Philip Lymbery, chief executive of Compassion in World Farming, discusses his latest book Sixty Harvests Left which details the appalling impact of industrial farming on climate change, the urgent need to reform our food systems and what practical steps can be taken to avoid a climate catastrophe and greatly reduce animal suffering.
Tell us about your book and why you decided to write it.
It has its title drawn from the chilling warning by the United Nations that if we carry on with industrial agriculture in the way that we are then soils will be gone or useless within a lifetime. A big reason for the demise of the world’s soils is industrial agriculture, also known as factory farming – where crops are grown in chemical-soaked monocultures and where animals are separated from the land and kept in crowded or caged confinement.
In this third book in the Farmageddon trilogy, I again wanted to go behind the closed doors of factory farms and tell the story of how most of the world’s animals farmed for food are kept. It has been a privilege and a matter of sufferance to have travelled the world and seen so much of what we do to our farm animals on factory farms. To look into the eyes of a suffering animal on a farm in China or Argentina or England has given me memories that still haunt and motivate me. That is why I felt compelled to write this book.
Why are our food systems in need of reform?
It is difficult to overstate how serious things really are now that factory farming, be it of cattle, pigs or chickens, has become a global phenomenon.
Cattle crowded together in their thousands in dusty feedlots where they are fed grain, not a blade of grass in sight. Mother pigs unable to turn around for weeks or months at a time and made to face the wall. Hens kept in cages so small, they cannot spread their wings. Chickens reared for meat packed together in their tens of thousands with so little space they’ll have more room in the oven.
As well as being the biggest cause of animal suffering on the planet, factory farming is a key driver in the climate, nature and health catastrophes facing humanity. A stable climate and thriving nature are essential for a sustainable future, but the trend is the wrong way. The animal agricultural sector alone produces more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions from all forms of transport. Factory farming is also central to the worldwide assault on nature. In the half-century since the widespread adoption of factory farming, the world has lost 69 per cent of all its wildlife.
It is also hugely important for us to recognise that the very thing that stores so much atmospheric carbon and water, as well as producing most of our food – the soil – is disappearing. The reason? – industrial agriculture, which fails to respect animal welfare, nature or sustainability. Carry on as we are and by 2040, in a world with more than a billion more mouths to feed, there could be a third less soil, with devastating implications for food production.
Why might there be a reluctance to address the problems caused by our food systems?
Factory farming is rooted in a lifetime’s worth of government policy direction, subsidies and big companies giving advice, to the point where we now have a generation of farmers in Italy, in England and the US who know no different than these intensive methods. I don’t think they see the inefficiency.
Companies have grown up to profit and therefore perpetuate factory farming.
These are the companies that sell you the grain and tell you the best way to keep animals is to feed them grain that could otherwise be feeding people.
After that, there are companies that sell you artificial fertilisers – after all, you’re taking animals off the land where they were naturally fertilising the soil and you put them in a factory farm, so you need artificial fertiliser. And because you’re keeping your crops in monocultures and so taking away the natural pest control, you need chemical pesticides, too.
Then, too many animals in too small a space not only causes the animals suffering, but also opens up the spectre of disease. That is why pharmaceutical companies often make a big profit selling antibiotics to industrial farmers to ward off diseases. Nearly three-quarters of the antibiotics in the world are fed to farmed animals.
So, government policy, government subsidies and companies who will sell you ‘solutions’ to your problems have locked us into this paradigm that is wasteful, inefficient, cruel and polluting.
In a world which seems so addicted to meat, is change really possible?
Absolutely, yes. But it will need a groundswell of people, producers, companies and policymakers to demand change and make it happen.
What could that change look like?
If we want our children to have a liveable future, then tomorrow’s sustainable food menu will need a veritable ‘three Rs’ approach – Regenerative farming, Reduction of animal-sourced foods and Rewilding of the soil.
Nature-friendly or regenerative farming involves restoring animals to the land as rotational grazers or foragers where they can express their natural behaviours – running, flapping, grazing – making for happier animals with better health too. Regenerative farming cuts reliance on chemical pesticides, fertilisers and antibiotics, reducing costs to farmers and creating a varied landscape bursting with life.
This, combined with a serious reduction in the number of farmed animals can create food systems that are genuinely sustainable. Based on scientific assessments within the EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Diet, we can see that saving the planet will require drastic reductions in consumption of animal-sourced foods. Evidence shows that by the middle of the century, our consumption of animal products globally must be reduced by more than half. In high-consuming regions such as the West, deeper cuts will be needed.
Consumption of animal-sourced foods would be reduced through replacement with plant-based and other alternative proteins, including cultivated meat and precision fermentation, together with eating more fruit, vegetables, and legumes.
Rewilding the soil
With far fewer farmed animals, all kept regeneratively, soil fertility can be turbo-boosted by that rotational symphony of plants and animals working in harmony with underground ecosystems, thereby rewilding the soil. Huge amounts of carbon could be locked up in healthy soil. Much more water would be conserved for crops. And a vast array of biodiversity would be restored to thriving farmland.
How can individuals, including church communities, practically help to bring about change?
We all have the power three times a day through the choices on our plate; so, encouraging people to use it by cutting out factory farmed animal products and moving to more plant-based foods is so important. Raising the issues with faith-based leaders is another important way to help as is supporting the work of leading organisations in this area such as Compassion in World Farming (www.ciwf.org) – sign up to our newsletter and we’ll keep you posted on how to take action for a better world for animals, people and the planet.
Philip Lymbery is chief executive of the farm-animal-welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming. In a position he has held since 2005, he has played a leading role in animal welfare reforms, including European-wide bans on veal crates for calves and barren battery cages for laying hens.
His first book, Farmageddon, was one of The Times’ books of the year. His new book, Sixty Harvests Left – the third in the Farmageddon trilogy – argues that, if we don’t change our ways, industrial farming will cause catastrophic climate change, but that there are solutions available.
Sixty Harvests Left is available from Bloomsbury Press and all other good book stores.