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How farming for profit rips the life from the soil

Activist George Monbiot’s new book Regenesis is a skilful investigation of damaging agriculture, says Sophie Squire
Issue 2806
The cover of Regenesis by George Monbiot

Regenesis by George Monbiot shows the destructive reality of present farming practices

With food prices soaring, leaving the poorest to go hungry, a desperate problem presents itself—how can we feed the world without destroying it?  This is the question writer and environmental activist George Monbiot poses in his new book Regenesis.

In the early chapters of the book Monbiot skilfully, and in great detail, explores how the climate crisis is hitting farming hard. High temperatures and extreme weather caused by global warming are casing crops to failing soil to become infertile. Some parts of the world will soon become too hot to labour in fields and harvest crops.

But in Regenesis, Monbiot also stresses that farming, especially on a large scale, is itself causing environmental degradation and accelerating climate change. Farming means the use of harmful pesticides and fertilisers, rising water usage, and the felling of trees.

Using the example of the Cerrado savanna in central Brazil, he writes, “When trees are felled, their long roots no longer draw water from the aquifers and release it into the air.

“As water vapour reduces while temperatures rise, dew, which is essential to the survival of many wild plants and animals, stops forming. This triggers a cycle of collapse that might lead to the tipping and hysteresis of the entire ecosystem by the middle of the century to be replaced with desert.”

Regenesis gives an important example of how the profit motive leads farmers in Britain to dump polluting animal excrement in rivers. It’s a practice that the British state wilfully turns a blind eye to.

Monbiot writes that two whistleblowers from the Environment Agency contacted him to say they were told not to investigate dairy farms. And due to government cuts an average farm can expect a pollution inspection every 263 years.

There are rules in place to supposedly protect Britain’s rivers. But farmers often ignore them because fines are much less costly than adequately dealing with animal excrement.

The pursuit of profit, says Monbiot, has created an agricultural sector that is “more ‘concentrated and connected’ than the financial sector before the 2008 crash.” He notes that just four companies control up to a staggering 90 percent of the global grain trade. Another four companies control over half of the global agricultural chemical markets.

A long chapter of Regenesis looks at how a farmer has developed a way of growing crops that is in tune with nature, not at odds with it. By understanding the soil, seasons, insect life and fungi, the farmer has created a much more sustainable farm than most. But, as Monbiot and the farmer say, all this comes at a high ­personal cost to the farmer’s life and finances.

It’s clear that farmers have to choose between sustainability and profitability under the current system. Their survival is dictated by whether they can make enough money from the land to carry on.

Regenesis is right to argue that we should ditch romanticised fantasies of the countryside and confront how bosses have turned agriculture into a destructive force.

Is all farming to blame—and how can agriculture ever be made sustainable?

Monbiot calls for liberation from farming which, he says in Regenesis, is, “the most destructive human activity ever to have blighted the Earth”. But is that true?

Agriculture has always shaped the natural world. But—for thousands of years—it was done much more sustainably. It has only become as devastating as it is today because of capitalism—a system that puts profit over people and planet.

The most genuinely destructive human activity to blight the Earth is undoubtedly the fossil fuel industry, which facilitated the rise of industrial farming.

Monbiot is wrong that farming is an issue in itself. As he notes himself, the problem is that production rests in the hands of a wealthy few. Yet Monbiot can provide few answers.

In the last part of the book, he outlines 13 points that he believes “will allow humans and all life on earth to flourish.” One solution, he says, is to replace protein from meat with protein grown and fermented in a factory.

He interviews scientist and chief executive Pasi Vainikka, who has developed a way of turning soil bacteria into a reportedly delicious flour. Monbiot excitedly proclaims that this kind of development has the potential for a “radical transformation of our relationship with the living world and the restoration of planetary health.”

While he does admit later in Regenesis that it will take more than fermentation to save the planet, his thoughts about innovation and new technology are confused. He says several times that the question of who owns and controls technological solutions is an essential one—and that they should be publicly or community owned.

But at one point he also seems to encourage capitalist competition in the alternative meat industry to push forward innovation. The problem with this is that innovation will always be stunted within the current system. Bosses only develop new technology they see an opportunity to profit.

Monbiot has a vast knowledge of the natural world and how it can be saved, and most of what he proposes is entirely sensible. His 13 points include using less water and chemicals in agriculture, growing higher crop yields on less land and rewilding previously farmed spaces. 

But implementing his points will take a monumental shift that is highly unlikely to happen under the current economic system. Despite making vague points about “system change”, Monbiot is never decisive enough about what needs to happen.

What actually needs to happen is that agriculture must be wrestled away from the bosses and the state overthrown. Nothing less than a planned, socialist system will ensure no one goes hungry and our planet is protected.

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