Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, reviews “Regenesis”, the latest book from George Monbiot
I had to read it.
Too many people I trust had suggested to me that I should read it. There are reasons why I hesitated at first — which will be revealed later in the article — but when my fellow ethical vegans Joe Hashman and Anita Krajnc told me to read it, I knew I had to. The book was even recommended in one of the speeches I watched at The European Vegan Summit that took place in September, and it wasn’t introduced as just another useful book, but as one of the must-read key books of our generation.
If you don’t know who Joe Hashman is, he is currently an organic gardener and author, founder of the anti-hunting organisation Hounds Off, and in the past, he was very successful exposing illegal hunting when working as a wildlife crime investigator (and this is how I met him as we worked together in this field for several years). But if you read my book “Ethical Vegan” in which I talk about my legal case that led to ethical veganism being ruled a protected characteristic in Great Britain, you may remember him as my close friend who inspired me because of his successful similar landmark legal case a few years before — which was a kind of precursor to mine.
If you are vegan, you probably know who Anita Krajnc is, but if you don’t, she is the Canadian vegan activist founder of the Animal Save Movement who a few years ago created a new climate campaign called the Plant-Based Treaty, which is growing fast all over the world. In a private presentation about this campaign to the team of Vegan FTA, she recommended three key books to read — and one was the very same Joe mentioned.
With such trusted people recommending this book, “Regenesis. Feeding the world without devouring the planet” by the renowned British environmentalist plant-based journalist George Monbiot, I could not ignore it (even if I had reasons to feel a bit uneasy about it).
So, I bought it, I read it, and after I finished it, I felt compelled to write a review about it.
A Zoologist Looking Down
George Monbiot is an award-winning British writer and journalist known for writing environmental books and his regular column for The Guardian. He studied zoology at the University of Oxford, and this becomes noticeable at the beginning of this book. In his early career, Monbiot joined the BBC Natural History Unit as a radio producer, making natural history and environmental programmes, and the first chapter of Regenesis (published in 2022 by Penguin Books), feels like a radio programme describing the fauna discovered in a very exotic location. No, we are not talking about the effervescent Amazon rainforest in Brazil or the mysterious abyssal planes in Australia, but just down under his feet, in the soil of his orchard in England.
I am also a zoologist, so for me, his detailed description of the weird fauna he found looking deep in the soil was fascinating. I learnt many things I did not know. For instance, although from my entomological lessons during my zoology degree in the 1980’s I remembered the diplurans, springtails, and proturans as very primitive insects living in the soil, it turns out they are no longer classed as insects, but they now belong to a completely different Class (this may not mean much to you, but it would be very much like learning that hamsters, squirrels and Guinea pigs are no longer rodents such as mice and rats, and not even mammals!).
But Monbiot is not just doing an Attenborough because he passionately describes who he found in the soil when he looked, but also because he puts his discoveries in a global perspective. It was very interesting to realise that, in this planet, in addition to a magnetosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere, we also have under our feet a rythosphere (where fungi dominate), a mirmecosphere (the dominion of ants), and a drilosphere (the world of worms). It’s like discovering three new planets in our solar system, that happen to be inside planet Earth. I never thought about it, but because the soil is a three-dimensional space with a huge surface area, it can contain many more organisms with a higher diversity of species than on the surface (it turns out that English soils could be as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and only 10% of soil animal species have been identified by science). Once we learn about these hidden worlds, we realise how important they are for the entire planet. He writes:
“We are weakening the soil’s capacity to renew itself, undermining its structure and making it more vulnerable, like other complex systems, to external shocks. The loss of a soil’s resilience might happen incrementally and subtly. We might scarcely detect the flickering until a shock pushes it past its tipping point. When severe drought strikes, the erosion rate of fragile and degraded soil can rise 6,000-fold. In other words, the soil collapses. Fertile lands turn to dustbowls.”
The soil is the starting point of Monbiot’s journey to discover how can we save the world from the climate change crisis and prevent the sixth mass extinction. He is an investigative journalist, not just a writer. When he was transferred to the BBC’s World Service, he travelled to Indonesia, Brazil, and East Africa to see things with his own eyes, talk to the right people on the ground, and learn the truth behind the myths. This is what he does in this book too. He starts visiting the soil under his feet, and then he moves to the next destination.
What Lies Ahead and Beyond
In the next two chapters, Monbiot spells out the global problems we face: the climate crisis, and its associated hunger crisis (because once the temperature reaches critical thresholds many crops will fail, and the food system may collapse; the soil will die and with it everything that used to be on it). He identifies how agricultural sprawl is destroying natural ecosystems both locally and at a global scale, and how the massive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilisers, as well as the excretions and exhalations of animals in massive factory farms, are all poisoning the planet. He shows how much land and water the current system is wasting and how it destroys the carbon-fixing forests and soils we need to control the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And, with his characteristic data-full statements (Regenesis has 86 pages of references), he firmly points the finger at farming for the decrease of biodiversity:
“Farming is the world’s greatest cause of habitat destruction, the greatest cause of the global loss of wildlife, and the greatest cause of the global extinction crisis. It’s responsible for around 80 per cent of the deforestation that’s happened this century. Food production (including commercial fishing) is the main reason why the global population of wild vertebrate animals has fallen by 68 per cent since 1970. Of 28,000 species known to be at imminent risk of extinction, 24,000 are threatened by farming. Only 29 per cent of the weight of birds on Earth consists of wild species: all the rest are poultry. Chickens alone weigh more than all other birds put together, including farmed ducks and turkeys. Just 4 per cent of the world’s mammals, by weight, are wild; humans account for 6 per cent, and livestock for the remaining 60 per cent. This is used not by intensive farming or extensive farming, but a disastrous combination of the two.”
I, having been vegan for decades, knew all that, but what I never realised is that one of the main problems is that the system is too rigid. The analysis Monbiot makes of the problem is very illuminating and had the same effect on me as Richard Dawkins’ book “The Selfish Gene” had when I read it during my university studies: it made me change my perspective and understand better the world. Monbiot points out how complex systems have thresholds. They can absorb a certain amount of change without altering the way they behave, and once the threshold is passed, the whole system collapses. But the interesting bit is that the most resilient systems are not the most efficient, but the most flexible. Those “perfect” systems where there is no redundancy or waste are more likely to collapse after one of their “pieces” is broken than those systems with lots of duplication and waste because that gives them flexibility and a better chance to find another “piece” to replace the broken one. And that is the problem we are facing right now. With civilisation, we have been creating a food system that aimed to be more efficient in producing more food with less effort, removing variability and redundancy. This is what the animal agriculture system is. It ignores the thousands of plants we could eat, it breeds two or three animals (genetically modifying them to make them grow fast), and it makes the entire world dependent on eating them.
We have now discovered that this piece of the system is broken because animal agriculture is one of the leading causes of our current climate crisis. No problem; let’s replace this broken piece with a new one that does not have this effect: plant-based agriculture. However, here lies the second problem too. Civilisation has also transformed plant-based agriculture from a very diverse, natural, and flexible system to a very rigid one where only a few plants are cultivated in single crops, they are all spread with poisonous chemicals and excessive nutrients that mess with the natural balance, and the soil is sucked dry and destroyed in the process, so you need to move and cut forests to plant new crops (and we need these forests to cool the planet down). To make the system more efficient in producing food, we made it more rigid, and therefore riskier to break. And now that the key pieces of the system are broken, we may be at the fringe of a total system collapse. For me, the revelation of this approach is demoting “efficiency” and promoting “redundancy” as a wiser engineering solution.
The problems we face are laid out well in Regenesis. We have a very dangerous climate crisis that may lead to a total system collapse which not only will lead to habitat destruction, mass extinction, mass flooding and socio-political upheaval but also global hunger as we will not be able to feed a growing population anymore, even if everyone turns plant-based overnight — because the system is broken and not flexible enough to mend itself, considering the size of the human population. What is the solution? Monbiot explores several in the following chapters.
Different Imperfect solutions
Another thing I like about this book is the way it explores the different solutions that we could try to prevent the collapse of the food system and ecosystems, but which can still feed the world without devouring the planet. Monbiot does not just talk about them from an academic point of view, but he visits people who are actually trying them and lets them explain the problems they encountered on the way. This makes the book more easily digestible and vivid. When you go with him to visit these places, you get excited with the possibility they may work, but then you also get disappointed with the unresolved problems the new systems have, so you want to read about the next one to see if it is better.
For instance, Monbiot recognises that just switching to organic farming will not do. He writes the following about it:
“But in other respects, organic farming can inflict more damage. This is mostly because, with lower average yields, it uses more land to produce the same amount of food. One calculation suggests that if England and Wales became entirely organic, our land footprint would grow by 40 per cent. The global average gap between organic and conventional yields is, according to different estimates, somewhere between 20 per cent and 36 per cent. The greenhouse gas emissions from organic produce tend to be similar, or worse, per kilogramme to those of conventional food. Organic beef farms — as the animals take longer to raise and need more land — lose twice as much nitrogen per kilo of meat as conventional beef farms. This will come as a shock to many: there might be no more damaging farm product than organic pasture-fed beef.”
Monbiot seems very impressed with the work of Ian Tollhurst and his veganic farming known as Stockfree-Organic — as I also was when I first wrote about him. For a vegan like me, veganic farming, a type of organic farming in which no animal products (like manure) are used, and no animals are deliberately killed with pesticides or otherwise, is a true vegan alternative to the problems of animal agriculture. However, it is still in its infancy, it has not been perfectioned yet, and we may have passed the threshold to make it scalable on time. Monbiot also explores the solution of no-till farming, which is much better for the soil, as there is no digging destroying all the rythosphere, the mirmecosphere, and the drilosphere. He also looks at the cultivation of new perennial grains (such as Kernza), which offer much better possibilities than the traditional annual grains (such as wheat or rice). Agroforestry (the growing of both trees and agricultural/horticultural crops on the same piece of land) is also a good option he explores for being more holistic and wildlife friendly.
Finally, he seems particularly convinced about the benefits of precision fermentation (using modified bacteria or yeasts in fermentation tanks to brew all sorts of nutrients, such as specific proteins and fats). With this technology, lots of food could be grown very quickly everywhere without using pesticides and destroying any more land. Although it is not perfect, I also find this solution exciting and very promising, as it is also a much better alternative to cultivated meat (lab meat), which I oppose to. On the latter, he writes…
“When I began my research for this book, I imagined that new proteins and fats would be used to create cultured (or cell-based) meat: flesh that’s biologically identical to meat from animals, but is reared in a bioreactor, not a farm. But the more I’ve read about cultured meat and fish, and the more I’ve come to appreciate the phenomenal complexities involved in growing cells on a scaffold to make something that looks and feels and tastes like steak or tuna, the more I doubt this vision will come to pass.”
All the solutions he finds plausible are either vegan or “vegan-friendly”. They all have pros and cons, may need further development, and may be insufficient on their own, but perhaps, combined, with some investment behind them, they could form the final practical solution. He concludes:
“This movement should ask itself three fundamental questions when considering any new system: ‘Does this deliver more food with less farming?”, “Who owns and controls it?’ and ‘Is the food it produces healthy, cheap and accessible? A new movement, informed by these questions, needs a manifesto. It might look something like this: ‘To allow human beings and the rest of life on Earth to flourish, we should: become food-numerate; change the stories we tell ourselves; limit the land area we use to feed the world; minimize our use of water and farm chemicals; launch an Earth Rover Programme to finely map the world’s soils; enhance fertility with the smallest possible organic interventions; research and develop a high-yield agroecology; stop farming animals; replace the protein and fat from animals with precision fermentation; break global corporations’ grip on the food chain; diversify the global food system; use our understanding of complex systems to trigger cascading change; rewild the land released from farming.’”
I agree with these conclusions. Regenesis is persuasive about what the problem is, what should be done about it, and what should we not waste time trying. It does not give you all the answers, and it does not dwell in philosophy and ethics — as I tend to do. On the contrary, by staying close to the facts, and not glossing over anything that looks promising, it feels realistic. It is not a pessimist alarmist rant, but rather a hopeful optimistic proposition — which is what we need.
Monbiot is a very good communicator, both in writing and on the screen, and a book like this allows him to use several platforms to spread the urgency of systemic change. For instance, this video is an extract from Regenesis:
As an outreaching vegan, I often tend to just say that the animal agriculture system should be replaced by a plant-based system, and I do not expand beyond that. But when you look at “how” exactly this change should be made, then you realise that this is a far more complicated transition than it first appears to be. I think that one of the reasons many hail Regenesis as a must-read book is because it does not simply call for a change of system but looks in detail at all alternatives and shows how not all may work if used alone. They could all have worked if we had chosen them decades ago, but we may have already passed the threshold to make them feasible with the current human population, and we may need to combine them and research more to apply them successfully now. Monbiot’s book looks at them in an honest way, trying to move from wishful thinking to actual applications. As such, it feels closer to a “reference guide” than a theoretical aspirational book; closer to real solutions than to perfect solutions. It seems this is the book for the new dynamic generations that need to apply the solutions to the feverish planet, not for the old cranky generations that complain about the world. That’s why it feels important; that’s why it feels relevant; that’s why it feels useful.
The Vegan Solution
I asked my friend Joe Hashman whether reading Regenesis made him change how he cultivates his garden’s plants and his allotment’s vegs. He replied with the following:
“I’m phasing out cultivation of the soil by digging. For over twenty years I’ve grown food with a ‘dig for victory’ mindset. As a self-taught gardener, much of what inspired me in those early days was Second World War and post-War information and books. Obviously, they were also heavily chemical dependent and from the outset, I eschewed this aspect of conventional thinking. None the less, I dug and I double-dug as advised. My logic was that in those times it really was about survival and my philosophy shared those urgencies, albeit in different times and slightly different circumstances. So I believed that I had to dig and my survival depended on it.
Coincidentally I have suffered decades of chronic back pain and last summer it collapsed. Although I’ve since recovered, for six weeks I was hardly able to move and experienced bouts of paralysing, agonising pain. What I could do whilst disabled was read, including ‘Regenesis’. It was challenging because at home here in Dorset we raised a family by cultivating soil and continue to eat top quality homegrown fare. And I pride myself on being a wildlife-friendly gardener. It wasn’t just reading Monbiot. What became clear was that actually, every year, I’ve been destroying the soil in my garden and allotments over the decades, destroying the life within it and, ironically, breaking my back in the process. Hence why over the course of this coming winter I will continue with changes I’ve already made to no-dig systems. What amazes me is that the revelations in ‘Regenesis’ are so obvious and yet I hadn’t realised them for myself. Gardening is many things, one of which is a continual learning process!”
That is a practical change from a practical book that looks at applicable solutions. But before Joe recommended me the book, I did not feel too keen on reading it because I thought it would not be the vegan-friendly book it turned out to be. Why? Because I was disappointed when I found out George Monbiot was not the vegan I thought he was.
I read that he had given up veganism before (not a good sign), but in 2016 many people wrote he had finally become vegan for good. Even Viva!, one of the major vegan organisations in the UK, interviewed him to celebrate his veganisation. But then, in 2020, as part of a Channel 4 documentary titled “Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed the Planet,” he shot a deer to make a point about the need to lethally control deer populations because predators had been killed to extinction (but yet he joined the circle of violence and destruction that cause the problem in the first place: killing others to solve a human-made problem). I thought that he had abandoned veganism again! For me, the worst part was that, after being criticised by the vegan community, he decided to publicly defend his unfortunate action. He wrote an article in the Guardian titled “I shot a deer – and I still believe it was the ethical thing to do.”
His justification did not convince me. I felt very disappointed in him because of this, so since then, I was reluctant to read his books and write about him. I did not want to contribute to any vegan sticking (people labelling celebrities as vegan when they are not). Although he may define himself as vegan, I don’t even know if he “qualifies” as an eco-vegan (a vegan for the environment), or only as a plant-based person. I don’t know if he uses leather and wool, or visits zoos for leisure. I don’t know if he doesn’t care whether household products are tested on animals and whether he eats honey. The point is that I do not know him, or why he killed the deer even if his heart was telling him not to do it (he wrote that he hated every minute of it) when it was not necessary for the story he was telling (he could have just recorded somebody else doing it). But perhaps he did it to remove himself from the vegan community, thus trying to amplify his voice in the non-vegan community, which is the one that needs to hear his message more urgently. Perhaps it was a tactical move — sacrificing his reputation for the cause.
In any event, he has a strong voice in mainstream media, and his criticism of animal agriculture coupled with his championing of vegan-friendly alternatives, are all resonating with the messages ethical vegans like myself try to spread (this is when the term “ethical vegan” proves to be particularly useful, to have an adjective that separates the kind of “vegan” he may claim to be from the kind of vegan I try to be). Whether he is vegan or not, he is advocating for the vegan solution and reaching many people from outside our vegan echo chambers, and that may help more animals than whatever else he does in his life.
Anyway, this is not a judgement of Monbiot but a review of one of his books, so there was not a good reason on my part to avoid reading them. To become a better vegan, I need to keep learning. I rather get my facts and information about the real problems and solutions of this world from a person who does “immoral” acts but looks at the world objectively and comprehensively than from a “moral” person that does it subjectively and partially; from a person with unethical tendencies who knows how to research reality and filter out misinformation than from an ethical person driven by conspiracy theories and wishful thinking; from a professional honest reporter working inside the system than from an amateur naïve armchair “researcher” working outside it. I rather get my facts from George Monbiot (and he provides plenty of them backed by reputable sources) than from many vegans I know, regardless of whether he is a true vegan or not.
I hope he keeps progressing and one day he becomes an ethical vegan (and he decides not to shoot anyone else for environmental reasons anymore) because we need more talented journalists, writers, environmentalists, wildlife protectors, and climate activists like him sending clear messages to those who can help to change the system. But if he does not, it doesn’t matter. In the big scheme of things, it’s more important that he keeps writing mainstream books like this showcasing the vegan solution than fully following a philosophy with whatever label is attached to it.
I am glad I read his book, and I am looking forward to reading his next one.