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Q&A with George Monbiot: ‘It is time we became food-numerate’

RePlanet’s wildly successful Reboot Food campaign has some ambitious core principles: end animal agriculture; use minimal land for food production; rewild everything else. Not surprisingly, these demands have raised questions. Our friend George Monbiot (author of Regenesis and other books on the environment) responds to some of the main issues in this Q&A.

Urban sprawl is a well-known cause of environmental destruction. You talk about ‘agricultural sprawl’ as a far more important issue. Why is the quantity of land we use such an important environmental concern?

George Monbiot: ‘Every hectare of land we use for extractive industries is a hectare that cannot be occupied by wild ecosystems, such as forests, wetlands, savannahs and natural grasslands. The great majority of the world’s species depend on wild ecosystems for their survival. Only if we can both prevent the destruction of wild ecosystems and restore many of those that have been destroyed can we stop the sixth great extinction and draw down some of the carbon we have already released into the atmosphere. Rewilding much of the Earth’s surface might be our best – perhaps our only – chance of getting through this century.’

‘The most damaging of all farm products is pasture-fed meat‘

What is the role of meat and dairy production in the inefficient use of land that you point out? Is livestock grazing, which is usually presented as environmentally-friendly, less impactful in this regard?

‘The only land issue with which environmentalists consistently engage is urban sprawl. We should be concerned about urban sprawl: it is bad for the cities and bad for the countryside. But the entire urban area of the planet – all our homes, businesses and infrastructure – occupies just 1% of the land surface. Farming occupies 38%, and almost all the rest is either forests, protected areas, deserts, mountains or ice. Agricultural sprawl is a far greater threat to the planet than urban sprawl.

So let’s look at how agriculture breaks down. Only 12% of land is used to grow crops, and of that almost half is used to grow feed for the livestock industry. The remaining 26% is used for grazing, mostly by cattle and sheep. This is by far the greatest of all human land uses. It is a large part of the reason why farming is the greatest cause of habitat destruction, deforestation, wildlife loss and extinction. The most damaging of all farm products is pasture-fed meat.’

‘What we need is more food from less farming: less land use, less use of pesticides, fertilisers, ploughing and irrigation‘

You promote high-yield farming as a decisive solution to reduce agricultural sprawl and, therefore, address the environmental challenge. Doesn’t this contradict the need to embrace agricultural practices that are less dependent on synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, mechanisation, irrigation and multinational corporations?

‘What we need is more food from less farming. By less farming I mean both less land use and less use of pesticides, fertilisers, ploughing and irrigation. But fertilisers, pesticide use, ploughing and irrigation are also driving living systems to destruction. So we should be supporting and developing the techniques that can address both challenges.

One very promising approach is the development of perennial grain crops: plants that stay in the soil for several years. Because they don’t need to be established every year and they put down deep roots, they are likely to require far fewer inputs, and to be more resistant to environmental shocks. Already, one perennial grain, a variety of short-grain rice, has been commercialised, and has sustained the same high yield as annual varieties over several years. This is one of several interesting ways of solving the two problems.’

‘Agricultural sprawl is a far greater threat to the planet than urban sprawl‘

Shifting towards healthy, plant-based diets entails major social challenges. How can we convince people to embrace such a change, when price inflation and purchasing power are top of their concerns?

‘I’ve interviewed people in the UK who use food banks, and one consistent theme is that they would all like to eat more fruit and vegetables, but they simply cannot afford them. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, a healthy diet costs five times as much as one that is merely adequate in terms of calories. So one crucial step is to subsidise fruit and vegetables at the point of sale. This would not cost very much.

For example, in the UK, if halving the price of fruit and vegetables caused a doubling in demand, it would cost the government only £3 billion (€3.5 billion) a year, which is roughly what we spend on farm subsidies. It would save the health service far more! But the key question is how we persuade people to stop eating animal products.’

‘Wherever possible, technology should be open-source and community-run‘

You present protein production from precision fermentation – also known as cellular or in vitro agriculture – as a revolutionary technique that will lead us to abandon animal farming, create new kinds of food and dramatically reduce our environmental footprint. Isn’t this a highly technological, highly capitalistic vision of agriculture, which conflicts with the more common vision of a return to natural and localised production processes?

‘First, precision fermentation and in vitro, cell-cultured meat production are entirely different technologies. Precision fermentation is pretty simple – the equivalent of wind power – while cell-cultured meat is very complicated, the equivalent perhaps of nuclear fusion. Precision fermentation is a refined form of brewing, breeding microbes to produce specific products. If you have ever eaten vegetarian or vegan cheese, you have almost certainly eaten one of its products: chymosin, a substitute for the rennet that is otherwise obtained from the fourth stomach of an unweaned calf.

Now it is beginning to be used to make protein-rich foods, which can make much better alternatives to animal products than plants can. It is, I believe, our best hope of ending animal farming. Ultimately, the issue will be decided on price, and precision fermentation will quickly become cheap. It will create products that are very hard to distinguish from animal products, that should soon be both cheaper and healthier.

You raise the question of whether this changes the commercial nature of food production. Well, in all cases economic structures are a matter of political choice, and are not tied to particular technologies. Current food production is highly capitalistic and concentrated: 90% of the global grain trade, for example, is controlled by four corporations. This doesn’t mean we should ban the global grain trade – if we did, billions would immediately starve. It means we should break up the corporations. Any business can be capitalised, any business can be socialised, even high-tech businesses: think of community broadband and local energy cooperatives. In all commercial sectors, intellectual property rights should be weak and antitrust laws should be strong. Wherever possible, technology should be open-source and community-run.

Local farming simply cannot feed the world, for an obvious mathematical reason: most of us live in cities, which often have small agricultural hinterlands. One paper showed that the minimum average distance over which the world’s people can be fed with grain is 2,200 kilometres. But local precision fermentation, especially when it uses hydrogen or methanol from renewable energy as its feedstock, can operate anywhere, autonomously. It is the only means by which local food could feed the world.’

‘Because they are likely to be by far the most effective means of ending animal farming, GM microbes paradoxically offer our best hope of stopping genetic contamination‘

Won’t precision fermentation use genetically modified organisms? Isn’t that a problem?

‘Yes, it will. Not all the microbes used in precision fermentation are gene edited or genetically modified, but some will be, to produce the specific proteins, fats and other products that would make substitutes for meat and dairy more realistic, simpler and less processed.

We have been using GM microbes in precision fermentation since the 1970s to produce insulin, chymosin, vitamins and other products, some of which most people eat frequently. No one seems to mind, and it is not clear why further gene editing or genetic modification should be a problem in this case, as long as the products – as all products should be – are rigorously tested for food safety, and the organisms or genes are not patented.

There is a real and terrifying genetic contamination crisis in the food industry, but it arises from business as usual: the spread of antibiotic resistance genes from livestock slurry tanks, into the soil and thence into the food chain and the living world. Because they are likely to be by far the most effective means of ending animal farming, GM microbes paradoxically offer our best hope of stopping genetic contamination.’

‘We need not just technological change, but political, economic, social and cultural change‘

Are you confident that the cultural, political and technological shifts required to feed the world without devouring the planet will arrive soon enough to avoid major environmental and humanitarian catastrophe? What are the most urgent political measures to be taken?

‘Nothing good happens by accident. We need not just technological change, but political, economic, social and cultural change. It must be driven above all by activists, pressing for the development of food systems that can feed everyone without devouring the planet. Part of the Reboot Food campaign involves stopping public subsidies that keep animal farming alive.

We have a long way to go. For example, to prevent climate breakdown, there are only two things we need to do: leave fossil fuels in the ground and stop farming animals. But neither aim has ever been mentioned in a final declaration of any of the 27 UN Climate Change Conferences.’

‘By promoting ecological restoration on a massive scale we can offer people a positive environmental vision‘

Since extensive farming is commonly promoted by green advocates and parties, it is very difficult for an NGO like a vegetarian association to find support when raising the issue of livestock grazing. What advice would you give us in order to gather support and build alliances?

‘We have, as environmental movements, made a series of terrible mistakes about food and farming. The biggest mistake of all is to promote pasture-fed meat. We might as well promote coal burning! Some “green” advocates have added their voices to the climate denial campaigns of the meat industry, reproducing their entirely false but very popular claims about grazing livestock, sequestering carbon and restoring habitats. They have urged us to adopt a Neolithic production system to feed a 21st century population. That might work if we had several planets and no space on any of them for wild ecosystems. It cannot work on Planet Earth.

They have fetishised pretty pictures and ignored the data. It is time we became food-numerate, and began to understand the impacts of different diets. We have a duty to push back against the bullshit, to unite against industry propaganda and join the fight to rewild the planet. By promoting ecological restoration on a massive scale we can offer people a positive environmental vision, which is crucial to effective campaigning.’

Questions by Isabelle Richaud for ViraGe, a French magazine on veganism and vegetarianism. Check out the Reboot Food campaign website to learn more.


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