The phrase "too big to fail" still causes people to shudder when talking about the banking crisis in 2008. Now, 14 years after the financial crash, it is big global food corporations that are "too big to fail", according to George Monbiot.
The writer and environmental activist spoke to Claire Byrne about his new book, Regenesis: Feeding the World Without Devouring the Planet.
He has harsh words for EU farm subsidies, which he argues trap farmers into an agricultural cycle with devastating consequences for the environment. He also talks about innovations in food production that can provide hope for the future, whilst allowing the planet's soil supply to regenerate.
George Monbiot believes that current methods of industrial agriculture are bringing us closer to a crisis in global food production:
"We are in very serious danger of our life-support systems not being able to support us."
Monbiot singles out farming as a destroyer of habitats; an idea that he is aware will not come as welcome news to some. He says we need to change the way we use all of the planet’s resources, including fossil fuels, but he argues that we can't ignore the evidence when it comes to farming:
"Farming is the industry with by far and away the biggest environmental impact of all, that’s the one we should be attending to at the top of our list. But bizarrely, we’ve created a sort of moral forcefield around it."
"I think because of all the idyllic and bucolic imagery that we create around it and it’s kind of a 'No Trespassing’ sign in front, saying we can’t talk about this. We can talk about any other industry but not about the impacts of farming."
Claire put it to him that young farmers she’s spoken to are eager for change, but that the EU farm subsidy system keeps them on a certain path, with little opportunity for change. George agrees and says he believes that EU agricultural policy has caused immense harm to the environment:
"Policy is a mess. European subsidies in particular are one of the most destructive forces on Earth. The Common Agricultural Policy across Europe has probably destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime wildlife habitat."
George Monbiot says that farmers in the European Union can only draw down the so-called 'basic payment' if their land fits certain requirements:
"It doesn’t mean you have to actually produce anything on that land; it just has to look as if it’s farmland. And what that means is if it contains what the rules call 'permanent ineligible features’, what you and I call wildlife habitat like ponds and wetlands and recovering wetland and stuff like that, then it’s not eligible for subsidy."
The consequence of this policy, Monbiot argues, is that it actively encourages harm to the environment and the wholesale destruction of habitats:
"You create this massive perverse incentive to destroy wildlife habitats across a huge area. It could not be crazier."
Monbiot has spoken tillage farmers who want to move away from practices that endanger the long-term viability of the soil, but they are facing very tight margins when it comes to selling their harvest.
He mentions Tim, a tillage farmer who can only sell his grain if it complies with the standards laid down by his customers.
The problem is, George says, that the millers he sells to are only interested in metrics that relate to the quality of the grain itself and not to the future of the planet:
"They don't care whether you’re protecting your soil, whether you’re protecting wildlife, whether you’re using pesticides or not using pesticides, it’s just got to meet those specifications."
George says that buying power in global food markets is under corporate control and because it is centrlised, he believes, it is vulnerable. He says it’s a bit like the precarious position of financial institutions before the last great banking crisis:
"We have this tremendous corporate control of the food chain, which is dangerous in all sorts of ways. And one of the really big dangers is that some of the big corporations have become too big to fail. Now you might remember that phrase from a previous crisis."
George’s research for his latest book included reading over 5,000 scientific papers. He says people often ask him what is the scariest thing he’s discovered in his research and he says it’s the fact that a serious crisis in food supply has been predicted for 10 years:
"The most frightening of all were these scientific papers going back 10 years saying ‘The global food system looks very much like the global financial system in the run-up to 2008 and it could fail. The food chain could break'."
The ‘tipping point’ for a crisis in global food supply can come from climate events like drought, or from shocks outside the food system like war. But George says the biggest problem is the inherent vulnerability of the global food chain itself. He says that events like the war in Ukraine don’t cause the system to break down; they just reveal the cracks that are already there:
"We’re seeing what could be the beginnings of this, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which didn’t create the global food crisis, it exposed the global food crisis. Because that crisis has been brewing for years now and it’s partly because of these huge corporations that have tied up so much of the food chain, whose behaviour is synchronising, just as the bank’s behaviour did. If one of them goes down, it could pull all of them down."
The number one thing that needs to be done now, according to Monbiot, is to shift the production of fat and protein for human consumption away from meat and dairy farming and the cultivation of soya and palm oil, all of which he says have devastating impacts on the soil and the environment according to his research:
"Just as we need it most, we have this great gift to the world has turned up in the form of precision fermentation. And this means producing protein and fat by brewing, by multiplying microbes in vats in factories with a tiny fraction of the environmental impact, the land use, a tiny amount of the water use, the nutrient use."
"You shrink the footprint of that and suddenly you can relieve the planet of the greatest pressure of all which is the huge impact created by the livestock industry but also the vast soya plantations in Brazil and palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. A lot of that land can be released from farming and rewilded."
What kind of food is produced in this way is no doubt revealed in the book, but whatever we do now, Monbiot says, the stakes could not be higher:
"While we can bail out the banks with future money, we can’t bail out the food system with future food."
Listen back to the full interview above.