The dead zone: why intensive agriculture is failing us, and ruining the planet

Mark Cocker discovers the shocking damage caused by modern food production in Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were by Philip Lymbery

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The “dead zone” that supplies the title of this highly informed, utterly compelling book is an area of seabed off the Louisiana coast. Philip Lymbery explains that it is caused by a monthly discharge of roughly 112,000 tonnes of fertiliser that is carried down by river systems draining North America’s vast agricultural zones of genet­ically modified corn and soya. The pollutants deplete almost all of the oxygen in parts of the seabed, so the fish and other marine organisms are either killed or driven out.

The worst of the dead zones is the size of the states of Rhode Island and Connecticut combined, and the collapse of the ecosystem, though temporary, is inflicting great damage on American fisheries. It is also replicated in 40 such areas around the US. Worldwide, there are now 400 of them and they are doubling in number every decade.

According to Lymbery, the root cause of the problem is our increasingly globalised system of intensive agriculture. The “Green Revolution”, which has done so much to meet the needs of humanity’s spiralling population – from three billion in the 1960s to more than seven billion today – is predicated on an unsustainable exploitation of water, soil and natural ecosystems. But worst of all in this modern regime is the intensive system of meat production.

As you might expect from a man who is the chief executive of the campaign group Compassion in World Farming, Lymbery explores the consequences for animal welfare. Typical is our abuse of humanity’s most precious bird, the barnyard chicken. Most of the 60 billion reared annually are on a life cycle from egg to table of about eight weeks, during which they have as much living space as an A4 page. High numbers of them are infected with bugs such as campylobacter or salmonella, the latter at a rate up to ten times higher than among free-range fowl.

Animal welfare is a significant subplot, but this book’s primary theme is the consequences of such production methods for the rest of life on Earth. Despite the name, intensive agriculture is astonishingly inefficient. Converting grain or soya to meat protein wastes about two-thirds of the total food value of the original harvest. Beef is the worst, with a conversion rate of 3 per cent. It takes an arable area equivalent to the size of the entire EU to produce feed for the world’s livestock and this, if used more wisely, could yield food for another four billion people. In short, we are growing the wrong things in the wrong way for the wrong purpose.

Like all authors trying to convey large ecological truths, Lymbery has to cast his net widely and follow the chain of consequences across continents. In a chapter entitled “Elephant”, for instance, he explores how the margarine, shampoo and pork chops at your local supermarket are implicated in the loss of Sumatra’s rainforest, one of the most biodiverse areas on Earth. All of these household products require palm oil or palm kernel meal, which is used to feed livestock and even farmed fish. The EU imports half of the global harvest of palm meal, and demand for it is expected to treble by 2050. As the palm plantations expand to meet this demand, so we cause the loss of more Indonesian rainforest and drive the Sumatran elephant, just 2,500 of which are now left, to extinction.

Although Lymbery’s narrative threads are subtle and replete with powerful evidence, he is sometimes unable to explain the process by which people can confront, let alone overcome, the alliance of vested political interests and drug and chemical multinationals that is at the heart of this unsustainable regime. To give one small example, UK soils are in a parlous condition because of our five-decade addiction to chemical additives. Some of the richest peatlands in the Fens are being lost at a rate of two centimetres a year. Lymbery describes a ­Cambridgeshire farm that was test-drilled 200 times to assess its worm population. Not a single worm could be found. It sounds comic, but it should horrify us. Since Darwin, we have known of the invaluable role of earthworms in soil health. Yet when the EU put forward a directive on soil conservation, the UK, along with the governments of four other countries and supported by the National Farmers’ Union, campaigned for eight years to kill off the proposal.

Lymbery may not specify the exact political model that will allow us to challenge this madness, but he does a superb job of equipping us with the hard facts. No author can do more.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition