Having read George Monbiot’s journalism, I knew Regenesis would be a brilliantly argued and carefully researched read on the challenges of providing enough food, and protecting the climate, by reimagining farming. What I hadn’t anticipated was the lyrical beauty of the writing.
In the opening chapter Monbiot describes in gorgeous detail his (community-run) orchard, the blossom, the fruit, and the mysterious ecosystem that is soil. He discusses the creatures, bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi (drawing on Merlin Sheldrake’s brilliant Entangled Life) and how maintaining and improving soil is an essential, and overlooked, part of the challenge.
Unfortunately, much of contemporary farming worldwide actively damages soil, air and water. Monbiot looks at how government subsidies, introduced to ensure food security, actively encourage environmentally damaging practices, returning to the theme of his Rivercide documentary on how chicken waste pollutes rivers. Farmers, he argues provocatively, no longer farm food, but subsidies. Their most lucrative fields are on spreadsheets.
The problem isn’t that we can’t produce enough food. In principle, the world already produces enough food for 10-14 billion people. The issue is in the distribution, fragile international supply chains, and the fact that industrial farming is incompatible with mitigating climate change.
Once he has outlined the problem, Monbiot goes on to describe a number of potential solutions. He visits one vegetable grower who emphasises working with and improving the soil, making friends with weeds, because they build soil structure. Another farmer sows crops without ploughing. These aren’t commercially profitable, but then neither, remember, is industrial farming, it is propped up by subsidies that pay people to harm, rather than protect, animals, the land and the climate.
Other chapters look at alternatives to farming as we know it, such as growing protein from bacteria or developing perennial cereal crops, and outline the work of groups such as Fareshare in the UK which distribute food which would otherwise be wasted.
There is some humour too, in Monbiot’s critique of the way we romanticise farms, from children’s fiction to Sunday night comfort TV like Countryfile. He is not afraid to take aim at, er, sacred cows, such as pasture-fed meat – which, he argues, is actually be more damaging in climate terms because of the extra land needed to feed each animal. He also says that locally-sourced food isn’t necessarily better – because transport represents such a small proportion of the carbon cost of food.
Regenesis is a fascinating and thought-provoking read, packed with insight and testament to Monbiot’s commitment to detail (he holds others to the same high standard, even allies who make idyllic claims but can’t provide the evidence to back them up). It is unflinching in outlining the problem, but also inspiring in the solutions it offers.
I received a copy of Regenesis from the publisher via Netgalley.
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