"As consumers we have the power to change things three times a day through our food choice." Five minutes with Philip Lymbery
Chief Executive of campaigning animal welfare organisation Compassion in World Farming, Philip Lymbery has a reputation as one of industrial farming’s fiercest critics.
Now a Visiting Professor at the University of Winchester, his new book Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were explores the links between factory farming and the demise of our wildlife and sets out what we can do to save it.
Before his inaugural lecture at the University, he spoke to us about what first sparked his passion for animals, how consumers can influence farming methods and why politicians should encourage a switch to pasture-raised, free-range and organic farming.
It started when I was a kid at school: my mum bought me a bird book and my grandad encouraged me to feed the birds in the garden and my passion for wildlife really blossomed from there.
In my teenage years, I learned about factory farming and how farm animals are often kept caged and confined to produce cheap meat and eggs. I was outraged - particularly as someone who is passionate about birds, flight and migration - to think of hens spending a lifetime in cages where they couldn’t even stretch their wings. It started a life-long journey to try and do something about it and to try and enlist others to be part of a compassionate movement for change.
What I discovered is that factory farming is bad for the animals that are treated cruelly, but it’s also bad for us and our environment. By keeping animals in tiny cages and feeding them grain, you get poor quality meat, the eggs are less tasty and need colourant, and the milk is poorer too.
The win-win situation is to keep animals as they should be: in places where they can express their natural behaviours, on pasture, free-ranging, in these kind of scenarios. That really does deliver better animal welfare, better food and a sustainable future.
How can we as consumers help ensure that more sustainable farming and food production methods become the norm?
As consumers we have the power to change things for farm animals and save endangered wildlife three times a day through our food choices. What I would encourage people to do is to go easy on the meat to help take the pressure off the system, and choose pasture-fed, free-range and organic meat, milk and eggs. That supports better food and better farm animal welfare and helps to save iconic species like jaguars, elephants and penguins from extinction. It’s about eating less and better, about getting consumption back in balance as a global society and putting better food on our plates for our families.
Your new book Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were looks at the issues of industrial farming through the lens of endangered wildlife, including the bumble bee, the barn owl and the jaguar: how real is the threat of extinction for these and other species?
Sadly, what I’ve discovered through the Dead Zone journey is that factory farming is a major driver of wildlife loss, a major driver towards extinction. In the 50 years since factory farming was widely adopted, we have seen wildlife numbers halve – birds, mammals, fish, amphibians. They have disappeared - to me that’s terrifying.
When you think about it, factory farming takes animals off the land and puts them in cages and crates. What it also means is that you have to grow their feed somewhere else, usually on large chemical soaked prairies where the trees are removed, the bushes and hedges are removed, the wild flowers, the seeds, the insects, the birds, the bats and the bees, leaving just about nothing living but the crop. As the factory farming juggernaut rolls across the earth, you can see what the outcome is going to be for the world’s wildlife: they are going to be squeezed out of the picture and that’s what’s happening.
With Brexit on the horizon, what would you most like our politicians to do about animal welfare in food production?
I would like to see politicians encouraging a wholesale switch in farming towards pasture-raised, free-range and organic methods. That would be a wonderful thing which would result in better animal welfare and better food. It would also save a living countryside for future generations. Is it possible? Entirely so.
Most of Britain’s farmland is pasture, so what’s been going on these past decades makes no sense at all. Only now, when we see our farmland birds are at an all-time low, when we see the kinds of cruelty that’s going on and we see how impoverished our food is that we realise what we’re losing. But it’s not too late to get it back so I’d like to see politicians getting behind truly sustainable, higher-welfare, environmentally-friendly farming. I’d like to see them legislate for a fusion between food, farming and nature. In that way, everyone wins.