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Book Review: Farmageddon

Updated: Jul 6, 2021

Earlier this month, the UK government announced that exporting live animals for slaughter and fattening will be banned in England and Wales, under new plans due to be enforced by the end of 2021. This comes as a huge win for farmed animals up and down the country, but also for Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) who have campaigned tirelessly, and for decades, to see the introduction of such a ban. In the spirit of this win, I thought it timely to pick up the book “Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat”, written by CIWF’s CEO Philip Lymbery.

Farmageddon is a truly fascinating, and yet horrific, investigative journey into the unseen world of industrial animal-agriculture, and it has one clear message: our global food system is broken. So clear is this message, that it could convince anyone, from the climate change sceptic to the committed meat eater, of the far-reaching devastation caused by our broken food system. This book takes you on a world tour, starting in American before travelling to Taiwan, Argentina, China, Peru and Mexico and at each destination details the devastation caused by our consumption of cheap meat.

Lymbery sheds light on the many consequences of industrialised animal agriculture, from the emergence of zoonotic disease, to it’s implications in global hunger, from environmental destruction and climate change to the way that it has robbed small family owned farms of their livelihoods. In doing so, Lymbery sends out a clear message that animal welfare, human health, and the prosperity of our planet are under threat from our current food system.

A discussion often shied away from, this book should be commended for the light that is sheds on the poor welfare conditions that animals in industrial agriculture must endure. Each year, 70 billion farmed animals are raised and slaughtered for meat, two-thirds of which are reared in industrial settings. These animals are confined in windowless sheds for the entirety of their short and painful lives. What’s more, because of the introduction of antibiotics and hormones they are pushed beyond their natural biological limits to grow quicker than their bodies can support or produce more eggs and dairy than is normal. Lymbery makes the utterly shocking example of dairy cows who have a lifespan of just five years, a whole decade less than her natural lifespan.

Farmageddon leaves no corner of the animal agriculture industry untouched; Lymbery travelling the sea to investigate what he calls the forgotten factories underwater. While fish is often hailed for it’s minimal environmental impact and glamourised by the Mediterranean diet as a healthy food staple, very quickly, Lymbery tears down these misconceptions.

Lymbery spends some time pointing out the sheer absurdity of feeding wild fish to farmed fish. It is estimated that around a fifth of all fish caught in the sea are now pulped into fishmeal. It is no wonder then, that today the majority of “fishmeal” stocks in the Pacific are fully exploited. Alarmingly, as the industry scrabbles to maintain their supply, there are mounting suggestions that farmed fish should be fed with livestock meat and bonemeal. In developing aquacultures, like China, Bangladesh and India, farmed fish are being fed on “cakes” – food palettes made from the manure of farmed animals. And 90% of global production comes from Asia.

If that doesn’t ring alarm bells, the overcrowding, sea-lice infestation, deformity, disease and injury which farmed fish must endure ought too. It is estimated that approximately 10-30% of farmed fish stock die as a result of the poor conditions in which they are bred to live. Rightly so, Lymbery points out that this is a figure that would raise serious alarm bells in other farmed animal species. But, there is of course this general notion that fish suffer less than birds, who suffer less than mammals.

Lymbery points out that the way that we raise farmed fish is not only troublesome in terms of animal welfare, but spells trouble for the surrounding environment, nature and our human health. Today, farmed fish lead near stationary lives meaning that their flesh contains high levels of saturated fat and high concentrations of dangerous chemicals. So, while many see fish as a clean and safe source of protein, there is strong evidence to suggest that the consumption of farmed fish might pose health risks that detract from the perceived benefits of its consumption.

As well as the animals that fall victim to this industry, Lymbery pays an important tribute to the people whose lives have been affected by this industry - those who have no choice but to live on its doorstep, or work in its factories. Living on the edge of an industrial farming operation means swarms of flies, thickly polluted air and contaminated water. The evidence also suggests that these people have a shorter life expectancy, reduced by as much as a decade. And working in these operations can be as deadly. These corporate plantations often rob small scale farmers of their livelihoods a fate which so often results in stress, debt and even suicide. These are often the forgotten victims of industrial farming and this book is as much their story as it is the author.

While this book is a global look at the state of our food system, I can’t help but feel drawn to those chapters that explore the situation in the country in which I live. The book sheds light on the state of intensive agriculture here in the UK and in the process, does an excellent job at doing away with the “Old MacDonald Fallacy”. So often, we in the UK look at the intensive production systems in the US, and now China, and fail to see that much the same is happening on our own soil. Certainly, it is hard to believe when we look at the beautiful countryside’s here in the UK. But Lymbery explains that what we see in the US is a vision for what the countryside’s across the world could soon look like.

Intensive farming operations like those mega-dairies in Central Valley, California are on the brink of migrating to the UK. Compassion in World Farming themselves, campaigning to block plans to build the UK’s first mega-dairy facility in Lincolnshire. And although they succeeded in their fight in 2011, we are starting to see evidence of migration even still. Today, only 8% of farms in the UK are so-called “mixed” farms, whereby different farmed animals are raised for food in shared space. Instead, the remaining 92% of farms are “monocultures” those farms specialising in the intensive production of a single animal or crop.

And the effects of such intensification can be seen in the loss of wildlife; over the last 40 years we have lost 97% of our sparrow population, mostly the result of intensive farming. Industrial farms are so efficient in their use of pesticides that the countryside is simply too sterile to support native farmland birds. This book is a warning that, if left unchallenged, the intensification of animal agriculture in the UK could spell disaster for the animals involved, for our environment and for food production systems.

In the last chapter, Lymbery shares what he believes consumers can do to help bring about a kinder food system. His “compassionate consumerism” takes a very pragmatic approach and includes: buying foods reared on farms not factories and eating less meat. An approach colloquially known as “less and better”.

As someone who is sympathetic to the pragmatic approach to vegan advocacy, I am on board with the first half of this message, that everyone ought to eat less meat. However, I struggle with the notion of prescribing "better" meat. Personally, I do not believe that it is possible to eat better meat, not in terms of environmental sustainability nor animal welfare, and I will explain why.

The book advocates for a return to an earlier time in animal agriculture whereby farming was in tune with nature. This is to suggest that smaller scale, local farming is better for the environment. Indeed, Lymbery suggests that we look out for “free-range”, “pasture-raised”, “out-door reared” and “organic” meat products. These labels, which are thought to signal "better" meat, are problematic for me. In terms of environmental sustainability, several peer reviewed studies have found "pasture-raised" systems to be more land, animal, and emission intensive than their industrial alternatives. It is estimated that today, "pasture-raised" cattle would result in a 50% increase in greenhouse gas emissions, relative to cattle raised on a factory farm. And, if the US were to switch to all grass fed beef today, they would require an additional 64.6 million cows, 131 million acres more land and 135 million more tonnes of greenhouse gases!

For me, the answer is not to improve the systems already in place, but to work towards establishing a new food system. As Tara Garnett, Oxford University researcher, once remarked: “if we are going to have a hope in hell of cutting our climate emissions then we need to stop our consumption of animal products and that holds whatever the animal type and whatever the system in which it has been produced”.

In terms of animal welfare, again, I struggle to buy into the labels “organic” and “cage-free” even those from RSPCA assured or Red Tractor farms. After the countless exposés which show animals living in very different conditions to what these labels might suggest, I struggle to believe that these animals are truly living in any better welfare conditions. A quick google search and you will find many such news articles or organisations attempting to break down the guise of these superficial labels. In one such exposé "The Animal Justice Project" spent three months inside a so-called free-range, high welfare, RSPCA assured broiler chicken farm

and reported some of the most horrific abuses of animal treatment that I have seen. It is my opinion that these labels mean very little by way of animal welfare and are instead, a comfort blanket for the more conflicted meat-consumers to encourage continued consumption.

It is my opinion that farmed animal welfare cannot be improved to a level that these animals deserve, within the constraints of the animal agriculture system. That is, within the constraints of a system designed to exploit them for financial gain. At the end of the day, the profits from their produce will always need to outweigh the costs for their improved welfare.

Now, with that said, I absolutely respect the work that CIWF do. They campaign tirelessly to see change happen. In fact, it is because of their work that veal crates, barren battery cages and sow stalls have been banned in the UK and Europe. To name just a few important wins for animal welfare. What's more, campaigning for improved animal welfare conditions makes production more costly, increasing the average price of meat and making consumption all the more difficult. The more difficult it is to consume meat, the more appealing the vegetarian or vegan alternative becomes.

For me, compassionate consumerism is actively reducing ones consumption of animal-derived food products, with total abstention, the ultimate end goal. And, rather than replacing these products with supposedly “better farmed” animal-products, replacing them with plant-based alternatives. Our current food system is not just broken, it is irrecoverable. But we can build a new one, one that does not harm but instead serves us, the environment and all animal life.

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