In his new book “RegenesisJournalist and environmental activist George Monbiot describes the challenges of agriculture now and in the future. He also gives examples of how agriculture can be improved for the sustainable production of healthy food. He does it in an engaging way, combining his own experience with an impressive knowledge of the literature.
In the first chapter, Monbiot describes digging the soil in his garden. He admires the amazing soil life and its diversity, from macro-organisms such as snails, earthworms and beetles to “mesofauna” such as mites, nematodes, bacteria and fungi. For each group, he describes their functions and interactions with other soil organisms and plants, emphasizing the importance of a diverse and functional community.
He emphasizes that soil health is critical to our survival because soil processes govern the world above ground to a large extent.
Monbiot notes that such complex ecosystems cannot be understood simply by studying the individual components, and links this understanding to the threat of global warming to food production.
The historic shift in the Western diet from various crops to a few staples (such as wheat, rice, corn and soybeans) has led to the creation of a “standard farm” that grows only a few crops and requires pesticides and chemical fertilizers to maintain productivity. . This has created a vulnerability in a system that depends on markets and suppliers of seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. Added to this are the threats of drought, erosion, loss of organic matter and pollution.
Monbiot describes the flow of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment to paint a picture of the relationship of agriculture to other systems.
He discusses how wastewater from specialized dairy, pig and poultry farms containing animal excrement leads to high nutrient levels in water bodies, which in turn encourages algae growth and results in the death of other aquatic organisms—a process known as “eutrophication.”
This process is exacerbated by imported raw materials. Other pollutants from conventional agriculture include antibiotics, metals, microplastics, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides that have seeped into natural ecosystems as a result of agricultural expansion.
But Monbiot understands that nutrient release from organic farming is also difficult to control. He refutes claims that organic farming does not pollute soil and water, that eating local produce reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and that holistic livestock grazing can reverse the increase in emissions over the past 100 years.
What are the alternatives?
By painting a grim picture of current conditions and the future of soils and agriculture, Monbiot sets out to find examples of land management practices that maintain and even restore soils and ecosystems.
In the chapter titled “Productive,” he considers the case of Ian Tolhurst, the manager of a vegetable farm he set up on very poor gravel soil. Tolhurst gradually created healthy soil and has now achieved yields comparable to conventional gardening using organic management strategies.
These include the use of natural predators to control pests through flower beds on the outskirts of its fields. Tolhurst also reduced nutrient leaching by seeding his fields throughout the year with green manure crops that provide nutrients for subsequent crops. He composts wood chips as soil fertilizer and tries to grow a wide variety of vegetables.
Food waste and food transport are also considered important issues. Monbiot notes that distributing leftover food to food banks can only be a local solution to the problem of waste, as transporting it over long distances would make it uneconomical. He argues that the amount of food waste can be significantly reduced if you eat mostly plant foods.
Urban agriculture offers the means to produce food locally, but as Monbiot points out, it can only provide a fraction of the food we consume due to limited space.
Monbiot argues that we need to better understand soil fertility (or agroecology). We must use this understanding to help farmers develop management strategies that improve soil fertility in a natural and sustainable way.
But the transition to alternative farming systems has its own challenges.
Monbiot looks at the benefits of no-till, as well as the problems associated with it, such as the use of herbicides. He describes an alternative farming system based on crop rotations with legumes and grains (mostly old varieties) and grazing sheep or cattle in the fields. This system includes tillage, but only after a year.
Monbiot argues that perennial crops have many advantages over annual crops because they can grow and harvest for several years and are deeply rooted. However, he acknowledges that very few perennial crops have been studied enough to be grown on a large scale.
A future without farms?
Towards the end of The Renaissance, Monbiot turns his attention to livestock and farm subsidies, which, he argues, only encourage farmers to overstock their land and increase farming areas at the expense of the environment.
One of his last chapters presents a vision of farm-free food production using bacteria to produce carbohydrates, proteins and vitamins. This will require less time and less land than current food production. The high energy demand can be met by solar energy and other renewable energy sources.
Switching to food produced by bacteria will require major changes not only in production systems, but also in consumer preferences. The meat industry will be strongly opposed.
Monbiot argues that such a transition is necessary to save the environment, but food produced by the bacteria could mean dependence on a few large producers, which would increase transportation costs and could be out of reach for poorer countries. It also carries the risk of infection.
Monbiot ends his book with an impassioned call for us to change the way we think about agriculture and food and embrace new ideas for low-impact food production. He argues that the time has come to take back control of the global food system and create a new, rich, productive and, ideally, organic agriculture, as well as a new cuisine.
In the short chapter that concludes The Rebirth, Monbiot returns to his garden and describes his devastation when frost killed the apples shortly before harvest.
After a few weeks, he begins to prepare his garden for the next year. This story serves as a small example of how hope can overcome adversity. Monbiot’s encouraging message at the end is that we will soon come to a point where everything will change.
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Quote: The book looks at more sustainable food production methods (June 23, 2022), retrieved June 23, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-sustainable-food-production-methods.html.
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