I didn’t watch last night’s debate between Guardian environmental columnist George Monbiot and regenerative farming pioneer Allan Savory. Partly because it was a sunny Tuesday evening in July after a busy day, and I wanted to walk my dog in the sun instead. But partly also because I think I knew what it might entail and didn’t want to hear it. There were many who were keen to hear this debate and travelled far to do so. And on paper, it sounded juicy. Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change? Who really knows the answer? Perhaps this conversation, widely publicised, held in Oxford and streamed online, would settle it once and for all.
Are cows saints or sinners when it comes to sustainable food and farming is one of the apparent battles of 2023. But the thing is, we’re only in July and this fake polarisation and binary decision forced upon us is boring already.
Although I didn’t go – full disclosure that perhaps this disentitles me to have a view at all – I did have a mole on the inside, who noted that the intros weren’t over yet and it was already 30 minutes in. The reception has been similarly lukewarm on Twitter, that dying echo chamber, where people expressed disappointment that Savory in particular didn’t really put forward any of the, well-deserved, arguments in favour of regenerative farming, particularly around the benefits it can have for biodiversity. It would also have been good to hear some acknowledgement about the absolute wild west show that is soil carbon accounting at the moment. But in any case, no one I’ve spoken to seemed to have learnt anything new or even reaffirmed their no doubt already rigidly held beliefs.
As flood waters and temperatures rise across the world, that approach is not only stale and tired, but lacks anywhere near the kind of progressive action that needs to be taken.
I think that’s a sign of how little is to be found in having two opposing beliefs pitched against each other. In this day and age, as flood waters and temperatures rise across the world, that approach is not only stale and tired, but lacks anywhere near the kind of progressive action that needs to be taken. Would there not be a better debate to be found in finding a middle ground where you might actually understand or see a place for the other person’s point of view? What about the things that everyone can agree on, like restoring soil health, changing our diets and reducing fossil fuel use?
Tolerance of others is really not that radical a stance, though it seems to be well out of fashion. Interviewing Jake Fiennes recently I was struck by his admission that Regenesis, Monbiot’s book, holds perhaps some solutions for the future, whereas his own work and book talks to real time solutions to help farmers make changes to their land now. What a surprise that there is room for both, after all.
I can’t help but feel we are already pitted against each other via the ruthless tribalist algorithms of the tech and social media platforms. Why would we adopt the same principles and continue with these pointless binary debates? Personally, I am also slightly tired of hearing from the white male saviours of our environmental destinies, but that’s a story for another day. It was striking to see how the charities WWF, National Trust and RSPB collaborated to ultimately push the government to U-turn on its plan to scrap the ELM farming subsidies last autumn. Is it a coincidence that all three organisations are led by women? I think not. Collaboration and empathy are more likely to lead to action, and action is something we can all agree is needed.
Not that anyone asked, but were I to have pitched a panel on the issues of today, I’d want to see more unpicking of the middle ground, exploring of overlaps, more nuance and dare I say it, more women.