Environment

'Liz Truss turned me vegan': George Monbiot on fixing the broken food system

Farming is killing the planet, while the food system is failing to distribute enough nutrition to feed the planet. George Monbiot thinks he has a solution.

George Monbiot is taking on farming in his most recent book. Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin Random House

It took George Monbiot a long time to fully commit to cutting animal products out of his diet. Despite working on a pig farm in his youth and witnessing animals treated “appallingly, like they’re already just a lump of meat” it was Prime Minister Liz Truss who finally tipped the scale. 

After discovering that a dairy farm in Devon was dumping vast amounts of toxic waste into a local river, Monbiot reported the incident to the Environment Agency. He was met with silence. At the time, Truss was head of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and whistleblowers later revealed they had been instructed from the top to turn a blind eye to dairy farms. 

“My response to that was if the government isn’t prepared to regulate this industry then I’m not prepared to eat its products,” Monbiot says. 

Food, and where it comes from, is something Monbiot has been thinking about ever since his stint on the pig farm. And it’s the subject of his latest book, Regenesis: Feeding the world without devouring the planet

Since the book was published earlier this year, food has become a dominant theme. An unprecedented drought destroyed crops across the UK this summer, the war in Ukraine has disrupted supply chains, and rampant inflation has left food unaffordable for millions

Regenesis outlines how to transform the current food system to provide enough nutrition for all at an affordable price without destroying the planet or exploiting human beings.

It’s a radical proposal: do away with most conventional farming and hand vast tracts of land back to nature. Intensive livestock farming would disappear and people would instead have the majority of protein in their diets grown in labs, using fungi and algae to mimic animal and dairy products.  

While Monbiot says he anticipated most of the criticism, he didn’t expect it to be quite so extreme.

He now finds himself at the centre of some wild conspiracy theories about his intentions and who his work is being funded by. Despite publishing his own register of interests, the theories continue to swirl online. 

“Sometimes I think: did I really advocate killing all the world’s children? I obviously didn’t, but you almost start to believe it after a while, it’s quite scary,” he says.

It’s no surprise that Monbiot’s book has been deeply unpopular with the livestock industry, in particular. Regenesis unflinchingly outlines the damage farming does to the planet. One passage lays it out starkly: 

“Farming is the world’s greatest cause of habitat destruction [and] the greatest cause of the global loss of wildlife. It’s responsible for around 80 per cent of the deforestation that’s happened this century. Of 28,000 species known to be at imminent risk of extinction, 24,000 are threatened by farming.”

Monbiot peppers statistics like these throughout the book. Over three quarters of the world’s soy is fed to farm animals. In the UK, land given to sheep farming is more than twice the size of the whole built environment while providing just 1 per cent of food calories. 

“I was astonished almost every day by the stuff I was digging up,” he says. 

Yet criticism hasn’t just come from farmers. Monbiot’s book has also been rejected by what he terms the “foodies”: celebrity chefs and food writers, who advocate “that their diet is rolled out to everyone”, including pasture-fed meat. 

This so-called “organic” meat is often touted as more ethical but Monbiot opposes it vehemently due to the amount of land it takes up.

“If everyone were to eat pasture-fed beef, you’d need several planets to accommodate it – there’d be no space whatsoever for wild ecosystems,” he says. The amount of land needed isn’t proportionate to the amount of nutrition it provides and it’s not sustainable.

The changes Monbiot is advocating are not minor and he has no time for “micro-consumerist bollocks” when it comes to rescuing the planet. Tiny lifestyle tweaks – organic meat, recycling – won’t be nearly enough. The challenge is making big changes accessible and attainable.

“Whatever we propose, it has to be affordable,” he says. “You’ve got to understand why people have constraints in their diet.”

But when it comes to business and government, there’s no room for compromise. 

“If you’re trying to appease powerful interests, from the outset, you’re just not going to get very far. 

“Because those powerful interests, by definition, have the power. They’re not going to surrender that power voluntarily.”

Some critics of his vision have dismissed it as fantasy. Monbiot believes, however, that we could be close to a tipping point which creates widespread acceptance of a new food system and relationship with the planet.

Image: Stuart Simpson/Penguin Random House

“There’s lots of latent disquiet with animal agriculture. A lot of people feel slightly dirty about it. A lot of people have a subliminal awareness that their love for their dog or cat is profoundly at odds with the food they eat. The appetite for change is definitely there,” he says.

He points to other social movements as key examples. Social science suggests that once an idea reaches a 25 per cent acceptance rate, it’s enough to make it acceptable more widely.

“A classic example is marriage equality, which happened thanks to very effective campaigning. Within just a few years the social status of marriage equality was transformed,” Monbiot says.

He believes that this change could be propelled by a techno-ethical shift, with precision fermentation technology now advancing rapidly.

The technology is capable of producing mock meat and dairy products much more convincing than other methods, but Monbiot believes it will also need certain catalysts to achieve acceptance among the public.

“It might need, for example, celebrity chefs producing recipes with the products. As well as more specialist, high-end products, it’ll need to provide cheap, mass-produced products too,” he explains. 

At the same time, technical advancements will need to combine with a new social narrative that combats the enduring, deep-rooted image of farming as bucolic and natural. Monbiot’s suggestion is a “restoration narrative”.

“I think it’s quite easy to tell that story because we’re looking at the potential to restore the world’s ecosystems, and prevent the collapse of earth systems. What the end of animal farming would enable is restoration on a previously unimaginable scale. That’s a great story,” he says.

The pandemic has already shown that this narrative is appealing to the wider public. Polling during lockdowns revealed a widespread desire to avoid returning to business as usual.

It was an opportunity Monbiot says was “wasted” and “deliberately stifled” by governments around the world. But he remains hopeful. What the pandemic did reveal, he says, is the essential goodness of human nature and our capacity for pulling together during adversity.

“We’re constantly told that we’re rugged individuals whose destiny in life is to battle against everyone else and try to grab as much for ourselves as we can. The pandemic showed we’re just not like that,” he says.

“Our good nature is constantly thwarted by the systems under which we live. But humans made these systems, and humans can change them.”

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