The Blog

Farmageddon, the True Cost Of Cheap Meat

The world's demand for meat is growing and the population is rising. And so the pressure to increase production is escalating at a stupendous rate. The future of farming could go two ways.

The world's demand for meat is growing and the population is rising. And so the pressure to increase production is escalating at a stupendous rate.

The future of farming could go two ways. One is to continue with the current system - industrial and intensive. All the world's governments believe this is the way forward. According to this way of thinking intensification should increase even more. In almost all countries agricultural policies and farm subsidies are geared to this end. That means ever bigger dairies, pig and poultry farms, beef feedlots and ever more crops of soya, cereal and fish to feed them.

The intensive system is a highly complex one. Monoculture is fundamental. That means each farm specializes in one crop - be it poultry, pig or beef - and that crop is raised in the same place year after year. In this way disease carrying organisms thrive and it is only by the routine administration of pesticides, vaccines and antibiotics that animals are kept alive until their slaughter date.

But this industrial system is failing. Lymbery's first hand observations of what is happening highlight the shocking reality. He visited farms as large as towns where breathing the toxic air made him gag as he waded through the muck - and not an animal in sight since they were, in their tens of thousands, packed inside vast sheds.

His descriptions bring home the havoc that industrial farming has reaped. In California's Central Valley, home to vast mega-dairies, the smog, flies, sickness, shortened life expectancy and loss of livelihoods. Surrounding Peru's fish processing plants the "off the scale" pollution levels. In Australia's Murray-Darling River the toxic algal blooms that stretch for 1,000 km. All over the world 'dead zones' in water and on land. All testament that the industrial system does not work.

A quote of Albert Einstein's could not be more apt "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

What Lymbery makes abundantly clear is that it is the disconnect with nature that causes the industrial farming system to fail rather than the scale. This book is not a tirade against big corporations. Nor is it anti meat. It is about two farming systems. One that does not work. And another that does.

White Oak Pastures works. This farm is big: 1,060 hectares. No monoculture here. This is a mixed farm: 1800 cattle, 50,000 chickens, 1,000 laying hens, 800 sheep.

Fundamental to the system is that animals are reared outside on grass but never kept long enough on one tract of land to allow the organisms that spread disease to develop to dangerous levels. Put chickens where cows have been for example and they eat the bugs that could cause infection.

The dung from the animals fertilizes the soil. (In industrial systems dung has to be stored in vast lagoons, processed at enormous expense and spillages and leakages cause catastrophic pollution). On White Oak Pastures the land is healthy and fertile, teeming with the soil life that is an indicator of healthy pasture.

When farming is in balance with nature the use of chemicals, the need to import feed, the risk of disease, the causes of pollution, the loss of livelihoods and the health problems associated with meat of suspect quality are all hugely diminished.

But could this mixed-farm system feed the world?

As Lymbery makes clear the solutions mainly rely on reducing waste. One third of the world's cereal, 90% of the world's soya and 30% of the world's fish harvest are used to feed industrially farmed animals. The cereal harvest alone is enough to feed about 3 billion people. Since, on average, it takes 6 kilograms of plant protein to make one kilogram of animal protein it is clear that industrial methods waste more food than they produce. But if animals were raised on grass and not fed imported cereals and fish there would - already - be more than enough food to feed the world. We would have to eat less meat. Then there would be enough land for all farmed animals to be free-range. But that meat would be healthy meat. Quality rather than quantity.

When Lymbery was taking part in drafting agricultural standard guidelines at the Council of Europe he spent most of his time replacing 'should' with 'shall'. What the world needs is someone with enough influence to say this book shall be translated into a host of languages and read in every school, every agricultural college, every home and by every government in every country.

Farmaggedon - the apocalyptic destruction of the world's land and water is staring us in the face. But it can be reversed. The solution is made very clear in this vitally important book.