New campaign allies strange bedfellows in support of anti-organic, pro-GMO and pro-synthetic food agenda. By Jonathan Matthews
George Monbiot recently tweeted that he was “excited to announce the upcoming launch of a radical new campaign I’ve been working on with RePlanet, called Reboot Food”. That campaign draws heavily on ideas in Monbiot’s latest book Regenesis, which champions “precision-fermentation” as a techno-fix for feeding the world on animal-free protein and fats while freeing up vast areas of farm land for rewilding. But Reboot Food also draws on the dubious agenda of those behind a new organisation called RePlanet, which is receiving a massive boost from Monbiot’s involvement in its campaign.
And Monbiot’s involvement is far from incidental. It has taken a lot of careful planning and already includes:
* a specially recorded RePlanet video titled “let’s have George explain it” on the Reboot Food home page
* Monbiot speaking at a special webinar marking the launch of the Reboot Food campaign
* Monbiot undertaking a live speaking tour that will take him to four different European countries, where his appearances will be hosted by RePlanet member organisations.
Anti-organic and pro-GMO
The Reboot Food Manifesto not only calls for massive government investment in the “game-changing innovations in precision fermentation and biotech” that will produce “low-cost animal-free foods”, but for the legalisation of “gene editing, genetic modification and other new breeding techniques”, and for governments to “repeal organic farming targets and set land-use reduction and rewilding targets instead”. (That's the original wording, but “repeal organic farming targets” has since been softened to “suspend organic targets...” 15/11/2022)
Stopping governments promoting organic farming and getting them to deregulate genetic engineering are key current campaign goals of the pesticides lobby, which has been employing a wide variety of tactics to try and achieve them. That’s because the pesticide giants are desperate to undermine the European Union’s Farm to Fork strategy, which aims by 2030 to slash pesticide and fertilizer use and more than triple the percentage of EU farmland under organic management, as part of the transition towards a “more sustainable food system” within the EU’s Green Deal.
Having a leading environmental commentator like George Monbiot promoting and participating in a campaign that includes pushing genetic engineering and getting the EU’s organic farming targets repealed is a dream come true for the pesticide lobby. And Monbiot was challenged about the anti-organic element on Twitter by Rob Percival of the Soil Association, who asked, “Is a 25% EU organic target really a threat to the rewilding movement? In Regenesis you say the future of food is ‘ideally organic’ – what changed?”. Monbiot replied, “It’s not my project, but one that brings together a wide range of people with broadly similar interests. We won't all agree on every detail.” To which the author Jayne Buxton retorted, “That’s quite the cop out”.
A wide range of people?
So who exactly are the “wide range of people with broadly similar interests” that George Monbiot has teamed up with to promote an anti-organic, pro-GMO, pro-synthetic food agenda?
According to its slick looking website, RePlanet is a pan-European NGO made up of a “network of grassroots charitable organisations” active in at least a dozen countries. A map towards the bottom of its home page allows you to locate different member groups such as RePlanet Austria, RePlanet Portugal, and so on, but more insight is gained by looking at RePlanet’s leading figures.
Simon Friederich, who sits on RePlanet’s advisory board, is “co-founder and chair of a German ecomodernist society” – Ökomoderne – that he says forms “part of the European network RePlanet”. RePlanet’s Secretary General, Karolina Lisslö Gylfe, is a former Secretary General of the Swedish NGO Ekomodernisterna. Meanwhile Tea Törmänen, RePlanet’s International Coordinator and formerly its Executive Director, previously chaired the Ecomodernist Society of Finland. The Finnish ecomodernists also have a contract with RePlanet, although the details are no longer available online.
So who founded RePlanet?
RePlanet’s first incarnation seems to have been in the Netherlands with Stichting Ecomodernisme Nederland, which later rebranded as RePlanet Nederland. The prime movers were a Belgian comms strategist called Rob De Schutter and a Dutch publicist, Hidde Boersma. Boersma, needless to say, calls himself “an ecomodernist” and gave a Ted Talk titled “It is time for ecomodernism”.
Boersma also helped author a book called Ecomodernisme (2017) whose other contributors also formed part of the Dutch ecomodernist foundation that became RePlanet Nederland. The book’s back cover lays out the group’s credo: “There are no limits to growth. The earth can easily handle 10 billion people. Solar panels and wind turbines are a costly mistake, nuclear energy is the future. Organic farming will not feed the world, intensive farming will.”
On RePlanet Nederland’s website they describe the future they dream of. It includes massive urbanisation – “more than 90 percent” of the world’s population living and working in “the city, compared to 50 percent in 2000. Surrounding the city are large farms full of genetically modified crops that achieve four times higher yields than at the beginning of the 21st century. Many of those farms are located in high-rise buildings clad with solar panels. In the distance you can see the cooling towers of a nuclear power plant…”
RePlanet Nederland’s cofounder Hidde Boersma has produced a film promoting GM crops, is planning another promoting GM mosquitoes, and has been trying to crowdfund yet another defending glyphosate. The latter he is co-producing with a farmer, Michiel Van Andel, who says he used to have, “a critical attitude towards chemical giants such as Bayer Monsanto, the producer of glyphosate” but “when he started researching the subject about six years ago, his opinion changed.”
Enter Mark Lynas
That sounds remarkably similar to the conversion story of the other person who describes himself as a co-founder of RePlanet, Mark Lynas, who is also said to be “one of the driving forces” behind the organisation.
Lynas also describes himself as “the UK’s original paid-up ecomodernist” and was one of the authors of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. Like Boersma, Lynas is a well known defender of GM crops and glyphosate, even painting Monsanto as the victim of a European “witch hunt” in an article he wrote defending the chemical.
For nearly a decade Lynas has been paid to promote GMOs by the Gates Foundation, via the so-called Alliance for Science. Like other ecomodernists, Lynas has also expressed strong antipathy to organic farming and agroecology, as well as support for fracking and other controversial technologies.
Not agreeing on every detail? Monbiot, Lynas and ecomodernism
If George Monbiot allying himself with Lynas and a bunch of rebranded ecomodernists seems surprising that’s probably because Monbiot has been among ecomodernism’s sternest critics.
When in 2010 Lynas and Stewart Brand, a key contributor to ecomodernist thought, presented the Channel 4 documentary What the Green Movement Got Wrong, Monbiot was unsparing, both in the studio discussion afterwards and his column in the next day’s Guardian.
The film, which Monbiot describes as profoundly ideological and as fitting “snugly into the corporate agenda”, was based on Brand’s book Whole Earth Discipline. Lynas says reading the book gave him a “eureka moment” in terms of coming out in favour of urbanisation, genetic engineering, etc.. But Monbiot describes Brand’s thesis as “infused with magical thinking, in which technology is expected to solve all political and economic problems. This view… is sustained by ignoring the issue of power.”
Without a critique of power, Monbiot says, such techno-utopianism, in which the world runs like clockwork thanks to the adoption of nuclear energy, GM crops and geo-engineering, is pure fantasy. Brand and Lynas may present themselves as heretics but “their convenient fictions chime with the thinking of the new establishment: corporations, thinktanks, neoliberal politicians. The true heretics are those who remind us that neither social nor environmental progress are possible unless power is confronted.”
When five years later Lynas co-authored the Ecomodernist Manifesto with Brand, Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger and others, Monbiot again warned of the danger “of simple solutions to complex problems”. He was also particularly critical of what they had to say about farming and urbanisation, even comparing the potential impact of their ideas to that of Soviet dispossession and the Highland clearances.
And his critique of ecomodernism is not something he seems to have since abandoned. In an interview earlier this year with a Dutch publication Monbiot again lacerated ecomodernists, accusing them of believing, “as long as you wave the magic wand of technological change, everything will be fine” and of being “a movement, an ideology of people who wanted everything but political change: an establishment movement, if you will.”
And from what Mark Lynas told a Guardian journalist that seems a pretty accurate assessment: “Is the green movement a left-wing, anti-capitalist movement? Mark Lynas believes it is, and that those who style themselves as greens should be marginalised and allowed to die off so that they can be replaced by a new breed of market-friendly environmentalists like him.”
That background may explain why when Monbiot was challenged on Twitter as to how he first got involved with RePlanet, he shied away from naming names and replied vaguely, “I have known the UK organisers for a long time, and they are veteran campaigners with an arrest record longer than mine.”
Back in July, Hidde Boersma tweeted that he was working with Monbiot and Lynas on RePlanet’s campaign, but clearly Monbiot can’t have been referring to the Dutch ecomodernist. Lynas, on the other hand, fits the bill as RePlanet’s Campaign Strategist and someone who has known George Monbiot for more than two decades. And the two other people Lynas has recruited to RePlanet UK, Joel Scott-Halkes and Emma Smart, have an arrest record which probably matches Monbiot’s description thanks to their history of direct action with groups like Extinction Rebellion.
Their recruitment is part of a rebranding exercise that involves more than just burying the ecomodernist name. As Rob De Schutter, one of the founders of RePlanet, explains in a podcast titled From Ecomodernism to RePlanet, “ecomodernists in Europe have united in a new organization” which aims not just to have “a role in the intellectual vanguard” but to take action on the streets. In keeping with this, while the Dutch ecomodernists still describe themselves as a “group of journalists, researchers and scientists”, Replanet’s newer entities describe themselves as “grassroots” and “a citizens movement”.
Monbiot fits neatly into the ecomodernists’ rebranding exercise. Although their techno-fetishism has until now fixated relentlessly on nuclear and GMOs, the job advert for a UK Campaign Manager makes clear that RePlanet’s campaigning activities will focus heavily on three key technologies: “advanced nuclear power”, “genetically engineered crops”, and “precision fermentation”. It also makes explicit the extent to which the campaign template is based on Monbiot’s current vision: “In our agriculture work, we are campaigning for many of the proposals set out by George Monbiot in his new book Regenesis”. The RePlanet UK website reflects this focus. Of its four pages, two are currently given over exclusively to promoting the Reboot Food campaign, with the home page for the moment consisting almost solely of an advert for the RePlanet webinar at which Monbiot is to speak.
For the rebranded ecomodernists such a close association with someone they are able to bill as “the famed journalist, writer and activist George Monbiot” offers obvious benefits in terms of their public profile, media reach, networking and recruitment.
Giving ecomodernism the boot
For George Monbiot it must be extremely gratifying to have a well-funded organisation focusing so heavily on not just promoting the ideas in his latest book but enthusiastically tailoring their lobbying and campaign activities around them. And the fact that Mark Lynas is one of Monbiot’s closest friends – for many years they even lived next door to each other in East Oxford – must have added to the attractions of working together on this campaign.
But that friendship and the rebranding around his vision may have blinded Monbiot to why teaming up with Lynas and the ecomodernists is a seriously bad idea. And it’s not just a question of the politics around their agenda – starkly illustrated by having a pan-European “green” group with a political office in Brussels conducting a high-profile campaign that seeks to repeal organic targets and promote GMOs at just the political moment it serves the pesticide lobby best. It’s also, as we shall see in part two of this investigation, because the actions of Lynas and other leading ecomodernists have consistently been marked by a disturbing lack of integrity, an extreme animosity towards other environmentalists, and a willingness to ally themselves with unsavoury and even corrupt characters that are the environment movement’s natural enemies.