George Monbiot: "We face a mass extinction unless we radically and rapidly change our policies"

Livestock and agriculture are the greatest environmental threat to the planet, with the permission of fossil fuels, says zoologist George Monbiot (London, 1963). In his latest book, ‘Regenesis’ (Captain Swing) Monbiot advocates renaturation: that human beings withdraw from the huge amount of land that they use for food production and allow natural ecosystems (forests, jungles and sheets) repopulate it.

Do you think that if we continue with the current system of food production we run the risk of environmental collapse and a food bankruptcy similar to the financial crisis of 2008. What do you see closer and why?

We are facing a real danger that few are aware of. The food system is losing resilience in the same way as the financial system in 2008. This is due to a small group of international companies with similar strategies to banks in 2008. Livestock is concentrated in four global companies with the same methods of transportation and regulation everywhere. The system has lost diversity and this is very dangerous, it is a complex system like the financial system, when there are problems it does not gradually degenerate but rather collapses from one day to the next. The States injected money into the banks and saved the situation, but the food system cannot be saved in the same way, the collapse will be immediate, much worse and will impact millions of people.

Do you see it as the near future?

In 2007 we would have been laughed at if we announced the financial crisis a year later, but it was inevitable and we only see it looking back. We must reformat that system and act now.

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He is a worldwide guru of the renaturalization movement. Why is it urgent to let nature recover the land that man took from it?

We are moving very rapidly towards mass extinction of species and towards an ecological collapse similar to what happened 251 million years ago. So 90% of the species disappeared, the plants died, the desertification was massive. It seems to me that we are facing something very similar right now, unless we radically and quickly change our policies. There are two things to do, stop using fossil fuels and abandon livestock farming so that the land it occupies can be repopulated by natural ecosystems, with that we solve 95% of the problem.

Can we go extinct like the dinosaurs?

Yes, I’m talking about the Permian-Triassic extinction. The Earth’s surface was a single continent and there were massive eruptions in the Siberian area. Greenhouse gases increased the temperature by 8 to 10 degrees. This led to the mass extinction of the species and it happened between 3 and 5 degrees of warming. It took five million years for any living system to be reborn, on the beach you see the fossil of the first plant that appeared, and it took us more than ten million years to recover the biodiversity that existed. Now the temperature is also increasing by 3 to 5 degrees, with the difference that at the beginning of the Triassic it took millions of years for this to happen and now it is decades.

They have accused him of being a radical for promoting food production out of factories instead of the ground. How do you argue his proposal?

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We have spent 12,000 years exploiting the land, but most of our food is already produced in factories, especially if we talk about livestock. We raise pigs and chickens locked up in factories and kill them in them but we don’t like to think this, we prefer to think that all the milk we drink comes from grazing cows. We do not want to know, to inform ourselves. What I propose is much more efficient and much less cruel than today’s factories and it would also serve to reduce the carbon footprint.

What are the most promising initiatives in this regard? In his book he talks about perennial cereals or high-protein synthetic flours.

There are microorganisms that we could be cultivating such as bacteria and fungi, millions of species with different characteristics, it would be a question of starting the food production chain from the beginning. Its protein concentration is much higher than plants, the maximum would be soybeans, which have 37% protein. Microbial proteins are more like animal protein, taste better, and require less processing.

Although he paints a bleak picture, he believes that the pandemic has opened a propitious moment for change. Is everything possible, if there is political will?

For the last 50 years we have been told that governments can’t do anything, but in the pandemic they applied massive changes and people accepted it. They exercised their power, made unpleasant but necessary decisions. The idea that a government can make sensible decisions and enforce them was reintroduced.

Why does any change that has to do with food generate such fierce opposition?

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Food is something visceral, it goes directly to the stomach, and we associate it with our identity. If you question that, people feel threatened. But our way of eating has already radically changed: two generations ago the diet depended on the place of origin, in many cases it was not a healthy or appetizing diet, but people identified with it. In the last forty years there has been a global standard diet, people of the same social class eat in a similar way throughout the world.

And wouldn’t it help to go back to the old local diets?

Proximity food is a myth. We do not have enough land to plant close to where people live, the average distance between where the product is grown and where it is finally eaten is 2,200 kilometers.

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