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What We Overlook Just Might Be What Saves Us

George Monbiot thought he’d seen it all. Then he took a closer look at dirt and worms.

Dorothy Woodend 12 Sep

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that in addition to being a globally recognized and respected authority on environmental issues, George Monbiot is also an exceptional prose writer.

A quick reminder comes roaring in the form of the first chapter of his new book Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet, which details the wondrous and little-understood nature of soil. The stuff we commonly refer to as dirt.

The book opens in an orchard in Oxford, a section of land the writer shares with a number of other families. Monbiot carefully shepherds this land, pruning, harvesting fruit and caretaking the trees in a slow and measured fashion. As he explains, despite many decades of commitment to the state of the planet, he had never considered the very stuff that makes all growing things possible. This oversight proves to be not only a somewhat bashful epiphany but also the beginning of a journey.

On the phone from his home in the U.K., Monbiot is alternately blunt, funny and terrifyingly smart, the same authorial voice that animates his writing with wit and precision. After decades of exploring different aspects of the natural world, I ask him, was there something that prompted him to finally look down at the earth beneath his feet?

“I thought I’d run out of interesting places,” he says. “I’d explored trees, meadows, rivers, and I thought I’d seen it all, I was getting bored.”

But there are still surprises under the sun.

As he notes in Regenesis, he did enough research to complete a graduate degree in soil science. He shares his discoveries in language and information both rigorous and beautiful. (The list of citations at the end of the book runs to almost a hundred pages.)

Of the process, he says, “It amazed in two respects. It upended my understanding, and I was shocked that all these fascinating facts hadn’t been covered. I thought, ‘Why don’t I know this!’” Another perhaps less welcome surprise was the fragility of the global food system. “It should be headline news.” The fact that it is not, is just the beginning of the story.

From his orchard, the writer sets off, looking both high and low, at the oldest methods of tilling the earth, or not, to the most contemporary technologies (making food from thin air). But first, a slight word of warning. Before the hopeful stuff begins, there is a killing field of horrors laid out in brute statistics and dire warnings.

As Monbiot writes, before a systemic collapse takes place, there are often flickers, signs that things are getting close to failure. We are perhaps right in the middle of a flicker, with historic drought across much of Europe and the U.S. and catastrophic floods in other parts of the world. In poor countries, as well as rich, the spectre of hunger has crept into the picture.

There are a number of chapters in the book that are very difficult to take in, detailing what factory farming has done not only to animals and people but to the planet itself. It’s hard not to feel sick despair course through your body when reading the details of the terrible injuries that we, as a species, have perpetrated upon the planet and its inhabitants.

My advice: take it in, square your shoulders and read on, because the book is profoundly thrilling in its implications of proffered change.

Monbiot has gone deep into the dirt, travelled through mountains of academic papers and come out with a book that states there is hope. There are other ways of doing things than the way we have always done them. We have a chance to do everything differently, starting with not only how we grow food, but how we conceive of it.

One of the most revelatory aspects of the book concerns the use of land to grow food and graze livestock. Farming, in other words. Popular understandings of what a farm is often begin with childhood books that feature bucolic versions: a happy farmer with one cow, one pig, a horse, a dog and couple of chickens who all happily converse with one another.

But anyone who has ever spent any time on a farm knows that the reality is a bit different. A farm’s job is to create food by breeding, butchering and then eating animals. A reality that the writer contended with at an early age. “As a teenager, I worked on an intensive pig farm,” explains Monbiot. “It was hard physical work, grim and grotesque. You think it’s yuck to eat dead bacterium, I’ll show you what yuck looks like.” (More on those dead bacterium shortly.)

When anyone is asked to shed long held, beloved ideas, the process can be very painful. This is particularly the case in giving up the notion of the happy farm and its cheerful inhabitants.

As Monbiot admits, the process of causing people to lose their illusions is equivalent in inflicting pain. “Asking people to shift their point of view feels like a physical effort, a physical feat like running a hard mile,” he says. “The supreme cognitive dissonance that is required in eating animals that are treated just horrifically. We have to suppress so much. There is a cost to our psyche. Humanity narrows along these lines, not to see, not to understand.” The moment there is another option, another possibility, “this kind of suppression becomes intolerable.”

What if there was a way to create the protein that we need to exist using a tiny fraction of resources without killing any animals. Space age stuff, astronaut food! Exactly.

The chapter entitled “Farm Free” explores new food technologies, including an advanced form of brewing that is astounding in its implications. Even Monbiot himself seems a bit taken aback by what it could represent to the future of food.

Things don’t start on a particularly auspicious note in an interview with Finnish scientist Pasi Vainikka, who habitually answers questions with three words, “That is correct.” Despite his lack of verbosity, as Monbiot writes: “he is fermenting a revolution.”

Using technology NASA first explored in the 1960s, Vainikka harnesses soil bacterium to develop a kind of edible protein, essentially a type of flour composed of the desiccated bodies of bacterium. Vainikka’s company Solar Foods lays out the process in a step-by-step manner: “Humans have used fermentation for thousands of years, brewing beer and making wine with yeast. We use the same process but instead of sugar and yeast, we split water from the air for the micro-organisms to live in. Next, we feed them tiny bubbles of CO2 and nutrients, like nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and potassium — the same nutrients that plants absorb through their roots from the soil. The micro-organisms grow and multiply in a process that is 20 times more efficient than photosynthesis.”

The Finnish scientist makes Monbiot a pancake from the flour; Monbiot declares it as delicious as a pancake made the old-fashioned way with eggs, flour and butter.

Not only is the space required to ferment bacteria a fraction of the land needed for conventional agriculture, the only waste product is water. Given that the bacterium double every few hours, it almost seems too good to be real.

“What kind of food will these technologies make?” asks Monbiot. The sky and human imagination are the only limits: “a morsel that tastes like seared steak but with the texture of scallops.” Or “a mousse that breaks down on the tongue like panna cotta but has the flavour of jamón Ibérico.”

A number of innovative ideas emerge in Regenesis, in addition to others that fall along more along traditional lines. Of these, one of the most deeply charming relates the farming methods of a man named Tim Ashton. At his farm in Shropshire, Ashton has developed ways of farming without the use of plowing, pesticides or even fertilizer (a method commonly known as “no till,” which instead relies on top-dressing the soil with compost or manure). During Monbiot’s visit to the farm, Ashton digs up a spade of soil to demonstrate what is taking place.

“The unbroken soil was crawling with worms,” Monbiot writes. “Except when digging in the compost heap, I don’t believe I’ve seen so many in a spadeful. They ranged from tiny purple and yellow specimens to giant pink lobworms.” Capable of bringing to the surface “40 tons of soil in every hectare, every year,” he writes, earthworms do a number of extraordinary things, from aerating the soil to helping release plant hormones. (If nothing else, Regenesis will give you a new appreciation for the lowly earthworm’s power and tender tenacity.)

The cultivation methods Ashton has implemented have resulted in remarkable amounts of growth and resilience. Walking across the field, Monbiot sinks up to his ankles in soil that is as “soft as whipped cream.” In allowing natural cycles of decay to take place in their own time, the ability of complex systems to self-organize and self-regulate become apparent. Monbiot compares soil to a terrestrial coral reef, a living, growing co-operative ecosystem that is as much a community as it is a physical structure.

In the chapters devoted to visiting farms that are implementing new means of growing food while safeguarding the soil, farmers like Ashton and Iain Tolhurst (Tolly) actively work to converge new and old ideas. They are open, innovative, not afraid to fail.

Politicians could learn a thing or two.

Monbiot is particularly grim about the political situation in the U.K., and the country’s new prime minister. While it is difficult to understand the limited vision of corporations and politicians who choose not to act for the benefit of future generations, as Monbiot says, “It’s an ideological structure, that evil equals good. There are very few cartoon villains.” (Here he makes an evil laughing sound.) But in the pursuit of endless growth and flourishing enterprise, people “do evil things on the side of right.”

While governments continue to dawdle and issue promises for future action, Monbiot places some of the responsibility for the failure to address the critical issues on mainstream media. “Trivia fills the airwaves, it’s court gossip 99 per cent of the time, it’s not just blind spots, it’s a sea of darkness,” he says.

When asked if the escalating state of the global calamity has the capacity to wake people up, he is skeptical about whether crises “open peoples’ eyes to the underlying problems and long running issues.” Most folks, he notes, simply want life to go back to normal. Although normal may never return.

But here is where things get interesting. The origin of the word crisis, as Monbiot notes, derived from Greek and Latin roots, means a place of decision, a moment of choice.

“We have a great capacity to change things, we are a blessed generation with the potential to undertake a better direction so that we don’t shutdown many of our children’s options,” he says.

The tools, whether they are better methods for caring for the soil or new ways of growing food, are right at hand. So too, the transformative power of language and ideas that make Regenesis not only a timely book, but also a work of great beauty. It is above all a reminder of the fecundity and wonder of the homely stuff, be it worms, bugs, weeds or nitty gritty old dirt. The things that we overlook might just be what saves us in the end.  [Tyee]

Read more: Books, Food, Environment

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