WE ARE ALL IN IT TOGETHER
WHY LIFE ISN’T A COMPETITION BETWEEN PEOPLE AND ANIMALS
This has been a big week for me with the launch of my latest book, Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-friendly Future. It’s always a mighty relief seeing three years of your life finally in print. As well as the excitement, it also gives cause for reflection. As I settled down to write my Monday column, I wanted to share with you, dear reader, the influences on my life that have helped shape what I see as perhaps my most important literary statement to date.
I was born in 1965, a time of optimism. The world had recovered from the Second World War, technology was making our lives much easier, and the Space Race was in full swing. I grew up in the market town of Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire and, from an early age, was fascinated by the countryside and the animals within it.
At that time, there was a population of just 3.3 billion people. Climate change wasn’t really talked about, even though carbon in the atmosphere — correlated with rising temperatures — had already exceeded 320 parts per million, more than in the previous 2.5 million years.
The number of farmed animals produced for food each year globally stood at 10 billion, with meat being eaten much less often than it is now. When my mum started buying chicken for Sunday lunch in the early 1970s, it was seen as an aspirational treat. Although things were changing fast, most farmed animals were kept more naturally.
Meat was also nutritionally different: compared with a chicken in the 1970s, today’s factory-farmed birds have nearly three times as much fat and a third less protein. Back then, they lived longer and had more space; now they are crammed into huge sheds and made to grow super-fast, within weeks becoming grotesque parodies of the creatures they should be.
As a budding young wildlife enthusiast, Sir David Attenborough’s adventures had a deep effect on me. He remains a constant source of inspiration. Described as the most ‘trusted man on Earth’, his calm yet compelling delivery has brought nature into the living rooms of several generations.
Of all his TV moments, there is one that stands out in capturing our relationship with fellow creatures.
I remember being glued to my TV screen, watching a young Attenborough deep among forest-clad slopes of Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains, creating one of the most iconic moments in wildlife history: meeting a family of endangered mountain gorillas. Surrounded by dense vegetation, he lay among several powerful apes, his sense of joy palpable. Looking a tad overdressed, the young Attenborough found his composure melting away as a mischievous young gorilla called Poppy tried to remove his shoes.
‘There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than any other animal I know,’ he said quietly to the camera.
It was a bitter-sweet moment: as man and gorilla made a playful connection, the inescapable truth hit Attenborough — that he was looking at some of the last of their kind.
By 2020, the world’s population had reached 7.8 billion and carbon in the atmosphere measured 415 parts per million. The world was on track for a temperature rise of around three degrees Celsius by 2100, or higher still if governments failed to keep to commitments made in the Paris Climate Agreement.
Our taste for meat had grown to the point where 80 billion animals were being reared and slaughtered for food each year, a number that was still increasing. For every person on the planet, ten farmed animals were produced a year. Factory farming was — and still is — the engine room behind our appetite for cheap meat, with two-thirds of the world’s farmed animals enduring lives of confinement. The change in how we eat meat — from occasional treat to everyday meal — has quite literally changed nature.
In one human lifetime, the planet has gone from being a bountiful Garden of Eden to a world in decline.
At the centre of the decline is the industrialisation of agriculture and our overconsumption of meat. Scientists warn that we have just a few years left to solve climate change, yet production of industrialised meat is increasing, with animal farming responsible for nearly a sixth of greenhouse gas emissions. The use of chemical sprays has led to a decline in pollinating insects. Antibiotics, a large majority of which are fed to factory farm animals, could soon stop working. And then there is the United Nation’s warning that soils could be depleted within sixty years. It is this chilling prediction that inspired the title of my latest book, Sixty Harvests Left. It’s a title that acts as a metaphor for the finite nature of the current food system. For why things must change.
With what we eat affecting the planet so fundamentally, there has never been a greater reason for transforming our food system. This means fixing both sides of the problem: production and consumption. The way we produce food should move away from industrial agriculture to regenerative, agroecological methods that restore soils and biodiversity. Nature should be an inherent part of our farms, and where possible it should be encouraged through rewilding, not least of the soil. Together with respecting animals and the natural world, these nature-friendly approaches provide hope for a better future.
Although time is running out, it is not too late for us to leave behind a healthy planet for future generations.
Like Sir David Attenborough, I see a multiplicity of solutions. In his book, A Life on Our Planet, Attenborough writes, ‘Regenerative farming is an inexpensive approach able to revive the exhausted soils of most fields. On consumption, he sees a future where ‘we will have to change to a diet that is largely plant-based, with much less meat’.
I couldn’t agree more. And on the question of whether this is people versus animals versus planet, it seems very clear that this isn’t a competition. We are all in this together. As Attenborough has said, ‘It’s not about saving the planet — it’s about saving ourselves.’
Note: This is a version of an article which first appeared in The Scotsman on Monday 29th August, 2022