Interview: Factory farming is driving food waste and wildlife destruction on an epic scale


Philip Lymbery on the stage at the Hay Festival. Photo credit: Kirstie Wielandt.

Interview by Anders Lorenzen

Factory farming is driving wildlife to extinction, and it is responsible for one of the most unsustainable and inefficient food systems of our times. So says Philip Lymbery, the Chief Executive for Compassion in World Farming (CWF).

I caught up with him at the Hay Festival in Wales as he was promoting his new book, ‘Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were’. Earlier he had joked during his talk, that the fact he was one of the few people to wear a suit at the laid-back festival, was because he meant business.

Factory farming, a disaster for wildlife

But as we started the interview, the tone quickly became more serious. Lymbery explained just how bad factory-farming is, saying it is a major driver of wildlife decline worldwide and is only making climate change worse. He said that we were seeing a worrying trend in factory-farming. According to Lymbery, factory-farming is defined as a farming method where animals are taken off green pastures and put into confined spaces. And that apart from being cruel it is also inefficient: ‘’This looks like a spacing idea, but actually isn’t, because you then have to allocate scarce land elsewhere, where you could be growing food directly for people’’. He explained that you then have to dedicate land to growing animal feeds such as cereal and soya, to feed those factory farmed animals. Lymbery continued: ‘’Those crops tend to be produced industrially using chemical fertilisers and pesticides. And as the fields get bigger, the trees disappear and so do the bushes and the hedges. The chemicals mean that the wildflowers disappear, along with the seeds and insects that are needed for the birds, bees and butterflies and just about everything else. None of it makes sense, because we feed the crop to the farm animals, and then waste most of it in conversion to meat, milk and eggs. “

Factory-farming really took off after the Second World War as a government-backed initiative, Lymbery said. He explained that the idea was to rebuild Europe as well as feed a growing population, the baby boomers. Back then it happened particularly in the US and post-war Europe. But since then many countries have followed, including Brazil which Lymbery considers being the second largest factory-farming country after the US.

Factory-farming driving deforestation

He continued to elaborate on Brazil, explaining that they are major producers of many agricultural products including beef, chicken, soya. They produce not only for export but also to satisfy home demand. As Brazil is such a massive producer, they can afford to look inwards as well as to the outside world. Lymbery explains the huge impact on wildlife, “What I have discovered is, that our demand here in Britain and Western Europe for cheap meat is harming wildlife not only in our own country but also on other continents. There is a huge area of South America that is dedicated to growing soya as feed for our factory farmed animals. To give you an idea of the land area, it is an area the size of Greece growing feed to feed caged chickens and pigs”.

Lymbery continued to expand on the unsustainable soya industry “Soya is even expanding in Brazil by 100,000 hectares every year, and that expansion is going into the Cerrado, the savannah – wooded grasslands that once covered much of the interior of Brazil. That soya crop is growing on deforested plains usually by ploughing up existing cattle pastures”. Lymbery says that, due to this, land prices are going through the roof so the cattle farmers can sell their land for a lot more than they bought it for. In effect, it means farmers are moving further and further inland and are thereby causing more and more deforestation. “Soya is amplifying Amazon rainforest destruction”, Lymbery said, and he highlighted that many of these rainforest-destroying products end up on our supermarket shelves.

But having said that, Lymbery explained that the soya plant itself was not the villain. The problem is that we don’t produce it in the right way. He explained that industrial soya is environmentally destructive; but soya that is produced on mixed rotation farms without chemicals on existing farmland, without deforestation, and without using GM crops, is a wonder crop, “It provides a complete protein for humans. The tragedy is that this wonder crop which is grown in Europe and other countries is mostly going to feed factory-farmed animals”.

We’re encouraged to be disconnected from the food system


Deep into the interview with Philip Lymbery. Photo credit: Kirstie Wielandt.

This leads nicely to food education, or perhaps the lack thereof. Lymbery says there is a huge disconnection between our food and how it is produced. He explains, “We’re actually encouraged to be disconnected. Because, of course, the labelling of cheap meat and milk doesn’t describe how it has been produced. Meat can be labelled as market fresh where actually it is fresh from a factory farm. That is why we’re demanding honest labelling. We must demand that meat and milk is labelled clearly with the method of production in order to shine a light on the bad stuff sitting on our supermarket shelves”.

Lymbery says that at the moment farmers are competing on what seems to be equal terms about labelling, but clearly not on price as it is more expensive to have free range and pasture-fed production. That produce is higher quality and better food, and therefore those farmers deserve to be paid a premium. But on the labels in the supermarket, the poorly produced factory-farmed food and the good quality free-range, pasture-fed, or organic food looks equally enticing judging from the labels. “Whoever thought that was a good idea? I will tell you, the factory- farming industry. It has got to stop”, Lymbery concluded.

The EU not without its faults on farming policies

Lymbery moved on to focus on Europe and the EU. While he voted for Remain during the EU referendum vote in 2016, he said that on this issue they don’t have a good record. He said that the region as a whole has tended to outsource its environmental destruction in order to feed itself. “The water footprint, soil damage, and native wildlife are all suffering in other countries due to European demand”. He blames EU’s Common Agricultural Policy for many of the problems. If we were to feed ourselves in Britain, we would need 2.4 times the farmland that we currently have, which already covers 70% of Britain’s land surface.

Everyone needs to be involved

But he is careful and wary about demanding people switch to a vegan diet. It is all about getting everyone involved, cutting demand, and encouraging consumers to have a more balanced diet. That would involve people eating more plants and less but better meat, milk and eggs from pasture-fed, free-range, or organic sources. “A valid response to essentially the impending planetary crisis which is the breakdown of our eco-systems on which we all rely is flexitarianism. A valid response is still to be an omnivore or carnivore but to eat less but better”, he told me.

He explained that we can’t let purity get in the way of progress. “Let’s get everyone onboard for what I call a joyous revolution in the countryside, where people are buying into foods; where farm animals are treated better and are given the decent life they deserve; where the wildlife is saved and into the bargain where people have better quality and more nutritious food for their families”, Lymbery says.

Lymbery says that when it comes to a healthy diet, there is no doubt, there is clear evidence to show that reducing meat and dairy consumption has benefits for our health. This is in terms of reduction of serious cardiovascular disease, and improvement in the nutritive quality of our diet.

End factory-farming to tackle climate change

Lymbery argued that if you care about tackling climate change, you should get behind the move to end factory-farming, “It drives increased consumption of meat and dairy. Increased consumption of meat and dairy drives more factory-farming. The fact is that if we continue on the trajectory that we are on now, and if we carry on eating so much, our consumption of dairy food alone will drive catastrophic climate change. It is as simple as that. We have got to rein in. And by how much? We need to reduce by about 50%, we need to half the average meat consumption,” he states. Lymbery explained we need to halve the production of meat and dairy statistically by 2050 if we are going to stave off climate change.

Lymbery is very clear that arable land should be used to grow food crops and not energy crops, and he is therefore critical of the biofuel industry, “Biofuel is a waste of scarce arable land growing crops, usually in chemically soaked monocultures, for biofuels to put in your fuel tank. Is that green? No! It is a fantasy, it is a fallacy to call that green”, he states.

He concluded our chat by visualising a future where we can set aside more land for nature and wildlife by moving away from factory-farming, and by including more plants in our diet. “We will be able to have more land for wildlife and ecosystems, for the lungs of the Earth, for the rivers to run green, for the soils to be regenerated for future harvests across the planet, and all of that can only be a good thing.” Few authors or poets at the Hay Festival would have summed it up better.

Philip Lymbery was speaking to A greener life, a greener world’s editor Anders Lorenzen during the Hay Festival in Wales, UK and his new book ‘Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were’ is available via this link.

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