Review of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat by Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott

(Bloomsbury, 430pp, pbk, £12.99)

This book has generated a lot of publicity, and numerous glowing reviews. It presents an impressive and comprehensive examination of how specific food items (cheap meat, milk, eggs, fish, etc) are produced in the modern world. The authors have travelled across continents to record what is actually happening, and it frequently makes grim reading, despite the fact that this is a very readable book. Vegetarians and vegans will be more aware of the situation, and genuinely concerned about it, unlike the average person who eats these products, and couldn’t care less how it’s produced or the deadly consequences for animal and human health, and all the associated environmental damage. The book includes a staggering range of statistics, and describes a scandalous catalogue of appalling methods and obscene practices within intensive farming across the planet. Everything from pollution, the overuse of antibiotics, fertilisers and pesticides, the catastrophic impact of fish farming, and the issue of GM crops is discussed and dissected in minute detail.

Over 60 billion farmed animals are slaughtered globally each year, which is bad enough, but two-thirds are factory farmed. This insane obsession with the goal of unlimited productivity and so-called efficiency can never be satisfied. Crucially, the total output is gigantic but these methods are totally unsustainable. Farmageddon highlights the fact that EU taxpayers pay £48 billion into the Common Agricultural Policy (almost half of the total EU budget). And in the USA, subsidies for meat & dairy production are even higher. Ironically, the real cost of all food is increased, owing to the insatiable demands of meat production and the knock-on consequences. Over 75% of all EU agricultural land is used to produce animal feed.

A perfect example of the latest intensive techniques is the innovation of the US style mega dairies, a dystopian nightmare where cows are reduced to non-stop 24-hour milk machines, and generate mountains of waste. These mega systems don’t actually need many people to work them, and in China highly automated mega piggeries require only “one human operative to take care of 3,000 pigs”.

Farmageddon is highly recommended, but there is a major flaw within this book. In the introduction it is clearly stated that “it is not anti-meat”, and it doesn’t “preach vegetarianism”. Despite all the graphic and incontrovertible evidence within the text, the main conclusion (“eat meat, but don’t eat cheap meat”) is misguided and just plain wrong. The authors believe that there is an alternative to factory farming, and this seems to be “happy animals grazing in sun dappled fields”. After witnessing so much cruelty and suffering, how could anybody miss the point so badly? It seems blindingly obvious that the fundamental problem is the entire use and abuse of animals for food and all systems (including organic and free range) are complicit. Also, the hopeless inefficiency and wastefulness of meat production is repeatedly emphasised and this surely is one of the strongest arguments in favour of vegetarianism? However, the book argues that in the good old days, cows just ate grass, and pigs existed on scraps. And I have a real gripe with one of the two celebrity quotes featured on the front cover. One is from Joanna Lumley and that’s OK, but the other from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, “urging a massive rethink of how we raise livestock”, underlines the erroneous “don’t eat cheap meat” message.

In the epilogue Philip Lymbery romantically describes the chickens he keeps in his garden and comments: “They remind me every day that animals are individuals with their own wants and needs.” Mr Lymbery is the CEO of Compassion in World Farming, and despite all of its commendable campaigning I’ve always had an issue with this particular organisation. Specifically, the basic ethos that is deeply rooted within Farmageddon: it’s OK to use and exploit animals for food, as long as we do it nicely (that is, with “compassion”). And in his final paragraph he states: “I have learned how choices we all make can have a real effect.” I totally agree with that, but if only he could understand that his choices are part of the same monumental problem.

Paul Freestone

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