Farmageddon: a feeding frenzy of questionable agriculture

We’ve had enough food-chain exposés in recent years, but this is a long investigative work.

Cows in a China lot: a mega-dairy in Hangu managed by the New Zealand export giant Fonterra. David Gray/Reuters.

Farmageddon; the True Cost of Cheap Meat
Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott
Bloomsbury, 448pp, £12.99

In the month that West Country beef and lamb producers finally won their hard-fought battle for protected EU status, we could be forgiven for feeling pretty damn proud of British food. Farmers boasted that it’s the lush grass that makes their meat so good: indeed, to merit the coveted PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) mark, cattle must have spent at least six months of the year on pasture. You might naively believe that’s the bare minimum they could expect – grazing is just what cattle do.

Not always, as readers of the unambiguously titled Farmageddon will discover. Philip Lymbery, chief executive of the organisation Compassion in World Farming, reveals that the more modern way is to keep them “corralled into grassless pens carpeted in manure . . . on a diet of concentrated feed and antibiotics”, a practice that is commonplace in the vast plains of North and South America and starting to make inroads here.

The idea doesn’t suit everyone: soon after the book went to press, Compassion in World Farming was alerted to a US-style “feedlot” in Lincolnshire after neighbours complained of the stench created by its almost 3,000 cattle. Plans have been submitted to expand the operation and Lymbery told the press he was worried that this might set a precedent – after all, the dangers of such intensive agriculture are exactly what he rails against in this book.

We’ve had enough food-chain exposés in recent years to put even the hardiest carnivore off several decades of dinners: the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Michael Pollan, Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blytheman have done the job so well, you might wonder whether Farmageddon can have much more to add. How many packed poultry sheds does one need to visit vicariously before free-range becomes the only option? Thankfully, this meaty account makes a distinctive and important contribution, eschewing the narrowly domestic focus of many of its predecessors in favour of a global investigation of how modern farming practices affect not only the animals and consumers concerned but farm workers, their local economy and the wider environment.

Lymbery spent two years travelling with his co-writer, Isabel Oakeshott, then of the Sunday Times, with the aim of getting “under the skin of today’s food system”. In a globalised economy, that doesn’t just mean visiting the farm where the cow that produced your hamburger was reared but travelling to Argentina to meet the locals pushed off their land by the soya which fed that cow, the baby hospitalised by the relentless spraying of pesticides on to those newly deforested fields and the Peruvians going hungry because their fish stocks have been plundered for fertiliser.

All these stories feed into the food we eat, yet, as Lymbery observes, most of us still cling to a romantic dream of local farms, “where chickens scratch around in the yard, a few pigs snooze and snort in muddy pens and contented cows chew the cud”. As this book shows, it’s high time we woke up – because two-thirds of the world’s 70 billion farm animals are factory farmed, and even if you think that poisoned groundwater in China’s Henan province doesn’t affect you, you may be rather more concerned about the vast pork industry that’s responsible for it when you read more about the link between such intensive systems and the swine flu pandemic of 2009. Or, indeed, when that mega-dairy moves in next door and kicks up a stink.

Even the most insular city-dweller might be troubled, as I was, by factory-farmed meat having been found in numerous studies to be considerably less nutritious than its free-range counterpart, giving the lie to the idea that the £2 chicken represents a great leap forward for the poorest in our society. Anyone in Britain who dares to question the ethics of cheap meat is decried as a kind of Marie Antoinette figure who believes that only the rich should have the – considerable – privilege of eating animals. Farmageddon shows that the farming methods that deliver such apparent value are promoting obesity, as well as helping to push up food prices worldwide. In the long term, we will all suffer for it.

Because of Lymbery’s role at Compassion in World Farming, I had expected to read more of the gruesome details of mistreatment, but Farmageddon’s main focus is on the future and how we can bring about change. As he explains in the introduction, “this is not a ‘poor animals’ book” – it’s far more interesting than that. Lymbery’s conclusion is not that we should all go vegetarian, or that only small, traditional farms hold the key to sustainable food production. Instead, the book is more concerned with how business can make a difference, arguing that commercial success and bad practice are not inevitable bedfellows – indeed, after the authors visit a small family pig farm in China, it’s plain that it is not the scale of the operation but the intensiveness with which it operates that represents the problem.

In Lymbery’s words, Farmageddon asks “whether, in farming, big has to mean bad” and, in a world where agriculture has become just another industry, questions whether factory farms are really the most efficient way to feed the world. He is clear-sighted in acknowledging that here, consumer pressure can make all the difference; if the profits seem to lie with organic milk, or free-range eggs then giants such as McDonald’s will make the switch.

The book also rubbishes the popular idea that the earth is simply not large enough to feed everyone without intensive farming, pointing out the vast inefficiencies it involves in terms of natural resources such as land, water, oil and grain. The world currently produces enough food for 11 billion people, yet so much is wasted that we can’t even feed the seven billion people on the planet at the moment. Put simply, Lymbery and Oakeshott argue that we cannot afford not to change; industrial farming is yet another luxury that the world will eventually have to give up. A return to more sustainable, mixed pasture-based systems would seem to be part of the solution – and, they suggest intriguingly, would actually leave individual farmers better off.

All this continent-hopping makes Farmageddon an engaging read – and it also gives a full enough picture of the situation in the UK to preclude any misplaced smugness on the part of the British reader. Anyone after a realistic account of our global food chain, and the changes necessary for a sustainable future, will find much to get their teeth into here.