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The True Cost of Cheap Meat

Philip Lymbery

(London Times)

Big business gets a bad press when it overcharges us, but as the subtitle of Farmageddon attests, it isn’t universally appreciated when it sells us things cheaply, either. Philip Lymbery — despite the co-authorship with Isabel Oakeshott , the former political editor of The Sunday Times, this is very much his book, written as a first person narrative — is chief executive of the pressure group Compassion in World Farming. He does not advocate vegetarianism, but has a thesis that factory farming has given the consumer cheap meat at a price that is not worth paying.

Lymbery has travelled the world trying to sneak a look inside factory farms, his long flights often in vain as he is rebuffed by farmers. He nevertheless has managed to assemble a long list of charges against factory farming: dust from mega dairy farms giving children asthma; indiscriminate use of antibiotics promoting microbiotic resistance; untreated muck finding its way into the rivers and sea, on one occasion killing a horse that became trapped in a pool of nitrate-fuelled algae blooms on a Breton beach; farm animals being fed on genetically modified (GM) soya grown on land snatched from native South Americans and on fishmeal trawled off Peru, where pockets of the ocean have been turned into “dead zones” as a result; intensive-grown crops depriving birds and butterflies of their feeding grounds. The end product isn’t even good for us, as it is higher in fat than meat from animals farmed in more traditional ways.

Worst of all, the animals themselves are treated as meat and milk-producing machines. Cows that could live for twenty years are dead in five, finished off by constant milking from udders that produce ten times as much milk as a calf would need. Pigs deprived of the opportunity to forage for food are “bored”. Farmed salmon are preyed upon by sea lice that attach themselves to their backs and spread to wild salmon who happen to be passing their cages.

Many of the welfare and environmental problems identified by Lymbery have been tackled by regulations or by voluntary changes in practice. In Britain, veal crates have been banned and pigs are no longer kept in stalls, with Compassion in World Farming claiming much of the credit. Across Europe barren cages once used for battery chickens have been outlawed. Animal waste, instead of being allowed to pollute the environment, is used as a fuel for power stations, or waste digesters. Countryside stewardship schemes demand bare patches to be left in fields to counter the decline in some wild birds. Farmed fish are being moved away from migratory routes of their wild brethren.

There are many other ways in which standards could be improved. Mitigation, however, is not enough for Lymbery. He wants an end to industrialised farming. He wants cows and sheep to be raised on grass, while pigs and chickens are allowed to forage outdoors for at least some of their lives. He wants farmed fish hatched on land and then released into the ocean, to be harvested when they return to their birthplace. It is an attractive vision that has earned Lymbery celebrity endorsement. But how much is it to do with genuine animal welfare and how much is it Lymbery doing what he says at the beginning of the book he will not do: projecting human feelings on to animals? It is easy to share Lymbery’s frustration when a government vet asks him how he can be sure that a maltreated chicken can be said to suffer. But does a farmed trout really have the mental capacity to feel “frustrated” because he is swimming around a large cage rather than in the open sea? There is certainly no evidence for this presented here.

Farmageddon does add to the debate on food and farming. It brought to my attention a few things I knew little about, such as the trade in fishmeal as an animal feed. But there is one big thing missing: any consideration of the costs, especially on the poor, if mankind were to give up industrialised farming. Much as Lymbery tries to convince us that Western consumers are enjoying their cheap meat on the backs of the world’s poor, there is much evidence to suggest that industrialised farming is helping to improve nutrition worldwide.

According to the World Food Programme, the number of people in the world without enough to eat — 842 million — has fallen 17 per cent since 1990, a period over which the world’s population has grown by two billion. In Britain, the era that preceded postwar factory farming was one in which poultry was a rare treat, salmon was only for the well-off and many working-class people survived on bread and margarine. If some people have unhealthier, fattier diets than they did then, the opportunities to eat well have increased immeasurably. As for the charge that factory farming is churning out poor quality food that is killing us, it is a bit difficult to square with rising life expectancy around the world.

Lymbery is concerned that poor farmers are being threatened with lawsuits by the GM industry. But they are not the only ones preyed upon by the law. In California’s Central Valley he visits an activist who has made a pastime of suing the area’s mega dairies. Here, at least, I felt more on the side of the industrial farmers bringing affordable food to the masses than on the side of the legal parasites on their backs.

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