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An Ode to Soil

Review by: Profile Editorial Team, 18/06/2022


George Monbiot is an environmentalist with a deep maverick streak. In ‘Regenesis’ he sets out his vision for a largely farm-free future.

Monbiot’s manifesto is challenging. Farming is so ingrained in the collective unconscious as A Good Thing that we rarely seek to question its ways. We all know that farmers work hard, that we need food, and as Monbiot notes towards the end of this book, we are raised on childhood images of friendly farmyard animals which leads us to associate farming with comforting (if sometimes illusory) folk memories.

The reality can be very different.

‘Regenesis’ doesn’t focus on the cruelty which livestock farming entails, except in a few brief mentions. The spotlight is firmly on the sheer quantity of land which is set aside for agriculture and the ecological devastation which results from modern farming practices.

First, however, he talks about soil. “Like many people”, he writes, “I like to imagine that I find my own path. But we are all influenced, to a greater extent than we are usually prepared to admit, by social consensus. We think along the lines laid down by others, follow paths already trodden. We see what others see, and ignore what they ignore. We might argue passionately about the small number of issues on which the spotlight falls, but, implicitly and unconsciously, we agree to overlook other topics, often of greater importance. Few are either as important or as dark to us as soil.”

The complexities and mysteries of soil recur though the book, as Monbiot meets with small-scale farmers pursuing alternative models of farming, each focusing on the impact of different practices on soil quality and health. His enthusiasm for these people, the obvious affection and admiration which he displays, is infectious. I found myself wanting to turn the back garden into a micro farm!

“I turn my attention to a tiny root hair. To the naked eye, it’s a single strand, as thin as cotton thread. But under the lens, I see it is caged and frosted by much finer hairs, glittering like crystals in the sunlight . . . They are filaments – hyphae - of the fungi whose lives are knitted into the lives of plants . . .  The great majority – perhaps millions of species – live only within the soil, and many of them lace through and proliferate from the plant roots on which they depend. Most plants rely on these fungi to gather minerals and moisture from the soil . . .In every gram of soil in places  . . . where plants are well established, there is around a kilometre of fungal filaments: one kilometre in less than a teaspoonful”.

Although Monbiot returns time and again to the soil, his principal concern is livestock farming, and its devastating impact on the world’s ecosystems. For example, many nations subsidise the use of wood pellets for heating chicken farms as a ‘renewable’ resource. Except the resource isn’t being renewed – each chicken shed consumes a little over a hectare of forest every year. Eastern European forests are being razed to heat up chicken sheds in Western Europe. Even nature reserves aren’t immune.

Vast areas of virgin forest are destroyed to grow soybeans to feed these chickens. “In South America, 200 times more land is used to grow soy today than in 1961. The 57 million hectares the crop now covers there is bigger than Spain. Some indigenous peoples have been almost entirely dispossessed. Stunning ecosystems, especially the cerrado (savannah) of central Brazil, and the Gran Chaco forests in Paraguay and Argentina, the homes of maned wolves, giant anteaters, jaguars, tapirs and armadillos, have been swept off the Earth on an unimaginable scale . . . We remain, on the whole, blithely unconscious of the wreckage caused by our consumption of chicken, eggs and pork. We might congratulate ourselves on buying local meat and eggs, or even on keeping our own birds, forgetting that the feed is likely to have been grown, at great ecological cost, thousands of miles away.”

Monbiot takes no prisoners, and is happy to take on organic farming, noting that “ . . there might be no more damaging farm product than organic, pasture-fed beef”.

So is this another of those dreary apocalyptic books destined to make the reader feel bad? Absolutely not. Monbiot’s writing style is light, inviting, very easy to follow – he manages to smuggle a lot of science in without losing the reader or inciting depression. That, in itself, makes this book one to watch.

The real beauty of Regenesis, though, is Monbiot’s enthusiasm for bacteria-produced food. I must confess that my own love of more traditional foods – including meat, dairy, eggs – made this a tough sell. Monbiot describes eating a pancake made from bacteria-derived flour. It doesn’t sound appetising, does it? But then, my number 1 food group is beer, which is a product of fermentation – yeast rather than bacteria, but a similar process. Why is this significant? Because we can take millions of hectares of land out of agricultural production and rewild them – restoring diverse habitats and forest. And Monbiot loved his pancake, which tasted far better than the vegan pancakes he’s accustomed to.

Monbiot’s vision is towards the extreme end of the spectrum – he’s been a vegan for a long time and so, unsurprisingly, he has no great difficulty imagining a future in which everybody adapts to a very different diet. My own immediate thought on reading about bacteria-derived foods was – great, we won’t need to devastate ecosystems to make chicken feed. It was the instinctive response of a carnivore. Perhaps the reality will fall somewhere between these two positions, but what is clear is that we have a positive vision to work towards – a world where food production doesn’t rely on destroying vast ecosystems.  The impact could be dramatic: “A study in Nature proposes that if destructive activity ceased on just 15 per cent of land in some parts of the world, 60 per cent of the extinctions that would otherwise happen could be averted and 30 per cent of all the carbon dioxide released since the Industrial Revolution could be extracted from the atmosphere.

I heartily recommend this book. It manages to sound an alarm without demoralising the listener. Above all, Regenesis is optimistic – it carries the germ of a solution to some of humanity’s most pressing challenges. We all need to engage with this debate, or corporate influence will continue to pull our strings and we will continue ever further and faster in the wrong direction.

Posted in: non-fiction