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Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat

Catherine von Ruhland

Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott
Bloomsbury, 426pp

There's a disturbing scene of factory-farmed dairy cattle in Naqoqatsi ('Life as war') from the director Godfrey Reggio that has stayed with me. We watch as in a clinically-sparse barn in Sweden, a circle of dairy cows keep pace on a slowly rotating floor, their hugely engorged udders hooked up to milking machines. It appears cruelly never-ending.

It is an image that seems craftily alluded to in a split-second shot of small plastic cows in MacDonald's recent 'future farmers' advertisement. Happy children play among the mud with their toy farm animals as if 21st- century food production really did mostly take place outdoors and in small hedge-rowed fields full of happy crops, cattle, pigs, and sheep.

Farmageddon makes it very clear that contemporary farming on the whole could not be further from that romanticised vision. Global food production is increasingly industrialised and that has an impact not just on the immediate farmed land and welfare of animals but on wildlife, the environment and public health.

The book opens by tracing the beginning of food industrialisation back to the Great Depression, the US Government's first Farm Bill in 1933, and the unnerving post-war adoption of the technology of chemical warfare to zap insects and fertilise crops. 'The US had given birth to techniques that treated the countryside like an industrial site, with unforeseen but devastating consequences.' Philip Lymbery introduces contemporary accounts of the Californian mega-dairy industry and the brutality of battery hen cages in Taiwan to set the scene.

As CEO of Compassion in World Farming, Lymbery was involved in blocking plans for the UK's first mega-dairy, an 8,000-cow facility in Lincolnshire. In researching Farmageddon with the award-winning journalist Isabel Bakeshott and a small camera crew, he chooses to visit those that sprawl across Central Valley, California.

He witnesses several thousand listless cows at each huge dairy, surrounded by mud, manure, corrugated iron and concrete - not a blade of grass in sight. The cattle stand waiting 'for food, for milking, perhaps for medication' and walk 'with a rocking gait, their legs splayed wide around their pink and grey beachball udders.' The air is toxic - local children have an above-average incidence of asthma, and the slurry leaches into waterways and both drinking water and fish are found to be contaminated.

It is a pattern of welfare-neglecting industrialisation and pollution Lymbery reports again and again. He and his team zigzag across the globe encountering uncomfortable truths: genetically modified soya in Argentina that grows under a cloud of incongruous mosquitoes; malnourished children in Peru, skin covered in sores associated with air pollution caused by the local fishing processing industry - they would be healthy and well fed if the local anchovies weren't destined for animal feed in Europe's factory farms; and in France, the family of a man killed by toxic fumes as he worked to clear Brittany's beaches of a green algae that is the product of the region's mega-pig farms.

Such globetrotting with these first person accounts are reminiscent of Mark Lynas' High Tide. The recorded journeying cannot help but set you wondering about the author's carbon footprint while he writes about environmental impact, though it pales in comparison to Australian bee hives being transported to California to pollinate crops because local wild bee populations have been decimated.

Lymbery pays homage to the 'mother of the environmental movement', Rachel Carson, by visiting her childhood home in Pennsylvania. He notes that half a century after her groundbreaking book Silent Spring warned of how the mass use of pesticides in the West at that time threatened songbirds, the US is now exporting the latest industrial practices of its mega-farms across the world. Lymbery's - or is it Oakeshott's? - writing style has a readable light touch, though at times the level of description (such as what interviewees are wearing) seems unnecessary. But this is a small quibble. Farmageddon is a comprehensive, eye-opening and accessible account of the global livestock industry for those new to the issues as much as seasoned activists, and deserves wide readership. It is a Bible-sized book but it is not a tough-going read.

Lymbery writes movingly of helping an ex-sanctuary kestrel regain flight, and captures the wonder of the threatened annual Monarch butterfly migration from Northern America to Mexico. This is a man too who has compassion for tortured confined farmed fish while vets and other specialists look on nonplussed.

The CWF CEO laments how even the role of farm vet has been transformed, bearing no resemblance to the practice of James Herriot folklore. Rather than promoting welfare, vets 'prop up the factory-farming system.' The aim is 'to keep animals alive long enough for profitable slaughter or ensure they continue churning out enough milk or eggs to justify their existence, then to dispatch them with as little ado as possible.' Animals are now units of production.

How this contrasts, he stresses, with Herriot's hope that his books would help people realise how 'totally helpless animals are, how dependent on us, trusting as a child must that we will be kind and rake care of their needs… [They] are an obligation put on us, a responsibility we have no right to neglect, nor to violate by cruelty.' Such words chime with a biblical sense of how we are to treat God's creatures. Made in God's image, we might argue as to whether dominion means mastery or stewardship over every living thing that moves upon the earth. But the teaching is surely fulfilled in the New Testament when Jesus tells of how not even a sparrow falls to the ground 'outside of the Lord's care.' Our remit as Christians is to spread God's love beyond our species.

Farmageddon stresses the interconnectedness of the devastation. Little goes unscathed. Increasingly, areas of land and sea are becoming dead zones as chemicals and waste poison all they touch. Human health is at risk too, whether through the increased prevalence of conditions such as cancer; an obesity crisis part fuelled by the relatively cheap price and high fat content of even once lean meats such as chicken; and antibiotics used to treat the high rate of disease in cramped factory farms, which are linked to drug-resistant superbugs and killer diseases.

Yet ultimately this is not a depressing book. Lymbery states the case for an alternative, devoting the final quarter to solutions. As well as positing a macro perspective of how farming can and must change, he stresses the value of consumer power. He suggests labels to look for, advocating buying locally and avoiding wasting food - plus going meat-free at least one day a week. It is that concluding campaigning focus and its simplicity, coupled with thorough investigative journalism, that make this one of the most important books of the year.