Modern agriculture has delivered astonishing productivity, but at a fearsome price to the living planet. Today, its footprint covers more than half the habitable land area on Earth.
This sequestration and radical alteration of vast swathes of the biosphere for the sole benefit of one species among millions has triggered a catastrophic collapse of ecosystems while also destabilising the global climate system.
There is remarkably little sustained public or political attention paid to this tsunami of destruction sweeping away the life support systems upon which we all ultimately depend, or to the interest groups profiting from it.
Guardian journalist George Monbiot, a veteran environment and climate campaigner, has agriculture firmly in his crosshairs in his book, Regenesis. Food and fisheries are the main drivers behind the 68 per cent collapse in global populations of wild vertebrate animals in just the last 50 years.
Most of the 28,000 species at risk of imminent extinction, are, Monbiot notes, “threatened by farming”. Livestock agriculture has, he adds, “displaced millions of indigenous people and destroyed billions of hectares of wildlife habitat”.
Our beliefs about food and farming are, he argues, “dominated by fables and metaphors that describe not the world as it is, but an idealised, simplified planet, prompting us to make catastrophic mistakes”. This book catalogues these missteps forensically, backed up by 90 pages of notes and references.
His outspoken style has earned Monbiot many enemies, but his passion is fuelled not by an irrational hatred of agriculture but rather by a deep understanding and love of nature from a lifetime studying and observing its mysteries and complexities. His opening chapter deals lyrically with the soils beneath our feet, that undiscovered country about which we know so little, yet upon which we depend so much. Monbiot’s description of the finely balanced and exquisitely intricate relationships between plants, microbes, fungi, bacteria, earthworms, nematodes and a host of other organisms within healthy soil is vivid and memorable. He quotes a former lecturer of his who noted drily: “I study insects because I love them, but the only funding I can get is to kill them.”
The release of Regenesis while global food insecurity is front-page news as a result of war, extreme weather and supply-chain disruption is serendipitous, and may well attract a wider audience for this book as a result.
While Monbiot addresses the British agri-industrial lobby, his observations apply equally to Ireland, where farming also enjoys unparalleled political and economic protection. He argues that this coddling begins almost in infancy, in the colourful, idealised farmyard books young children read.
“At the very dawning of consciousness, we learn that the livestock farm is a place of comfort and safety, a harmonious world removed from stress and conflict.” Monbiot adds that farmers often complain that the public would be more sympathetic if they knew more about farming. “I suspect the opposite is true.”
Despite the bucolic mythology, the countryside is “neither innocent nor pure. In some places, it is more corrupt than the city”, Monbiot argues. “Pollution, now caused primarily by agriculture in many nations, is the physical manifestation of corruption”.
The cultural power of the industry, despite being heavily supported by subsidies, “insulates it from both criticism and regulation. We grant farming an uncontested space offered to no other profession”.
While the oversized ecological hoofprint of the livestock industry is Monbiot’s principal target, he is equally scathing of the destructive practices involved in much of the tillage sector too. Globally, our food systems are increasingly dependent on just a handful of crops, notably soya, maize, wheat and rice, and much of this grain is wastefully fed to livestock or converted into biofuels.
While food is in many cases far too cheap relative to its true costs and impacts, for the world’s poor, healthy food remains too expensive.
The only hope for a safer future, Monbiot argues, is a planned retreat, sharply reducing the amount of land being farmed and throwing nature a lifeline by giving it space to undo the damage we have wrought. Switching away from livestock would in itself free up huge amounts of land and drastically cut pollution and emissions, without impacting food security. In fact, it would mean more grains for human consumption.
Getting our food directly from plants is good, but switching to bacteria to grow protein, as now being developed by scientists, means we could “withdraw our dire impacts from great tracts of the planet that we have ploughed and fenced and grazed and doused with toxins”. This could, Monbiot concludes, be “our best hope of stopping the sixth extinction”.
The author’s occasionally polemical style won’t appeal to everyone, but I found Regenesis a compelling, deeply researched account of a deeply broken food system and how we might heal it - and perhaps save ourselves in the process.
John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator