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South African farming industry faces Farmageddon

News Icon 03/10/2014

As keynote speaker at a leading industry conference in South Africa, I was given the perfect platform to warn of the consequences from adopting western industrialised farming methods. It was the annual AMT Agricultural Outlook Conference held in Pretoria where economics, politics, pollution and the future of the South African farming sector were all on the agenda.

Either side of the conference, I had the chance to talk about the role of animal welfare in farming at related meetings with the South African government’s chief veterinary officer, Dr Botlhe Modisane, who is expected next president of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE); and with Methodist Bishop Ziphoh Siwa, the presidential leader of the nation’s Council of Churches.

I am grateful to Farmers Weekly (South Africa) magazine for sponsoring my conference session where I was invited to lay out the key messages from my book, ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’ and their relevance to the future of farming in South Africa.

I opened with a vision of what some call ‘sustainable intensification’: giving my eye-witness account of California’s Central Valley, where vast chemical pesticide-soaked monocultures of crops are interspersed with mega-dairies, where the bees have gone and the ecosystem broken down.

Penguins and small pelagic fish

I spoke of the plight of the African Penguin, much loved the world over and at the turn of the century, the subject of the world’s greatest wildlife rescue involving over a hundred years worth of volunteer man-power to rehabilitate oil stricken penguins.  A decade later, the birds’ numbers have dropped perilously close to extinction. Why? In no small part because they are being starved out of existence by the fishmeal industry to provide feed for industrially reared farm animals.

As the penguins collapse, so too does the ecosystem upon which the bigger fish destined for people’s plates also depends. It is an African echo of what I saw in Peru where wildlife has been decimated by the world’s largest single species fishery targeting the small pelagic Peruvian anchovy, ground down for fishmeal destined for export as animal feed to Europe and beyond.

I talked about animal welfare as a ‘canary in a coalmine’ indicator. Failing to address animal welfare brings with it serious risks for public health, the environment and sustainability.

Agri-situation in South Africa

The last 15 years have seen a marked shift toward large-scale intensification in South Africa, away from products intended for domestic consumption to those destined for export. It has been characterized by an upward trend in the general use of irrigation, fuel, fertiliser, mechanisation and GM seeds in South Africa – further evidence of a move toward intensification and a growing dependency by farmers on expensive inputs like artificial fertilisers, pesticides etc. These moves are associated with increased vulnerability for the poor, as land use shifts away from producing staples.

Powerful vested interests have constructed a narrative around intensification being the ‘only way to meet the needs of a growing population’, when in fact the opposite is true. Factory farming wastes food, rather than makes it. For every 100 calories of human-edible crops fed to industrially reared animals, 70% or more is wasted in conversion to meat, milk or eggs. In South Africa – the world’s fifth largest producer of cereals – about half of the nation’s maize is destined for industrially reared animals, mainly poultry. Three-quarters of the nation’s cattle are ‘finished’ in intensive feedlots, chomping on valuable grain, when they could be spending their last months more efficiently on grass.

The future is grass

Factory farming sets up an unnecessary competition between people and animals for food; a competition that can be avoided by keeping animals on pasture where they convert things people can’t eat – grass and marginal lands – into things people can eat; meat, milk and eggs. Like the UK, South Africa’s farmland is predominantly pasture, meaning that keeping animals on the land rather than in factories couldn’t be more practical or sensible as a means of feeding people.

South Africa is a nation with 12 million people food insecure and an unemployment rate of 25%.  As I told the conference, the quickest way to boost unemployment amongst the rural population and undermine local food security is to further roll-out intensification.

Farmageddon is a message of hope. The good news is that we can avert Farmageddon by keeping animals on grass and reducing food waste. It is a solution that brings with it multiple benefits for animals, people and the planet; be it animal welfare, food security, rural livelihoods, the environment and greater resilience in the face of challenges ahead from climate change. By raising animals in humane, sustainable systems based on the land we help to truly ensure that we can provide decent food to everyone forever.

This was my second visit to South Africa this year. Very many thanks in particular to CIWF South Africa’s director, Louise van Der Merve, Eileen and David Chapman, and Tony Gerrans for all your support and organisation; much appreciated.

To get your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.


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