What will we be eating in the future? Will it be wholesome, locally grown organic produce or some Soylent Green–like nightmare food? The only certainty, George Monbiot argues in Regenesis, is that we cannot continue to eat what we eat today. Climate disruption will see to that. And even if climate impacts are less severe than some project, industrial agriculture and the so-called global standard diet it creates are environmentally unsustainable and are destroying the planet’s soils so rapidly that we already stand on the brink of a worldwide catastrophe. We have, Monbiot warns, a very brief period in which to reshape our food systems.
Regenesis begins with an examination of the seductive idea that we can grow at least some of our food in or near our own backyards. As anyone who has eaten fruits and vegetables from their garden knows, homegrown organic food is a source of pride and satisfaction as well as sustenance. Yet even raising a humble lettuce, let alone something more ambitious, is fraught with difficulty. If one abjures pesticides, slugs and snails must be hunted down at night and caterpillars by day. Plantings must be fenced to deter larger pests, and water and fertilizer applied if the produce is to flourish. Then, the fickle weather gods must smile on the enterprise.
As Monbiot, a British environmental writer and advocate, knows better than most, these difficulties make growing even a small supplement to our diet an uncertain and time-consuming exercise. He has an allotment in Oxford that gives him the right to work a small orchard, and he finds the labor involved immensely satisfying. The planting of trees that bear unusual varieties of apples seems to be a particularly English passion, requiring as it does intimate knowledge of soil and climate, and also of the fruit and how to treat it, along with practices such as “wassailing”—singing and drinking cider in the orchard to encourage a good harvest.
The fruit of Miller’s Seedling, Monbiot tells us, is “sweet and soft, more juice than flesh.” It “ripens in August and must be eaten from the tree, as the slightest jolt in transit bruises its translucent skin.” It is thus a pleasure restricted to those who grow it and their friends and neighbors. Other varieties grown by Monbiot are dried for future consumption, made into cider, taste of caraway seeds, or fluff up when baked. Almost every year certain varieties in the orchard fail to yield fruit, and some years they all do.
Monbiot’s orchard is already experiencing the effects of rapid climate change. He describes how one spring the orchard set fruit more abundantly than he had ever seen. The days were balmy and the nights warm. But then, in mid-May, a severe frost killed every fruit on every tree. Even greater lessons are learned from the soil, and in the opening pages of Regenesis Monbiot takes us on a journey into the thousands of species that inhabit every square foot of the orchard. From centipedes to springtails, each of the tiny organisms has its role in maintaining the ecology and health of the area. The soil of most fields is, by comparison, a biological desert. That’s because modern farming practices operate more and more on an almost hydroponic model that demands only a sterile growing medium, to which are added nutrients and water. The tragedy of commercial agricultural fields is that, unlike well-maintained soil, they do not keep their fertility and ecological balance. Instead, every year enormous volumes of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides must be applied, and these run off into adjacent fields and waterways, poisoning entire ecosystems.
This system is marvelously profitable for the few large corporations that monopolize the food supply. They have a captive market, for farmers have no choice but to purchase the nutrients and additives their crops require. And farmers around the world must pay for water. For many, this creates a sort of peonage that leads to ever-increasing debt and despair. Forced to live isolated lives in devastated environments often devoid of natural beauty, and indeed from which nature has largely been expunged, they watch their mortgages grow much more reliably than their crops, until some wonder whether life is worth living. Far too many decide that it’s not, and in some regions—particularly in India—the rate of farmer suicides has reached horrifying levels. Even in affluent countries like France, the UK, the US, and Australia, farmers kill themselves at almost twice the rate of the population as a whole.
While food is sold too cheaply to sustain many farmers, it remains so expensive that many consumers, even in developed countries, experience hunger and malnutrition. To illustrate the point, Monbiot takes us to food banks in his local area, where he finds that the freshest and healthiest food is in short supply. One worker says, “We’d love to give every child a bag of fruit to take home every week but that would be far too expensive.” The short shelf life of fresh produce is partly responsible, but so is the food supply system itself. As Monbiot writes:
Much of the time, it seems, the supermarkets aren’t giving their own produce away [to food banks], but someone else’s. They enjoy such exploitative relationships with their suppliers that if they don’t sell the produce they’ve commissioned, the suppliers don’t get paid. So they tend to over-order. Then they pose as heroes when they give other people’s goods to charity.
But the processors and packhouses further up the food chain have no direct relationship with shoppers, and little to lose in terms of corporate reputation if they dump much of the food they handle.
People who depend on the highly processed foods, abounding in fats and sugars, that tend to fill food banks can become simultaneously obese and malnourished. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, a good diet costs five times more than one that merely has adequate calories, and for those afflicted by an insufficient diet, high levels of diabetes and heart and circulatory problems can lead to early death. Monbiot says that he has heard plenty of pundits insist that the problem with the obese is a lack of “‘willpower’—people are ‘failing to take responsibility’ for their diets.” Yet this overlooks the catastrophic consequences of poverty and inequality. Rather, he concludes, “obesity is a communicable disease. Its vectors are corporations.”
Nor is our food production system secure. The staples of the global standard diet are grown in fewer and fewer areas and distributed across the planet. In the face of climatic disruption this seems insane, and the war in Ukraine may well reveal the full extent of the folly of this approach. Between them, Ukraine and Russia are responsible for almost a third of global wheat and barley exports, and the conflict has already disrupted both production of and trade in these staples, with consequent large impacts on importing countries in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.
Overuse of fertilizers, glyphosate (the main ingredient in the widely used weed killer Roundup and a suspected carcinogen), and plowing that destroys soil structure have already devastated Earth’s most productive soils, but they also devastate the wider environment. And it’s not just chemicals that are causing the damage. Monbiot, who cares deeply for his local region of central England, reserves his most piquant vitriol for the production of meat. A boom in factory farming, enabled in the UK by poor legislation and insufficient environmental protection, is damaging England’s rivers. Monbiot follows pollution in the River Wye upstream and finds that the source is often a great steel barn that houses up to 40,000 chickens.
There are now, by some estimates, 20 million chickens in the watershed of the Wye, and they produce a lot of waste. Their manure can be spread on fields only at certain times of year and under certain conditions. But nobody told the chickens that they should cease pooping at unpropitious times, so farmers become swamped with feces and ignore regulatory laws. When the waste is spread on fields during rains, it washes into the rivers, killing fish and other aquatic life. The situation on the River Wye is just one small example of a phenomenon that is wrecking the waterways of entire nations. In New Zealand, which cherishes its “clean, green” image, an enormous amount of dairy waste is turning the nation’s once-pristine rivers into sewers.
Monbiot calls passionately for an end to this cycle of destruction. The question is, what will replace it? He examines a series of potential solutions and finds them all wanting. For example, the idea of growing food in cities is dismissed because he believes that there’s just not enough land available in urban areas to sustain us. He also dismisses the idea of vertical gardening because of energy and other costs. He does not rule out such projects entirely, however, admitting that growing food locally can be “of great benefit to mental health.” But I’m not sure how much good it would do my mental health to know that growing food locally was simply a therapeutic activity.
Monbiot also believes that none of the most rapidly spreading alternative farming methods can help. He argues that the use of biochar, or burned organic matter that can make soil more productive, is no solution because it is too expensive; nor will increasingly popular methods of livestock management such as rotational grazing avail us. In dismissing these initiatives, Monbiot seems to me too hasty and sweeping in his judgment. Biochar costs are likely to drop as production methods improve, and in some circumstances rotational grazing is highly beneficial to the environment. In large parts of the world, conditions in areas known as rangelands don’t suit the raising of crops, and animal grazing is the only possible means of food production. In Australia, where I live, things can look very different from the way they do to Monbiot in the UK: over 90 percent of Australian landmass can’t accommodate agriculture, and methods such as rotational grazing have led to impressive soil and biodiversity restoration. Monbiot’s book has a very local, English focus, which is a real strength in detailing some problems and solutions. But here that focus is a handicap.
Monbiot believes that a crucial part of addressing these issues lies in widespread adoption of a diet that includes no animal products. He makes powerful arguments for cutting the consumption of meat in densely inhabited regions like Europe. Yet he readily admits that even adopting a universal vegan diet will not be enough, because growing crops is itself so very destructive. There are, he says, “no perfect solutions in an imperfect world.”
In his search for answers, Monbiot meets some English farmers who are doing things differently. One such farmer, Iain Tolhurst (known as Tolly), has seven hectares of flint-covered land on an escarpment overlooking the Thames. Tolly developed his farming methods through years of trial and error, and many are uniquely suited to his stony fields. In the year prior to his interview with Monbiot, Tolly harvested 120 tons of vegetables and fruit, all without using any pesticides, herbicides, minerals, animal manure, or any other fertilizer. At the same time, the fertility of his soil increased, and the farm became a haven for a rich diversity of wildlife.
A huge amount of human effort goes into the farm, which employs twelve workers at peak season. Tolly raises a hundred varieties of vegetables, and his team sows 350 times per year. Like his land, Tolly himself seems never to rest. He’s up at 5 AM doing his accounts, and he works all day. He even seemed preoccupied with tasks as Monbiot attempted to interview him, prompting Monbiot to offer to come back at a less busy time. “A less busy time doesn’t exist,” Tolly replied. And yet for all the effort, profits are meager. Monbiot figures that Tolly makes seventy pounds per week. Without his half-pension, some consulting work, and price controls on the rent he pays to the land’s owner, Sir Julian Rose, he couldn’t survive.
Tim Ashton provides Monbiot with another possible way forward. Ashton is a cropper in Shropshire, and his five hundred acres are devoted to “no-till” farming to grow grain. No-till farming is spreading rapidly, particularly in Australia, where plowing can lead to catastrophic loss of soil. Methods vary, but Ashton kills weeds on his farm with herbicide, then drills the seed into the soil. The system has provided resilience in the face of climate change, and after four years he managed to get his crop yields back to the levels he had when he was plowing. He has also cut his use of fertilizers by 85 percent, and his fossil fuel consumption is way down.
The biggest problem is the use of the weed killer glyphosate, which has been linked to cancers and environmental damage. In Australia, many no-till farmers avoid the use of glyphosate by rotating sheep through their fields to provide manure. In a bad year farmers won’t even harvest the meager crop, but rather allow the sheep to eat it. Like Tolly’s, Ashton’s farm is only marginally profitable. It survives with income from a remarkable innovation—a Neolithic-style long barrow in which human ashes are interred for a fee—which helps Ashton pay the bills, and which may appeal to atheists and the growing number of people who celebrate the solstice at sites like Stonehenge.
Monbiot is exasperated by those who claim that their variety of farming is the best. Yet he’s drawn to people like Tolly, for whom farming is “not just a full-time job. It’s a full-time life.” Just how many people are willing to live that kind of life will determine its utility as we struggle to feed the world. I came away from this part of Monbiot’s book with a deep sense that the entire farming system is so broken that it cannot be reformed.
In Finland Monbiot meets Pasi Vainikka, the founder of Solar Foods and “a brilliant scientist and a visionary entrepreneur.” Vainikka’s start-up pioneered a potential solution to the food crisis that Monbiot hails as “the beginning of the end of most agriculture.” The breakthrough involves growing a very strange kind of bacteria, known as Knallgas (German for “bang gas”), in a fermentation vat. These microorganisms were first isolated in 1989, and what sets them apart from all others is their ability to use hydrogen as a food source. Vainikka had the idea of feeding the bacteria hydrogen derived from solar power, yielding a product he calls Solein. The bacteria double in number every three hours, which allows for eight harvests per day. While “Solein” might be slightly resonant of “Soylent Green,” and the idea of eating bacteria might not appeal to all, the breakthroughs made by Solar Foods have profound implications.
Solein is a yellowish powder with a 60 percent protein content. That makes it very nutritious, and because it can be added to many foods without altering their taste, it has the potential to become a staple. Monbiot was the first person outside the Solar Foods laboratory team to eat a pancake made with it. He says that ever since becoming vegan, pancakes have not tasted the same, primarily because without eggs they lack sufficient protein. He found that the Solein pancake “tasted rich and mellow and filling: just like the pancakes I used to eat.”
It’s possible that Solein will be grown in enormous brewing establishments close to cities, and that it will replace most meat, soybeans, and other traditional protein sources. The land-use savings would be enormous: in the US alone, soybeans occupy 36.5 million hectares, and it would take only 21,000 hectares of brewing facilities to produce the same amount of protein. I have no doubt that Solar Foods will simply be the first of many companies that use bacteria to manufacture our food. The next breakthrough will come when bacteria are used to produce starches, which will replace our grain crops. The amount of land liberated by such a technology would be truly transformative.
While the use of Solein may reduce the environmental effects of food production, it is less certain that it will increase food security, for it would leave us heavily dependent on a single source for protein. The culture of microorganisms is plagued with problems of contamination: just imagine the consequences if a toxic bacterium were able to invade and grow in the Solein vats.
For Monbiot, Solar Foods presents another problem. Great steel vats full of bacteria lack the romantic pull of the traditional apple orchard, or even the mixed farm methods developed by Tolly. Instead, it sounds futuristic, cold, and potentially hostile. Yet it seems likely that, should Solar Foods be successful in reaching commercial development, Solein will be added to our food products without great fanfare.
Humans have been farmers for only around 10,000 years. Before that we were hunter-gatherers, and the planet could sustain just a few million of us. Then we moved down the food chain by harvesting the seeds of the grasses that fed the great herds. With that innovation, many millions could be nourished. But the agricultural system that produced the grain was damaging to the environment. We now face the prospect of one further leap down the food chain to bacteria. The benefits could be enormous. Yet we have fetishized our food so thoroughly that it’s difficult to think of a yellow powder made of dried bacteria as being healthy, fresh, and good for the planet. Perhaps the first person to hand out baked cakes of crushed grains at a barbecue serving mammoth and bison steaks to Paleolithic big-game hunters faced the same problem.