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Friday, July 19, 2024

Ending Farmageddon

It’s been 10 years since Philip Lymbery’s award-winning book Farmageddon exposed the devastating consequences of US-style mega farms sweeping the British countryside. In this exclusive op-ed, he casts an eye over what’s changed – and what hasn’t


After almost 20 years as CEO, I’ve learned that the way you lead constantly has to change. I’ve come to see too that embracing kindness is a much-needed strength. Empowerment, empathy, and patience are the cornerstones of leading with kindness. Folded with vision, ambition, and a strong understanding of your field, and you have a powerful platform from which to lead by example.

Some 10 years ago, I made the most significant change of my career by agreeing with the Board that I’d evolve into an outward-facing CEO. It involved creating an empowered new role of COO for our growing international organisation, capable of lifting much of the burden of administration from my shoulders.

With that came the possibility to reawaken another trait that I’d otherwise been forced to shelve: going behind closed doors and seeing things for myself, things that otherwise were the domain of documentary makers or undercover investigators.

You see, when I first joined the farmed animal welfare environmental organisation, Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) as an entry-level assistant way back in 1990, I made it my business to see for myself the reality of how animals are kept.

A young Philip Lymbery, outside Compassion in World Farming’s first office in Petersfield

That way, I could better understand what was going on and talk about it more convincingly. I went to factory farms with the undercover investigative team, and I followed live animal export consignments from the Midlands to Dover and across the Channel to the Continent. I went into slaughterhouses in Spain, and turkey sheds in Norfolk. The insights I gained were invaluable.

I’ve never lost that drive to see what’s going on and to find the hidden stories behind those celebrities of the food world: milk, chicken, eggs, and bacon. It was the perfect learning for me back then. It was also the modus operandi I would return to decades later as the charity’s CEO.

After some years running my own business, doing consulting, leading wildlife tours, and directing communications for another major animal welfare organisation, World Animal Protection, I returned to CIWF as its CEO.

At interview, I promised the Board that if I was chosen for the role, I’d be in it for no less than five years, no more than ten. No less than five years because that has always felt the minimum timeline at the helm to really make a difference. No more than 10 was trading on what I understood as traditional business wisdom, that moving on by then avoids getting stuck in a rut.

However, as that 10-year time horizon loomed, I came to realise that a big boon for a leader in the not-for-profit sector was insight. So, rather than taking my insight elsewhere, I decided to double-down on it. To go back out and see things for myself, and then be better enabled to tell the world about them. To advocate for change. To see how our organisational strategy could adapt for greatest impact. But crucially, to be a better leader in making change happen. To bring much-needed kindness to the way we produce food.

Sunshine state

That’s how I came to be in California standing amongst never-ending rows of almond trees. It was the latest leg on a global quest to find out what was going on in food, farming, and the countryside.

I remember how the lines of trees were perfectly straight and lifeless. I never heard the chirp of a bird or the buzz of a bee. Instead, I’d hear helicopters and vehicles spraying pesticides on adjacent crops. It was part of an incessant spray fest that had devastated populations of wild bees.

The result was that 40 billion cultivated bees had to be brought into the state every year by thousands of trucks to do what nature could no longer do: pollinate the crops.

I took to the air in a small plane to get a bird’s-eye view of the industrial agricultural scene. The sheer scale of this vast patchwork quilt was eye-popping. There were huge continuous fields of crops, no hedgerows or woodland in between.

Every now and then, I saw what looked like a vicious scar on the landscape. These were mega-dairies, each with up to 12,000 cows in a single dusty paddock, not a blade of grass in sight. At the time, this is what was being touted as the future of farming in Britain. I was aghast. To me, it looked far more like a nightmare vision of ‘farmageddon.’

China’s mega industrial pig farms known as ‘hog hotels’. Credit Mr. Zhan Wei

Back home

At first glance, the connection with farming on the green pastures of England, the rolling valleys of Wales or Scotland, or anywhere else in Europe for that matter may not be obvious.

Yet out in our countryside, chemical pesticides are very much part of the armoury used in the war against nature. Much animal farming here too is just as intensive as what I’d seen in the States, only tucked away from public gaze. Chickens, pigs, and cows confined in crowded barns. Crops grown in monoculture prairies of single crops. Wildlife squeezed out.

The impact that I found on the environment, the quality of our food, and animal welfare was published in the book of that journey: Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat.

With then political editor of The Sunday Times, Isabel Oakeshott, I wrote about the realities of this industrial approach to farming. Of how mother pigs on factory farms are kept in crates so narrow they can’t turn around. Of how hens are often forced to live their egg-laying lives in cages so small they can’t properly flap their wings. And how chickens reared for meat stand in overcrowded warehouses where they are forced to grow so fast that their legs often buckle under them. Not to forget those British equivalents of US mega-dairies, where the cows never see a blade of grass.

Far from making food, the industrial rearing of animals like this leads to more being wasted than created. The reason is because it involves feeding vast quantities of wheat, corn, soya, and other crops to animals. Which is a losing game. Animals are hugely inefficient at converting crops into meat, milk, and eggs. They waste much of the food value in the process in terms of both calories and protein. Which is how we squander enough food to feed four billion people – that’s half of humanity alive today.

Changing for the better

Ten years on since the publication of Farmageddon, there are real signs of change.

There is now greater awareness that better food comes from nature-friendly farming. ‘Regenerative’ farming is the term coined. Bringing a rebirth to the countryside that brings high standards of animal welfare naturally and replenishes nature’s bank account, be it soil health or biodiversity. In this way, we create much more sustainable farming and help save the future for our children.

Free roaming cattle at Knepp, a trailblazing 3,500-acre rewilding project in Sussex. Photo credit: Philip Lymbery

One of my greatest pleasures now is meeting nature-friendly farmers.

Pioneers like John and Charles Shropshire of Wissington Farm near Cambridge, whose grazing animals are free ranging, enriching the soil where celery, radishes, beetroot, and lettuce then grow.

Like a pig in clover

Similarly, in Wiltshire, I’ve seen a hundred pigs raised not on grain, but on grasses, clovers, herbs, and wildflowers. Unlike with industrial pig production, where pigs are fed crops that could be feeding people, those at Horton House farm get much of their nutrition from pasture. I learned how the pigs root up thistles before settling into new pasture. When the grass stops growing, they are moved to winter quarters with the cows. The piglets playfully bury themselves in the straw beside the cows and even eat cowpats!

In the US, I’ve had the enormous privilege of meeting regenerative farmers like Will Harris from Bluffton, Georgia. His cattle and sheep are constantly on the move across his 2,500 acres of permanent pasture and woodland. They are followed by herds of pigs, then flocks of chickens, all of which brings back worms and countless healthy microbes to the soil.

Live animal exports

Another recent breakthrough on the agricultural front is that live animal exports from Britain are on their way to being banned.

Thirty years ago, Britain was shipping two a half million sheep, lambs, and calves on horrendously long journeys to other countries. For sheep, on arrival, their likely fate was slaughter. Calves would be destined for veal crates – tiny coffin-like boxes where they could never turn around for their entire life.  It was a system so cruel it had already been banned in Britain. Yet there we were sending animals abroad to that cruel fate.

Now, the UK Government has introduced a Bill to end live animal exports for slaughter or fattening forever. The Bill has since successfully completed its passage through Parliament with all-party support. Now only the House of Lords stands before an iconic victory for animal welfare.

Climate change

Another major breakthrough recently has been recognition by the United Nations of the huge climate impact caused by the way we produce food. A realisation that without tackling production methods behind what’s on our plate, efforts to avert a climate disaster will fail.

About a third of greenhouse gas emissions come from food, with a big contributor being animal agriculture.  The animal farming sector globally produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all the world’s planes, trains and cars put together.

It was a revelation then when the 28th annual UN meeting on climate change, known as ‘COP28’ in Dubai, adopted a Presidency Declaration on food, farming, and climate. This landmark statement of intent now puts food system transformation at the heart of climate talks.

Eating less and better

And then there’s the issue of meat, where it comes from, and how much we should eat. Not so long ago, being vegetarian was seen as cranky. Eating lots of meat wasn’t an issue, let alone whether it was factory farmed or not.  Now we have Veganuary and veganism is everywhere!

Eating more plants and less but better meat has become a mainstream concern. People are much more attuned now to looking for ‘Better’ meat from animals given a decent life regeneratively in organic, free-range, or pasture-fed systems. And at the same time, mixing it up by eating plant-based alternatives. We’ve seen the rise of terms like ‘flexitarian’ and ‘reducetarian’ to describe those actively cutting down on the amount of meat they eat.

Meat but not as we know it

And now the concept of meat itself is changing. Until very recently, the only meat available was from a slaughtered animal.

Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen the emergence of cultivated meat grown from stem cells in a bioreactor. Produced with a fraction of the land use and greenhouse gas emissions of conventional meat, diners in Singapore and the USA can now eat cultivated chicken where no animal gets slaughtered. Worth remembering that what happens in America quickly spreads across the world.

So, looking back over 20 years, what I’ve learned as CEO is that our role has to evolve if we are to continue delivering the greatest impact. I’ve also come to see that big change in society is inevitable, not least in food. Insights gained from a professional lifetime of looking behind closed doors have since been poured into both strategy internally and outward communications. What I see happening now is that the world is waking up to realising how putting kindness at the centre of our food system, like leadership, is perhaps one of the greatest strengths for the future.

Philip Lymbery is the Global CEO of Compassion in World Farming

He’s a former UN Food Systems Champion and author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. His new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature‑Friendly Future is available from all leading bookstores


Philip Lymbery
Philip Lymbery
Philip Lymbery is Global CEO of Compassion in Farming International and a former United Nations Food Systems Champion. His new book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature Friendly Future is out now and available from all leading bookstores.

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