Too late to do nothing

Philip Lymbery, global CEO of Compassion in World Farming is busy on his laptop as I gaze out of the Eurostar window at the blur of green farmland between Calais and Brussels. “Where are the cows?” I ask idly. “I haven’t seen any cows for hours.” 

It’s 2017 and Philip and I are on the way to the European Parliament where he’ll host a conference about the impact of factory farming on the planet, which I’ll record for an episode of his podcast that I produce called Stop the Machine. Philip sighs and tells me a story of where the cows have gone, about the gradual and largely hidden industrialisation of some of Europe’s most famous foods including Parmegiano Reggiano and Grana Padana which is produced by cows who never see the light of day. 

Five years later, we’re chatting again about his new book, Sixty Harvests Left “a warning from the United Nations”, a clarion call to get animals back on the land before it’s too late.  I ask him about the outcome of the report, Hard Cheese that Compassion in World Farming published about that trip of his through the Po Valley to investigate the real story behind our most popular cheeses.

“It was about raising the issue that cows belong in fields rather than spending a lifetime in barns, sometimes even tethered”, he told me. “Some of them can’t even walk around the barns. We have started a dialogue with the producers in the consortium behind Parmesan and Grana Padana cheeses, but progress is slow. We need to keep up the pressure.” 

It’s more than just the massively important welfare issue; “I believe they’re misleading consumers who believe that the cows are living more bucolic lives. But it’s also that this intensification of farming practice is causing wider harms to the countryside. So things need to change.” 

Philip has painted an apocalyptic vision of the impact of food production on the planet in his books Farmageddon and Dead Zone: Where The Wild Things Were. In Sixty Harvests Left, he picks up the soil where farmed animals once grazed, naturally fertilising the land and providing rich pickings for the bugs and worms, and shows us what our junk food culture has done to it.  

“Our soil has been disappearing at such a rate that the UN has warned if we carry on like we are, then we have just 60 years left before our soils are gone,” Philip tells me for my podcast Cooking the Books with Gilly Smith. “No soil, no food. Game over.’

Philip is one of the most important campaigners against factory farming. He and I have worked together on his podcasts Stop the Machine and The Big Table, and he’s appeared with me on the delicious. podcast and Right2Food, the voice of the Food Foundation in a bid to change the food system. He’s clear about the relationship between buying supermarket BOGOF chicken in shrink wrapped trays, burgers from junk food outlets that contribute to the destruction of rain forests, the lungs of the earth as Philip calls them, to grow grain to feed cattle that should be naturally fertilising our soils. 

“It’s all inherently connected and not in a good way through factory farming. Animals like pigs, chickens and hens have been taken out of pastures and woodlands and kept in cages. And that industrial production of animals is usually accompanied by the industrial production of crops using chemical pesticides and fertilisers and monocultures of cereals and soya and similar crops. 

And in that transaction, what happens is that intensive production drives out biodiversity. It means that the bees that are needed for the pollination of our crops see their numbers plummet. It means that while birds and other animals disappear, the forests are wiped away. And as soils go into decline, so does the future of our food system.’

But Philip’s book is hopeful; if we change the way we eat and stop buying factory farmed meat, get the animals back on the land to naturally fertilise the soil, nature will do the rest, bringing the bugs and insects, the worms that aerate it and bring the life back.  

“I do think that there is a portfolio of solutions. Eating more plants, eating less but better meat, milk and eggs making sure by better making sure it comes from pasture fed free range organic. So broadly speaking, regenerative food sources, I think that’s really important.” 

Buying better sourced food, eating 30% less meat or going vegan or vegetarian – there will be enough meat eaters to support the high welfare farmers – is a no-brainer and reduces the weekly food bill. But it’s not enough; we need to be asking every restaurant waiter or chef where they source their meat, fish and dairy. At a particularly sparkly launch this summer, I asked the chefs where their ingredients came from. They hadn’t a clue. I wrote to the PR company. No reply. 

We’re blessed with great restaurants in Brighton, and most of them shout loud on their menus and their social about their ethical sourcing. 

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