In the Library: ‘Regenesis’ by George Monbiot
In his Guardian Column George Monbiot regularly speaks truth to power on subjects including the environment and social justice. The author of several books, his latest, 'Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet' is a bold vision of a new future for food and for humanity. But while Monbiot doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to the impact of our current agricultural system, he balances his criticism with hope and a stunning insight into the world beneath our feet.
Rather than using ‘Regenesis’ as a chance to attack farmers themselves, Monbiot keeps his critique at the systemic level throughout the book. While issues such as extinction, habitat destruction, animal welfare and soil loss are frequently discussed, Monbiot brings a new, shocking lens to the ways in which farming is broken.
He reveals the monopolistic nature of our food systems (did you know that just four companies control 90 per cent of the global grain trade?) and shares that almost half the agricultural land across the planet is used solely for growing animal feed – and this is in addition to grazing land. Yet, despite all of this, around 800 million people go hungry.
What’s more, the problem is growing alongside the global population: we will need to at least double today’s food production by 2050, at a time when we will be grappling with an escalating climate crisis.
Fortunately, the second half of ‘Regenesis’ considers solutions to these colossal challenges, with a particular focus on high-yield, low-impact farming methods. He visits three farms, each with a slightly different approach to producing more food with less intervention. While no single solution is perfect (and Monbiot interrogates each keenly), together they build a vision of a resilient and diverse food system that produces abundant, healthy and affordable food.
While these farmers’ methods may differ, they have something fundamental in common: a focus on soil health. That’s why the opening chapter of ‘Regenesis’ delves into the fascinating details of soil science, including the hive of activity maintaining the balance of nutrients in the soil which support plant life. When we dig, trample or fertilise the earth, we interfere with this complex ecosystem. “Soil behaves like Dust in a Philip Pullman novel,” he writes. “It organises itself spontaneously into coherent worlds yet we treat it like dirt”. This chapter, at least, should be recommended reading for any gardener.
‘Regenesis’ is a well-researched and intelligent book that refuses to oversimplify the problems we’ve created for ourselves and yet Monbiot’s writing style is always highly readable. He calls out wishful thinking while leaving space for compassion and hope, including in the book’s final message: “We are, I think, soon to encounter a moment when conditions change.”