With so much dietary and political tribalism nowadays, I find it is very important to listen to and read varying viewpoints including many opposing points of view that challenge my own. So, I picked-up and read a copy of George Monbiot’s new book, Regenesis. Not sure I was expecting any great insights, but still I felt it was important to read Monbiot’s book cover to cover (as well as some of his references) to understand where he was coming from before offering any sort of critique.
While I appreciated Monbiot’s realization as to the importance of soil health and shared his concerns about the worst aspects of agricultural production, the short version of my review is that I didn’t find much of what Monbiot had to offer very insightful or challenging. Most of the arguments he puts forth in his book, he’s written about in his Guardian column and stated in debates for the past two or three years. I’ve also previously critiqued some of those arguments here, here and here. So, aside from a wrinkle or two, at least for me there wasn’t much if any new ground covered in Monbiot’s new agenda driven book. Plus what’s especially ironic is that most of the research Monbiot relies upon doesn’t account for any of the newer soil science that Monbiot recently discovered. This is especially true in regards to land carrying capacity, soil organic matter formation and yields of organic systems.
A large part of the problem is that Monbiot, a vegan, relied heavily on advocacy research conducted by other vegans. Besides this research NOT looking at degraded soil systems, such research is also set-up with modeling, methodologies and bad assumptions to make livestock, especially pasture based livestock, look as awful as possible. This research is then used by other organizations (that Monbiot referenced) like One World in Data [OWiD] and the World Resources Institute [WRI] to generate materials (especially graphics) to further this advocacy. All of this research and materials are then given a greater audience by media outlets like the BBC, NPR and the outlet Monbiot works for The Guardian. Coincidentally philacapitalists like the Bill and Medlinda Gates Foundation [BMGF] provide funding and or donations to organizations like OWiD, WRI and media outlets like the BBC, NPR and The Guardian.
So whether Monbiot realizes it or not, his vilification of livestock, and his push for synthetic meat alternatives (which includes fermented proteins), neatly align with and further Bill Gates’s agenda and investment strategies. Thus , given Monbiot’s politics, it’s incredibly ironic that Monbiot doesn’t even recognize that he’s BMGF’s useful pawn. So Monbiot ultimately argues against an egalitarian small ‘d’ democratic open source system of food production, regenerative Ag, in favor of a capitally intensive corporatist patent protected solution that’s funded by billionaires and venture capitalists.
(As explained in this article in very left leaning The Nation, philacapitalist organizations like BMGF donate a small percentage of their income to maintain their non-profit status. They do this strategically to media outlets, institutions and researchers that will generate favorable content (news stories, editorials, policies, and research) that can be used to manufacture consent for their intellectual property [IP] controlled investment strategies).
As for a longer version of my review and response to Monbiot’s book, please continue reading. Monbiot got so many things wrong and ass backwards that one could write another book just correcting all of his mistakes and biases. So my apologies, in advance, for the length of the below reply.
After Monbiot made discoveries about soil health, the complexity of soil ecosystems, and illustrated a few of the many problems with agricultural food production, in the first couple chapters of his new book (which I largely applauded and concurred with), Monbiot very absolutely and confidently proposed solutions to all of these food production problems he described. To people relatively new to these topics, especially soil science and the adverse impacts of industrial agriculture, Monbiot’s self-assured black or white absolutism may be mistaken for actual learning. It isn’t. This absolutism is actually quite ironic since one of the best tools available to quickly rebuild healthy soils is well managed livestock. I’ll detail why further below. Though for those more familiar with this subject matter, it became quickly and painfully obvious that Monbiot’s understanding of soil science, range science, atmospheric chemistry, botany, agricultural production…or pretty much all the topics he discussed in Regenesis…was and still is very shallow. This is largely due to Monbiot’s over reliance on advocacy driven research that looked at degraded soil ecosystems and thus didn’t account for any of the more recent soil microbiological science that Monbiot discovered in the first chapter of his book.
In order to write his book, Monbiot claimed to have read 5,000 papers and a half a shelf of other books on these subjects. If this is indeed true, unfortunately Monbiot lacked the critical analytical ability and sufficient scientific background to properly understand most of the research that he read. In particular, he didn’t understand the methodological limitations of all the advocacy papers he read to confirm his biases. Those biases include his religious belief that any and all livestock is inherently destructive, and that any sort of regenerative system inherently will produce lower yields than industrial systems of food production. So rather than more nuanced discussions, based on an honest concerted objective effort to search for best agricultural practices, readers are left with over generalizations, polarization, worst case scenarios (catastrophization), out of context statistics, a new techno-optimistic meta-narrative and Monbiot’s never ending neo-colonial mythological pursuit of pristine wilderness. This pursuit of this myth along with Monbiot’s propensity to use out of context statistics are especially ironic given Monbiot’s admonitions toward the end of his book regarding the need to contextualize numbers and not rely on myths. What’s even more ironic is Monbiot’s insistence on system thinking when Monbiot seems completely incapable of any in depth holistic thought.
A large part of Monbiot’s problem is his over reliance on meta-analysis from ivory tower researchers who share his white hat biases. These researchers also think livestock is the root of all evil. None of these researchers understand any of the newer microbial soil science. So they don’t even realize that their respective meta-analysis are primarily looking at degraded soil ecosystems. More importantly many of these researchers in their ivory towers seem to be even more disconnected from their topics of research (food production) than Monbiot. So keyword searches on computer screens replace any in situ empiricism while activism masquerades as science. Some of this disconnection is amusing, though most just borders on satire.
Monbiot directs some of his most vicious vitriol toward pastured or extensive management especially holistic or regenerative grazing. Regenerative grazing is a tool to restore soil and ecosystem health. So naturally Monbiot claims that such grazing management is the absolutely worst kind possible. Why? This form of grazing management undermines Monbiot’s mission. Monbiot’s mission is to spare land for his myth of pristine wilderness and position precision fermentation as an alternative to meat. To achieve those goals, he cites predictable references to “prove” that extensive or pastured livestock systems are the worse systems imaginable. I note “predictable” since these references are the ones typically cited to “debunk” any form of regenerative grazing system that uses or integrates livestock. So these references include papers by the usual suspects including Hayek, Garnett, Briske and Poore on issues ranging from land use, environmental degradation, soil carbon sequestration and, of course, enteric methane. More specifically in regards to methane, Monbiot also demonstrates that he doesn’t understand how the new GWP* metric works. How carbon actually cycles and hydroxyl oxidation works seem to be beyond Monbiot’s limited ability to system think.
To get a better sense of how Monbiot’s arguments against regenerative grazing systems are nothing but a house of cards, it helps to look at some of the specific references that he cited. So, let’s start with a 2018 paper co-authored by animal rights activist Matthew Hayek. This paper basically argued that there’s not enough land to produce the same amount of beef in extensive pastured systems as is currently produced in feedlot production. This paper relied on slaughter weight calculations as well as forage data from two prior studies by Gidon Eshel (Eshel et al 2014, Eshel et al 2017) another proponent of plant based diets and getting rid of beef production. Both authors parsed existing data based on a set of assumptions that excluded best practices of forage production as Eshel notes in his introduction as follows:
“…such beef production changes would be accompanied by enhanced grassland productivity (for example, direct integration of cattle ranching with agricultural, enhanced rotations or increased reliance on legume enriched paddocks) and embedded or broader structural changes that take nimble advantage of resource multi-purposing (for example, high yield silvopasture systems in which beef and timber share the same land. Here, however, we set out to explore the narrower problem of quantifying “sustainable” beef availability under existing conditions and practices…”
Hayek made a similar qualification:
“…Statistical and processed-based modeling can assess under performing areas, which could be optimized through better fertilizing, soil conditioning, and rotational management. Currently, less than 2% of all agricultural lands in the US undergo a rotation between cropland and pasture, though this type of management is known to increase forage productivity. The required 30% increase in the overall cattle population must be accompanied by large increases in the productivity of existing pastures, on the order of 40%–370%, to avoid clearing additional native vegetation or competition with the human food supply.…”
These two aren’t soil or range scientists. They’re also not agroecologists. So neither, in their respective data analysis, accounted for the current state of soil and land degradation. Thus they didn’t account for the increased quality and amount of forage production that’s possible with improved soil health, better grazing management, and the increased utilization of integrated systems. With integrated systems (silvopasture, cover crop grazing, pasture cropping, etc), crops, specialty crops and livestock can all be raised on the SAME land. With higher quality forage (more nutrient dense), higher average daily gains [ADG] can be achieved.
Instead these two, in order to push their agenda, used low numbers for average daily gains [ADG] and no where near optimal numbers for forage production. I corresponded with several grazing experts (Dr. Jason Rowntree, Dr. Allen Williams, and Dale Strickler) who all independently noted that with adaptive multi-paddock [AMP] grazing management, an ADG of 2.7 to 3.0 could be easily obtained. AMP is another term for holistic planned grazing [HPG]…though not the same thing as short duration grazing [SDG]. Now what figure did Hayek and Eshel use? An ADG of 1.4. An ADG of 1.4 versus 2.8 doubles the finishing times for grass finished cattle. Thus an ADG of 1.4 will take a lot more forage and time (30 months) than an ADG of 2.7 to 3 that will require instead around 18 to 21 months. So with better grazing management during all phases of beef cattle production, better grazing management can greatly reduce the amount of forage (and land) needed as well as the gross methane emitted. I will discuss methane further below.
A number of recent papers (Wang et al 2018, Hillenbrand et al 2019, Apfelbaum et al 2021, Mosier et al 2022), also show in side by side comparisons of AMP managed systems versus more conventional ones, that due to improvements in soil health and increased forage production, those ranches using AMP management can increase their carrying capacities over 300%…..sometimes even more…. a lot more. So a lot more cattle can be put on the same amount of land. In this below video clip presentation by soil scientist and former NRCS official Ray Archuleta, where desert in Mexico was restored to grasslands, the carrying capacity of the land was increased over 1200%. So, land utilization for grazing is no where near optimized due to soil and land degradation, thus the “not enough land” argument is a complete fallacy largely promulgated by anti-livestock activists and alternative protein sales people citing research from other anti-livestock activists and alt-protein sales people. Though I suppose Monbiot and his fellow anti-livestock activists prefer desert crusts to restored grasslands.
(As a sidebar, it’s also worth noting that India has over 300 million head of cattle and water buffalo on about a third the square miles as the United States – excluding Alaska- with soil that’s even more degraded than in the United States).
As a further expression of this fallacious reasoning, Monbiot also argued that all possible grazing land has been used. This is another argument based on a statistic cherry picked from another paper (Sterling and Ducarne, 2008) he read. Therefore, Monbiot concluded the only place for possible grazing expansion is on deforested land. BMGF funded World Research Institute’s (WRI) Tim Searchinger frequently makes this same argument. But these two, and others spewing this disinformation, again seem completely incapable of recognizing that extensive soil degradation across the world drastically diminishes optimization of current land use. The extent of this degradation is brilliantly detailed in Dr. David Montgomery’s 2008 book Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (which along with all of David’s other books I highly recommend for others to read). As Montgomery details in his 2008 book, this degradation has been largely due to bad agricultural practices including traditional practices like tillage and bare fallows as well as more modern practices like mono-cropping, use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. And yes, bad grazing management is also to blame for this land and soil degradation particularly where land has been over and continuously grazed.
What’s very ironic about all of the ivory tower researchers plus polemicists like Monbiot is that they all rely on the grazing science of proponents of continuous grazing [CG] management like David Briske to “debunk” the use of AMP or HPG. Grazed and Confused (Garnett et al 2017) basically copied its arguments from Nordborg’s 2016 paper which relied heavily on Briske’s research (Briske et al. 2008). Why is this ironic? Because CG is the type of grazing management that has led to the land degradation and biodiversity loss that these ivory tower researchers, environmentalists and Monbiot all disdain. CG lets cattle wander across the land making cattle much more prone to over graze their preferred forages, conflict with predators, wander into riparian areas, etc. This is the type of grazing with minimal human management causing the destruction noted in the meta-analysis (Fleischner 1994, Filazzola et al 2020) Monbiot cited. Though I’m actually not sure how closely Monbiot read the more recent meta-analysis since this meta-analysis included several papers (Ranellucci et al. 2012; Schmidt et al. 2012; Verga et al. 2012; Tabeni et al. 2013) where grazing increased biodiversity and reduced fire frequencies (Davies et al. 2009). So, contrary to Monbiot’s polarized cognitive disorder, everything in the world isn’t black or white.
Monbiot’s eco-centricity (based upon living in the humid UK) seems to also make him unwilling or incapable of understanding how dry fire ecosystems work and that grazing ruminants are a very useful tool to reduce fine fuel loads (Davies et al. 2020). Reducing fine fuel loads reduces the intensity of fires so that when fires do break out, those fires don’t ladder up trees and aren’t as severe. Thus a ruminant’s role in fire mitigation also reduces the amount of pyrogenic green house gases (CO2, CO & CH4) emitted by fire into the atmosphere. Reducing these GHG’s also preserves the availability of hydroxyl radicals for other methane oxidation from a number of other biogenic sources. I noted this briefly in item number three of this recent blog: Methane persistence and hydroxyl radical availability.
The house of cards that Monbiot and others built against HPG relying on Briske’s research is also ironic for another reason: Briske’s research looked at SDG management not HPG or AMP management (Teague 2013). What’s always interesting about critiques of AMP management is that most of its critics don’t really know what AMP management is and how it works. Additionally and unfortunately a lot of the terminology used leads to a lot of miscommunication and misunderstandings (Gosnell et al. 2020). So, in other words, contrary to what Monbiot’s sources believe (Carter et al. 2014, Garnett et al 2017), SDG and AMP (aka HPG) are NOT the same thing. SDG is a prescriptive way to move cattle based on stocking rates and set times. Whereas with AMP, there’s a lot more flexibility and managerial input based on the specific context and the longer term ecological and economic goals of the rancher, farmer or land steward.
Contrary to Monbiot’s over generalized critique of all range management, well managed AMP grazing improves soil health, forage quality, below and above ground biodiversity as well as increases ecosystem function and services (Teague and Kreuter, 2020; Rowntree et al. 2020). Unlike CG management, AMP grazing keeps cattle bunched in herds with either flexible hot wire (not fixed fencing) or stockmanship. Cattle typically occupy less than a percent or two of a ranch any one time. Some ranches are even just used seasonally with stockers. All of the rest of the land is preserved grassland, silvopasture or oak savanna that’s shared with other wildlife. Most of the ranches I’ve been on that use AMP or HPG management are more like nature preserves with lots of birds, ground squirrels, badgers, and even bobcats, Tule elk and mountain lion. They are wild open spaces. So it’s not surprising that the Audubon Society has partnered with ranchers for a bird friendly conservation ranching certification program (Nemo 2017; Oldham, 2020). What’s good for herds is also good for birds.
And no, not all land historically succeeded to forest. Before mankind’s arrival to many regions of the world, including the United Kingdom, mastodons and or mammoths created savanna and large herds of auroch, bison, steppe bison, other ruminants and herbivores also grazed land keeping it from succeeding. As explained in the below video clip, after the extinction or extirpation of most of these animals, man became the keystone species that controlled the succession of soils and plants using fire as a tool. In North America, First Nation people tended the land until relatively recently. Pristine wilderness was just a myth created by settlers and colonists after they cleared conquered land of its indigenous people through disease, genocide and relocation (Dowie 2011). Monbiot’s desire to perpetuate this myth of pristine wilderness just makes him another inadvertent racist neo-colonist. I note “inadvertent” since Monbiot isn’t even cognizant of his intrinsic racism.
Getting back to soil ecosystems and seeing how central regenerating soil health is to AMP management in both range land and integrated systems (e.g. cover cropping, silvopasture, pasture cropping, etc), what’s especially dumbfounding about Monbiot’s book is his concerted effort to negate any possible positive role well managed livestock can have in regenerating land, storing carbon, fixing the water cycle, increasing biodiversity, etc. For someone who purports to be such a system thinker, he doesn’t understand how soil health, botany, biodiversity, the carbon and water cycles are all interconnected and interdependent. He also doesn’t seem to understand how all these factors impact the climate.
Heck, Monbiot doesn’t even understand the new paradigm as to how soil organic matter [SOM] formation occurs via the microbial carbon pump [MCP] feeding fungi and microbes that die and become microbial necromass (Liang et al. 2017; Liang et al, 2019; Liang et al. 2020), or the different types of soil organic matter that are formed: mineral associated organic matter [MAOM] and particulate organic matter [POM] (Lavallee et al 2019). Instead Monbiot relied on an article from Quantamagazine (Popkin 2021) and two meta-analysis (Garnett et al. 2017; Luo et al 2010) to “prove” that the potential for soils to sequester carbon is grossly overstated. Well, the article he cited relied solely on the decomposition pathway for its understanding of SOM formation, and didn’t even know that newer MCP/necromass pathway paradigm existed. And the two meta-analysis cited both rely on older soil science papers that don’t even mention the words soil microbiology. In 2018, I wrote a blog response to FCRN’s meta-analysis (Garnett et al. 2017): It’s the soil biology, stupid! In this blog, I pointed out how soil science had undergone a revolution over the past 5 to 10 years due to huge improvement of molecular techniques, sequencing technology, and bioinformatics. FCRN’s authors didn’t account for any of this newer soil science in their analysis. The second meta-analysis Monbiot cited later in the book (Luo et al 2010) was even worse. So basically both of those meta-analysis Monbiot cited are already largely obsolete.
FCRN’s authors thus also didn’t recognize that the soil sink is NOT finite, and thus doesn’t fill up or become “saturated”. Yes, labile carbon expires, but as long as photosynthesis is occurring and roots are in the ground exuding carbon metabolites, more necromass will accumulate down as deep as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi networks will travel. Thus more soil is built quickly that can store more carbon. Contrary to old paradigms, soil doesn’t take hundreds of years to build an inch as was previously believed solely through weatherization of minerals. I went over this subject matter in another old blog post, Soil carbon saturation: Myth of reality? The Carbon Underground’s Tom Newmark offered another and excellent perspective on this topic in his article, Don’t Call Mother Nature a Sink!
Further on in his book, Monbiot again displays his very cursory understanding of microbial soil science during visits to three farms including a stock free produce farm (Tolhurst Organic), a no-till farm and an agro-ecology farm.
I was especially amused by some of Monbiot’s conversation with Lain Tolhurst (Tolly) , since it was painfully obvious that these two had a very limited understanding of the soil science that makes Tolly’s system viable (though not optimal) in Tolly’s humid environment with year round rainfall near Redding, England. In a drier, non-humid environment with seasonal rainfall, like in many more parts of the world including where I live, Tolly’s system of using diverse multi-species cover crops as “pre-crops” in his seven year rotation (that he mows and lets decompose as green manures on fields) wouldn’t work as well. Why? Without higher humidity and regular rainfall, the chop and dropped covers wouldn’t quickly decompose and provide CO2….just not enough moisture. If ploughed-in, they’d destroy the soil structure. Thus they would need to be collected, composted, and re-applied to provide organic material for the decomposition pathway. These green manures provide CO2 for photosynthesis and the bio-accumulated nutrients drawn up by the variety of root structures interconnected by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi [AMF], but it’s primarily the AMF that mine and other soil microbes that make existing minerals in the soil bio-available to the plants in forms that plants can use through several pathways that I described in a lot more detail in this 2020 blog post: Restoring the plant’s soil microbiome.
Plus Tolly pretty much has to rebuild his soil organic matter every seven years since he ploughs through his AMF and depletes his organic matter during his seven year rotation cycle. Thus, despite the humidity and year round rain fall, he still needs a lot of irrigation. If he retained higher levels of soil organic matter, he’d retain higher levels of moisture since every percent of organic matter retains up to 26,000 gals (98,421 liters) of water per acre. AMF networks also greatly extend the root zones of plants allowing them to obtain more and remote water in addition to phosphorus, organic nitrogen and other nutrients.
What’s also somewhat amusing is that Monbiot thought Tolly’s practices were a completely novel way to grow food reducing the need for synthetic, mined or organic inputs. They’re not. Using cover crops, protecting soil (soil armor), having minimal disturbance and having living roots in the soil as long as possible are tenets of regenerative production that farmers like David Brandt, Gabe Brown and others have been advocating for the past twenty plus years especially as a way to reduce or eliminate nitrogen inputs and reduce costs.
Now Monbiot’s obvious agenda driven argument with Tolly’s farm is that animal manures aren’t necessary to grow food as many traditional and organic farmers argue. And yes, this is true. David Brandt doesn’t utilize step six in the above diagram and many other regenerative farmers exclude livestock for regulatory reasons. There are a number of ways to unlock fertility in the soil by stimulating microbiology without adding manure or synthetic NPK’s. Though like a vegan diet is sub-optimal due to deficiencies of pre-formed fat soluble vitamins and other essential nutrients, vegan farming methods are sub-optimal for both building soil organic matter quickly and having an economically viable operation. So stock free farming is possible, but it’s far from ideal.
Livestock integration provides a lot of benefits. Ruminants, in particular, are mowers, solar powered composters, and manure/microbe spreaders. But before describing these benefits in more detail, it’s necessary to distinguish between manure from livestock on pasture in a regenerative operation versus manure from livestock in an industrial one.
As Monbiot illustrates manure in confined operations often contains high amounts of the antibiotics fed to these animals. Many of these antibiotics are provided at sub-therapeutic levels to prevent disease due to crowded or stressful conditions. These antibiotics pass through the livestock into their manures and are composted or contained in slurry lagoons. Many of these manures from confined operations, as Monbiot also noted, are applied to organic market farms growing produce. Whereas with regenerative operations, livestock are only given antibiotics if needed to treat infections. So the manure from ruminants is essentially green manures (plants) composted through the oral and gut microbiomes of cattle, goats, sheep, bison, etc. Going through the digestive systems of ruminants expedites decomposition of organic matter especially in arid and semi-arid climates where less moisture is present. This pathway also speeds up nutrient and carbon cycling.
When green manures go through the oral and gut microbiomes of ruminants, this greatly increases the amount of microbes in the digested liter. So the application of green manures alone- versus green and animal manures- results in less soil microbial activity (Edesi et al. 2013). Remembering again that SOM is in large part the result of accumulated microbial necromass, the more microbial activity the better. Why? The more microbial activity, the more necromass is created and the more SOM is formed.
Furthermore ruminants co-evolved with the plants in their ecosystems (Retallack, 2013). So it’s not surprising that enzymes in ruminants saliva spur plant growth (Gullap et al 2011) after grazing. Grazing also redirects the plant’s fixed carbon down through the plant’s phloem as exudates into the rhizosphere rather than up to the plant’s reproductive flowers or seeds (Wilson et al. 2018). With good grazing management when cattle graze off the tops of grasses, the cattle keep grasses in a vegetative phase rather than allow grasses to proceed into a reproductive phase. Thus grazing actually increases carbon flow and sequestration as soil scientist Dr. Kristine Nichols described in this below video.
Nature’s beautiful complexity doesn’t end there. Regenerative operations also reduce or eliminate other drugs like anti-parasitic drugs (avermectin) given as dewormers. When these drugs are reduced, dung beetles populations can be restored. Dung beetles quickly break down manure and incorporate it into the soil. This fast breakdown by dung beetles of manure actually reduces the methane and nitrous oxide emissions of the manure (Iwasa et al 2015). And since dung beetles are keystone species, they determine the shape of other insect communities, which reduces the need for any chemical control of parasites that may infect livestock (Pecenka & Lundgren 2019).
There are even more advantages to using grazing ruminants to terminate cover crops and graze crop residues. One big one is the ability to reduce or eliminate the use of glyphosate formulations. During his visit with the no-till farmer, Monbiot mentioned some of the problems with glyphosate. Though he forgot a few of the larger problems including glyphosate chelates soil nutrients making them unavailable to plants (Huber 2007), and glyphosate also destroys AMF making soil more bacterial (Helander et al. 2018). With certain crops, in certain places, roller crimpers can be used instead. But roller crimpers don’t add microbes, aren’t solar powered and don’t speed up nutrient cycling like grazing ruminants.
Reducing inputs, cuts a farmer’s costs significantly. But that’s not the only way grazing ruminants make farming more economically viable. Cover crops cost money. To offset those costs, farmers need to stack enterprises. Stacking enterprises means viewing a farm more like a mutual fund rather than as an individual stock. With mutual funds, there are multiple revenue streams plus more resiliency. If one stock in the mutual fund doesn’t succeed, there may be other winners that more that offset the losses of that stock or two that didn’t succeed. So grazing livestock provide another revenue stream from meat and or fiber along with other potential revenue streams like cash crops, guard dogs, honey, cover crop seeds, etc. With lower inputs costs, and more revenues streams, farming is more viable without the need for public support or subsidies. Tolly, like the other two farmers Monbiot spoke to, weren’t doing that well economically. Farmers like Gabe Brown, on the other hand, turn down crop insurance subsidies so that they can farm without the associated government constraints.
Okay, but what about methane? Or, as Monbiot would loudly exclaim, all those ruminants are emitting METHANE !!!!
After reading Monbiot’s book , column and tweets, you’d think that cattle were the only source of atmospheric methane and that they were solely to blame for climate change. While I’m being a tad bit sarcastic, such sarcasm is warranted given Monbiot’s desire to rewild agricultural land into wetlands. Monbiot doesn’t seem to realize that wetlands are one of the largest sources of biogenic methane. As I just noted my prior blog, Methane persistence and hydroxyl radical availability, methane is emitted by a myriad of naturally occurring and anthropogenic biogenic sources in nature including shellfish, phytoplankton (Bizic 2021; Xu et al 2020), beaver ponds (Whitfield et al. 2015), rice paddies, wetlands, termites, arthropods, ruminants, dams, trees (Ezhumalai, 2021), or just about any place methanogenic archaea reside in anoxic environments (including soil and digestive tracts) or non-methanogenic bacteria occur in oxic environments (Ernst et al 2021). There’s also methane emitted by thermogenic (fossil fuels) and pyrogenic (fire) sources. So…no, methane isn’t only emitted by belching cows as some like Monbiot seem to believe either for financial or quasi religious reasons (Lakhani et al. 2017).
Photosynthesis fixes atmospheric and soil respired CO2 into glucose in plants via the Calvin cycle. That glucose is converted into a myriad of different carbon compounds including proteins, monoterpenes, phytonutrients, fats, exuded root exudates and the cellulose that ruminants- including cattle- consume. So some CO2 is converted to biomass, some CO2 ends up being stored, and some CO2 gets respired and used for photosynthesis again. Now the biomass, and more specifically the cellulose, consumed by the cattle, enters into the rumen where the bacteria, methanogenic archaea, protozoa, etc convert that cellulose into short chained fatty acids [SCFA’s], dihydrogen [H2], and methane [CH4]. It’s actually the archaea that are primarily responsible for the creation of methane via methanogenesis. The SCFA’s are used to build fats, proteins, etc. The methane is a by-product and most is “burped” out into the atmosphere. Though in the atmosphere, this CH4 collides with hydroxyl radicals [OH] and is eventually broken back down into CO2 and water vapor [H2O]. The CO2 is then again fixed by photosynthesis into glucose and the cycle repeats itself. The H2O consolidates into rain or interacts with excited oxygen to form more OH.
This is what happens with enteric methane. Other biogenic methane undergoes a similar cycle except methanogenesis happens via methanogenic archaea in the guts or digestive tracts of other animals, mollusks, insects, etc or with methanogenic archaea in soil or other anoxic environments or even oxic environments with some types of bacteria in oxic. Though as more biogenic methane is being emitted, more methane is being oxidized so atmospheric levels of methane stay relatively balanced.
That is the atmospheric loads stay balanced until thermogenic and other trapped forms of methane are extracted and released into the atmosphere. That extraction can be for coal, natural gas, fracked gas, coal bed gas, etc.(hydrocarbons). The thermogenic methane and CO2 from fossil fuels hasn’t been in the atmosphere for over an hundred million years. So it’s very old carbon stored in the earth, but newly released carbon in the atmosphere. The released CH4 also eventually breaks down to CO2. Though since there’s now more CH4 and the same amount of OH, the CH4 lasts longer in the atmosphere. So, per modeling, the CH4 lasts 7.3 to 13 years rather than 5.9 to 9.2 years before all that thermogenic CH4 was emitted (Holmes 2018). The CO2 directly emitted and created via hydroxyl oxidation often exceeds the photosynthetic capacity to fix this CO2. That excess compounds and increases atmospheric CO2 levels. Excess CO2 that exceeds the carbon cycle can take up to a thousand years to break down.
Understanding that different greenhouse gases have different lifespans and that different sources of greenhouse gases (biogenic versus thermogenic) impact atmospheric loads differently was something just recently recognized by the IPCC in their latest 6th Assessment as follows in Chapter 7 on p. 122:
And as follows from p. 123:
And as follows from p. 124:
One of the metrics recognized was GWP* developed by Dr. Myles Allen and his team at Oxford University’s Martin School. Allen served on the IPCC’s prior 3rd, 4th and 5th Assessments. All prior Assessments used GWP20 or GWP100 as the recognized metrics. These earlier metrics don’t account for the different lifespans or different sources of different green house gases. So as noted biogenic sources, especially enteric methane, have been grossly over accounted by a factor of 3-4 over a 20 year time horizon while methane emissions from “new” (old in the ground , but new in the atmospheric thermogenic emissions) have been under accounted for by a 4-5 factor during the same time frame using earlier metrics (e.g. GWP100) for carbon equivalencies in life cycle assessments [LCA’s].
Monbiot briefly discussed GWP*, but his discussion clearly demonstrated that neither he nor the sources he cited understood the difference between over accounted biogenic sources and under accounted thermogenic sources of methane. Actually Monbiot got everything ass-backwards like he normally does by downplaying the emissions from transporting food all over the world. Those emissions from transportation, though small in gross amount, are thermogenic emissions that are “newly” added to the atmosphere.
Whereas (again) enteric methane from ruminants are a biogenic source. This CH4 may seem like a larger gross amount, but any methane ruminants burp replaces old methane ruminants burped 7 to 10 years previously. So ruminants are cycling and recycling the same carbon over and over again. And with soil carbon sequestration, each cycle can reduce (via sequestration) the amount of carbon being cycled. Each cycle can be further reduced by better feed conversion of cellulose to SCFA’s. Better feed conversion can be accomplished through feed additives (e.g. seaweed) or certain forages (Vazquez-Carrillo et al. 2020; Verma et al. 2022) that reduce the amount of methanogenesis occurring in a head of cattle’s rumen.
Production methods and context matter quite a bit. Cattle finished in an AMP managed pasture eating grasses without any inputs will emit a lot less total greenhouse gases than cattle finished in a feedlot fed feeds grown using a lot of synthetic nitrogen [Syn N] and other inputs (Stanley et al. 2018). Syn N takes a lot of energy to make via the Haber Bosch process (to split atmospheric dinitrogen N2) that releases a lot of CO2 and uses thermogenic methane (natural or fracked gas) as the source for hydrogen (H2 for NH3). Extraction and transport of the thermogenic CH4 results in a lot of emissions and fugitive emissions of this thermogenic CH4 into the atmosphere. Syn N when applied to fields, like other forms of inorganic nitrogen is NOT well utilized by plants. Plus Syn N compacts soils. So a lot of Syn N volatilizes as nitrous oxide [N2O] into the atmosphere or leaches/run-offs as nitrates [NO3] into waterways where it causes algae blooms and hypoxia (dead zones in rivers, lakes and oceans) as Monbiot ably described in his book.
As an aside, one thing Monbiot forgot to mention is that nitrates in waterways have a strong epidemiological association with cancer (Ouattara and Rogan, 2021; Tempkin et al, 2019). Nitrous oxide is also a very long lived and powerful green house gas and widely used in the agricultural sector for corn, wheat, almonds, palm fruit, and a number of other crops and specialty crops. Thus decreasing Syn N use should be a large priority.
By increasing soil carbon in AMP managed systems, this also improves oxygen and water infiltration plus drainage, which in turn reduces methane emissions from soils (Brachmann et al. 2020) . No-till also increases methanotrophic bacteria (Singh et al. 2015). So even though there’s not a direct offset of enteric emissions from cattle via methanotrophic bacteria, there’s a total ecosystem offset with better grazing management from soils and all the other creatures and things emitting CH4 in the ecosystem like termites, arthropods, centipedes, decomposing organic matter, etc.
So, again context matters. Ruminants raised with best practices in silvopasture, regenerated grasslands, or integrated systems (e.g. pasture cropping), are going to have very different overall net emissions than ruminants raised with worse practices in seeded pastures on deforested land with oxalic soils that require liming, and super phosphates to grow any forages. Thus the HOW and appropriateness of WHERE of pretty much anything often matters a lot more than the WHAT is raised, grown or caught for food or fiber whether that’s beef, coffee, almonds, artichokes, rice or cotton.
Thus that highlights the problem with Monbiot’s over reliance on meta-analysis including the one study (Poore and Nemecek, 2018) he cites and others (e.g. BMGF funded Our World in Data) he references cite as a scientific argument to “go vegan” and eat synthetic meat to “save the planet”.
When reviewing any meta-analysis, it’s important to understand the inclusion/exclusion criteria for papers included in the meta-analysis. It’s also important to understand how the methodologies in, at least, some of the papers were done. These steps are necessary to understand the relevance of the conclusions of the researchers. Now, the problems with the study Monbiot cites are many. It’s inclusion criteria and time frame excluded a number of outliers for ruminant production since it required all of the LCA’s to be full life cycles. Most ruminant production has two or three phases (cow-calf, stocker, finishing) in different operations. The time frame through 2016 also excluded a number of more recent studies on AMP and other regenerative management. Most of the LCA’s for different produce or meats that were included in the meta-analysis didn’t account for soil carbon loss or sequestration. And since this meta-analysis pre-dates any acceptance of GWP*, all of the included LCA’s used the GWP100 metric. Therefore these LCA’s over accounted biogenic emissions and under accounted thermogenic emissions of methane.
Furthermore, the conclusions, and bar graphs based on Poore and Nemecek’s findings reflect the mean of a wide array of practices that range from very bad to very good. Currently, and unfortunately, there are too many farms and ranches using bad practices pulling down the means particularly for ruminant production. But best practices and more current accounting methods for soil carbon and methane math drastically change the outcomes and finding. So the focus should instead be on incentivizing farmers and ranchers to adopt best practices for whatever these producers produce.
And that’s the thing with science, it not only evolves, but sometimes undergoes revolutions due to paradigms shifts. Monbiot doesn’t think like a scientist. He thinks more like a polemicist or someone prepping for his debate team. Thus he doesn’t even understand the fundamental limitations of the meta-analysis of prior research based on prior scientific paradigms (e.g. earlier soil papers not accounting for soil microbiology as detailed above). In this below video clip, Dr. David Montgomery gives another example of such limitations contradicting other assertions made by Monbiot (based on yet another cited meta-analysis) about organic production always having lower yields than conventional, chemical input intensive industrial production. David also noted regenerative Ag production had the highest yields. Advancing Eco Agriculture‘s founder and CEO John Kempf has been working with farmers across North America transitioning these farmers from conventional systems to regenerative systems and greatly increasing their yields of crops and specialty crops through improved soil health and plant nutrition based on more thorough soil (e.g.Haney) and plant (e.g. sap) testing plus the use of biological inputs.
In academic institutions, meta-analysis of prior studies is often done by graduate students due to time and resource constraints. Many agricultural studies take five or more years to do in order to understand impacts on a wide array of parameters. And that’s the thing about AMP, HPG, HM or other regenerative production systems, you’re not going to really understand these practices from reading papers found via a keyword search on a computer screen. Ultimately many, if not all, of these practices are akin to reconnecting to land and developing an indigenous mindset. Thus you’re really going to need to be out in the field on the land making empirical observations. Taking a course with certified holistic management trainers is a good start to begin to learn how to read and reconnect with land. An indigenous perspective is very different than the colonial one that Monbiot is enamored with, since an indigenous perspective recognizes that humans are a part of nature rather than apart from nature.
Monbiot’s myth of pristine wilderness, particularly in the Americas, was one where “conservationists” removed what John Muir referred to as “dirty people” from the sacred land First Nation People had managed for thousands of years (Dowie 2011). Now, rather than acknowledge and learn the many lessons such indigenous people have to teach us about how to better interact with our planet, Monbiot instead seems to believe such people are solely tribes to be studied by anthropologists on rewilded land. Monbiot’s unconscious white supremacist mindset seems to be part of his colonial European history. Moreover, he seems to think that the entire world is climatically similar to that of the British Isles. So, maybe from staring too long at Mercator map projection’s, Monbiot doesn’t seem to realized that humid little England (50,000 sq miles or 129,499 sq. kilometers) can fit into just the brittle grassland or savanna areas of Africa (5 million sq. miles or 13 million sq. kilometers) over one hundred (100) times.
Anyway, I can writing another twenty paragraphs correcting many of the nutritional disinformation Monbiot conveyed using out of context and very reductive statistics, but since I’ve done that once before in a prior blog response to Monbiot Lies, damn lies, and [tweeted] statistics, I’m not going to repeat those comments in this review and reply.
Plus honestly, because my eyes were rolling so far back into my head, this book was difficult to finish. There were so many more questionable assertions and “facts” provided, that I was constantly checking and reading through the references to find out where on earth Monbiot was getting his information from. There were actually some occasions where the references Monbiot cited didn’t actually support his assertions like when he claimed that large herds of ruminants existed only because mankind killed off all the large predators. Though there’s Elin Whitney-Smith second-order predation and Pleistocene extinction hypothesis, neither of the two papers Monbiot cited supported his claim. One of his references was one of his own old Guardian columns from 2014. In that column, he also cited the other reference he used in his book. That reference (Binder et al 2010) compared the wear, tear and breakage of a small percent of Saber Tooth cats with dire wolves and modern cats. That reference made absolutely no mention of humans killing off predators leading to larger ruminant herds.
Another peculiar comment, this time about about soya production, occurs just before the midway point of Monbiot’s third chapter on agricultural sprawl. Here Monbiot cites a reference from Our World in Data, an organization funded in large part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation [BMGF]. Monbiot restates verbatim statistics claiming different fields of soybeans are grown for different uses. But aside from a very small amount of soy grown specifically for human consumption, the vast majority of all soy products comes from the same crushed bushels of beans, including the two primary products oil and meal (in the US, almost all of this soya is GMO modified to be herbicide resistant). So almost all soya (95%+) is grown for both oil and meal. By volume, there’s four times more meal than oil. But by value, the oil is worth approximately 35% of the value of the crop. The meal was actually originally a by-product of the oil industry, and sometimes used as nitrogen fertilizer until the 1950’s when people figured out this meal could be used as chicken feed. I go over the history of soya and soya’s many uses in more detail in my blog post Soy 101.
In that same reference the authors, Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, don’t seem to understand how the 2006 Soya Moratorium in the Amazon impacts the deforestation process (I detailed in this hyperlinked blog). These two note “soy is likely to have played some role in the loss of forest.” However, the moratorium means newly clear land can’t go immediately into soya. So instead for two years (until the moratorium expires) after the land is cleared of timber, that deforested land is limed and seeded to graze cattle. But the soya is the end game since it’s more profitable than beef cattle. Very little soybean meal is fed to cattle. In the adjacent Cerrado region, cleared land that isn’t mined for bauxite or other minerals, goes straight into soya since there’s no soya moratorium for this region.
But I do concur with Monbiot that all the soya planted and crushed for oil (largely used by humans) and meal (largely fed to confined monogastric livestock and pets) is destructive in deforested areas especially when grown as industrial monocrops with lot of phosphorus, glyphosate and pesticides. For both oils and meals, other crops can be grown in dynamic agroforestry systems on reclaimed land including sacha inchi nuts and palm oil trees. The way to save rain forests including the Amazon is by developing ways to derive value from the these forests without destroying the forests. Trying to completely “spare” these forests will ultimately fail, and they’ll eventually become savannas as more deforestation changes the precipitation patterns.
Additionally for monogastric livestock (pigs and chickens), aquaculture (farmed fish), and pet foods, soybean and fish meals can and should also be replaced with black soldier fly [BSF] feeds. BSF feeds can be fed food waste created anywhere in the world from waste generated anywhere in the food chain (from the field all the way to food thrown out by the end user). BSF feeds raised on organic food waste are specifically a way to reduce the land (and transportation) needed for other food production. So when Monbiot says food waste can’t be recovered and won’t reduce land used to farm, “don’t believe” him.
Further along in the book, Monbiot doesn’t recognize or acknowledge that roadway infrastructure (facilitating land grabbing, timber clearing and agricultural expansion in rain forests like the Amazon) was originally built to haul materials and people into remote areas for dam construction; dams built to provide the hydroelectricity needed for bauxite and iron refinement which are very energy intensive processes (Fearnside 2016). Ironically, to build all the infrastructure required for Monbiot’s future lab vision of protein, even more mining and refinement of such raw materials will be needed for all the necessary aluminum, chrome and steel. Resource extraction is a huge and growing even larger driver of deforestation (Sonter et al, 2017; Bebbington et al. 2018) that Monbiot and all the Davos Conference attendees flying all over the place in their aluminum aircraft never really talk about. Guess Bill Gates isn’t giving any more money to the Guardian to get people to fly less or recycle aluminum (recycled aluminum takes about a tenth the energy to produce).
Monbiot is such a techno-optimistic cheerleader that he barely comprehends all the downstream consequences of the items he’s shilling especially in regards to human or planetary health. How many more unforeseen mismatch diseases and dysbiosis will be caused by consuming novel foods with very different metabolomic profiles produced by genetically modified organisms in all the vats and bioreactors Monbiot envisions? Who knows? But honestly I’m not interested in finding out. I’ll stick with the dietary patterns we evolved eating. Plus where do the inputs come from to create the protein made by these genetically modified bacteria from gas fermentation? Are the phosphorus and potassium inputs still mined? Does Monbiot know how environmentally destructive and toxic phosphorus mining can be? Monbiot concedes the nitrogen will be derived from Haber Bosch, but will that synthesis source grey, blue or green hydrogen from fracked methane or from the electrolysis of water? If it’s green hydrogen from water, will more desalination plants be necessary to have sufficient de-ionized fresh water? Will those desalination plants need even more infrastructure and more energy to power them? Plus what about all the infrastructure required for hydrogen storage and green energy capture? Or, are all of these new laboratories going to be powered by molten salt thorium reactors that aren’t online yet and may never come on line?
Monbiot’s techno-optimistic future has more questions than answers. Plus wouldn’t a lot of this techno-optimism be better directed toward replacing our current reliance on fossil fuels in the energy and transportation sectors that emit significantly more greenhouse gases than ruminants cycling and recycling biogenic carbon? The vast majority of those GHG’s emitted from the energy and transportation sectors are also from thermogenic sources. Green hydrogen, in particular, would also be best suited for aircraft currently emitting more GHG’s than many countries. Again, for added emphasis, all those GHG’s emitted by planes come from thermogenic sources.
But just seems like Monbiot’s book is yet another version of the “Great Plant-Based Con”. So ultimately, and unfortunately, this book ends up feeling like nothing more than a marketing ploy where Monbiot vilifies the product he wishes to replace (meat) while shilling for the new shiny silver object (precision fermentation) he proposed as a replacement. Though Monbiot expressed concern about market consolidation, he seems completely unaware of how all of this capital intensive food tech is being funded with venture capital. Thus ultimately, Monbiot is just furthering the financial objectives of the phila-capitalists who donate millions of dollars to the media outlet, The Guardian, where Monbiot works as well as millions more to several of the institutions Monbiot cited as references to support his absolutism.
Monbiot therefore is nothing more than an useful pawn for such phila-capitalists in their pursuit to further control more and more of the food supply through patented intellectual property. Maybe due to the inherent nutritional deficiencies (B12, DHA, D3, A2, carnitine, zinc, etc) in the dietary pattern Monbiot chooses to follow and religiously believe in, Monbiot has become so cognitively impaired that he doesn’t realized he’s being used as a pawn. Though even without that excuse, I can’t fathom any real reason why anyone would take Monbiot and his ass backward musings the slightest bit seriously.
Look up the definition for the Dunning-Kruger Effect in the not too distant future, and you might see Monbiot and his book listed as one of the definitions.
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