Cows in field
Are cows environmental saints or sinners? The saga continues.

Why I didn’t watch the George Monbiot-Allan Savory debate

What is the point of a polarising debate at a time when collaborating and change at scale has never been more important?

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.


Leave a Reply

  1. Very nicely put. I did start it but got fed up, largely for the reasons you stated. A little more finding common ground and pulling together will go a long way I feel. And a little more diversity will help too.

  2. To be fair GM is goaded constantly on social media to stand up face to face for his views against opposers. His work and references are always provided and he said he’d spent days preparing for the discussion.

    I didn’t intend to watch the debate but wanted to hear both sides after all the hype. Unfortunately as you say from your mole it never really got going properly, AS seemed to speak in abstract generalisations quite a bit and the audience laughed at a couple of the statements he made. The subject of the debate “Is livestock grazing essential to mitigating climate change?” – was hardly touched on from the proposer & the chair Professor Dame EJ. Milner-Gulland looked baffled at times. It would have been valuable to have heard more ‘pro’ the debate for all parties but sadly that didn’t quite happen.

    As G S-W said recently* carbon markets and aspects of regenerative farming are a “…slippery snake pit…”
    and the debate did little in my opinion to make it less slippery.

    I agree that online debates between YouTubers (mostly male) with huge numbers of followers are tiresome – this wasn’t totally like that – but the chair did struggle at times to keep the discussion on topic. I’d not recommend it to anyone to watch really wanting to learn anything new. Hey ho.


    1. Really interesting to hear your views after watching it David. The discussion being held well is also very powerful too isn’t it.

  3. You may be bored with this debate but meanwhile GM gets the lions share of MSM publicity for his views and the debate may have got the issues to a wider audience? It was unsatisfactory but might have got people to find out more for themselves. Chris Smajes book “Saying no to a Farm Free Future” is a well argued response to Regenesis. Well worth a read and in no way boring or pointless.

  4. Two quick points. Firstly I sympathise with your view but do think you are verging on being unentitled to comment without watching it. I am now expecting that when I do I will be annoyed, but it’s really important to engage, especially as nuances and greyer areas are always obliterated by uninformed polar abstractions that instantly fly around social media without crediting the detail. Secondly, have you read GM’s Regenesis or are you basing your opinion on what you’ve heard from others? You seem to have taken on board what your interviewee said incorrectly about present day solutions: there is massive detail in this book about them, not just future dreams.

    1. Oh sorry I forgot I had a third point! Your photo caption poses the question “Are cows saints or sinners?” Isn’t that a bit “polarising”….?!

  5. Can I make two points
    1. We must listen to GM- I am wary of the denunciations of anyone challenging a monoculture- be it sheep /animal farming now or potato farming in Ireland in the 19th Century- we still live with the political consequences now of that massive failure in agricultural policy. I am a sheep farmer, be it an organic one, and have reduced flock size by 2/3rds, and do other things, as my fellow farmers walk into what seems to me to be difficult times with internal worm resistance. Cattle and farmed animal biomass is far too high and the challenges are legitimate.
    2. But its still the law that the accessory is as guilty as a principal offender. If you run someone over whether intentionally , recklessly or negligently, you are at fault. If you buy stolen goods, you are a “fence”. So if its wrong to kill animals for human need, it seems to me that plant products produced with herbicide and pesticide probably kill millions of insects, and the plastic shoes and clothes going into landfill may kill fish with their degraded micro-plastics- better to eat organic vegan or vegetarian, and wear natural leather and sheepskin clothing as I see it. Go to Scandinavia-women wear fur! We are too caring about what we are close to, must be kind to the big animal and ignore the insects at our peril- “the Insects in the field are mine” sayeth the Lord in Psalm 50/11 . We have lost fully supply chain and system awareness-but the Psalmist seems to have been aware of it thousands of years ago.

    1. But GM doesn’t just challenge monocultures, or intensive farming methods, he’s against all agriculture. An extreme position.

    2. In response to Sue; I think George would be in favour of what Riverford does, and organic agriculture in general. It’s intensive, industrial agriculture with its heavy reliance on chemicals that he is opposed to.

    3. Most of the worlds crops are fed to livestock so if you care about insects then phasing out livestock will mean less crops = less insects deaths and animal deaths

  6. Well said Nina, I did watch from home. I did later look up the word debate, and it does have its root of course from, ‘battle’, so yes I think as you suggest, an approach more of topics of discussion or conversation (over lunch?!! or as suggested by a member of the audience, outside actually on a farm/in pasture?!) to increase understanding, would be more helpful. Thank You Nina, kate (someone in partnership in management-husbandry-of a Suckler Herd in pastures of the south west, where we live and work).


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