Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming and author of Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, reflects on his childhood memories of being a vicar’s son, developing a passion for animals and campaigning against the terrible impact of factory farming.
One of my greatest treats as a young boy was putting out bread for sparrows whilst on holiday at my Grandad’s little bungalow in Bedford, where the lawn was always covered in birds.
Back then there were loads of sparrows in the garden. I remember being curious about all aspects of their lives – where they nested, what they sounded like, how males and females would stick together or not, and whether their beaks had saliva like our mouths.
My mum taught me to appreciate nature. I remember her encouraging my brother, sister and I to be kind to ladybirds. “They’ve done you no harm,” she used to say.
My Mum kept house and poultry in the backyard whilst my Dad ran a centre for elderly and disabled people. He was active in the community, committed to the Church and in later life became a vicar. Whilst studying to be ordained, Dad wrote an essay called, ‘Christian attitudes to animals’, which emphasised how the Biblical reference to ‘dominion’ over the animals should be taken as a duty of stewardship, of caring and compassion.
When I was off school for several weeks with chickenpox my Mum gave me my first bird book. Fired with enthusiasm, I became a schoolboy conservationist. From that time into my teens every spare moment was taken up with my thirst to discover and see birds and other wildlife.
Back then farms fascinated me as habitats for wildlife. I didn’t give a thought to cows, pigs or chickens. I didn’t realise that farm animals were disappearing from the fields to be reared inside. Nor did I know that the birds I loved were also vanishing. In my lifetime, Britain has lost 44 million birds; that’s a breeding pair every minute. Turtle doves, skylarks, barn owls and other once common farmland birds have gone into steep decline.
It’s not just the birds and farm animals, who have disappeared from the land but other animals and insects too. In the last 40 years the total number of wild mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish worldwide has halved. It’s a shocking statistic and even more shocking to realise that it’s the food on our plate that is responsible for two thirds of wildlife loss.
The links between factory farming and wildlife decline are not immediately obvious. The sight that really sparked me to investigate came a few years ago during a visit to South Africa for the launch of my first book, Farmageddon: the true cost of cheap meat.
I was near Boulders Beach along the Cape Peninsula, where a colony of African penguins had recently set up home near to residential houses. A visitor centre there sold all kinds of penguin memorabilia. What struck me was a display board listing the ‘threats’ to the species, which included “reduction of penguin food supply by commercial fishing”. In other words, African penguins are being driven to the edge of extinction, because we’re hoovering up their food from the sea – and there’s little left for them to eat.
And why is the fish being removed from the seas in such vast quantities? Most of it is ground down into meal and fed to farm animals – caged and confined on factory farms.
All around the world I’ve discovered how growing feed for factory farm animals is destroying wildlife and threatening the environment.
In Sumatra I investigated a little known facet of the palm industry, namely the use of palm kernel for animal feed. I discovered that large quantities are being shipped out to feed intensively farmed cattle and other animals in the EU.
Everywhere I travelled in Sumatra saw me being followed by a dull, hazy smog coming from forests being burned to make way for ever more industrial palm plantations, adding to climate change and destroying the habitat of the critically endangered Sumatran elephant. There are now fewer than 2,500 Sumatran elephants left.
In Brazil I investigated the plight of the jaguar, down to their last 15,000 on the planet, half of them in Brazil. I discovered that their survival depends on halting the relentless march of soya of which Brazil is the world leader in exports.
Never-ending prairies of soya are destroying rich and varied habitats across Brazil. And what is all the soya for? It’s food for factory farmed animals, many of them in Europe.
Until my teens I was ignorant of factory farming. The moment that opened my eyes to the realities was when a speaker from Compassion in World Farming came to my school to do a talk. I remember being horrified at the pictures of pigs and calves in factory farms. The hens in battery cages and how they couldn’t flap their wings, never mind fly particularly upset me. I thought about the wild birds that mesmerised me. The hens in cages seemed a crime. I was outraged, and I vowed to do something about it.
Whilst it was my passion for animal welfare that led me to campaign against factory farming, it’s become obvious over the past few years that ending factory farming is non-negotiable if we want to secure a safe future for our children.
With nearly half the world’s usable land surface devoted to agriculture, the way we feed ourselves is now a dominant activity on the planet, affecting not only animals but also the natural ecosystems on which human society depends.
Some 75 billion farm animals are reared for food every year, two-thirds of them on factory farms, with numbers growing all the time. Together, they emit almost a sixth of all global greenhouse gas emissions; that’s more than all the world’s planes, trains and cars put together.
Fortunately, there is another way and I’ve met farmers all around the world, who’ve put their animals back into their ecological niche on the land.
Instead of feeding most of the world’s cereals and grain to animals, we should rear animals on pasture converting things people can’t eat – grass and crop residues – into things that they can eat: meat, mill and eggs.
Embracing regenerative, land-based ways of keeping farm animals would not only provide scope for higher welfare, but it could also go a long way to feeding the world. If we cut by half the amount of cereals and meat fed to farm animals, it would free up enough food for an extra 2 billion people.
I believe that all animals deserve to feel the joy of living – the fresh air, sunlight on their backs and space to roam. What I’ve discovered through my travels for Compassion is that when animals are returned to the land in the right way, in mixed rotational farms, whole landscapes have the chance to spring to life.
Helping to revive a living countryside can be as easy as eating more plant-based meals – with a cascade of positive benefits for the environment, wildlife, farm animals and us.
Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming, the leading international farm animal welfare organisation, and author of Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were published by Bloomsbury in paperback, 8 March 2018.