From dead zones to green pastures

Biodiversity need not be sacrificed to feed the planet

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As the human species continues to grow in a world of depleting resources, can it feed itself without killing off the rest of the planet? Not without a significant shift away from business-as-usual, argues Philip Lymbery, head of head of Compassion in World Farming and author of Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. Harvest SA chatted to him recently about the case for embracing conservation agriculture and turning away from industrial farming.

The chicken on your plate seals the penguin’s fate

The African Penguin is an iconic bird that draws millions of visitors every year to Cape Town’s Boulders Beach penguin station, but its numbers are in severe decline. One important reason for this: the fish it depends on for its food are diverted to the food on your plate.

“The link between industrial farming and the plight of the penguin is very clear,” Lymbery explains in his soft-spoken, emphatic way. “Vast quantities of small fish—anchovies and pilchards —are ground down into fishmeal to feed intensively farmed fish, chickens and pigs, leaving penguins and other marine life starving. That’s the simple analysis. A hundred years ago, the African Penguin was the most numerous seabird off the coast of Africa. They numbered millions.

By 2000, their numbers had plummeted down to about 170 000. You could say a big driver there was the plunder of their breeding grounds for eggs, meat and guano, and pollution such as oil spills do have an occasional massive impact, but there is no doubt that large-scale commercial fishing of small fish has an effect on penguins.”

There’s a terrible irony at play. The bulk of commercially extracted fish meal goes to animal feed. On the international market, fishmeal is used heavily in the production of farmed salmon and trout as well as pigs. Yet, in order to feed the animals we intend to kill to eat, we are starving ourselves. Seem complicated? Not really: “Those small fish are also a vital link in the food chain for the bigger fish we put on our plate,” Lymbery points out.

“These have dwindled to 10% of their historical populations, to the point where scientists predict that if we carry on as we are, there will be no more commercial fishing by 2048. If we ever want those fish to sustain our food supply, we had better give them something to eat. The penguins are the marine sentinel, the canary in the coalmine. It’s a lot easier to understand that penguins are in decline than to do some heavy-duty counting of fish. If the penguins are in trouble, then our whole marine system is in trouble, which means that our food supply is in trouble. All of that to produce cheap meat that actually comes at a huge cost.”

Lymbery has travelled the world studying the link between industrial farming and species decline. In Peru, he studied the world’s largest single-species fishery, that of the anchovetta: “Since that fishery took off commercially, about 50 years ago, the number of seabirds has crashed 90%, including the closely related Humboldt Penguin. Over the same period, the world has lost half of its wildlife, and it’s still in free-fall,” he says.

The association with factory farming is not limited to marine species. In fact, vast swathes of biodiversity are being eradicated for the sake of industrial agriculture. “The mixed-farm habitats of well-known species such as barn owls, skylarks and storks are being stripped away to make space for chemical-soaked prairies of cereals. The rain-forest homes of jaguars and Sumatran elephants are being razed to make way for vast prairies of soya and palm-nut plantations, harvested for the oil and the edible kernel. The kernel is largely used to feed factory-farmed animals. The European Union imports 50% of the entire world production of palm kernel for animal feed, particularly to produce cheap beef and milk.”

Industrial inefficiency

A bizarre disappearing act takes place whenever the industrial agricultural value chain colonises another territory.

“Farm animals are taken off of pasture and into confinement,” Lymbery elaborates. “This looks like a space-saving idea, but it isn’t – you have to grow their feed somewhere else. In so doing, not only do the farm animals disappear from the countryside, but so do the trees, bushes and hedges, to make way for bigger fields. The chemicals put paid to wild flowers, which means that birds, bats and bees also disappear. We rely on insects to pollinate a third of the world’s crops. Even worms disappear, which affects soil fertility. The UN warns that the world’s soils have only got 60 years left of the world’s soils. In the end you’re left with little else but the crop, which you feed to factory-farmed animals.”

This, Lymbery claims, leads to the biggest disappearing act of all: the majority of the food value—calories and protein—disappears in conversion to meat, milk and eggs. This gross nutritional inefficiency should concern even those for who shrug off the fact that factory farming is “the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet”.

At the heart of the conundrum lies the myth that industrial farming is the most efficient way of feeding the planet. Lymbery calls this attitude “madness on a plate”:

“Arable land is scarce compared to pasture, which covers a quarter of the planet’s surface. Arable land is much scarcer; to produce more of it, we have to cut down forest. Yet here we are transferring food production from the ubiquitous pasture to a reliance on scarce arable land. How much arable land is being used to grow industrial feed to feed industrially reared animals? If we put it all into one field, it would cover the entire surface of the European Union, or, if you prefer, half the United States. However, if we backed away from this madness on a plate, the arable land could produce extra food for four billion people on the planet.

“There’s the rub: factory farming is often justified as being necessary—an efficient way of feeding a growing world population—but that is nonsense. Factory farming wastes food, it does not make it. Four billion people’s worth of crops is fed to industrial animals and the majority of the nutrition is wasted in conversion to meat, milk and eggs.”

The most genuinely efficient way to produce meat and milk, maintains Lymbery, is “a cow on a grassy hillside”: “The cow is converting something we can’t eat (grass) into something we can (meat and milk). The only problem is that the cow provides no business for the animal feed industry because she doesn’t need grain. She provides no business for the chemical and fertilizer industry, in fact she takes it away because she naturally fertilizes the land. She provides no business for the pharmaceutical industry because she gets a lot less sick. Thanks to these vested interests which benefit from the continued expansion of factory farming, the efficiency of a cow on a grassy hillside has been reframed and that the hugely wasteful business of feeding confined animals with grain and fishmeal has been promoted for decades as a necessary evil. It’s an illusion that it helps us to feed people – in fact it makes it harder. And every billion more people requires an additional ten billion farm animals to feed.”

Regenerating the land

Business-as-usual is a straight line confronted with the problem that the world is round: those who continue to pretend otherwise are doomed to shoot off at a tangent. As Lymbery explains, “We have an economic system which relies on infinite growth in a finite world. We also kid ourselves that sustainability is going to save the day, in a world of depleting resources and growing demand.

“Sustainability is about treading water: it's old hat. In a world of increasing demands and shrinking resources, what we’re going to need to feed people decently and provide the chance of a decent lifestyle for future generations is a regenerative approach to food and farming that puts back soil fertility, promotes pollinators and brings wildlife back.

What you need for that is an essential, future-proof fusion between food, farming and nature.”

In drought-stricken South Africa, conservation farming makes a lot of sense. “It takes forty times more water to grain-feed farm animals than rear them on pasture,” says Lymbery. “The biggest human use of water is agriculture, accounting for 70% of all fresh-water use.

Irrigating crops with precious water to feed factory-farmed animals makes no sense.

Conservation agriculture is much more future-proof,” he continues. “It’s also cheaper, more resilient and more reliable. Being labour-intensive, it also employs more people. It’s also a way of spread-betting. As an industrial farmer, you put all your eggs in one basket because you specialize. If the bottom drops out of your commodity, that’s you up the gum-tree.”

What about the stock argument that we need factory farming to feed the poor?

“How can it ever be acceptable to expect people on low incomes to have to feed their children on poor-quality factory-farmed food? It’s the most outrageous suppositional justification I’ve ever heard," fumes Lymbery.

“They pay for cheap meat three times: the first at the check-out, the second through taxes that go into industrial subsidies, and the third is the massive clean-up cost in terms of health and the environment. This is undermining the future for their children.

“Our future quality of life as a species on this planet is faced with drastic decline. We are the last generation that can turn that round and leave a planet worth living on for our children.

Why wouldn’t we want to do that?”

 

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