George Monbiot’s vegan story involves a phone call, a river full of cow poo, and former UK Prime Minister Liz Truss.
While on a country walk in 2015, Monbiot decided to visit the East Devon’s River Culm, historically known for its rich biodiversity of otters, salmon, kingfishers, and rare insects. As he approached the riverbank, he was met with the overpowering smell of waste, and no sign of life at all.
He realized it was coming from a nearby dairy farm, so called up the Environment Agency to report it. Following a great deal of chasing up, and even a column about his experience in the Guardian, he was eventually told it wasn’t a serious case, and that it wouldn’t be investigated further. Whistleblowers from the agency later told him that the then-environment secretary (this is where Truss comes in) had told them not to enforce against dairy farmers.
Since that day, Monbiot has been a vocal campaigner against animal farming. His latest book, Regenesis, argues for a total rehaul of our food system, with livestock replaced with plants and new food technologies. He’s joined numerous scientists and campaigners in stressing an uncomfortable and little known truth: if our current food system continues much longer, the planet as we know it will not survive.
To most, this claim will seem unbelievable. Farming tends to be viewed through rose-tinted glasses in the UK, protected by what Monbiot describes as a “moral force field” shielding it from criticism. And it’s not just just farmers and Truss upholding it, but often the environmental movement (which has historically focused on fossil fuels) as well.
“Hardly anyone is talking about stopping farming animals,” Monbiot tells Plant Based News (PBN). “It’s just as important [as fossil fuels], if not more so, because it hits every single Earth system.”
The romanticization of farming
Society’s love of farming is, according to Monbiot, “deeply embedded.” As children, we read stories of rosy-cheeked farmers and talking pigs. When we grow up, we watch the abundance of countryside documentaries showing a bucolic (and hugely limited) side of UK agriculture.
“You absorb the dominant culture,” Monbiot says. “The culture and belief that ranching is the seat of innocence and purity. We just don’t see it and we don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should. It’s beginning to change, but it’s far too slow.”
There’s no doubt that fighting against fossil fuels is essential to avoid climate breakdown. The mistake some people make, Monbiot says, is believing that fight is the end of the story. “I used to be that environmentalist,” he says. “I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture, I wasn’t understanding what an enormously important component of environmental destruction animal farming is.”
The bigger picture
If we removed all fossil fuels today, studies have found that our food system alone would mean we would exceed the 1.5C warming limit set out by the Paris Climate Agreement.
Animal agriculture is responsible for at least 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is more than the entire transport system (including planes) combined. This is a relatively conservative figure that comes from the United Nations, and many scientists believe it to have been underestimated.
Even so, emissions themselves are just the start of the problem. Animal agriculture is a leading driver of biodiversity loss, species extinction, and deforestation – all of which are caused by what Monbiot believes to be the most pressing environmental issue we face: land use.
“Every hectare of land that we occupy for our own purposes is a hectare that can’t be occupied by wild ecosystems like forests or savannahs or or natural grasslands without any farming on them,” he says. “The biggest land use of all, by far and a long, long, long way is pasture for cattle and sheep.”
The grass-fed beef myth
Despite this, one food that’s often considered an eco-friendly choice, and heralded by many eco-minded meat-eaters, is grass-fed beef. The idea that this food is good for the environment is, according to Monbiot, “the biggest nonsense of all.”
“This is the worst possible product you could eat,” he says. “There’s nothing more damaging than pasture-fed beef or lamb, and the reason for that is the huge amount of land it occupies.”
Half of the world’s habitable land is taken up by agriculture, with at least three quarters of this used for animal livestock production. Livestock farming is the leading cause of deforestation, having been responsible for around 91 percent of Amazon destruction.
The land is cleared for one of two reasons: to house the animals themselves or to grow grain to feed them. Monbiot describes such ranching as “the greatest threat to life on Earth.”
Cultivating land for farms is not only ridding the world of vital carbon sinks, but it’s also destroying the ecosystems on which our planet relies. “The great majority of wildlife species depend on land with no extractive use,” Monbiot says. “Where are the large predators? Oh, you’ve killed them all. Where are the wild herbivores? Oh, you’ve fenced them out. Where are the trees? Oh the livestock have eaten all the tree seedlings. Or you’ve cut them down.”
The importance of rewilding
Monbiot, along with a number of environmental campaigners, maintains that rewilding land used for farms should be a top priority if we want to save the planet.
“This huge restoration of ecosystems and of Earth systems would take us a very long way toward stopping the sixth great extinction and stopping climate breakdown,” he says. “You draw down much of the carbon dioxide we’ve already released into the atmosphere when you restore ecosystems, as they tend to be much richer in carbon than the systems affected by humans.
“it’s very hard to see how we’re going to get through the 21st century, let alone those that follow, unless we have a mass rewilding, unless we restore ecosystems on a huge scale.”
The rise of animal agriculture
But the world is moving in the wrong direction. Rather than shifting away from animal agriculture, we are expanding it. Governments, including in the UK, continue to give out billions in subsidies to animal farmers each year. While the plant-based movement is growing, it isn’t doing so as fast as the population itself, which hit eight billion people last year. This means that meat-eaters will continue to outrank vegans, and the ratio between them will get wider.
The best hope we have of moving away from farming, Monbiot says, is a food technology revolution. While many vegans are happy to eat foods like beans, lentils, and tofu, the same cannot be said for the majority of the population, most of whom are unwilling or unable to move away from foods that are familiar to them.
“If we’re going to encourage as many people as possible to switch away from eating animals, then what we need to do is to provide products which are as much like the products they’re used to eating, and are as easy to prepare and as easy to eat,” Monbiot says. “We should be using new technologies to the best possible extent to help us get out of animal agriculture.”
The future of food
As well as realistic meat alternatives like Redefine Meat and Juicy Marbles, Monbiot is an advocate of precision fermentation (PF).
PF is a form of brewing. It sees microflora like yeast or bacteria be genetically engineered to make proteins or fats. It can be used to create the same ingredients found in meat, but without the animals. A number of food tech companies are, for example, creating animal-free milk and egg proteins.
Campaigners have said that precision fermentation could allow us to create enough protein to feed the world’s population using an area of land smaller than Greater London. According to Monbiot, future generations could be eating an entirely new diet of foods beyond our imaginations.
“The sky’s the limit. There are so many new tastes and textures that you can create, it’s impossible to know where it’s going to go,” he says. “Just as the first farmers to domesticate a cow weren’t thinking about Camembert, we can’t even imagine what might come out of this new food revolution.”
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