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George Monbiot

The environmentalist and campaigner discusses his new book Regenesis and explains why we need to switch to “meat” made from microbes

George Monbiot, Photo: © Guy Reece

If England had an alternative national anthem it would probably be this:

  • And did those feet in ancient time
  • Walk upon England’s mountains green
  • And was the holy Lamb of God
  • On England’s pleasant pastures seen? …
  • And was Jerusalem builded here,
  • Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Like many ten-year-olds you might have joked that the answers to the questions posed by William Blake in Jerusalem are always “No”. No, the feet of Jesus did not “walk upon England’s mountains green”. No, the holy Lamb of God was not spotted among the flocks of more ordinary sheep upon our “pleasant pastures”. But it’s easy to understand why Blake thought the land of England exceptionally blessed back in 1804. Even now more than five million of us are members of the National Trust with its mission to “look after nature, beauty and history”.

The words of Jerusalem keep coming to mind as I’m reading the opening chapter of George Monbiot’s latest and characteristically provocative new book Regenesis. It’s not just the obvious Biblical reference in the title. It’s the idea that in the 2020s we’ve taken a wrong turning and England, or Britain, or indeed the entire world, may need to find an alternative Eden, because the one we have is doomed. Our “dark Satanic mills” aren’t those Blake saw at the beginning of the industrial revolution. They’re the high-volume chicken farms pumping excrement into our loveliest rivers, the slaughterhouses and meat processing factories where animals are hit with a bolt penetrating their skulls, which we then claim is them being humanely “stunned”. It’s the sewage and sludge on our beaches and the loss of habitat undermining everything from native wild bee species and butterflies to once common garden birds. Monbiot gets to the Satanic bit later in his book, but the opening chapter is, again like Blake’s Jerusalem, a love-letter to the land of England.

The elegy begins in Monbiot’s own allotment where beauty unfolds like apple blossom in spring. “It’s a wonderful place for an orchard, but a terrible place for growing fruit,” he admits, but “every year … my hopes crack open with the breaking buds. We grow Miller’s Seedling, which ripens in August and must be eaten from the tree, as the slightest jolt in transit bruises its translucent skin. It is sweet and soft, more juice than flesh. By contrast, the Wyken Pippen, hard as wood when picked …”

And so on, and so sensuous, that you can smell the flower buds and taste the fruit in Monbiot’s Allotment of Eden. Yet, inevitably, if you know his columns in The Guardian, you also meet the serpent. You taste Monbiot’s anger, directed at our mistreatment of animals, ever-increasing meat eating, large-scale industrial farming, environmental destruction and all its related problems. When we sit down for our conversation, Monbiot is quick to get to the point: “We’re seeing a massive rising demand for meat at 2.4% a year, which is just astronomical. That is putting an impossible load on the planet. We need to find something rapidly [to eat], which is indistinguishable from meat, milk and eggs, that people will accept. Ideally cheaper as well, because that’s going to be the most persuasive argument of all.”

Really? Is that all? Protein without meat but with the taste and texture of meat? Then he takes me by surprise.

“And I think we are pretty well there.”

What? George Monbiot has found the vegan Holy Grail? An alternative protein – acceptable to vegans (like him), palatable to meat eaters (like me) – without slaughtering animals for food? Yes, he’s saying precisely this. We’ll get to the details in a moment.

I caught up with him just as he ended a two-week European tour. But even that harmless endeavour gives a flavour of how Marmite Monbiot can be in a world of Bovril drinkers. Ahead of our interview I’d found nasty comments on social media, that he must be a hypocrite for “jet-setting” around. Wearily Monbiot points out the boring truth.

If England had an alternative national anthem it would probably be this:

“I’ve been taking a train. Didn’t fly anywhere. First of all Ghent, then Düsseldorf, Stockholm, Upsala and Amsterdam, talking about what some of us hope will be the new food economy.”

And – this is the good bit – sampling the new food economy too. Threaded into the Twitter abuse are picture Monbiot took of his dinner. It looks like the best fillet steak any carnivore could imagine. And no, George Monbiot is no more a secret meat eater than a closet petrol head or F15 pilot. His “steak” was made from a potentially revolutionary process called microbial fermentation. We are talking fermented bugs for dinner.

Monbiot laughs at the idea of eating a vegan steak that looks like real steak. “Quite disturbing for a vegan like me. This can’t be right. It just feels wrong. Not perfect on flavour, but the texture was just right”

Steak made from fermented microbes. Photo: George Monbiot, Twitter

“Really uncanny,” is how Monbiot puts it. He laughs at the idea of eating a vegan steak that looked like, well, steak. “Quite disturbing for a vegan like me. I was thinking, ‘This can’t be right. It just feels wrong. Not perfect on flavour, but the texture was just right. They really had cracked it. And so, if you swap out all the plant proteins, which don’t make good animal substitutes, and you bring in microbial proteins instead, you can do it much more easily, more cheaply, with a radically reduced list of ingredients and much less processing.”

A seasoned campaigner, Monbiot is highly aware of the obvious yuck factor – fermented bugs for dinner? You’re kidding me? – and mentions it before I can ask. But he isn’t kidding. In his book, Monbiot explains that if eating a steak made from fermented microbes sounds dreadful, just think what lies behind that real steak or poultry or bacon you have been gnawing on, the one from a fattened calf or chicken or pig. And, if like most of us, your mind is refusing to cooperate with this task, he spells it out:

“Let’s separate the young from their mothers,”, he writes in Regenesis. “Castrate them, dock their tails, clip their beaks, teeth and horns, without anaesthesia, herd them into barns and cages, subject them to extreme boredom and sensory deprivation for their short distressing lives; stun them, cut their throats, skin, pluck and hack their bloody flesh into chunks that you, the lucky customer, will want to eat (oh, yes you will!) … we’d need to slaughter only 75 billion animals a year. Let’s kill the baby aurochs (ancient cattle), extract chemicals from the linings of their fourth stomachs, and mix it with milk from lactating mothers of the same species to create a wobbly mass of fat and protein … Come on, you know you want this!”

The problem, I suggest to Monbiot, is that despite all the facts about meat farming, around the world increasing numbers of us really do want to eat meat. In developing countries, it can be a sign of modernity and wealth. On a recent visit to Turkey – a country with, to my taste, some of the best cuisine in the world – I was stunned to see crowds at an Istanbul KFC, part of the Global Standard Diet Monbiot finds so upsetting, with meat produced in the Global Standard Farm. Even here in Britain we pretend that the mega-carnivore John Bull is a symbol of national decency and vigour, without stopping to consider that by eating meat from bulls, he may eventually be masticating his own demise.

Indeed, I suggest to Monbiot, the British are very peculiar in all this. We love our pets. We profess hatred of cruelty to animals. We even have activists who think it important to send a plane to Afghanistan to rescue dogs while Afghans who helped British soldiers are left behind to deal with the Taliban. And we are then happy to emulate John Bull and eat a meat-heavy Sunday lunch full of … well, bull.

Precision fermentation is the production of animal-like proteins from microbes and bacteria

“It’s so weird,” Monbiot responds. “We kill 76 billion animals a year (it’s gone up a billion since the book was published) to feed us. A great proportion are chickens and pigs, kept on the whole in horrendous conditions, packed into massive factories. If we treated dogs or cats like that, we’d be sent to prison. And somehow this is just normalised, just an ordinary part of our lives. Some people three times a day eat the products of animals kept in these horrible conditions, [animals which] place impossible strains on the living world because of their feed demands and the manure they produce, which has to go somewhere. The land can’t absorb it. It goes into rivers and causes huge ecological problems as well as building antibiotic resistance. There is a deep but well-suppressed cognitive dissonance among many meat eaters who persuade themselves that what they are doing is not what they’re doing.”

“We’re spending billions on the Mars Rover programme to find out about the surface of that planet, yet we know almost nothing about the surface of our own”

Despite all this, Monbiot remains, remarkably, an optimist. In Regenesis that optimism expands into an extended tribute to animals we don’t cuddle – earthworms and other soil creatures. These are the key to human survival, despite the fact – as Monbiot puts it – that we treat the earth “like dirt” “Earthworm burrows,” he writes, “can last for many years, sometimes decades, and are used like our homes by successive generations. Every hectare of stable, grassy land might be reamed by 8,000 kilometres of earthworm burrows.”

At one point in our conversation, he becomes so animated that for the next ten minutes I listen as he explains with a mixture of science and awe, how earthworms are just the beginning.

“Soil is possibly the most complex of all ecosystems. It’s as diverse and abundant as any rainforest or coral reef. Just like a coral reef, it’s a biological structure built by the organisms that inhabit it. It’s structured, starting with bacteria, making their little capsules, the organic carbon in the soil as cement to stick together the mineral particles. And then the little scuttling creatures in the soil, the micro-arthropods build slightly bigger lumps out of those bacterial plasters and the giants of the soil, like ants and earthworms, build their structures out of those little clusters.”

This is like discovering a new world for me. The less encouraging news is that soil researchers and academic specialists soon found that there’s little appetite from governments, universities or agribusiness companies to fund studies of this new world, the complexities of the soil and the animal life in it and on it. But there is plenty of money for research into something else – ways of killing bugs as “pests”.

“There’s always money for killing stuff,” Monbiot responds phlegmatically. “It’s very hard to find money for even discovering how (the soil) works. This is massively underfunded. Soil science is where other branches of science were decades ago. Our priorities are just weird. We’re spending billions of dollars on the Mars Rover programme to find out about the surface of that planet, yet we know almost nothing about the surface of our own.”

Monbiot’s campaigning means he is persona non grata in seven countries for his irritating habit of suggesting that the Earth is being plundered and great animals destroyed by unthinking governments, uncontrolled farming and ruthless deforestation. Since his own version of “dark Satanic mills” includes slaughterhouses, sheep farms, agribusiness, fish farms, rapacious trawlers destroying ocean habitats, insecticide and fertiliser factories, and governments – most of them anyway – that tolerate all this, Monbiot has been shot at, threatened, beaten up and (in Indonesia) jailed in absentia. Some people, quite literally, hate George Monbiot.

I suspect this is not because they know he is wrong. They hate him because secretly they know Monbiot is probably right. Being confronted by our own hypocrisy about animals (or anything else) is not pleasant. It’s made much worse when we are confronted by a scientifically literate (Oxford degree in Zoology), calmly argumentative, combination of doom and hope. For a moment Monbiot turns back to the doom.

“I think the most promising approach is what’s called precision fermentation. It reduces the land area required for agriculture by 17,000 times”

“With massively rising meat eating, huge habitat destruction, greenhouse gas emissions, river pollution, if we don’t break that trajectory and reverse the way it’s gone, we really are stuffed. Only four per cent [by weight] of the mammals on earth are wild; 36 per cent are human beings; 60 per cent is livestock. On the current path, by 2050, there’ll be an extra 100 million tons of human beings on earth and an extra 400 million tons of livestock. That’s a real population crisis. People go on about the human population but actually it’s just about the only environmental indicator which is plateauing. Livestock population is skyrocketing, 2.4 per cent a year. So, are we going to have no wild mammals left? No wild places left?”

He pauses and then reverts to the hope. “But we can get out of that trajectory.”

What? I say. How?

“I think the most promising approach,” Monbiot explains, harking back to that steak dinner in Sweden, “is what’s called precision fermentation, the production of animal-like proteins, or indeed actual animal proteins, from microbes, from bacteria and yeast, some of which don’t need any agricultural feed stocks at all. They can eat hydrogen or methanol which you can produce from renewable electricity. And you can shrink the environmental footprint of that production to a dot. There’s one paper looking at the land required for producing protein by microbial fermentation compared to the most efficient way of producing protein from agriculture today, (soy farming in the US). And it [microbial fermentation] reduces the land area required by 17,000 times. If you use the same figures and apply it to beef production, it reduces the land area required by 138,000 times. So that gives us this extraordinary opportunity to release land from human impact and allow it to be rewilded, to allow ecological restoration.”

Even with that degree of optimism, Monbiot openly discusses some disagreements he’s had with other activists in the environmental movement. He is, for example, reluctantly in favour of nuclear power as one of our least worst options. But all these disagreements are at the margins compared to Monbiot’s most difficult job. As an erudite environmental missionary, his most difficult job is to make us think. We – especially occasional meat eaters like me – need to reflect on the contradictions in the ways in which we regard animals, the cuddly fluffy lambs which miraculously become delicious and juicy lamb chops without any real consideration of the upsetting method of going from one to another.

“Whenever you confront legacy industries you’re going to get massive pushback,” he explains. “We’re at a similar place with livestock now as we were twenty years ago with fossil fuels. You have to explain almost from scratch why there’s a problem. There’s massive denial, massive pushback – from the industry and also from people who say, ‘Out of my cold dead hands, this steak is my steak.’ It’s become highly politicised. The alt-right is very big into hyper-meat eating. I think it’s fair to say that most people side with the status quo, and that’s a massive human weakness. We often tell ourselves that the primary instinct is the survival instinct. I don’t think that’s true. I think our primary instinct is the obedience instinct. We often put that well ahead of our survival. We’re quite happy to be marched over the cliff. This is why disobedience is such an important property in politics.”

“The eight billion hungry human mouths the world has to feed right now means you can buy pizza in China, Chinese food in Peru, tacos in Alaska and American style hamburgers anywhere”

As our conversation comes to an end I’m thinking of reasons to be cheerful. We have the prospect of a new and (eventually) delicious steak substitute which perhaps will satisfy all kinds of appetites for change, and for dinner. Isn’t that a start? Yes, but Monbiot prescribes something not quite so tasty. “What all those changes require is not just doing new stuff but ceasing to do the old stuff. Otherwise it’s like saying, ‘Well, I had two tubs of ice cream today, but I also had a salad, so I don’t understand why I’m not losing weight.’ There are only two things you need to do to prevent climate breakdown. One is leaving fossil fuels in the ground. The other is to stop farming animals. Then you’ve solved 95-96% of the problem. All the rest is just details.”

Monbiot in his orchard. Photo: © Stuart Simpson/Penguin Random House

At this point I’m sorry we have come to the end of our conversation. But I’ve realised that despite how much George Monbiot loves the countryside and displays all the pastoral enthusiasm of William Blake, he’s from a different literary work altogether. His alter ego is from Henrik Ibsen’s play Enemy of the People. The scientist, Dr Stockmann, scandalises the spa town in which he lives by exposing the fact that the waters on which the town’s economy depends are contaminated by bacteria. Dr Stockmann has facts, statistics and science on his side. Monbiot has something along the same lines.

Regenesis ends with a hundred pages of carefully organised references, detailed sources and the citations you might expect in a PhD thesis. His research, his opinions and his elegiac writing about England are part Garden of Eden, part Vision of Hell. The eight billion hungry human mouths the world has to feed right now means you can buy pizza in China, Chinese food in Peru, tacos in Alaska and American style hamburgers just about anywhere. The Global Standard Diet requires the Global Standard Farm. The Global Standard Farm in turn requires cash crops such as wheat, soy and palm oil. In the Ibsen play, Dr Stockmann stood alone. He was attacked on all sides, but he was also right.

Science and facts are not matters of evanescent opinion. Monbiot is also far from alone. His use of science and facts brings with it many admirers, along with many unresolved battles. Again like Stockmann, George Monbiot is embroiled in a struggle which he may not win, but the contradictions he explores about how we see and use animals are something we cannot avoid. Like the townsfolk surrounding Stockmann’s spa, we can pretend there isn’t a problem with the way we look at animals, but even as we tuck into our steaks and fried chicken, we know what the problem is. It’s not other animals. It’s us.

George Monbiot’s “Regenesis” published by Random House is out now

Gavin Esler is a broadcaster and author, most recently, of “How Britain Ends”

December 2022, People

1 Comment. Leave new

  • Avatar
    Dr Arnoud Budelman
    9 December 2022 10:49 AM

    Beautifully done, that interview. George Monbiot is, like that other UK-born moral giant James Lovelock, a modern appearance of an Old Testament prophet…

    Reply

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