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Interview: Philip Lymbery, animal-welfare advocate, author

22 September 2023

‘We have less than a single lifetime’s worth of harvests left. No soil, no food. Game over’

CIWF/Richard Dunwoody

Farmageddon was my first word on why factory farming is at the centre of the problems of our food system. Dead Zone looks at the largely unrecognised impact of factory farming on wildlife, including species as iconic as jaguars, elephants, and penguins.

Sixty Harvests Left
is about time running out — not just for animals farmed and wild, but for our children, and what can be done about it. I’ve written it to engender a sense of urgency around the decline in the natural world brought about by industrial animal agriculture, a subject that is often overlooked.

I also wanted to show the beautiful, life-affirming, compassionate solutions at hand
that we can and must seize if we’re to save the future for people, animals, and the planet.

Industrial animal agriculture, factory farming, is not only the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet:
it’s also a major driver of wildlife decline, and undermines our soil. Rather than indulge pipe dreams that technology will save us, we really do have to wake up as a society and realise that protecting the future means moving to nature-friendly farming, where animals have fresh air, sunshine, and joy in living.

The stark truth isn’t that we can’t feed our populations now:
the stark truth is that factory farming, or industrial animal agriculture, wastes food, not makes it. There’s more than enough food to go round, if only we were to stop wasting it. Worldwide, we currently produce enough food to feed twice the human population on the planet.

The trouble is we waste so much of it,
with the biggest offender being the widespread practice of feeding perfectly good crops to factory-farmed animals. Almost half of the food we produce currently, in terms of calories and protein, is wasted in conversion to factory-farmed meat, milk, and eggs. Every year, we waste enough food to feed half of humanity alive today.

I hear excuses about industrial animal husbandry,
that we need it to feed the poor, which is a terrible attitude to have in society. How can it be acceptable to expect people on low incomes to have to feed their children on poor-quality factory-farmed food? We need to get to a place where decent food — nature-friendly, humanely produced, future-saving food — is a basic human right. Only then will we save the future for our children and do right by everyone in the world.

Factory farming is rooted in a lifetime’s worth of government-policy direction,
subsidies, and big companies giving advice to a generation of farmers who only know these intensive methods. The reason why doing the right thing is so expensive and doing the wrong thing is cheap is that we have distorted economics. Cheap meat we all pay for three times — at the checkout, in billions’ worth of subsidies every year, and clean-up costs to our health and environment; for poorer meat, nutritionally, higher in saturated fat, and lower in protein and other nutrients.

Change has to be led by the Government changing policies toward nature-friendly farming practices.
And it needs consumers to be enabled to support the moves through better labelling and pricing policies that make decent, planet-friendly food accessible to all.

If I were rewriting the book now,
I’d lament the short-termism overwhelming successive governments, mortgaging the future without the ability to pay. So, who will pay? Future generations — diminished, at best.

The great news is that there are a whole range of solutions to the current problems of the food system.
Many of the best solutions are quite simple, such as getting animals out of factory farms and putting them back on the land in mixed, rotational, regenerative, nature-friendly farms.

In addition, we have new solutions, such as hydroponics:
growing herbs and vegetables indoors. These can be grown in repurposed skyscrapers and even in old air-raid shelters, such as the one beneath Clapham South station. Another solution is meat produced from extracting stem cells and growing them in a bioreactor. This produces meat without slaughter, requires a fraction of the land of factory farming, and emits one fifth of the greenhouse gases.

There’s a real groundswell of interest and uptake in the new regenerative-farming approach;
and now, in the UK at least, government subsidies are being redirected to help support farmers in embracing this new way.

We all have the power to change things three times a day through the choices on our plate.
Companies tend to do the right thing when they realise that their customers require it. Most of the supermarkets in Britain no longer sell eggs from caged hens. On the other hand, intensively produced milk from cows kept indoors has been on the increase in Britain in recent years; so we really must make our choices count, eat less, and balance our budget with organic oat or soya milk. If I were to take you to a British restaurant which uses only free-range eggs, and RSPCA-assured pork and chicken, it would be the McDonald’s Pound Saver menu. It needn’t be expensive.

The change that I’d make is eating more plants,
less and better meat, milk, and eggs, and making sure that that what we do buy is pasture-fed, free-range, or organic. In this way, we’re supporting nature-friendly farmers, we’re giving animals a good life, and we’re bring back wildlife.

I’d like harvest festivals this year to be celebrated in the reality that, as things stand, we have less than a single lifetime’s worth of harvests left.
No soil, no food. Game over. Could we also celebrate the regeneration of life through nature-friendly farming rather than another harvest of a finite number gone? In Britain, in the breadbasket of the Fens, there’s good evidence to show that we’ve got just 30 harvests left.

I live on a farm hamlet in West Sussex.
It’s not my farm; so I have all the view and none of the work. I go on daily walks with our rescue dog, Duke. I’m enchanted by the natural world around us. I love to see how it changes every day. I was struck with this fascination for the countryside from an early age. I loved staying with my granddad in Bedford, where he would always be feeding the birds. Watching them on the lawn left a big impression on me. Today, I feed the birds all year round.

Compassion makes me happy.
I remember one day when a herd of cows had just been let out, they crossed the river to come and meet Duke, and they ended up all licking each other’s noses. Why does it take so long for society to recognise all animals as sentient beings, and accord them the compassion they deserve?

My father was heavily involved in the church all his life,
first as churchwarden, then as lay preacher. I went to a church school; so I was steeped in faith. Whenever the Church Times came out, he would read it, cover to cover; so it was part of family life, like watching Songs of Praise on Sundays. My faith seemed unshakeable as a child, and I remember seeing the very bad teeth of an atheist on television, which showed what happens when you don’t believe in God.

But when I heard about animal cruelty in factory farms and laboratories,
I couldn’t understand how an almighty God could allow this to happen, and, as so little was being said or done about it by the Church, it shook me to the core. I ghost-wrote an essay for my father, when he was training as a lay preacher, about Christian attitudes to animals. My interpretation of the Garden of Eden was people living in harmony with animals and the natural environment in God’s image. When they were cast out, “all the animals will fear you. . . you will wear skins,” was God lamenting a lowering of standards.

I also believed that you needed to eat meat to live,
and when I went to volunteer on a nature reserve for two weeks, I didn’t know how I would survive being vegetarian for two weeks. At the end, I was amazed that I was still alive, and also that actually I enjoyed the food.

I still believe in the spiritual dimension of life.
After all, life itself is an intangible force. I still value religious faith, customs, and practice, but I don’t identify with a specific religion in the way that I once did.

I gain great hope by the growing recognition that we’re all in this together:
people, animals, and the planet. People are realising that being compassionate toward animals and valuing a thriving environment is the way to saving the future for our children.

I pray for a unifying spirit that will help us overcome the existential threats now facing humanity,
of climate change and the collapse of nature.

I’d like to be locked in a church with Sir David Attenborough.
He’s seen so much and understands the true interconnection between the different species that make up the world we’ve been lucky enough to inherit.

Philip Lymbery was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

Sixty Harvests Left: How to reach a nature-friendly future is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.69); 978-1-5266-1934-1.

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