Standing amongst vast groves of almond trees in perfectly regimented rows you could hear a pin drop. Not the chirp of a bird or the buzz of a bee. It was eerie. The distant thud of a helicopter breaks the silence; an aerial crop-sprayer dousing the carpets of monoculture in every direction with chemicals to keep nature at bay. The air smelt like washing up liquid; it caught in our throat and felt like it was creeping down our lungs.
We were witnessing what seemed like a daily chemical assault on the landscape; from aircraft, weird-looking land vehicles and protective-clad people with hand-held sprayers.
I was on a fact-finding mission with Sunday Times journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, for our book “Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat” (Bloomsbury 2014). How on a single trip, I thought, do I convince a hard-nosed journalist of the perils of industrial agriculture? The answer lay here in California; the land of milk and honey.
Not in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood or other hotspots in the sunshine state, but in the dusty valleys that yield world-renowned harvests. It was to be the Alice in Wonderland looking glass through which we would glimpse what some see as the future for food production.
We learned how the local bees had gone; wiped out. Forty billion bees are instead trucked in from other states to pollinate the crops.
Taking to the sky in a small plane, we could see enormous stretches of the same crop patchworking the valley, broken by what seemed like vicious scars; mega-dairies that pepper the scene, each with thousands of cows confined to muddy paddocks, not a blade of grass in sight. We were flying over perhaps the biggest concentration of mega-dairies in the world. Yet there was no shortage of land; no logical reason for them not to be on grass.
The system wasn’t even working for the farmers themselves. At a livestock market in a nearby town, a farmer wept as he told of how a friend’s mega-dairy had gone out of business and the despairing owner took his own life.
For me, the experience begged the question, was this cruel aberration or farming’s future direction?