Livestock farming is one of humanity’s most destructive activities to the environment. Yet when measures to protect biodiversity and combat climate change are discussed, addressing this is rarely high on the political agenda. George Monbiot calls for decisive policy responses and mass mobilisation to change the way we produce and consume our food. We spoke with him about his new book Regenesis, the right moments for change, the current state of climate activism, and the threats posed by right-wing politics.
Green European Journal: After Lula’s victory in the 2022 Brazilian presidential election, you tweeted, “Bolsonaro was a threat not only to the lives of Brazilians, but to life on Earth.” Why are right-wing populist leaders so hostile towards the environment?
George Monbiot: We see a rise in many parts of the world of right-wing demagoguery, which in some cases shades into fascism. A large part of that platform is based on the denial of material reality. Facts are considered to be part of the “woke conspiracy” against those who seek to return us to the old values they claim to represent. Science and empiricism are considered by fascists and neofascists to be diametrically opposed to their agenda. It is a rising movement which does indeed threaten life on Earth. Bolsonaro was one of the greatest threats that the world has faced. He greatly expanded deforestation in the Amazon, which not only destroys one of the most remarkable ecosystems on Earth, but also threatens Earth systems themselves. And he was part of a destructive nexus of politicians who seek to tear down environmental regulations, or indeed any constraints on the behaviour of powerful people.
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How does the UK government fare on environmental issues with the Conservative Party in power?
Conservative governments in this country have torn down a great body of environmental regulation and intend to tear down a lot more. At the same time, some of them have said some fairly positive things about what needs to be done, but they have failed to act on that. And in truth, that puts them in the company of most governments. We can single out particular governments, but actually governments as a whole have failed to act. They have been talking about environmental measures at the global level since 1972; that is 50 years of discussions and almost nothing has happened.
The talk is a substitute for action. And in some cases it actually blocks action because it creates the impression of progress when no progress is actually being made. And the impression I get from the various climate summits and biodiversity summits is that the majority of the world’s governments would rather see the collapse of the habitable planet than upset their sponsors.
Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future climate movement were surprisingly prominent until 2020, when the environment became a secondary issue as a result of Covid-19. Do you think the movement has managed to regain its momentum since?
It is a great tragedy, because we were almost there. I read an academic paper that argued that we were close to a political tipping point at the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020. We know that society has tipping points and there is now a substantial body of both observational and experimental evidence suggesting those tipping points are around 25 per cent. That means that once you reach around 25 per cent of society with a new idea, perspective, or a new way of thinking, the majority of people swing round to that point of view. We were very close to that with Fridays for Future. But then, unfortunately, the pandemic came along and prevented us from gathering in large numbers, which is essential to driving political change by that means. In turn, the movement effectively collapsed and now we’re having to rebuild it. It is hard to regenerate the excitement that was there the first time around, but there are some remarkable, astonishingly brave activists all around the world trying to ensure that our movements to defend the habitable planet reach that point at which they become generalised.
When the global financial system came very close to collapse, governments were able to bail it out with future money. But if the food system collapses, you cannot bail it out with future food.
In July, you argued on Twitter that NGOs are currently unable to effectively further the cause of the environmental movement. Can you explain why?
You might imagine that the bigger an organisation gets, the braver and stronger it becomes, but in practice, the opposite seems true. The bigger it becomes, the more timid it gets. And I think that is because it becomes more entangled with the establishment and it has more to lose – especially in cases when it has a very large budget and lots of members. In the UK, for instance, we have large conservation groups – the National Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), the Wildlife Trust – whose combined membership is 8 million. Yet they do not mobilise that membership, they do not drive political change. All they have done throughout their recent histories (the National Trust began as quite a radical organisation but is not anymore) is pursue tiny incremental change through talking nicely to people in power. In turn, they have achieved almost nothing.
Part of that problem is that their theory of change has been wrong for a very long time. They have argued that we do not have time for system change and that people will not accept it. So all we can pursue is incremental change. At the same time, those who I see as our primary opponents, the neoliberals who have been tearing down environmental regulation, taxation policies, trade unions, protest movements, and all the rest of it – they were, in fact, very clear that system change was the way to go. They pursued it ruthlessly and very effectively, and thereby changed the whole basis on which society is run.
Our food production is part of a complex system that is increasingly vulnerable. Covid-19 has shown the weaknesses of the supply chains that we rely on for medical equipment or technology, while Russia’s aggression in Ukraine drew attention to developing countries’ dependencies on Ukrainian wheat. Do you think this has generated public support for a reform in our food system?
I would love to believe that, but I think very few people, including politicians, have any idea of what is happening to the global food system and the threats it faces. Part of the reason for that is that very few people understand complex systems, because we are not taught them, with the exception of those who pursue particular degrees.
All the important things in life are complex systems: the human brain, the human body, human society, every ecosystem, oceans, the atmosphere, the global financial system. These complex systems follow certain mathematical rules. When researching my new book Regenesis, I read over 5,000 scientific papers, and a lot of them are terrifying. But by far the most frightening for me was a series of papers looking at the state of the global food system from a systems theory perspective. They allowed me to see how that system had lost its resilience and had begun to see shocks being transmitted across it, which normally a resilient system would damp down. The papers argued that the global food system is beginning to look like the global financial system in the approach to 2008.
When the global financial system, for identical reasons, came very close to collapse, governments were able to bail it out with future money. And if they had not done so, the consequences would have been catastrophic for billions of people. But if the food system collapses, you cannot bail it out with future food – and the consequences will be far more catastrophic.
Food production is the greatest threat to the planet.
You argue in the book that we need farming that is both less intensive and less extensive to put an end to the agricultural sprawl we experience. How do we achieve this?
We should be pursuing farming that is high yield and low impact. It is a kind of farming that produces more food with less farming. Land is, I think, the most important of all environmental metrics. Every hectare of land we use for our own purposes is land that cannot be used to support wild ecosystems. And the great majority of world species, and indeed earth systems, depend on wild ecosystems. So we must try to pursue farming which keeps food production high while minimising the damage done in order to produce that food.
One of the very promising lines of investigation is to try to switch from annual grain crops to perennial grain crops. Large areas covered by annual plants are quite rare in nature and they generally occur in the aftermath of an ecological disaster like a volcanic eruption, a landslide, or a major fire. In these cases, annual plants colonise bare ground and they do it very quickly and very effectively; they remain dominant for a year or two and then the perennial plants start coming back in and push them out. And so, in order to grow annual grain crops – and almost all the grain we currently grow comes from annual plants – we have to create a “disaster” every year. We have to plough or spray the land to eliminate all the competition for the annual plants that we sow. And then, we have to pamper the seedlings as they grow with pesticides, herbicides, fertiliser, and irrigation water. All these measures are hugely damaging to the environment. If instead we can grow perennial grain crops, then we do that damage only every few years rather than every year.
You are vegan and urge people to opt for the same lifestyle. Do you see a more widespread shift taking place?
I became vegan because I became aware of the massively disproportionate environmental impacts of animal farming, which are far greater than the impacts of any other kind of farming. Both intensive and extensive livestock farming are extremely damaging – though in different ways. There is no good way of producing any more than a tiny amount of meat. And if we only produce a tiny amount of meat, only millionaires could eat it. So we cannot, in good conscience, continue to eat farmed animal products.
But when it comes to the question of whether we can persuade people to go vegan on a sufficient scale, it becomes difficult. I think moral suasion is quite a weak force in politics. While in some parts of the world, particularly in Europe, we see veganism rising quite quickly, worldwide, meat eating is rising much faster.
Ultimately, the solution is going to be decided on price. And what we need to do is to produce products which are as good as animal products but are cheaper and ideally also healthier. I believe that precision fermentation (multiplying microorganisms to produce a very high protein flour) could be a far better basis of creating new protein-based foods than the cultivation of plants. It requires only a tiny fraction of the land area being used to produce protein today, needs much less water, much less fertiliser; and it is a closed system, unlike agricultural systems which produce damaging leakage. I think it could not only provide us with much better substitutes for animal products but could also trigger the creation of a whole new cuisine – a dietary revolution as radical as that brought about by agriculture when it was developed thousands of years ago.
97 per cent of people in the countryside are not farmers, and yet they are lumped together in political discussions.
One of the problematic issues that you mention in the book is the subsidy system for farming – notably in the EU. Do you see a chance for improvement there?
Roughly 40 per cent of the European Union budget is spent on farm subsidies, almost all of which are harmful. It is one of the most regressive forms of public spending on Earth today, as most of the money – which is provided by taxpayers – goes to the richest landowners. So the poor are giving money to the rich, which is really outrageous.
In addition, these subsidies are extremely environmentally damaging. For the biggest part of the subsidies, payments can be received only for land which is in so-called agricultural condition. If that land contains what the rules call “permanent ineligible features”, in other words, wildlife habitat, such as ponds and marshes and recovering woodland, then they are disqualified from farm subsidies. This is powerful incentive to destroy wildlife habitats in order to claim your subsidies. It is an absolute outrage. In every subsidy round, every five years, the European Commission promises it is all going to change. But in fact it just gets worse every time. Why? Because of the power of the farm lobbyists.
In your book you argue that “one of the greatest threats to life on Earth is poetry.” By this, you mean that our societies are clinging to a “ridiculous fantasy” of country life, including the beauties of sheep and cattle herding. What could be done to replace that fantasy with something more productive?
We have a real problem here that our perception of food policy is very dominated by aesthetics, by poetry, by pictures. A lot of popular food writing is about elite fantasies of how the world could be fed, which have no basis in reality. People who have never bothered to research the issue of how a billion people can be fed just say, “everyone should eat the diet I eat, because I like it”. So, they prescribe things like grassfed meat, which in other words means the use of a neolithic production system to feed a 21st century population. That would only work if we had several planets and no space on any of them for wild ecosystems.
So, the question is how to fight it. You cannot win an argument with data alone, that is very clear. Of course, we need the data, we need to be accurate and we need to be empirical, but if you just recite a column of figures to people, they are not going to be persuaded. We need our stories as well and we need to tell a new restoration story – one which says that the world has been thrown into disorder by powerful and nefarious interests working against humanity. And in this case, it is livestock farming and the other extremely damaging sectors within agriculture which are tearing earth systems apart. The hero or heroes – the activist movements taking them on – can confront those powerful interests against the odds, overthrow them, and restore harmony to the planet. That is the fundamental structure of the restoration story. We have to find ever more inventive and colourful ways of telling that story, while always referring it back to the scientific facts.
What would be your recommendation for the EU’s Green parties? How could they become more effective in remaking our food industries and setting the ground for an age of “regenesis”?
I think we need to be emphasising the issues of food and farming far more than we do now. Food production is the greatest threat to the planet. It is the major cause of habitat destruction, wildlife loss, extinction, land use, water use, soil degradation, climate breakdown, water pollution, and air pollution. We’ve started talking about fossil fuels, plastics, and chemicals, but we should be talking about food and farming at least as much as all of those industries – because it is the primary threat. If we do not get it right, it does not matter what else we get right, we will still be on the losing side. When it comes to climate for instance, even if we eliminated all fossil fuels tomorrow, food production alone would push us past the temperature limits agreed in Paris in 2015.
Green parties are usually more successful when it comes to reaching urban voters. How can Green politics win the support of farmers and rural communities?
The first thing to recognise is that farmers and rural communities are not the same thing. In England, for instance, even with the broadest definition of what a farmer is, they make up only 3 per cent of the rural population. So, 97 per cent of people in the countryside are not farmers, and yet they are lumped together in political discussions. In fact, the non-farmers in the countryside have almost no voice at all and they are neglected by politicians of all parties. Often what is in the interests of particular farmers can be very much against the interests of the planet as a whole. So we should not give disproportionate attention to the demands of farmers. We should listen to those demands, but not at the expense of other values.
Now, is the aim to win over farmers? Well, to the extent that we can, for sure. But we also need to ensure that farming is properly regulated and we need policy set by governments to be directed towards the farming and the outcomes we want to see. If we just leave it to the industry, the planet will be ripped apart.