Sitting by the side of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh last summer and watching the sun go down, a friend had an epiphany while looking at rabbit poop.
“That’s why the grass is so damn short, all the rabbits,” he said.
“OK George Monbiot,” his girlfriend, one of my best friends, replied, pausing for a moment. “Niche reference. We all got it.”
If you know Monbiot, you probably think you get it too when you look at the cover of his new book rebirth. Even without encountering his passionate nature to environmentalism, you might think you know what kind of non-fiction this is going to be. The kind marketed as a necessary detox for our many environmental and social ills: “This book will make you give up social media or give up meat.”
And yes, it’s no spoiler that cattle ranching isn’t doing well here, but what Monbiot has forged is no simple pang of conscience. There are no easy escapes from this defining problem.
It starts with floor, and never really leaves it – even if it goes on for a barnstorming overview of all the deranged contortions our globalized food system is performing. These are just some of the topics he covers in his in-depth exploration of agriculture:
- Over three quarters of the world’s soy is fed to livestock.
- By 2050, the extra people on the planet will weigh just over 100 million tons, while the extra livestock will weigh over 400 million tons.
- In the UK, the land set aside for raising sheep is more than twice the size of the total built environment, despite providing only 1 per cent of dietary calories.
It’s not just a wave of negativity, however. The solutions Monbiot puts in the spotlight are more hopeful of the thoroughness of this engagement with agriculture. rebirth demands our full attention.
If anything, this book is an urgent call to count food. Monbiot establishes a key formula that is being lost by well-meaning environmentalists, foodies and our own feelings about the things we consume every day. In order to limit the environmental damage caused by agriculture, we need the highest yields from the smallest area.
rebirth is rich in shocking statistics about the agricultural industry. It’s meticulously researched (sentences regularly have three footnotes) and mind-expanding to follow. It’s a must read, but in the meantime, here are some of the key concepts we all need to arm ourselves with to get you started.
Why agroecology is the new buzzword
Scientists estimate that only 10 percent of the small soil animals have been identified so far. After a lifetime of natural history, Monbiot turns to earth with infectious, childlike wonder.
A handful of dirt reminds him of his first snorkeling. Structured zones such as the rhizosphere – where Fungal threads entangle plant roots – are, like the coral reef, a dense area of biological activity. Centipedes and beetles swim through the bulk floor like sharks and dolphins.
Appreciating this world is the first step towards agroecology, a type of agriculture that works with the rich ecosystem below.
“Agroecology not only means farming with less chemicals, using less machinery and relying more on natural systems, but also changing the relationship between farmers and the rest of society,” explains Monbiot.
“It means creating food networks that aren’t dominated by seed and chemical corporations, grain barons or supermarkets, but are independent and self-organized.”
In other words: food sovereignty. Our national diets have homogenized, concentrating on just four crops — wheat, rice, corn and soybeans — which account for nearly 60 percent of the calories grown by farmers worldwide.
At the same time, trade ties have grown stronger, turning countries into super exporters and super importers. This is not what a robust system looks like, and the increasing coupling of the food and financial sectors is proving disastrous.
After steadily declining until 2014, the number of chronically hungry people rose again to 690 million people in 2019. However, there is no shortage of food. The biggest increases in food prices in recent years have been spurred by frantic activity by commodity traders, who amplified the impact of heatwaves, droughts, and so on wars.
Why is organic farming not the answer?
When the ravages of intensive farming and chemical fertilizers & pesticides It requires you to be convinced that free range and organic is the way to go. Monbiot has more bad news.
It comes back to the key principle of yields per land use.
“Greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram from organic produce are typically similar or worse than conventional food,” he writes, because the animals take longer to raise and more land is required.
Followed by one of the book’s most shocking claims: “There may be no more harmful agricultural product than organic grass-fed beef.”
While free-range chickens are undoubtedly better off, the reactive phosphate they excrete can enter rivers even faster than that of their battery-fed relatives, causing toxic algal blooms.
“All agriculture, however kind and careful and complex, involves a radical simplification of natural ecosystems,” says Monbiot, concluding that land use is “the most important of all environmental issues.”
So, how can We feed the world without devouring the planet?
The most entertaining sections of the book are Monbiot’s meetings with the people who are grafting themselves to find a new, truly sustainable way of farming and feeding. For example, his conversations with a revolutionary fruit and vegetable farmer in the Chilterns who uses no animal products or artificial additives. Despite this, he has managed to make his soil more fertile with round-the-clock care.
But Monbiot is most excited when describing the arrival of a new crop altogether, a type of intermediate wheatgrass with roots that grow three meters long. Kernza, he explains, is a perennial.
“It lasts for several years and eliminates the need to sow and clear the soil for each crop.”
This means the plant forms stronger symbiotic relationships with bacteria and fungi while reducing erosion and using more carbon than annuals. The plants we usually see in the fields are rare in nature and colonize the ground after fires and floods. In order to cultivate them, we must keep the land in an ecologically devastated state.
Surprisingly, this groundbreaking crop is not being developed by government scientists, but by a nonprofit group in Kansas called the Land Institute.
Childish joy returns when Monbiot gets to taste a pancake made from dead soil bacteria, cooked by scientists in Helsinki. While US soybean cultivation covers 36.5 million hectares, an area larger than Italy, to produce the same amount of protein from bacterial cultivation requires only 21,000 hectares of land (or an area the size of Ohio). It’s one of those stats that Monbiot relishes in his quest to reduce farming footprint.
Once the full potential of microbial protein When it comes to making a reality, the only limit is our imagination, says Monbiot, conjuring up the taste of seared steak in one bite with scallop texture.
One of the key quotes at the beginning of the book comes from conservationist John Muir’s famous quip: “When we try to pick something for itself, we find that it is connected to everything else in the universe.”
When it comes to soil, ecosystems, agriculture and world trade, Monbiot does its best to shed light on all strands and make visible issues that are both too small and too big for us to see normally.