Will we get a moment when the whole factory farming enterprise is revealed as fundamentally rotten? Or will it be more of a slow burn – rather like the banks that repeatedly receive huge fines as the latest misselling scandal is exposed? These are the questions I discussed over the weekend with Compassion’s chief policy advisor and veteran campaigner, Peter Stevenson.
Industrial farming is in a shaky place. It devours its own foundations. “Man’s continued existence is completely dependent upon six inches of topsoil and the fact that it rains”: attributed to Confucius. But today’s intensive agriculture is undermining soil quality and overusing water.
Factory farming’s need for huge quantities of grain to feed animals has driven the intensification of crop production. With crop monocultures and agro-chemicals, it has degraded agricultural soils, eroding their fertility. Pollinators like bees and other farmland wildlife are in sharp decline.
“Will something finally happen that reveals factory farming for what it is; cruel, inefficient and damaging to the very resources we need for future food production?” Peter asked.
He also pointed out how industrial farming is responsible for unhealthy diets that he believes fuel global warming. Limiting temperature rises to 2°C is the main goal of climate change policy. All sectors recognise that they must reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But not livestock. Not our diets. Their emissions are set to soar. So much so that studies warn that agriculture’s emissions will on their own push us almost up to the 2°C threshold by 2050. Only a halving of global meat consumption will allow food’s emissions to diminish.
“A true food system would aim to feed good food to people” Peter said. “But we have developed a counterfeit system whose main purpose is to feed the profits of agri-business – the purveyors of pesticides, fertilisers, pharmaceuticals, commercial seeds and animal genetics. One of the main purposes of factory farming is not to provide meat but to soak up the excess production of our subsidised grain barons.” He points to a recent paper in The Lancet which spells out how we have been duped into eating unhealthy food.
“Will some scandal emerge that highlights the absurdity of a food system that makes us ill?” Peter added. “Will we query a pricing system that results in unhealthy food being cheaper than healthy food?!”
Talking about factory farming as the big cause of animal cruelty on the planet, Peter asked, “Will we awake and realise the immense suffering we have imposed on fellow creatures which somehow we justify because they are a different species?”
England’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is currently developing its 25 year plan for food and farming. This will take no account of human health, animal welfare or the environment focusing only on productivity, competitiveness and the promotion of British farmers. The EU suffers from a similarly myopic vision. The Commission has abandoned its sustainable food policy opting instead for full steam ahead to the icebergs.
Against this backdrop of officialdom failing to take healthy, humane food seriously, Peter asks, “Will we come to view the whole system as corrupt – not in the used banknotes in envelopes sense but in the sense of distorted, decayed, utterly deformed from its true purpose which is to provide nutritious food in a manner that nurtures the land and respects the creatures involved?”
For those of us who have dedicated our lives to campaigning for a better way, the pace of change can feel frustratingly slow. “Perhaps what we need is a Ratner moment that propels us into re-conceptualising our food system” Peter suggested.
Without a doubt, we are working toward a tipping point, where the pace of change is unstoppable. One thing is for sure, we cannot predict when that tipping point will be reached. All we can do is work in the very best way possible to hasten the day. That is what we do at Compassion in World Farming. Thank you as ever for your generous support.