Over the weekend, I watched the seriously good programme, ‘Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival’; this week’s episode covered farmland wildlife. I was struck by just how hard our wildlife has been hit by the intensification of both crops and animals. Species as diverse as butterflies, bats and barn owls have suffered as chemical pesticides and fertilisers have been deployed in the name of mass production.
Why have they declined? Because a countryside covered by intensive farming becomes inhospitable to many creatures. Insecticides strip fields of the bugs that insect-eating creatures need to survive; herbicides do something similar to the weeds that provide the seeds on which finches, sparrows and the like need to survive. No wonder then that once common species have declined, some nearly wiped out.
I was astounded to hear how even cowpats have become sterile on grass-based farms managed intensively, due to the parasite treatments used. Cowpats on organic farms, by contrast, can be full of life; plenty of insects for hungry wildlife. Last year, in Georgia, USA, I was privileged to see how healthy cowpats can support so many insects, providing food for free ranging chickens.
I was curious then to read in The Economist an opinion that intensification – the use of more pesticides, fertilisers, GM – is the way to prevent wildlife extinctions. The article, ‘Biodiversity – Hang on: More growth, not less, is the best hope of averting a sixth great extinction’, argued that intensification eases pressure for more land for food production. It is a decades-old myth. The reality is that intensification tends to drive land-use, encouraging the use of ‘ghost acres’, often prime arable land elsewhere to feed animals reared on factory farms.
But the article has a more fundamental flaw; that the answer to feeding a growing population is simply to produce more. This couldn’t be further from the truth; our planet already produces more than enough food for everyone, now and into the future, if only we didn’t waste it.
About 11 billion people could be fed on what the world currently produces, many more than today’s 7 billion. The problem lies not with producing enough food, but the extent to which it is wasted; from the simple act of throwing food away in our homes or at the supermarket, to letting it rot in developing countries for want of simple, low-tech assets like decent grain stores.
One of the biggest causes of food waste is so often overlooked: cereals, soya and fish fed to factory-farmed animals, who then return a fraction of the protein and calories in the form of meat, milk and eggs. The cereals alone fed to industrially reared farm animals could feed the equivalent of 3 billion people.
Today’s food system is like a leaky bucket; it wastes half of what it produces. Simply churning out more without fixing the leaks will cause yet more waste and intensify pressure on already overstretched ecosystems.
A common sense approach to feeding people is needed; one where animals are on farms, not factories; please download our Food Sense briefing and, if you haven’t already, sign up to our campaign to expose the raw truth about factory farming.