Philip Lymbery desribes the journey that inspired him to write Farmageddon and his vision for a better future for people, animals and the planet.
Standing amongst vast groves of almond trees in perfectly regimented rows you could hear a pin drop. Not the chirp of a bird or the buzz of a bee. It was eerie. The distant thud of a helicopter breaks the silence; an aerial crop-sprayer dousing the carpets of monoculture in every direction with chemicals to keep nature at bay. The air smells like washing up liquid; it caught in our throat and felt like it was creeping down our lungs.
We were witnessing what seemed like a daily chemical assault on the landscape; from aircraft, weird-looking land vehicles and protective-clad people with hand-held sprayers.
I was on a fact-finding mission with Sunday Times journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, for our book “Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat” (Bloomsbury 2014). How on a single trip, I thought, do I convince a hard-nosed journalist of the perils of industrial agriculture? The answer lay here in California; the land of milk and honey.
Not in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood or other hotspots in the sunshine state, but in the dusty valleys that yield world-renowned harvests. It was to be the Alice in Wonderland looking glass through which we would glimpse what some see as the future for food production.
We learned how the local bees had gone; wiped out. Forty billion bees are instead trucked in from other states to pollinate the crops.
Taking to the sky in a small plane, we could see enormous stretches of the same crop patchworking the valley, broken by what seemed like vicious scars; mega-dairies that pepper the scene, each with thousands of cows confined to muddy paddocks, not a blade of grass in sight. We were flying over perhaps the biggest concentration of mega-dairies in the world. Yet there was no shortage of land; no logical reason for them not to be on grass.
The system wasn’t even working for the farmers themselves. At a livestock market in a nearby town, a farmer wept as he told of how a friend’s mega-dairy had gone out of business and the despairing owner took his own life.
For me, the experience begged the question, was this cruel aberration or farming’s future direction?
Back in Britain, our countryside too is suffering the ravages of intensive farming; once common farmland birds like turtle doves, skylarks and tree sparrows have declined by up to 90%. Butterflies and bees too have declined, with less than a quarter of the bees needed to pollinate our crops.
Compared to the US, however, Britain and Europe are relative novices at the intensification game; but there is fresh impetus to intensify under the dubious justification of ‘feeding the world’, threatening to take our countryside and the quality of our food to a new tipping point. Some want to accelerate the industrialisation of farming in the name of ‘sustainable intensification’. Without a change of tack, mega-dairies, ‘battery’-reared beef and genetically engineered crops – and animals – will soon be the norm.
During three years of investigation for Farmageddon, I became struck by the link between how animals are kept and the quality of the food they produce. Generally, the more that animals are reared on the land with natural, varied diets, the healthier and tastier the food. We instinctively know this, which is why terms like ‘natural’ and ‘free-range’ are so attractive. It also explains why marketers all too often try to mask factory-farmed food behind labels showing false depictions of green fields, small farmhouses accompanied by comforting terms like ‘farm fresh’ and ‘country fresh’.
It made me angry at suggestions that factory farming is a ‘necessary evil’ to feed the poor. I question why is it right to expect people on low incomes to have to feed their children on unhealthy food? Do we really want a decimated countryside devoid of birds, bees and butterflies? And why isn’t more fuss being made over the fact that enough grain to feed billions more people is being wasted through feeding it to industrially reared animals?
At a recent meeting with leading businesses, I was asked, given three minutes with UK prime minister, David Cameron, what I would ask him. I would urge support for food production that puts animals back on the farm instead of in factories; extensive farming connected to the land, providing more nutritious food in ways that are better for the countryside and animal welfare. Government could help improve the health of the nation and safeguard future food supplies by building on natural resources: the pasturelands that cover a quarter of farmland worldwide, and two-thirds in Britain.
For a generation of consumers shielded from the realities of factory farming, brought up on picture-book images of Old Macdonald and his small farmyard idyll, reinforced by advertising and often misleading labels, the truth often comes as a shock. Putting farm animals back on the farm could be a big vote-winner too; many people mistakenly think it’s where they are anyway!
Through writing Farmageddon, I became convinced of the tremendous power we have as consumers; the difference we can make three times a day with every meal. I have learned how our choices can have a real effect, not only on the people, animals and countryside behind the food we eat, but on ourselves and our families.
Simple measures like eating what we buy instead of throwing so much away, and eating less but better meat, can make that difference. And when consumers choose alternatives to industrial factory farming – like free-range, pasture-raised, organic or the like – then supermarkets and policymakers take note. Things begin to change – from Farmageddon to a better future for people, animals and the planet.
Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat by Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott is published by Bloomsbury and available from Amazon and all good bookshops.
Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming.