The influential environmental activist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot stepped up his criticism of organic agriculture this week in an article that branded organic pasture-fed beef and lamb “the world’s most damaging farm products”.
In the article, Monbiot draws on arguments made in his widely acclaimed but controversial book Regenesis, which calls for a ‘techno-ethical’ revolution in food production and frames farming as “the most destructive human activity ever”.
Monbiot says that 28% of total global land use is given over to grazing pasture, more than twice that taken up by arable farming, but that this produces just 1% of the world’s protein. He dismisses the argument that well managed pasture lands mimic nature, and says the increasingly heard term ‘regenerative grazing’ is a cynical rebranding of environmentally destructive ranching.
Monbiot, a prominent advocate of rewilding, argues that pasture-fed meat production is the major cause of “agricultural sprawl”, which, he says, “inflicts a very high ecological opportunity cost” (principally, loss of biodiversity and ecosystem damage).
In recent years he has argued in favour of abandoning meat and dairy altogether in favour of wholly plant-based diets, and he is a supporter of cultured (lab-grown) meat technology as part of a land sparing strategy that focuses on the intensification of farming and food production, with large tracts of farmland turned over to nature and rewinding.
Organic and sustainable farming campaigners acknowledge the impact of Monbiot’s journalism and campaigning on climate change, biodiversity loss and social justice issues. But by singling out organic for the sharpest criticism – “a bucolic fantasy” – he has brought himself into conflict with people previously he could count on as allies. He is accused of an “absolutist” stance on animal farming and of failing, or being unwilling, to acknowledge the widely varying climate and ecological impacts of different livestock and crop systems.
Some argue that Monbiot’s alleged resistance to nuance undermines his credibility, and leads to logical overreach. As the farmer and writer Chris Smaje has put it “his remarkable assumption in Regenesis … is, effectively, that because all farming causes at least some wildlife loss, then the optimal response is to have no farming”.
“Dear George, Your book, Regenesis, and subsequent articles demonising organic pasture-fed meat, are unhelpful, polarising and alienating”
‘In love and rage’
Even if growing numbers of people believe Monbiot’s thinking is drifting into fringe territory, there are real worries inside the organic sector that his views – widely broadcast and shared – are potentially very damaging. This week, Jyoti Fernandes, campaigns coordinator at the Landworkers’ Alliance, made just this point in a personal letter to Monbiot, written “in love and rage”. It begins: “Dear George, Your book, Regenesis, and subsequent articles demonising organic pasture-fed meat, are unhelpful, polarising and alienating. The suspicion it casts on organic farming as a whole threatens to undermine the agroecology movement”. She adds “Your narrative is dangerous because the narratives of our food system hold tremendous power to leverage resources, research and development funding, subsidies, grants and regulations.”