Our Burning Planet


How we make food is insane — a conversation with animal advocate and author Philip Lymbery

How we make food is insane — a conversation with animal advocate and author Philip Lymbery
No way out. (Photo: Compassion in World Farming)

For Philip Lymbery, the author of ‘Farmageddon’, ‘The Dead Zone’ and ‘Sixty Harvests Left’, we have two choices: change how we feed ourselves or prepare for extinction.

“When we can allow our hearts to break over what we’re losing, we can love our world with more generosity.” —  Joanna Macy 

Consider this. Agriculture is responsible for 25% of the world’s carbon emissions, uses nearly half its habitable land, is responsible for 70% of freshwater withdrawals and is the main cause of biodiversity loss.

Around half the maize produced is used to feed the animals we eat and about half the food we produce is lost before it reaches our tables. We are fraying the planet ragged.

food lymberry

Philip Lymbery. (Photo: Supplied)

For Philip Lymbery, the author of Farmageddon, The Dead Zone and Sixty Harvests Left, we have two choices: change how we feed ourselves or prepare for extinction.

Lymbery has the demeanour of both a wise, friendly owl and a fierce revolutionary, depending on the occasion. He’s a founder and board member of the World Federation for Animals and heads the global organisation Compassion in World Farming. He was in Cape Town recently and made time to talk to Daily Maverick.

Don Pinnock: We’ve had several animal transporter ships docking in South Africa, one of which stank out Cape Town. Who are they and what sort of industry is it?

Philip Lymbery: It’s a long-distance transport trade fuelled by dealers who buy animals and get a few pennies more by selling them live to distant markets. Too many animals in too small a space creates absolutely terrible conditions.

The Middle East is a strong destination market — not the only one, but a strong one, particularly for animals that are sent by a ship. We’re talking about millions of animals. At its height, Britain alone was exporting 2.5 million sheep, lambs and calves a year. But that’s about to be banned. Legislation to stop it is due for ratification by the end of May.

DP: That trade must be good for farmers though.

PL: It’s a senseless trade. Live transport is unnecessary, it’s just making money for a few organisations. I was asked recently how it would affect the farming industry in Britain if this ban went ahead and my answer was that it will make no difference at all.

And the idea that market economics means that you’ve got to export your animals live to be slaughtered somewhere else is not a sound one. Animals can be slaughtered as near to the farm of rearing as possible. You get a better end product because animals that suffer on a long-term basis produce poor-quality meat — that’s a scientific fact.

I think that farmers who celebrate the live animal export trade are doing a disservice to farming and rural communities by bringing the industry into disrepute.

DP: Your organisation Compassion in World Farming deals with much more than live animal transport. What are the other issues?

PL: The way most farming is done is unsupportable, especially the way we farm animals. The way that most meat is now produced globally is through factory farming, which doesn’t produce protein, it wastes it, because it uses the protein from cereals and soya to make the meat and the meat is produced in a way which is unhealthy.

It’s the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet, a major reason for impending climate change, the major driver of wildlife declines worldwide. It’s undermining our ability to produce food in the future, undermining our soil. The UN’s rightly warned that if we carry on as we are, we have just 60 harvests left — 60 years left and the soil’s gone.

DP: That’s pretty dire, but the book you wrote about it is hopeful: Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. Can we get to that future?

PL: We have to or we’ll perish. Time is running out, so this is no longer a choice. It’s not just an issue of doing the right thing by animals. This is about whether or not we want a future for our children. We have to move to regenerative farming; embrace beautiful, life-affirming, compassionate solutions; regenerative solutions that bring back wildlife, that restore soil health, that help to combat climate change. It will produce better, healthier food in ways that don’t cause cruelty to animals.

DP: Is that possible?

PL: We know how to do it. Reduce the number of animals and amount of meat that we’re producing by about half and eat more balanced, healthy diets. Any meat we do eat is sourced from regenerative, pasture-fed, free-range animals. Reducing the overall amount of meat from animals, means more plant-rich diets and where we do eat meat, eat less and better.

DP: Won’t that cost more? 

PL: Globally we put about $700-billion equivalent a year into subsidising agriculture largely to do the wrong thing: to destroy our ability to farm in the future and collapsing our ecosystem. What we need to do is make that money work better. We can’t change the people, but we can change the system. And we have to change it.

Subsidies tend to drive more intensification, farming methods that are heavy on inputs such as artificial fertilisers, chemical pesticides, cages and animal feed, antibiotics … drugs to keep unhealthy animals alive. And they are unhealthy because of the conditions we’re keeping them in. We need the subsidies to drive us towards a more regenerative way of doing things.

Collapse of nature

If we continue the way we are with methods of farming that drive climate change, the collapse of nature, pollution and pandemic risks, the data show that human society will have a hard job climbing out of the 21st century.

We should also look at rural communities and farmers’ incomes because the problem with intensive farming is that much of the income goes out to pay for fertilisers, pesticides, the grain trade to feed the animals and so on. We have to pivot to more plant-based eating.

DP: Won’t that require even more land?

PL: Factory farming looks like a space-saving idea, doesn’t it? Put the animals into cages, crates and confinement. But it’s the space required to feed them. You feed those crops to the farm animals, who waste most of the protein and calorie value of that food in conversion to meat, milk and eggs.

In feeding factory farms with human-edible crops, we waste enough food to supply four billion people. That is half of humanity alive today. So factory farming doesn’t create food, it wastes it.

DP: It would need a revolution in farming practices to change, and farmers are necessarily cautious and conservative.

PL: If we move to a more generative system where the animals are living off the land in a more balanced, nature-friendly way, creating better food and much better animal welfare, it will mean farmers are spending much less money on inputs.

They’d be putting much less of their own income into the pockets of big agribusiness companies, pharmaceutical companies, chemical companies, cage companies and so on. With regenerative farming methods, they can be much more self-sufficient, vibrant and prosperous.

DP: It would probably be kinder to wildlife, especially birds and insects.

PL: Of all terrestrial vertebrates on Earth, 96% are farm animals and only 4% are wild creatures. Around 70% of birds in the world are domestic poultry by weight and only 30% wild.

In the last 50 years, we’ve lost more than two-thirds of all our wildlife. This is happening because of the way that we are farming, because we’re moving towards industrial, agricultural models based around these cruel ways of keeping animals.

So my plea isn’t just about compassion for animals. It’s a plea to do the right thing for a future of humanity.

DP: Why are you in Cape Town?

PL: We’re creating a new Compassion in World Farming hub for Africa based here. We want to help change practices across the continent, to build a new chapter in the history of compassionate world farming. DM

Lymbery’s books

Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat is described as a wake-up call to change our current food production and eating practices.

Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were focuses on the impacts of industrial farming on wildlife worldwide: from mammals to sea life, birds, reptiles and insects.

Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future shows how industrial farming is ruining our soils but how we can adapt to restore the planet for a nature-friendly future.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert de Vos says:

    The inconvenient truth is that in the entire couple of hundred thousand years of being here, the human species has contributed less to the earth’s ecosystem than an anthill or a beehive.

    Society has been defined by wealth and power for 15,000 years or so, with little concern for our impact on the ecosystem. Sophisticated food sources and ethical farming are emerging but can never cope with the billions of us.

    So now what? A planet of garbage and a population eventually dying off from incurable diseases assisted by the inevitable interglacial warming which has now begun.

    But hey! Earth is billions of years old and has gone through 5 extinctions so who are we to think we are so special?

  • Luke S says:

    Actually, we have three choices, and the third one is to manage our population growth so that it becomes negative. All the damage we’re doing, is being done at an increasing rate, because we are increasing the population. If we put more effort into economies that don’t reply on a growing population, reproduction health and education, and get rid of the stigma of choosing not to breed, and get rid of the expectation to leave a legacy of our own genes and adopt an orphan or more instead, all of the problems above should be reduced.

  • Alastair Stalker says:

    Regenerative agriculture is starting to be practiced in many countries but until the majority of farmers change their paradigm t0 measure profit/ha rather than yield (revenue)/ha change will be at a snail’s pace. Governments have to educate and then legislate to force change but politicians who depend on fossil fuel and chemical industries will never do that. They almost all think short term and are only interested in remaining in power.
    The only way change will happen is when something apocalyptic happens like the North Atlantic Meridional Overturning circulation (Gulf Stream) failing which will be too late. We are already seeing the effects of climate warming in the numbers of refugees. If the UK thinks they have a problem at present with 1.2 Mill/pa, wait another 10 years. There may shortly be billions of people displaced by extreme heat, drought and rising sea levels. Look at what is currently happening in India – people and animals cannot survive in temperatures of 50 C.
    The wealthy in the West seem to have the attitude that they have sufficient resources to ameliorate the worst effects of climate change and are continuing with their profligate lifestyles. And in addition, we have the looming probability of another Trump presidency.
    It’s not easy to be optimistic.

  • Robert E Visser says:

    I have noticed all over the world that a high percentage of farmers are old. Younger generations sadley do not seem to be looking at farming as a career.The present model involves high risk, low margins.This can change with a different approach.
    I believe the symbiotic model is the way to go,build soil carbon, soil structure and soil bio the rest follows quite majestically, birds- insects, balance .Grazers play an important role in soil life- regeneration, and yes they can just eat pastures when the soil has life.Education is key–this is a new era of food production.

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