12th June 2018
Love him or hate him, George Monbiot always provides thought provoking articles. Yet, they are sometimes dangerously wrong, sometimes inaccurate and sometimes at risk of an accusation of being untruthful. Monbiot’s article https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jun/08/save-planet-meat-dairy-livestock-food-free-range-steak illuminates the fallibility of his truth, in ignoring the complexity and nuance of the detail; potentially misleading and misinforming the public.
The premise of Monbiot’s article is based on the paper published in Science http://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6392/987 . From a personal point of view, I totally agree with his views regarding the abhorrence of large scale, industrialised meat production. Animals that are intensively housed and fed on a diet that relies heavily on cereals and plant proteins, produced on land could otherwise produce food for humans. We can, and must, eat less meat, meat than does not compete with us for our food. There my agreement ends.
Monbiot uses figures regarding the production of greenhouse gasses, mainly CO2, to argue that a plant-based diet will reduce emissions by 50%, (theoretically). Personally, I have no problem veganism, each of us has the right to make their own choices, however those choices should be made on the right information. If you take a step back, one should question the premise that by changing to a vegan diet we will save the world. In actuality, moving to a fully vegan diet plays a limited role in the overall effects of reducing or halting global warming. It may in some way reduce the rise in CO2, but no more. We are approaching some critical tipping points. In 60 years, CO2 in the atmosphere has risen from 280 – 411ppm https://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/?utm_source=www.uoota.com and it will keep on rising, as we are still burning fossil fuels at an unsustainable rate. Overall, we are adding some 10 billion t of C to the atmosphere every year. Not only that, but if we stopped adding carbon today, the buffer of C held in the oceans, from our emissions, 30,000 billion t, will still be released on a timescale of between 100 and 1000 years. This will not reduce CO2 to pre-industrial levels and stop global warming. With the additional greenhouse gases from the potential melting of the methane sinks in the Arctic tundra, we could soon be facing a point of no return.
Both Regenerative Farming, and Rewilding, will be able to help reverse and soak up these surplus carbon emissions, along with additional role transpired water from these grasslands will play in planet cooling. For a full understanding of the climate science behind Regenerative farming see Australian soil scientist and Climatologist Walter Jehne –https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vHw5I_fclkc
George Monbiot’s article is disparaging of Regenerative Agriculture, due to it being constrained by fences Whereas Rewilding, will be the saviour of nature and mankind, will have predators and trees will grow, allowing species to redevelop where currently there are none. Surely rivers, coasts and mountains all act as natural fences, restricting movement of larger herbivores such as deer, wild horses and buffalo? The article maintains the vituperation of Holistic grazing, whilst promulgating the belief that Rewilding is the answer. Yet in truth, based on the science, the difference between them regarding climate amelioration is negligible. http://www.planet-tech.com/sites/default/files/Itzkan%202011%2C%20RegardingHolechekSavory%20v4_0.pdf
This is the crux of the matter. Rewilding is based on the establishment of areas where grassland and prairies are taken out of outmoded set stocking grazing practices and allowed to regenerate. Large herbivores, buffalo, horses and deer all graze the open land, growing grasses, while wolves, lynx and other apex predators kill and eat the bounty of the land. Regenerative Farmers mimic wild grazing systems, establishing deep rooted pasture, introducing trees with Agroecological principles. https://smilingtreefarm.com/ Large herbivores, cows, graze the pastures. By moving them on to fresh ground every day, just as they would in nature, using fences instead of rivers, killing the bounty of the land, us with meat to eat and milk to drink. In both systems soil carbon and water increase, increase natural fertility, with no artificial fertilisers or pesticides. In addition, no cereals or protein crops are fed, thus freeing all crop land to produce food for us. Our diets would move to be plant based and include extremely high-quality meat and dairy. The ideal would be from as local as source as possible. This is a long way from the support Monbiot gives in his article for highly processed ready meals, because of the lack of cooking skills in our population. This is straight from the corporate “solution” playbook, akin to sugary soft drink manufacturers saying lack of exercise causes obesity. https://lachefnet.wordpress.com/2018/03/31/a-tale-of-two-expos/
Is this disdain of Regenerative Agriculture down to the challenge he perceives it to be to his rewilding ideals, which he reinforces by reference to discredited, reductionist research papers against Holistic farming? Mr Monbiot would be more effective in his desire to stop global warming and buy into the rapid reduction of carbon in the atmosphere he would be supportive of regenerative agriculture. It may not perfect, but Regenerative Agriculture is far better than the grain feeding, industrialised alternatives. Support for the production of real meat, from Regenerative Farming, would drive consumption, and drive the market demand, https://www.pastureforlife.org/ stimulating the rise of climate friendly farming.
The production of methane is raised as a negative argument against rearing ruminants. Methane from the grazing cows, but also rewilded buffalo, horses, wildebeest, deer, from regenerated land, is oxidised by the raising water vapour, many times over the amounts the cows produce. Methane from herbivores in this system, is not a contributor to global warming. (See link above to Walter Jehne.)
I struggle also with Monbiot’s simplistic arguments for how soil fertility can be supplied solely by growing legumes such as peas and beans. Whilst this is part of the story, it is not the full picture- as ever the practical reality is in the detail. I am not sure of Mr Monbiot’s Agricultural qualifications, apart from his stint on an intensive pig farm, but I have been in the farming and food industry for 40 years, hold a BSc in Agriculture, and twenty years of organic vegetable growing experience.
You cannot sustain a vegetable growing rotation with the legumes, peas and beans supplying the nitrogen to grow following crops. To build the fertility of an organic rotation, use of a mixture of clovers (a legume that fixes nitrogen) https://www.soilassociation.org/organic-living/organic-farming/ and grass down for a period of at least two years, is also required. Green manures help build soil organic matter, (Carbon) and retain nitrogen, but do not build N levels in the soil. Inputs of composted material will help boost fertility and build soil life and they need to come from outside the farm or the cropping area. There are Certified Stockless Organic Systems, (which are farms that do not rely on animal manures) but they do rely on external inputs that are not from animal origin. Nevertheless, the main fertility is not from peas and beans grown for food as part of the rotation. This is especially true when considering the main cereal crops grown for food; putting aside the questions of excessive carbohydrate consumption and the TD2 epidemic from processed carbohydrates http://doctoraseem.com/ The cereal food crops, wheat, oats and rye, demand high levels of nitrogen fertility. Peas and beans grown in the mix of crops supply around 30-50 kg of Nitrogen per ha for the following cereal, which needs around 150 kg N per ha to grow to a reasonable yield. Organic farmers obtain this from the clover leys. The clover ley is essential also resting the soil, building carbon and reducing weed burden in following crops. The best utilisation of these clover leys is by grazing stock using regenerative agroecological agricultural methods. https://www.savory.global/ https://3lm.network/ https://wilderculture.com/
My final concern is Monbiot’s naivety in the promotion of artificial meat. At what point does he think it will be in the ownership of small open sourced businesses? Not only does artificial meat rely on the use of genetic engineering and stem cells from animals for its origins, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultured_meat, so not cruelty or animal free, it is seen as one of the biggest investment growth areas of big food https://qz.com/1193161/tyson-foods-is-investing-in-lab-grown-meat/ https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/23/bill-gates-and-richard-branson-bet-on-lab-grown-meat-startup.html
Our food system is already badly broken. With the move to artificial meats and associated Intellectual Property dividends, that are and will continue to be in the ownership of the corporate behemoths whose actions over the past 60 years have destroyed our true food system, this is only going to continue into the future. Monbiot’s article risks singing along to the globalised corporate tune loud and clear.
I appeal to Mr Monbiot in future, to be clear, not obfuscate, to engage rather than throw stones from the side-lines, to recognise the detail, use less rhetoric and to use his undoubted intellect and power to for a collective and positive end. And who knows, his vegan fox might well be welcome in the hen house!