The true cost of cheap meat

Philip Lymbery, who heads up Compassion in World Farming (CIWF), writes compellingly about the myriad of social and environmental issues that are generated by our global industrialised food system and in-spite of the dense and complex subject matter, this book is an easy read.

Though the sub-title of Farmageddon is ‘The True Cost of Cheap Meat,’ this is much more than just a polemic on animal welfare. Lymbery, and his collaborator Isabel Oakeshott, political editor of the The Sunday Times, take a systemic look at ‘factory farming’ across the globe, evidencing the impact, not only on the poor animals that suffer through it, but on our wider flora and fauna, natural resources and human health. The simple breadth of the book and its unrelenting dissection of what’s wrong with the way we eat, does make you feel we are in the midst of a ‘farmageddon’ we cannot escape from.

Much of the material in Farmaggedon has been written about before – anyone who has even a cursory interest in what they eat and how it arrived on their plate will be broadly aware of the things that Lymbery discusses. We know that most animals raised in factory farm conditions have pretty appalling lives, even in the UK where there are fairly high animal welfare standards in comparison with countries like China and the US. We know that the vast amounts of pesticides and other chemicals that are dumped upon on our agricultural land are wreaking havoc on environmental ecosystems and causing a marked drop in the biodiversity of species on this land. We know that the processed food generated by this system, is significantly damaging to our health. None of this comes as a surprise.

FarmageddonLymbery is worth reading for the insight and knowledge that he brings to the subject and for what he has experienced first-hand in his work for CIWF. His writing is personal, coloured by his own experiences and thoughts and this animates Farmageddon as a kind of memoir with a purpose – his passion and commitment to his work is palpable and makes you feel thankful that there are people like him, who are doing more than sitting on the sidelines shaking their heads at the state of things.

He also raises a range of concerns that are often overlooked. His chapter on What’s Happened to the Vet? is particularly good in that it questions the vet’s ‘duty of care’ within an industrial farming system. Should vets be more willing to question the status-quo of industrial farming – for example the concentration of animals in areas too small for their numbers – rather than trying to control the outbreak of disease, in such situations, with prophylactic antibiotics? He argues there is an in-built conflict of interest for vets working within this system, writing, ‘Their job is to keep animals healthy enough for long enough to be productive. They cannot afford to antagonise their clients by accusing them of cruelty, albeit institutional… And so the system remains self-reinforcing.’

Lymbery also writes compellingly on antibiotic use in farm animals and the very tangible threat it poses to public health. When Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, reported last year on the ‘catastrophic threat’ of antimicrobial resistance, the role of industrial farming in this began to be revealed. Lymbery paints a disturbing picture of the number of resistant bugs – MRSA and E coli most notably – that have transferred from farm animals to humans. Similarly, a number of our killer viruses like swine flu and bird flu, also have links to industrialised farming where proximity helps spread the viruses through the animal and human populations. Think about the movie ‘Contagion’, if you saw it – it all went back to an industrial farm.

The strength of Farmageddon is in its breadth. Lymbery knits together the catalogue of damaging impacts caused by factory farming to make an argument that it is a system deeply out of balance – destructive of the environment, cruel to the living creatures that it ‘processes’, bad for our health and ultimately, when its true-cost is assessed, expensive for the consumer. It’s important that Lymbery leaves us with a formula for making it better, lest we fall into the black hole of despair. He outlines three principles to guide our food production practices – ‘putting people first’, which means not feeding a third of our food (primarily cereals) to animals when they should be eating what’s natural to them; ‘reducing food waste’; and ‘farming as if tomorrow mattered’, perhaps, the most important principle. He also offers a range of practical advice to consumers on what to buy.

In the end, his abiding message is that we can change this. We can fix this. We can farm better.

Photograph by Farm Watch

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