The Peer-Reviewed Dirt on Monbiot's Dirty New Scare Story

by | Mar 25, 2015

Just when you thought climate alarmism had passed its peak…

We’re treating soil like dirt. It’s a fatal mistake, as our lives depend on it

Says George Monbiot in today’s Guardian

War, pestilence, even climate change, are trifles by comparison. Destroy the soil and we all starve

Monbiot’s tendency towards biblical levels of alarmism is on the record, of course. But this is new.

Imagine a wonderful world, a planet on which there was no threat of climate breakdown, no loss of freshwater, no antibiotic resistance, no obesity crisis, no terrorism, no war. Surely, then, we would be out of major danger? Sorry. Even if everything else were miraculously fixed, we’re finished if we don’t address an issue considered so marginal and irrelevant that you can go for months without seeing it in a newspaper.

Our fate is being sealed, says the Graun’s miserablist-in-chief, by our mistreatment of mud — the stuff our crops depend on, and therefore we all depend on.

To judge by its absence from the media, most journalists consider it unworthy of consideration. But all human life depends on it. We knew this long ago, but somehow it has been forgotten. As a Sanskrit text written in about 1500BC noted: “Upon this handful of soil our survival depends. Husband it and it will grow our food, our fuel and our shelter and surround us with beauty. Abuse it and the soil will collapse and die, taking humanity with it.”

Those wise men of nearly 4,000 years ago new something today’s seemingly chemical-happy farmers don’t…

The issue hasn’t changed, but we have. Landowners around the world are now engaged in an orgy of soil destruction so intense that, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world on average has just 60 more years of growing crops. Even in Britain, which is spared the tropical downpours that so quickly strip exposed soil from the land, Farmers Weekly reports, we have “only 100 harvests left”.

An orgy of soil destruction? Only 60 – 100 years of food left?

Those alarmist claims came to George via Reuters in the Scientific American, who reported on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) World Soil Day. Says’s the FAO,

Soils have been neglected for too long. We fail to connect soil with our food, water, climate, biodiversity and life. We must invert this tendency and take up some preserving and restoring actions. The World Soil Day campaign aims to connect people with soils and raise awareness on their critical importance in our lives.

But we should take such claims with a pinch of salt. Global bureaucracies, like disoriented Guardian hacks, need a scare story to elevate and legitimise themselves. FAO claims that a third of all agricultural soil in the world is ‘degraded’. But the website itself offers little guidance on what this measure actually means — if it means anything at all. Even searching Google for the terms “third of soil degraded” yields many results, but which refer only to FAO web pages and the headlines they have generated, and other organisations which seem equally keen to make this ambiguous metric the basis for new forms of governance.

The UK would serve as a good test of these claims. It is an advanced economy. It is relatively densely populated. It has strong regulatory frameworks, making it difficult to change the use of land and to use it in ways not approved by the state (or EU). The FAO’s own statistical database tells a different story to the one it tries to make…







In the case of each food crop, the yield per Ha has increased over the years. It is true that the area being farmed has diminished, but that is explained in fact by EU rules requiring set-aside for ecological reasons and to reduce the productivity of European farms, to avoid the vast surpluses that were created in the days of the EEC.

This increasing yield does not show us a picture of declining soil quality. Yet Monbiot assures us…

To keep up with global food demand, the UN estimates, 6m hectares (14.8m acres) of new farmland will be needed every year. Instead, 12m hectares a year are lost through soil degradation. We wreck it, then move on, trashing rainforests and other precious habitats as we go. Soil is an almost magical substance, a living system that transforms the materials it encounters, making them available to plants. That handful the Vedic master showed his disciples contains more micro-organisms than all the people who have ever lived on Earth. Yet we treat it like, well, dirt.

Yet no such encroachment into nature has taken place in the UK. If anything, it is the green, protected areas of Britain’s landscapes which have grown into the land previously used by people.

But an even odder story emerges…

Shortly after I had tweeted the link to Monbiot’s article, Barry Woods got in touch to say he couldn’t work out what the basis for another of Monbiot’s claims was. Monbiot said,

Another paper, by researchers in the UK, shows that soil in allotments – the small patches in towns and cities that people cultivate by hand – contains a third more organic carbon than agricultural soil and 25% more nitrogen. This is one of the reasons why allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers.

This is small-is-beautiful mythology. The fanciful idea haunting Monbiot is that, if only we would all become smallholders, we would all live a more bountiful, wonderful world of endless leisure. Can it really be true that allotments are between 4 and 11 times as productive as industrial farming? It seems far fetched indeed. (For readers outside the UK, an allotment is a small area of land owned by local authorities, which is rented out in small parcels at very low cost to local residents.)

The link seemingly supporting George’s claim was to this article in the Journal of Applied Ecology, which claims that ‘Urban cultivation in allotments maintains soil qualities adversely affected by conventional agriculture’. As we might expect, it is highly sceptical of ‘modern agriculture’, which the authors believe

… in seeking to maximize yields to meet growing global food demand, has caused loss of soil organic carbon (SOC) and compaction, impairing critical regulating and supporting ecosystem services upon which humans also depend.

And like Monbiot, they want us to be smallholders.

Own-growing makes an important contribution to food security in urban areas globally, but its effects on soil qualities that underpin ecosystem service provision are currently unknown.

Here is the passage which Monbiot borrows his claim from:

Comparison of Allotment and Agricultural Soils
The remarkable contrast in soil quality indicators (higher SOC, C : N, TN and lower BD) between allotments and arable fields reveals the effectiveness of management achieved by own-growers. Furthermore, it demonstrates the extent to which modern agricultural practices have degraded soil natural capital – which has profound implications for the loss of ecosystem service provision (Loveland & Webb 2003; Lal 2004), including reduced structural stability, water and nutrient holding capacity and impaired regulation of N mineralization and supply to plants (Quinton et al. 2010; Dungait et al. 2012). In terms of provisioning ecosystem services by own-growing in allotments, both the historical records of production during the world wars and more recent UK trials conducted by the Royal Horticultural Society and ‘Which?’ Magazine showed fruit and vegetable yields of 31–40 t ha−1 year−1 (Tomkins 2006), 4–11 times the productivity of the major agricultural crops in the Leicestershire region (DEFRA 2013). Importantly, depletion of SOC in conventional agricultural fields is now thought to be an important factor constraining productivity as many arable soils have suboptimal concentrations (Lal 2010).

This is like Chinese Whispers — a tendency of claims made by environmentalists is that the truth or significance of research is obscured by successive citations through the literature. Sure enough, rather than leading to any research which discovers that “allotment holders produce between four and 11 times more food per hectare than do farmers”, two studies produced figures which vary by between 4 and 11 times, allegedly. This is not a safe assumption — it does not compare like with like. It’s not even comparing apples and oranges. It is like comparing apples with paint.

The two, very different studies are the Dept. for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) report, Agriculture in the English Regions 2012, 2nd Estimate and Tomkins, M. The Edible Urban Landscape: an assessment method for retro-fitting urban agriculture into an inner London test site. The latter is the author’s MSc Thesis completed at the University of East London, London, UK.

It is not clear how these two figures are achieved, prior to their comparison. The Defra report makes no mention of agricultural productivity in Leicestershire. Tomkins does, however, does offer us figures on page 44:

We can start to work out the yields of the allotment system by referring to experiments conducted in the 1970s by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) (Personal communication, appendix 2), and Which?Magazine (February 1975, Handyman special insert, p. 21).

According to a document entitled ‘Your garden plot – what is its value to you?’ (see appendix 2)

“During 1975 the Royal Horticultural Society maintained a 30 feet by 100 feet vegetable plot at Harlow Carr, with the aim of showing how vegetables for a family of 4 could be provided. The 3 year crop rotation was adopted and most of the work on the plot was carried out by the garden apprentice. Approximately 180 hours work went into the feature.”

But there are two important caveats here. Tomkins admits:

The first sowings were made on 9th March in the cold frame with the total volume of produce recorded until 22 November of the same year. The report states that at the end of the trial, there were “still plenty of winter crops, leeks, onions cabbage, kale, parsnips, broccoli and brussel sprouts…on the plot.”

The total of the produce is 876.1kg for 259 days of the growing season. This would be equal to 31.28 tonnes per hectare. The report, while stating the amount of labour required, does not give an indication of whether fertiliser, pesticides or herbicides were used in the experiment, although the NSALG “believe it was used in a similar manner to normal allotment gardening”.

First caveat… 180 hours of labour is equivalent to 22 days of work — nearly 10 per cent of a working year. And that much to allegedly feed a family.

Second caveat… The use of fertilizer and pesticide is not ruled out. My own (second-hand, anecdotal) understanding of allotment husbandry in the postwar period is that that generation of self-sufficiency enthusiasts adored chemicals.

We might also note that the Defra report covers the year 2012, whereas the Which?/RHS study is nearly forty years old. (Which? is a UK consumer affairs magazine, and the Royal Horticultural Society is an organisation for people with green fingers – hardly scientific research institutions).

Furthermore, although it would be impressive to see an allotment produce 876kg of food, even at 31.28 tonnes per hectare, given the average yields for UK production in the FAO database are 20 tonnes for vegetables, 13 tonnes for fruit, 40 tonnes for roots & tubers, the allotment holder seems not to compete with his industrial farming counterpart on productivity or cost. If farmers were only able to produce sufficient crops for 22 families per worker, they would likely go out of business. The small selection of crops produced in the RHS/Which? study would require 728,000 famers — before we’ve even thought about cereal, bread, dairy and meat production, whereas there are just half a million farm workers in the UK.

Monbiot loves to emphasise the importance of citing ones sources, and of making sure that such sources are trustworthy. But he does very little to investigate much beyond the superficial figures that such sources seem to produce. He takes for granted that what the FAO claim is the case. And he didn’t look too deeply into the claim in the J. of Applied Ecology, which mashed together non-existent figures from Defra, and a 1975 consumer magazine’s experiment with fertilizer retold through an inexpert, and highly political masters thesis.

The object lesson for Monbiot, then, is to understand the scientific claims he reproduces, not just parrot them before jumping to claims such as this:

This is what topples civilisations. War and pestilence might kill large numbers of people, but in most cases the population recovers. But lose the soil and everything goes with it.

One cannot take FAO campaigning at face value. Nor can we say that the Journal of Applied Ecology or Masters students at the University of East London (currently ranked 122nd out of 123 UK universities) have unburdened themselves of political motivations. As much as ecologists like to claim that their studies are science, ecology is also a normative science and a political movement. Students and researchers, too, have political motivations. It is not as easy to separate politics from science as Monbiot seems to imagine.

But a little research — an hour’s worth of investigation — puts statistical claims into perspective. The world is not running out of soil, and living out of allotments will not save us from non-doom. Unfortunately for Monbiot, though, looking more deeply at the organisations and science he trusts, and which he takes at face value, would deprive him of the alarming headlines that are his stock-in-trade.


  1. Betapug

    Naomi Klein advocates somewhere (sorry can’t retrieve the reference) that abolishing the cheap food produced by “industrial agriculture” would both fight capitalism and solve unemployment by drastically increasing the farm labour numbers.
    She did not indicate whether she would herself march into the fields and get her hands dirty.

  2. geoffchambers

    Last paragraph: shouldn’t “non-doom” read “doom”?

    Marx somewhere (theses on Feuerbach?) relishes the thought of a world where men would plough in the morning, read poetry in the afternoon, and surf the net in the evening (or something). Being retired, I can more or less fulfill the Marxist dream (though using a garden fork rather than a plough) and thanks to chemicals the strawberries are coming along nicely.
    I recently wrote an article whose title included the words “porn” “tits” and “George Monbiot”. It got a lot of hits, and you’d be amazed at the terms people entered into Google to get there.

    • Ben Pile

      Geoff — shouldn’t “non-doom” read “doom”?

      I thought about it. But to say something won’t save us from doom leaves the possibility of doom.

  3. Mooloo

    See if I’ve got this right:

    High intensity farming by farmers is ruining the soil. Ultra high intensity farming by small holders is good for the soil.

    The difference being that farmers are professionals and therefore much worse than amateurs?

    Or is it that the farmers have a stake in the land staying productive, since they get to sell it on, whereas allotment holders only lease the land and are therefore much more careful to not spoil it?

    Or maybe it is that farmers are capitalists, and therefore evil. Whereas allotment holders are members of the working class, and therefore good proletarians?

  4. Vinny Burgoo

    I had a go at this an evening or two ago. From memory, Monbiot’s ’11 times’ was obtained by dividing the 40 t/ha claimed by allotment-holders surveyed by an allotment-holders interest group in 1975 (and which was dominated by spuds and other dense crops) by official DEFRA figures for the East Midlands yield for oilseed rape in 2012 or thereabouts.

    Also from memory: a proximate and sympathetic Monbiot source said that to achieve that 40 t/ha on allotments would requires 4.5 fulltime gardeners per hectare.

    Cheez! Back to peasantry, then. And everyone eating spuds.

    That’s going to end well.

  5. Vinny Burgoo

    P.S. A physical copy of the 1975 Which? Handyman supplement is (or was a coupla days ago) going cheapish on Ebay. The seller includes generous scans of various pages, including the page given by Monbiot’s source as the source of the 40 t/ha claim. Alas, neither that nor the other scanned sample pages shows a claim about overall yields per acre or hectare, so you’d have to buy the whole thing. £2.99?

  6. Vinny Burgoo

    I’ve found a link. It’s to a guest blog at a blog run by somebody (Marc Hudson) so unsceptical that he once accused Ken ‘Wotts’ Rice of being a climate denier – and yet the guest post is sceptical of the NSLAG/RHS yeilds claims.

    (Note also that that ’70s NSALG survey was updated in the late Noughties and, from memory, claimed a max of 30 t/ha.)

  7. Tony Price

    Soil in allotments (and well-managed vegetable gardens) contains more SOC because of composting, not because of what’s grown, the way it’s grown, nor who grows it. Despite what’s too often claimed, SOC gives nothing to plants except water – it improves water capacity and retention. One of Monbiot’s pet worries is about carbon sequestration, of course – the more there is in the soil, the less there is in the air. Except of course that it’s atmospheric CO2 which produces plant material and therefore all our food, directly or indirectly.

    There’s also a slight problem with the “Green Vision” of self-sufficient gardeners and allotment holders – gardens and allotments produce some food for about 3 months of the year, and a lot of food for another 3 months leaving a bit of a gap (6 months) to be partially supplied by stored root crops, frozen produce and – horror of horrors – shops supplying imported food. There’s almost a parallel with “renewable” energy – there’s always a gap, sometimes small, sometimes big, sometimes total.

    I was having a discussion with a friend the other day – he’s agin fracking ‘cos it “contaminates ground water”, and leads to methane coming out of taps. It occurred to me that wouldn’t be seen in this country (UK) as water utilities don’t in general extract ground water, except in a very few locations. Our water comes from rainwater – stored in reservoirs or taken directly from rivers. I’ve challenged him to prove me wrong. He left with a very sour look on his face.

  8. Craig Loehle

    How bad is it to be a small farmer (I don’t mean short)? It is and was historically so bad that farmers fled and flee to the city and work in the worst sweatshops and live in the worst slums to escape it. Not only backbreaking but if anything at all goes wrong, you starve. It is like the romantic idea of the Indian hunters–during good times it was great. When the game disappeared, half the village starved.

  9. anng

    There’s lots of anecdotal evidence that some farmers using all the 1960s-onwards techniques of ploughing, fertilising, spraying insecticides /herbicides, and harvesting cause degraded soil and (when on a slope) top-soil run-off. In my country walks over the years I have found lots of farm-land to appear dead on some farms – no bees and butterflies, only stinging nettles and dandelions, and very few birds. But then, go to a RSPB-partner farm, and it’s a different scene all together.

    I’ve also met farmers who turn to organic produce to bring back the wild flowers, butterflies and bird-song – it gets a premium price and helps to restore land fertility. RSPB and BTO data is the best to look at – birds need the whole ecological cycle to thrive.

    My pet hates are destroying land with windmills and solar panels – the huge amounts of concrete and installation tracks are massive destroyers in our little island.

  10. hunter

    If Monbviot gave a hoot about land use he would be completely opposed to wind and solar. Both negatively impact land much worse than modern agriculture, with big solar being worst of all.
    But soils have been wredcked and restored worldwide many times. Think of the American Great Plains in the dustbowl eras, think of the Levant with dertification, Afghanistan’s amazing irrigation systems destroyed by the Muslim conquest, the deforestation of Britain, the drying out of the Aral Sea. Yet we muddle on somehow.
    Monbiot and the other catastrophists will never perceive how wrong they are.

  11. michael hart

    Monbiot’s claim doesn’t pass the smell test. What can a human do by hand that a farmer can’t do with machinery? Other than go and pick off every insect with a pair of tweezers, 25 hours a day.
    And killing the bugs is far more efficient with a judicious application of insecticides.

    If there really was a “secret sauce” method to improve crop yield by an order of magnitude then commercial farmers would be lining-up to bite Monbiot’s arm off.
    Hmmm, now there’s a thought…

  12. SayNoToFearmongers

    That 4-11x productivity claim for allotment vs agricultural crops…

    Agricultural crops… winter cereals (wheat & barley) typically yield 8-10 tonnes/ha, oilseed rape 4 tonnes or so. They are energy dense, and very dry – cereals about 86-87% dry matter, rapeseed 91-92%.

    Allotments don’t usually have cereal on them. They have fruit and vegetables. Professionally-grown apples yield about 50 tonnes/ha and field veg 40 tonnes/ha.

    Weight for weight, there’s the yield multiplier. Unfortunately for Monbiot’s minions, the difference consists of water, which for these horticultural crops is typically about 85-90%. Water has its uses, but nutritionally it’s not that satisfying.

    He’s either completely clueless or an utter liar. I know where my money is.

  13. REPEL Damocles swords

    Relevant to warmist distractors.
    Boeing just PATENTED a laser PLASMA SHIELD [1], that Washington Post asked [2] and may AVERT electro-volcanic [3] and other electric disasters, such an expected new Carrington event, as the July 2012 near-miss disaster, that NASA [4] and even Fmr CIA Director constantly warns about!!! [5]
    2. “create a SHIELD that powers up or powers down anytime NASA’s early-warning system detects unusual activity.”
    3. Based on the diversion of atmosphere-magma stimulating cosmic rays’ electricity, as we do with spacecrafts and satellites:
    “Explosive volcanic eruptions triggered by cosmic rays: Volcano as a bubble chamber” – Ebisuzaki et al

  14. SayNoToFearmongers

    Two days in moderation?? Do you need references? :-)

    [Sorry about that.]

  15. yandoodan

    English agriculture certainly shows that soil can be used for, oh say, fifteen centuries continuously without degradation. But it’s just a tiny patch of the globe. (Smaller than Florida, for instance.)

    More to the point is that, if soil were degrading world-wide at a fast pace, then global agricultural productivity would be level or declining and commodity prices would be rising. Yet the very opposite is happening. For instance, here’s the first paragraph from a World Bank publication from 2008:

    Since 1960, the world population has more than doubled, from approximately 2.9
    billion in 1960 to more than 6.7 billion today. The demands placed on global
    agricultural production arising out of population and income growth almost tripled.
    Global agriculture has been successful in meeting this increase in demand. Steady
    growth in agricultural output and a long-term decline in real commodity prices attest
    to this success. While the 820 million undernourished people in developing countries
    must not be forgotten, it should also be recognized that the proportion of people
    suffering from hunger has fallen by half since the 1960s, from more than on-in-three
    to one-in-six, even as world’s population has doubled. Progress is possible.

    Here’s the link:

  16. James Cox

    I agree with comments by Vinny Burgoo and others that the point is not about the relative productivity of an allotment or the like to big agriculture. It is the labour involved in cultivating food at this scale. If there is a zero sum game between an individual’s hours spent doing there job (presuming that their allotments are not there only pastime) and their time tending an allotment then should stick to waht they are good at and leave large scale farming (with relativley low cost compared with allotment) to those that knows how.
    IIt is a fact that People in work specialise their skills to maximize their output and use this as a comparative advantage. If every one was made to farm we would loose the man hours of a cross section of specialists and loose productivity in the economy as a whole.
    To me it slightly evokes pol pot’s year zero as a societal construct, or more possibly mugabe breaking down large estate holdings in Zimbwawe that whas the bread basket of Africa. Then distributing this land equitably among citizens, most of which had no idea what to do with the land . In both these extreme senarios food production destroyed almost entirley and took valuable expertise in other areas out of the national economy.
    IN the case of Zimbawe large populations that were not farmers took to the fields with no knowledge of the land or basic skills to produce food for themselves.
    If George has enough time to write a few articles and spend the rest of his time tilling the land then that is fine and dandy for him. But to ask you average computer programmer or school teacher to do the same is economic folly.
    Whats more the UK’s positiion in a world economy with ladders of comparative advantage is clealry not food production.
    I think Monbiot should read Ricardo’s analogy of cloth production in the England and wine production in portugal and see how a capitialist economy actually works.


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