When George Monbiot’s film Cow Apocalypse aired on Channel 4 in January 2020 I found myself between disbelief and wanting to scream at the television. Cows are evil and we should all eat food produced by bacteria in giant steel vats? Seriously? In his book Regenesis, Monbiot doubled down and expanded on this topic. Unfortunately, by now, the idea of solving the climate crisis through technology and ‘ecomodernism’ has become a serious point of discussion.

Chris Smaje is a social scientist but has been coworking a small farm for two decades. In his book Saying No To A Farm-Free Future he tackles ecomodernism and Monbiot’s claims head on: “I believe a response is necessary because the ecomodernist programme is technically unfeasible, politically problematic and it risks wasting a lot of precious time that we don’t have”.

In ‘Regenesis, George Monbiot ticks many of the ‘ecomodernist programme’ boxes: moving people from rural areas into cities, restoring wildlands instead of farming and promoting technical solutions to produce food. Smaje focuses on Monbiot’s Regenesis “because it’s probably the most detailed and accessible ecomodernist treatment of the issue” which, he says, campaigners and influencers have described as ‘visionary, rigorous and practicable’. It’s none of that, writes Smaje. He goes on to debunk Monbiot’s concepts one by one in a thorough manner, while proposing an alternative solution that he calls ‘agrarian localism’. He wants us humans to be a ‘good keystone species’, which means seeing ourselves as part of nature and acting accordingly.

“It’s clear that we can’t techno-fix our way out of the crises and we can’t protect nature by alienating ourselves from it”. Smaje very simply does the math. “The RebootFood campaigh that he (Monbiot) is fronting invites readers to imagine rewilding three-quarters of the world’s farmland and producing the entire world’s protein on an area the size of Greater London”. For his film Cow Apocalypse Monbiot visited a company that is pioneering the cultivation of a bacterium, Cupriavidus necator, in bioreactors. Fed with hydrogen and oxygen, the bacteria multiply and produce a protein rich soup which supposedly can be made into something resembling food. Smaje dives deep into Monbiot’s calculations and concludes that on a global scale this type of ‘food’ production would require around 43% of the world’s electricity consumption. If we want to save the planet, we can no longer rely on fossil fuels, but need to either build more nuclear power plants or use solar and wind energy. A bioreactor capable of churning out 43,000 tons of microbial protein would need an area of 3,000 hectares covered with PV (photovoltaic) panels to produce the necessary energy. “If you aggregate that up to cover the protein needs of the entire US population, there would need to be about 140 such facilities, with a total annual capital cost of $12.9 billion and over 400,000 hectares of PV panels”. Scale this up to the protein needs of 9 billion people, and there isn’t much land left to re-wild. And as Smaje rightly points out: this is simply the energy requirement for operating the bioreactors. It does not take into account the energy needed for the production of the steel vats which last for a maximum of 25 years, nor for the millions of PV panels or the environmental and energy costs for necessary mineral production through mining.

Chapter by chapter, Smaje walks the reader through Monbiot’s ecomodernist arguments and why they don’t hold up to scrutiny. Banning all livestock and all of us becoming vegan would not save the planet. Nor could all the vegetables and fruit we’d need be grown without the use of animal manure or chemical fertiliser – which cannot be produced without fossil fuels. Iain ‘Tolly’ Tolhurst, the organic vegetable grower from Oxfordshire (who was recently honoured with an MBE), has demonstrated that it is possible to grow an abundance of fruit and vegetables by replacing manure with composted woodchips to maintain soil fertility. He sources the woodchips from a local tree surgeon. “Monbiot says Tolly estimates he could supply his own woodchip if he devoted 20 per cent of his farmland to trees”, writes Smaje. Is that really preferable to using organic manure from cattle that have grazed the fodder crops needed in a multi-year rotational system?

But maybe it isn’t about the numbers, about studies, statistics and projections. “Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change?” was the topic of a debate in Oxford earlier in July. Participants were livestock farmer Allan Savory who pioneered holistic management and George Monbiot. Savory explained how livestock and managed grazing can reverse desertification and enhance soil fertility, a system he has developed through careful observation, field testing and measuring the results. “Savory has failed to produce any scientific evidence”, said Monbiot, and called Savory’s methods “mumbo jumbo”, “pseudo-science” and “bullshit”. It was an exchange between Savory, who works with nature and sees himself and us as part of nature, and Monbiot who believes technology will fix the climate crisis and to whom scientific proof is only what can be measured in a lab and written up in a peer reviewed study.

Smaje’s excellent book shows that Monbiot and ecomodernism fail even by their own standards.

Chris Smaje

Sying No To A Farm-Free Future

Chelsea Green Publishing 2023, RPR GBP 14.99

Marianne Landzettel is a journalist and author writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel Images used with kind consent @M.Kunz

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