Why Big Farma has a lot to answer for

We need to re-think agriculture—and fast
June 16, 2022
Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet
George Monbiot
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Farming, George Monbiot declares in Regenesis, is “the most destructive human activity ever to have blighted the Earth.” It’s a bold statement in an age of nuclear weapons and fossil fuels but, as this revolutionary book explains, the evidence is damning.

Agriculture is responsible for 80 per cent of deforestation and one third of greenhouse gas emissions. Its antibiotics, pesticides and fertilisers pollute waterways. Arable farming produces enough food to feed 10bn people, but half of those calories feed livestock. Worldwide, 70 per cent of farmland is owned by just 1 per cent of farmers. “Big Farma” has a lot to answer for.

Monbiot’s solution lies in thinking differently about soil, and the billion bacteria in every gram. Soil, he explains, is a plant’s “external gut,” and yet farm soils are regularly stripped, doused in chemicals and eroded. He meets farmers who increase yields by “copying the forest,” feeding the soil a steady stream of tree litter. Others let worms and fungi do the work of the plough. Not everything is scalable; the “counter-agricultural revolution” will be a mixed economy.

Growing Kernza, a form of perennial wheatgrass, rather than annuals like corn, would fix nitrogen and carbon in the soil and reduce the need for polluting fertilisers. (It also, says Monbiot, bakes into a “rich and slightly nutty” bread, “one of the best loaves I’ve ever tasted.”) Switching from meat and dairy to a protein-rich flour made by microbial fermentation could reduce land use by 1,700 per cent.

I expected to put down Regenesis feeling challenged over my own diet, but Monbiot puts little faith in individual behavioural change. This rigorous, bold and clear-sighted book makes clear that what matters is the system, and the soil on which it’s founded.

To conjure the miracle of more food with less farming, we need to rethink what lies beneath our feet.