Regenesis is a remarkable book by the remarkable author George Monbiot. It’s about the looming crisis in feeding humans on planet Earth, and what smart people are doing about it.
I’m a few months behind on writing up my book synopses. Which is hard, because one of the points of doing so is to better remember the books. But in this case, the conclusion of the book is so surprising, I couldn’t forget it if I wanted to.
The book starts with some idle meandering about community gardens and an interesting deep dive into the biology of soil and the difficulty of understanding complex ecosystems. Then it comes to its point: we are towards a food crisis, and our systems aren’t set up to handle it. Worse, when push comes to shove, we will likely choose to expand agriculture rather than protect the climate or wildlife.
Given that dark scenario, Monbiot then covers some experiments to make our food production better. He visits a farm that uses “green mulch” (= native plants, growing alongside food plants) to keep crops healthy. He interviews another farmer working on using heritage crops and integrated agriculture, including consumers in the production of their own food. He also talks about expanding our crops for more nutritious and robust native perennials.
All of these techniques seem great, and they definitely reinforce my priors. I think we should be eating more native food plants, and growing our food in more complex human and natural systems. So I was surprised to get to the point where Monbiot says that none of these options is likely to scale up in time to confront our oncoming food crisis. There’s really only one thing that can work.
What is that one thing? Manufacturing industrial bacterial food with genetically modified microorganisms. He interviewed a number of companies who are working on the problem right now, and he’s optimistic that we can have commercially available, nutritious, tasty bacterial-generated foods within a few decades.
The advantage is that bacterial cultures don’t require the same surface area as plant or animal agriculture, so we can return much of the land dedicated to farms back into wilderness. There, it can support biodiversity and sequester carbon.
Looking back, I have a lot of questions. The energy budget seems the top one, since bacteria need a medium to grow on and from, and if that medium is plant stuff, it will need surface area to grow on.
The other is safety. Modified bacteria at global scale are going to get into our wild areas. Will they be harmless, or cause unexpected extinctions? That seems like a big gamble.
Overall, the writing is great and the stories are amazing. Monbiot narrates the audiobook, and it’s very listenable. If the conclusion weren’t so wackadoodle, I’d really recommend it. But Monbiot’s credentials on ecology are so sterling, I have to take the idea pretty seriously, so I’d say to read it whether or not you agree.