books environment food

Book review: Regenesis, by George Monbiot

George Monbiot has made a career out of saying unpopular things and challenging the status quo, always with painstaking research and investigative dilligence. In his latest book he turns his attention to farming and the global food system, and it’s a formidable piece of work.

There’s no introduction in Regenesis. No preface or sense of where we’re going. It starts instead in an orchard, and with a detailed celebration of soil ecology – its complexity, its interconnectedness, its mystery. Everything else in the book flows from this understanding of the soil, and we end up back in the orchard at the end.

Farming as it is currently practiced does not concern itself very much with soil, often considering it little more than “something for plants to stand up in” as Monbiot puts it at one point. Ploughing tears apart soil structures, chemical inputs obliterate the biodiversity, intensive cropping steadily reduces the fertility until soil erodes and land is degraded.

If this all resulted in a world where nobody goes hungry, it might be vaguely defensible. But much of the world’s food is eaten by animals rather than people, an indirect and inefficient use of land. Some of it is burned as biofuels. Much is wasted. Progress on hunger has gone into reverse and a growing number of people don’t have enough to eat, while those that do don’t always have nutritious and healthy food. So we’re destroying the climate and the living world for little in return, the benefits of a broken system accruing to a slim cabal of corporations and their investors.

Monbiot’s challenge is to try and square an impossible circle – how to produce more food with less land. In order to protect biodiversity, we need to pull back from ‘agricultural sprawl’ and free up land for rewilding. But that can’t come at the expense of food security for a growing population.

There are lots of solutions that don’t stack up when you run the numbers – local food, urban farming, organic production or agroecology are all helpful but fundamentally limited in scope. Avoiding air miles or reducing food waste make a trivial difference compared to the big issue of meat eating. But trying to persuade people to do the right thing isn’t going to work either, Monbiot argues. We need alternatives that deliver high yields at scale and that’s where the heart of the book lies. He divides food into three categories – fruit and veg, grains, oils and protein – and then visits various pioneers for each one.

For vegetables and fruit, we see how Iain Tolhurst uses diversity and soil management to avoid pesticides. We see wheat produced using no-till agriculture techniques, and investigate the potential of perennial grains, something I’ve had my eye on for a while. On protein, Monbiot explains Solar Foods, possibly the most revolutionary idea I’ve ever featured on the blog. He looks at the likelihood of cultured meats, and how cultural norms around food can shift.

One thing I liked about the book is that Monbiot is interested in what works. He is unsentimental about foodie trends. New technologies such as robot weeding machines or biotechnology are welcome alongside what’s most useful from heritage varieties or traditional techniques. Put it all together, and the book’s conclusion is that “improbable as it might sound, we can produce more food with less farming.”

Regenesis is probably going to upset a few organic apple carts, but I found it inspiring, courageous, and bursting with ideas.

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