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George Monbiot: Farming is the number one threat to the planet - and we must switch to food produced by bacteria

What if the greatest danger to the planet turned out to be something we’re not even really considering at the moment.

Yes, burning fossil fuels, releasing carbon through building more and more homes, extracting too much water, and polluting the environment with plastics, are all disastrous. But environmental campaigner George Monbiot reveals there is one industry destroying the Earth at a faster rate than any other - and that’s farming.

He’s coming to the Cambridge Literary Festival to talk about his new book, Regenesis, which sets out an extremely bleak future for the earth - within his lifetime - if we do not find a different way to feed ourselves instead of by farming livestock.

George Monbiot (60154220)
George Monbiot (60154220)

In the book, he asks how we can have healthy food that's cheap enough for everyone to eat but doesn’t wreck the environment.

And he has personally sampled a brand-new type of food that he thinks could be grown using far less of the Earth’s natural resources - if we can get over our aversion to the idea of it. Because this new foodstuff is something that sounds less than tasty and is grown in vats. However, George swears it is delicious and a change in mindset is all we need to create a revolution in farming that would save the planet. He spoke with Alex Spencer.

Why do you say in your book that farming is the number one threat to the planet?

“The way we produce our protein-rich foods at the moment requires a massive amount of environmental resources, a huge amount of land - far more than the land for anything else, particularly when it comes from pasture-fed meat, which is the most damaging of all farm products,” says George.

“And it requires loads of water, loads of pesticides, loads of herbicides, loads of fertilisers and all these are pushing Earth’s systems beyond their limits. Our food system is by far and away the most damaging impact we have on the living world. Worse than fossil fuels, worse than plastics, it is the worst thing we’re doing. It’s the biggest cause of habitat destruction, of wildlife loss, of extinction, of soil degradation, of freshwater use. And one of the biggest causes of climate breakdown and water pollution and air pollution. And anything we can do to reduce that burden would make an enormous difference.”

What is this mysterious way in which we can make farming less harmful?

“It turns out, there’s something really massive we can do which is to replace protein-rich and fat-rich foods that we now get from the flesh and secretions of animals with food produced by bacteria. And I know people recoil from that going, oh my gosh, eating bacteria. Well, the bad news is you eat bacteria with every meal. And in fact, we deliberately introduce live bacteria into some of our food like yoghurt and cheese. But by using micro-organisms, single-celled organisms, rather than pigs and chickens and soybeans and palm oil and coconut trees and stuff to produce our food, we can do it much, much more efficiently with a tiny amount of the land that’s required, a tiny amount of water, and a tiny amount of fertiliser. And if we did that, we could then release huge tracts of the planet from our impacts. So, massive amounts of land that have been used, particularly to raise farm animals, could be rewilded. And then we could bring back the forests, bring back the savannas, the wetlands, the natural grasslands, bring back the mangroves and the sea floor and the kelp forests and have a massive global rewilding, which could stop the sixth great extinction, could save Earth’s systems and could draw down a great deal of the carbon dioxide we've already released into the atmosphere. And in fact, it’s very hard to see how we’re going to get through this century unless we do that.”

George Monbiot at the Rewilding Symposium in the Babbage lecture theatre. Picture: Keith Heppell. (60154226)
George Monbiot at the Rewilding Symposium in the Babbage lecture theatre. Picture: Keith Heppell. (60154226)

What does this new food actually taste like?

“I had it made into a pancake and, amazingly, it tasted just like a pancake. The bacterial protein is turned into a type of flour and in order to make the pancake we had to dilute the flour because the flour that comes out at the end of this process is 65 per cent protein. So if you just use that flour, you’d make an omelete rather than a pancake. To make traditional pancakes, we add protein and fat to wheat flour to raise the protein and fat content. But in this case we had to add wheat flour to the bacterial flour to reduce the protein and fat content. And having done so, it made something that was identical to a normal pancake in taste. But, this isn’t just about pancakes. You can make an endless range of foods, not just substituting existing foods, but I think it could trigger a whole new cuisine just as the invention of agriculture did. That gave us bread and cheese and things that we’ve never eaten before. I think we could see that happening as a result of this revolution in the way of producing our food. It’s just really malleable. You can turn it into just about anything. And you’ve got this tremendous potential to substitute animal products but also just to make stuff we can’t even imagine at the moment any more than the first people to capture a wild cow.”

How did you hear about this new type of food as it hasn’t yet been approved for sale?

“Well, it came from a really weird place, which was a hippie friend of mine. You would normally expect hippies to adamantly oppose this sort of technology, but he’d read an article in a scientific paper and he saw the potential. He told me, this could be so much bigger than anything else we’re doing. This could be the most important environmental technology ever developed. And as soon as he put it like that, I suddenly saw it too. And I thought, Oh, yes, he’s right. He’s absolutely right about this.

“That really woke me up to it and to the fact that a lot of knee-jerk responses as environmentalists towards new technologies really aren’t very rational. And particularly when the existing technologies, which in the case of cattle ranching, go back to the Neolithic - so thousands of years - are the most damaging things we do. But because they’re so old, and we’re so familiar with them, we don’t find them damaging and we just think they’re a normal part of life. But actually, the new technologies which might horrify us, such as producing our food in factories with bacteria in a vat could actually produce our food with far lower impacts and it could be healthier and cheaper.”

How would you persuade people to eat fermented bacterial protein?

“I think a big part of the persuasion is going to be price. It’s one of the promises that comes out is some very steep cost curves similar to digital cost curves because you can produce from single-celled organisms much more cheaply than you can from multicellular organisms like chickens and pigs and crops which have been pushed to their limits.

“I mean, chickens now are brought to maturity from the egg in just five weeks. And that treatment is is abominable. I mean, if people really understood where the great majority of their animal products come from, they would be horrified that they would stop eating them straight away. Most of our most of the animal products we eat come from factories, with thousands of animals crammed together in horrendous conditions. I mean, if we did to dogs, what we do to pigs we would be thrown in jail for several years. And yet pigs are even more intelligent than dogs and, and so we sort of blind ourselves to what’s being done.

“But the reason it’s become so cruel is that these animals have been pushed to their absolute limits to produce food as quickly as possible from them. And they can’t be pushed any further. I mean, you can’t realistically take it any further down that line of cruelty and mass production than we’ve already done. But bacteria can be produced much more cheaply in a way that lends itself far better to the sort of mass production that we need if we’re going to all have enough protein to eat. And, and so it can be a lot cheaper, but also, you can ensure it’s a lot healthier. It doesn’t have all those saturated fats and the other things that meat is saturated with.

“I think what you do first is you use it to replace cheap meat like the fried chicken and the burgers and the sausages that we currently get from animals.The taste is identical, the texture is identical, but it will come in cheaper and then you start moving up the value chain substituting, replacing more and more expensive cuts of meat.”

George Monbiot’s Regenesis book cover
George Monbiot’s Regenesis book cover

What if people find the idea of eating bacteria revolting?

“The way I like to put it to people is to imagine it was the other way around. So, imagine if we already obtained our food from microbes and someone came along and said, ‘Let’s eat animals instead’. And then I found some animals we can domesticate and we just have to breed them up so that they scarcely resemble their ancestors and make them grow much faster and make them get much fatter. Then we separate them from their parents and dock their tails, cut off their horns and their tusks, and their beaks, all without anaesthetic and cram them into massive factories where we pump them full of grain, which we grow on the other side of the world. And we destroy entire ecosystems in doing so. Then all the poo goes out onto the land and half of it washes into the rivers and destroys those ecosystems as well and creates dead zones at sea. And in order to feed ourselves this way, we would have to kill 76 billion animals a year. People would be absolutely horrified by that.

“We tell ourselves that something unfamiliar is disgusting. But if you want to see what disgusting looks like, go and visit an intensive pig farm. Go visit the slaughterhouse which handles the pigs coming out of that farm, then people will see what disgusting looks like. But because that’s familiar to us, we just accept it as normal and we’re not disgusted by it. Whereas I think we should be a lot more disgusted by it then by this completely clinical, hygienic way of brewing up micro-organisms in a steel flask which is how, incidentally, we get yeast for bread making and for beer making.”

Why can’t we just swap to organic farming methods?

“I would love to see a high yield organic farming and that’s the holy grail really - to have high yields and low impacts. But at the moment there is a real problem that organic farming, on average, has considerably lower yields than conventional farming and what that means is you must use far more land to produce a given amount of food.

“It’s also another uncomfortable truth is that organic crop growing releases more nitrogen even than conventional crop growing so that’s more nitrogen going into the rivers, going into the seas, going into the atmosphere and it both causes ecological disasters and it’s a powerful greenhouse gas. But also when it comes to organic meat production, the animals take longer to raise, which means they eat more food, which means they produce more methane and more nitrous oxide and so there’s really no good solution at the moment which ticks all the boxes.

“And we need a huge amount more research and development because we can’t produce all our foods in the factory, only the protein-rich, fat-rich ones. To produce our grains, fruits and vegetables we need a lot more research and development in order to get to the point at which we can get the impacts down while keeping the yields high.”

What will happen if we don’t change the way we produce our food?

“Food production on its current trajectory will destroy itself and will probably destroy us because on a whole lot of levels it is just not sustainable. It’s tearing through the soil. Soil has been degraded and eroded much faster than it can repair itself. It’s already maxed out water supplies in many parts of the world, and there’s just no more water. Water is running out fast and yet, prospects for future food production depend on increasing the amount of water we use, which obviously is just not viable.

“It’s highly prone to climate shocks, and we’ll see more and more of the world’s breadbasket not being able to produce food anymore because it’ll be too hot, too dry. Then climate disasters such as storms and wildfires also have a massive impact on our food supply. And, and through all those damaging things that we do to the planet to produce our food, we’re helping to push Earth systems towards their tipping points and if they collapse, it’s curtains for humanity.

“We really are finished if Earth systems collapse and the industry which is pushing them towards collapse faster than any other is food production. So we just have to change. We have to get off of this trajectory, out of this death spiral.”

George Monbiot will talk more about his book ‘Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devoiuring the Planet’ at the Cambridge Literary Festival in the Cambridge Union on Friday, November 18 at 8pm. To book, visit cambridgeliteraryfestival.com.

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