Friday 25 April 2014

Savage, brutal and idiotic – the story of factory farming

Book review: Farmageddon By Philip Lymbery

Cattle peer between the bars of fence

A few years back, I commented to a highly intelligent and articulate young Romanian on the proliferation of industrial pig units in rural Transylvania. He was a keen fisherman and passionate about protecting his country's beautiful mountain trout streams. But he was puzzled by my interest in the welfare of livestock. "Why should I care?" he demanded. "They are just pigs."

Romanians, like other Eastern Europeans, are mighty meat eaters and, like my angling acquaintance, largely indifferent to the suffering of farmed animals.

All the tales that come out of industrial farming are horror stories, and Philip Lymbery, of Compassion in World Farming, has criss-crossed the world to chronicle some of them.

He has stood in the chemical-drenched almond orchards of California, where no grass grows and not a butterfly or an insect is to be seen. He has held his nose outside giant dairies where cows "with pink and grey beach-ball udders" stagger under the weight of their milk.

In Taiwan, he inspected an "organic" egg farm where 300,000 hens were confined in cages stacked seven deep and starved to shorten the intervals between laying cycles.

He boated across the waters of Chesapeake Bay to see how this marine wonderland had been fouled by waste from the poultry industry. There is a horrible account of Lymbery's visit to the Peruvian port of Chimbote – more than a million tonnes of anchovies are exported annually from Peru as fishmeal, to be used to feed farmed fish around the world.

Lymbery is excellent on the discreet scourge of aquaculture – "fish factories under the sea". He goes to Loch Maree in the far north-west of Scotland. The trout there have gone, wiped out by the explosions of parasitic sea lice from the salmon farms clustered around Maree's outlet to the sea.

Who is to blame for this nightmare of brutality? In one sense, of course, it is the producers. But it is we, the consumers, who make it all possible. We are complicit and we are guilty.

As Lymbery patiently explains, we do not have to live and eat this way. If we could get accustomed to eating less meat, we could rear what we needed on outdoor pasture. We could feed fish to people instead of to other fish. We could feed pigs and poultry on food waste. We could keep the land healthy by switching from monoculture to mixed farming.

But we do not. Such a revolution would require us to change the way we think about feeding ourselves. I'm afraid the only shock seismic enough to shake this complacency would be a threat to human life. A plague, an epidemic directly attributable to the horrible things we do to animals, might achieve what no book, even one as level-headed as this one, can.

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