

This reflects Monbiot’s decision to make the issue of land use the central focus of his analysis in terms of the environmental impact of agriculture on the planet. He has come to believe, he says, that it is this that is the key determining factor as to whether terrestrial ecosystems survive or perish. The more land that agriculture consumes, he says, the less is available in the form of forest and wetlands, savannas, and wild grasslands for the survival of other species, and their rate of extinction is accelerated. Like soil ecology, he argues, total land use is a subject that the great majority of us have unconsciously agreed to ignore. (page 77)

He argues for a massive reduction in the land used for agriculture, and that the land released needs to be rewilded rather than built on—a process he calls Regenesis. This would allow nature to regenerate and the land to become more effective as a carbon sink — and I totally agree with him.

He quotes World in Data figures to compare the land needed to produce soy bean protein with that needed to produce the same amount of protein from animals. According to these figures production of a 100  grammes of soy protein requires just two square metres of land, whilst to raise 100 grammes of egg protein requires six square metres. Chicken protein needs seven, and pork requires ten. Milk requires 27 square metres, beef requires 163 and Lamb 185. Lamb protein, therefor, requires a massive 84 times as much land as that needed to grow it from soy.

Within 10 years, he warns, if nothing changes, the demand for new farmland – driven partly by human population growth, partly by the use of biofuels, but mostly by the ongoing evolution of human diets towards more meat and dairy products, could amount to 10 million square kilometres.

Organic farming

The most provocative challenge Monbiot makes to an existing shibboleth is to organic farming – long seen as the wing of agriculture that takes animal welfare and the future of the planet most seriously, and offers a solution to the ravages of mainstream agriculture.

Not so, says Monbiot. Although he accepts that organic farming has many benefits in that it uses far fewer (or even zero) pesticides and artificial fertilisers, in other essential respects, he says, it can do even more damage to the environment than conventional farming. This is because the lower average yields it produces use more land to produce the same amount of food. Pasture-fed cattle, for example, could be even more environmentally damaging than animals fed soy or grain.

In terms of climate change, he points out, organic farming “creates at least as much nitrogen pollution as conventional farming: one paper estimates that it releases 37 percent more.” This is because the animal manure used to grow crops tends to be even leakier than artificial fertiliser. (He does find an organic farmer called Iain Tolhurst in the Thames Valley who claims to have overcome this problem, though it is doubtful that his methods could be generalised since they involve crop rotation, which involves having a third of available land out of production at any one time.)

Free-range farming

Another shibboleth that Monbiot challenges is free-range farming. Again, he recognises that it is good for animal welfare, but in other respects it is just as damaging, and possibly more so, than the broiler units and battery-type egg-laying factories that dominate the River Wye catchment. When it rains, he explains, “their droppings are washed off the land and into the rivers even faster, and in a more raw state, than the excrement extracted from the factories and spread deliberately on the fields.” It is this process, he says, that could be responsible for the terrestrial dead zone that now exists in a part of the Wye’s catchment in the southern Cambrian Mountains. (p75)

With pasture-fed beef cattle, he says, the answer is the same. While both cattle and sheep need a great deal of land, the way they are raised: “beef finished on grain in an intensive feedlot system needs one twentieth of the area required by beef reared entirely on pasture.” (p78)

Grazing land for beef cattle, he says, has long been the biggest single cause of habitat loss, mostly through deforestation. Livestock farming globally, he says: “have displaced millions of indigenous people and destroyed millions of hectares of wildlife habitat. Its political power is greater than its economic weight. As it has rattles the gates of protected areas the governments of many nations have unlocked them.” In the UK today, livestock rearing takes up 51 per cent of all available land. (p79)

Evidence from over 100 studies, Monbiot says, finds that when livestock are removed from the land, the abundance and diversity of almost all groups of wild animals increases… Where there are cattle, there are fewer wild mammals, birds, reptiles, and insects on the land, and fewer fish in the rivers.

Locally grown food

The idea that a lot of carbon emissions can be saved by eating locally grown food is another bubble that Monbiot bursts. While there are many good reasons for eating locally, carbon emissions reduction is not one of them since the GHG emitted in the transportation of food is tiny compared with that needed to grow it.

For example, he says: “If you buy pasture-fed beef or lamb, the contribution of transport to its total climate costs, depending on where it comes from, is likely to be between 0.5 and 2 percent.” Raising the meat accounts for roughly 95 percent of its emissions. You would have to ship a kilo of dried peas roughly a hundred times around the world before its GHGs matched those of a kilo of local beef. ” He goes on to many more such examples. (p85)

He quotes a paper in the journal Nature Food which examined how many people could be fed with staple crops within a 100 km of where they live. “It was discovered that wheat, rice, barley, rye, beans, millet, and sorghum grown within this radius could feed only a quarter of the world’s people.”

The average minimum distance at which the world’s people can be fed is 2,200 kms. For those who depend of wheat, and similar cereals, it’s 3,800 kms. A quarter of the population that consumes these crops require food that is grown at least 5,200 kms away.

The reasons for this, he says, are clear enough. Most of the world’s people live in big cities or populous valleys, whose hinterland is too small and often too dry, too hot, or too cold to feed them. Much of the world’s food is grown in vast, lightly populated lands—the Canadian prairies, the US plains, the Russian and Ukrainian steppes, and the Brazilian interior—and shipped to the densely populated places.

He says you can negotiate with politics and economics. But you can’t negotiate with arithmetic. “Given the distribution of the world’s population and of the regions suitable for farming, the abandonment of long-distance trade would be a recipe for mass starvation.” (p146)

Food waste

Finally, on wasted food. Monbiot accepts that a third of the food produced globally is wasted before it gets to the table. He rejects, however, the widely held view that abolishing such waste is an easy way of feeding the hungry and saving farmland.

In poor countries, he says, where large quantities of food are lost due to poor roads, unsuitable and unreliable transport, high temperatures, and poor storage facilities, the introduction of better roads, more refrigeration, and better packaging and storage would negate most of the savings made.

In any case, the savings that can be made by reducing food loss, he argues, “are small compared to the savings we could make by changing our diets.” One paper he consulted compared the reduction of GHGs achieved by switching to a plant-based diet. The difference was enormous: 5 percent versus 80 percent. It seems to me that more effort has been spent persuading people to eat what they buy than to change what they eat.

Stop eating meat

In the end, there is no way around it, Monbiot argues. The answer is to stop eating meat and switch to a plant-based diet. By eating animals, he insists, “we arrogate to ourselves the right to a diet that uses more land than the planet can provide.” ‘Arrogate’ is a very appropriate word. Its dictionary definition is: to claim or seize without justification.

It is time to be very clear about this. Meat eating remotely resembling the scale of consumption today will destroy the ecological viability of the planet, and therefore its ability to sustain human life.

Monbiot recognises, however, that convincing the 80 per cent of the global population who currently eat meat to cease doing so is a massive task. Appeals to them to save the planet, he argues, will not be enough. Whilst there has been a rise in the number of vegans in rich countries, meat consumption globally continues to rise. (The World Counts, for example, tells us that the production of meat has increased four-fold since the mid 1960s. By 2050, global consumption is projected to reach between 460 million and 570 million tonnes (AT).

An important part of the answer to this, he argues, is to produce better and cheaper protein substitutes that are indistinguishable from the animal products they replace.

The environmental impacts of soy-based meat substitutes, he says, “are already much lower than those of the animal flesh they seek to replace.” One paper Monbiot consulted found that the average GHG emissions are 34 per cent smaller than those of chicken meat and 93 per cent smaller than those of beef. This is because we eat the soy and other grains directly rather than passing them through animals first. Plant-based meats use 40 per cent less land than chickens, 98 per cent less than beef. It also greatly reduces water consumption and pollution, and uses no fertilisers or pesticides”.

It is entirely possible, however, he argues, to go beyond this and produce protein from bacterium, by precision fermentation (he calls it farm-free), with an even lower impact on the environment.

To this end, he visited Pasi Vainikka, a Finnish scientist who was co-founder of Solar Foods, a food tech company that is developing meat substitutes for the global food market. He is currently working on a process, first developed by NASSA scientists in the 1960s, to produce protein from a soil bacterium by a process called hydrogen-oxygenating bacterium. Vainikka’s staff cooked Monbiot a pancake with the product they are developing, after which he announced that: “In this thin crepe is wrapped our best hope of restoring the living planet.” (p187)

He also visited Tomas Linder, an associate professor of microbiology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, who is doing similar research, from whom he learned that the land needed to produce protein from bacterium, as against soybeans, is enormous. “In  typical year, soybeans occupy 36.5 million hectors of the US, an area greater than that of Italy. The land required to produce the same amount of protein by growing bacteria is 21,000 hectors… In other words, you’d need 1,700 times less land to grow it”. (p188)

This section of the book on plant-based and farm-free food is the one most referenced in reviews and has sent the defenders of meat diets apoplectic. After attending a presentation by George Monbiot on his book, Diana Rogers, an American dietitian and author of The Case for Better Meat, said afterwards in an article in Literary Review that: “His viewpoints are elitist, dangerous, irresponsible, and completely ignore the nutritional case for animal-sourced foods, the positive impact grazing can have on the environment, and the economic impact removing livestock would have on rural economies.”

It is true that this section of the book is more speculative in that Monbiot is dealing, in the case of farm-free food, with processes that are still in the development stage, but he is completely justified in doing so. Such forward-thinking is crucial if there is to be a solution to this crisis. Farm-free food could be an important addition to plant-based protein. Why would we not explore it?

Food sovereignty

A large and growing movement, he says, particularly in the global South, sees the answer to these conundrums in food sovereignty, which, he says, is “defined by its leading thinkers as the right to ‘healthy and culturally appropriate food’, grown in ways that are “ecologically sound” and the ability of local people to control their own food and agricultural systems. It seeks to break the corporate grip on the food chain, uphold the rights of women in food production, improve the distribution of land and the conditions of rural workers, guarantee fair incomes, and stop coercive trade agreements and the privatisation of nature. ” (p143)

The main problem he found, however, in his discussions with food sovereignty advocates was over rewilding. They did not accept that it could ever be right to take land out of agricultural use and return it to the wild – which is fundamental to Monbiot’s perspective. The right to farm, he concludes, “is sometimes incompatible with the right to a thriving planet.” To pretend that this conflict does not exist “is to ensure that it cannot be resolved”.

A  socially just agricultural transition

Monbiot is aware that the changes he proposes would destroy a lot of jobs. The less meat is eaten, the fewer livestock farmers, farm workers, and those employed in slaughter houses and meat processing will be needed.

His response is a socially just agricultural transition that would protect workers as they change their role in the industry, or leave it altogether, in a socially and economically just way. For example, in rewilding, which he argues needs a lot of work, particularly in the early stages: “fences need to be removed, drains un-dug, rivers un-straightened, wetlands restored, missing species re-introduced, and trees seeded or planted.” Surely, he says, paying farmers to restore the living world is surely a better use of public money than paying them to harm it.

He points to a rewilding project in the Netherlands that employs six times as many workers as the dairy farm it replaced. He also references an analysis of 20 rewilding projects in England by Rewilding Britain that increased employment by 47 per cent. (p228)

Rewilding would also reduce carbon emissions since, as the forests, the steppes, savannas, wetlands, the mangroves, and marine kelp forests recover: “they will draw down carbon dioxide on a massive scale… For the first time since the Neolithic… we have the opportunity to transform not only our food system but our relationship with the living world. Vast tracts of land could be release from both intensive and extensive farming. The age of Extinction could be succeeded by the age of Regenesis.” (p211)

This reflects his 2013 book Feral-Searching for Enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding (also published by Allen Lane) which advocated the return of vast tracts of farmland to nature, facilitated by a change of diet of the human population away from meat, along with the reintroduction of locally extinct species – including some of the extinct megafauna.

He calls for a new movement around such ideas and even proposes some creative campaigning demands, which include limiting the land area we use to feed the world. Enhance fertility with the smallest possible organic interventions. Stop farming animals. Replace the protein and fat from animals with precision fermentation. Break global corporations’ grip on the food chain. Diversify the food system. It is a warning that we ‘farm the planet to death’ at our peril. Rewild land released from farming. (p229)

It is time, he says, to take back control of the global food system, to overthrow the corporate lobbyists and special interest groups that dominate it. It is time to create a new, rich, productive agriculture that is no longer dependent on livestock and to grow food that is cheap, healthy, and available to everyone. “It’s time to develop a new and revolutionary cuisine based on farm-free food. It is time to release large parts of the planet from our devastating impacts… “

“We can envisage the beginning of a new era in which we no longer need to sacrifice the living world on the altar of our appetites. And we can resolve the greatest dilemma with which we have ever been confronted, and feed the world without devouring the planet. (p231)

Two problems

I have two significant problems with the book that I need to register.

The first is regarding nuclear energy. Remarkably, in my view, Monbiot continues to support nuclear energy, which is not only getting more expensive at a time when the cost of renewables is falling rapidly, but the biggest nuclear plant in Europe is being fought over in Ukraine in the course of Putin’s invasion. He plays the issue low-key in the book, but it remains a problem.

The second is Monbiot’s approach to the human population of the planet – which continues to grow by over 70 million a year. He recognises the problem since he lists it as one of the main drivers of the agricultural crisis – along with biofuel production and escalating meat consumption. He also aware of the scale of the problem since he recognises the UN expectation that the human population will rise to between 9 and 10 billion by 2050.

He then, however, has nothing to say in terms of what to do about it, which is in sharp contrast to his response to the other problems he identifies, which is to seek solutions. In fact, he side-steps the population problem by pointing out that the biggest population crisis is not the growth of human numbers but the growth of livestock numbers, which have been rising by 2.4 percent a year.

However, it is obvious that the rise in livestock numbers will always outstrip the rise in human figures given the current human consumption of meat.  Every additional human being requires livestock numbers to be increased by two in order to maintain a meat-eating lifestyle. It is impossible that 70 million additional human beings added to the population every year will do anything other than exert additional pressure on the planet. It is inevitable.

Not every new person has the same impact; the rich have a much greater impact than the poor, but every additional person, in the end, needs food, water, clothing, shelter, and space. Every poor person, moreover, quite rightly, aspires to a better standard of life as soon as possible. This is not an argument for side-stepping the problem but for doing something about it, yet Monbiot has nothing to say. Monbiot’s fearless, no-holds-barred approach that he applies to all the other ecological threats he identifies disappears when it comes to population.

The empowerment of women

Yet a solution to rising population numbers is remarkably straightforward—given the political will. The key to it is the empowerment of women to have genuine control of their own bodies and their own lives – whilst opposing any form of coercive control.

Most women, I suspect, given a genuine right to choose, would not have the large families that prevail in much of the Global South. Some would, which is also their right, but most would not. If women were able to control their own fertility, get access to education and jobs, and resist the influences of patriarchy and religion, fertility rates would fall further and the global population would stabilise. It would also improve the lives of millions of women in the process. Multiple pregnancies, with little space between them, wreak havoc in terms of the health and life expectancy of the mothers concerned.

Such empowerment would also address the appalling conditions the women of the Global South face, in particular, and the unmet need for reproductive services that they are forced to suffer. According to the UN, the full range of modern family-planning methods remains unavailable to at least 350 million couples world-wide, many of whom say they want to prevent another pregnancy or to create more space between them.

More than 220 million women are denied basic reproductive services. There are around 100 million unintended pregnancies a year – which is more than the global population increase. Some 74,000 women die every year as a result of failed back-street abortions, with a disproportionate number of these from the Global South. The provision of reproductive services is a policy that helps the women of the Global South and helps the planet at the same time – as described above, a win-win situation.

We have to make the empowerment of women an integral part of the climate and environmental struggle. A failure to address the rising human population will leave a gapping hole in any plan to address the problems of the planet.

The above problems notwithstanding, Regenesis is not only an excellent book but long overdue. It is, in my view, the most important look at global agriculture, from a radical left perspective, for a long time. It is a major contribution to the debate on the future of farming and food and the “Grand Dilemma” we face in the struggle to give human life on the planet a future beyond the next 10 years. It is a warning that we ‘farm the planet to death’ at our peril.

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Alan is the author of Facing the Apocalypse – Arguments for Ecosocialism which can be purchased from Resistance Books.

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