Reading Notes Regenesis

Koen van Gilst

Koen van Gilst / November 27, 2022

4 min read––– views

I recently read Regenesis by George Monbiot. In that book, he tries to answer the question of how we can feed the world without devouring our planet. It shattered quite a few beliefs I had about "good" food.

One example is local food. You might think that buying food from a farmer nearby helps combat climate change, but the greenhouse gases emitted by transporting food are tiny compared to the emissions from growing them. So if you're buying out-of-season fruits or vegetables it's better to buy them fresh from far away countries than locally from heated greenhouses or cold storage.

Another example. Pasture-fed cows might lead a better life, but they're not good for our planet. Raising a cow for beef on pasture instead of green is three to four times more polluting than raising them on grain. The reason for this is simple: turning grass into protein takes longer, so the animals live longer and the longer they live, the more greenhouse gasses are released from their stomachs.

This does not mean that Monbiot recommends intensive livestock farming as a solution to climate change. On the contrary: The best way out of our farming crisis is switching to a plant-based diet:

Another paper calculates that if a magic switch were thrown, causing the entire world to shift to a plant-based diet, and the land now occupied by livestock were rewilded, the carbon drawn down from the atmosphere by recovering ecosystems would be equivalent to all the world's fossil fuel emissions from the previous sixteen years. This drawdown could make the difference between our likely failure to prevent more than 1.5°C of global heating, and our success.

At the same time, he admits that this change is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future, but it does make clear that there is a way out of our climate crisis that does not require any technological innovation. It does, however, require a complete change in the way we eat. A change that currently very few people are willing to make.

The book is also relevant for recent discussions in my home country the Netherlands about dairy farming and the ecological damage this is causing to our nature. Trees are dying, our water is highly polluted and ecological diversity is rapidly declining. I always thought that as long as you keep farms small and let cows eat grass "like they used to do", the damage to the environment should be small, or even zero.

According to Monbiot, this is not the case. Even though organic farming uses less (damaging) pesticides and fewer artificial fertilizers its yields tend to be lower. As a result of this, you need more land to produce the same amount of food. A calculation for England and Wales suggests that if all farming became organic you would need 40 percent more farmland. So to produce the same amount of food, you would need a lot more land. And that's a problem, says Monbiot.

The theme of the agricultural sprawl is something he keeps coming back to. The only way to heal our planet's climate and ecosystems is to return large parts of our agricultural lands to nature. By this "rewilding", a lot of carbon is captured and the life support systems of our planet can regenerate. According to this line of reasoning, any kind of farming that requires more farmland is part of the problem, not the solution.

After reading his book I'm wondering. How much "agricultural sprawl" is there in the Netherlands? And what would happen if we returned parts of that land to nature? By how much would that reduce our emissions and how much carbon dioxide would "rewilding", that land recapture from the atmosphere? These are tough questions to discuss in an already heated debate, but the evidence in Monbiot's book is clear: We can't go on like this if we want to keep the only life support system we've got alive.