Walking through the English countryside on a glorious winter morning, it is hard to imagine that a battle is raging over the future of our food and the countryside. Dappled shades of green and brown line my path; glistening grass gently kissed by the weak morning sun; heavy dew spits from my boots with every step. Winter thrushes, recently arrived from Scandinavia, feast on berries; cattle dot the hillside grazing on the last of the now distant summer growth.
I live in the rural south of England where pasture, hedgerows and wildlife are very much part of the landscape. Yet, under the guise of ‘sustainable intensification’, battle lines have been drawn; a more industrial approach to farming, with little room for luxuries like animals out in the fields, is now seen as the way forward. After all, we need to feed a growing population – billions of extra mouths are expected on the planet within decades. This will mean, like it or not they say, animals confined in mega-farms, disappearing from the landscape and replaced by crops grown in prairies with the aid of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
Things have been moving in this direction for a while, but now the pace is quickening. The strain is already showing; farmland birds that were once common in Britain are at an all-time low; bees have declined below what is needed for the proper pollination of crops in Europe; and concern grows about the quality of food on supermarket shelves – where it comes from, how it is produced and what it’s doing to our health.
What the intensive farming lobby doesn’t acknowledge is that the system already produces enough to feed everybody – and plenty more besides. Industrial farming now makes up a third of global production and is responsible for the greatest damage and the greatest inefficiency. The biggest single area of food waste comes not from what we throw in the bin but from feeding crops that might feed human beings to industrially reared animals, losing much of its calorific value in the process.
And that really brings us to the crux of Farmageddon; far from being an uninterrupted series of warnings or horror stories, it is above all a story of hope. It shows that grazing animals on pasture, converting things people can’t eat – grass and marginal lands – into things they can, meat, milk and eggs, is a far saner way of producing food.
Farmageddon was launched on a February night in a packed London bookshop, with Joanna Lumley declaring it ‘food’s An Inconvenient Truth. Favourable reviews were received from much of the UK’s broadsheet press along with much positive feedback from engaged audiences in North America, India, South Africa and also in Brussels. In the UK I had the pleasure of meeting so many people concerned about the future of food.
I found myself described in a myriad of ways, from patron saint of chickens to one of industrial farming’s fiercest critics. It was particularly pleasing to see the Presidency of the European Union grasping the nettle by holding a conference in Brussels called, ‘Averting Farmageddon: Sustainable Food for All’; an event opened by two government ministers and a senior UN official. Now we must keep up the momentum and make the message stick.
Along the way, I felt a shift in the discussion; a more questioning approach toward the idea that intensification of animal rearing is somehow efficient and necessary; as Farmageddon shows, it is actually wasteful and inefficient.
In writing Farmageddon, I set out to explore the tentacles of the global food system. I was joined by the then Political Editor of the Sunday Times, Isabel Oakeshott, who came to the project with a combination of political savvy and the eyes of a new mother concerned about how best to feed her family. Together, we dived beneath the surface of the food industry to find out what’s really going on. It was exhilarating, harrowing, sobering, eye-opening, often astounding, but above all it was life-affirming. It was a journey that deepened my commitment to bringing about much needed change for the benefit of animals, people and the planet. Thank you so very much for all your support.
For your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.