We need to talk about food and farming if we are to avoid a planetary tailspin — Philip Lymbery
As we head into winter, I’m reminded of the strange happenings on the Arctic-archipelago of Novaya Zemlya, Russia, where a snow-covered rubbish dump was being ransacked by polar bears.
The desperate animals were scattering cardboard, plastic and cans, even entering buildings in a frantic search for food. With Arctic Sea-ice shrinking, these icons of the natural world were demonstrating the real-life impact of climate change.
Thousands of miles away in Glasgow and the dust is still settling on COP26, the gathering of world leaders seen by many as the last best chance to avert climate catastrophe. Ahead of governments arriving in the city, many by private jet, Glasgow was ravaged by torrential rain and flooding that caused severe disruption. Just months previously, flash flooding had hit the ‘dear green place’ causing cars to be stranded. It gave rise to the story of Puck, the springer spaniel who helped his owner push a stranded vehicle down the street with two women inside.
What we can draw from all these happenings is that climate change means we all stand to suffer.
Yet the suffering of animals in the food chain and what it means to us as a society never got a mention at COP26, despite it being increasingly seen as crucial in addressing the twin emergencies of climate and nature collapse.
Food is responsible for up to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, much of it from animal agriculture. The livestock sector alone produces more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions from all forms of transport.
As well as a stable climate, a natural world in balance with humanity is essential for a sustainable future. Yet wildlife declines tell us that things are far from well.
In the half-century since the widespread adoption of factory farming, the world has lost 68 per cent of all its wildlife. That’s more than two-thirds of the world’s wild mammals, fish, birds, reptiles and amphibians — gone.
A major driver of wildlife declines worldwide is the production of ‘cheap’ meat from industrial farming. Species as diverse as elephants, jaguars and penguins are threatened as a result. But it’s not just iconic species at threat. The latest news tells us that the humble sparrow too has taken a tumble — declining by 247 million birds since 1980, not least due to agricultural intensification.
In the UK, most chickens and pigs, and some cattle, are confined on factory farms, meaning that their feed is grown elsewhere on prime arable land, be it close to home or on continents far away like South America.
More than half of the UK’s cropland is used to grow animal feed, much of it intensively, resulting in fields getting bigger, which in turn leads to trees, bushes and hedges disappearing. Pesticides used on intensive crop fields kill off wildflowers and insects that would otherwise provide food for birds, bats, bees and just about everything else. Even worms can disappear, along with soil fertility, leaving little else but the crop.
In Britain, Europe and around the world, what this disappearing act tells is that in the battle for the planet, a critical success factor will be ending factory farming in favour of a more regenerative, nature-friendly way of farming.
Yet time for change is running out.
Ahead of COP26, Glasgow’s historic Tolbooth Steeple clock tower became the canvass for projecting a timepiece counting down to irreversible climate change. Gan Golan, an artist and activist who co-created the display said, “There’s good news. That number isn’t zero. We can meet this challenge, but we don’t have any time to lose”.
If we were to create a broader clock tackling both climate and nature, then I’d say we have less than a decade or two to turn things around.
Scientists suggest we have less than a decade left to cut emissions enough to keep global warming within 1.5oC of temperature rise deemed ‘safe’. As it stands, pledges made at COP26 leave the world on course for 2.4oC.
Extrapolating data on the state of nature shows that if we carry on as we have done for the last 45 years, the world is on course for almost total obliteration of our wildlife by 2040. Tropical forests, some of the richest, most nature-abundant habitats on the planet, vital as the lungs of the Earth, are under enormous pressure, not least through expansion of industrial agriculture. On current rates of deforestation, an area of forest half the size of the EU could be gone by 2040.
At the same time, the very thing that much of our food production relies on — the soil — is disappearing, with intensive farming practices a big part of the reason. By 2040, in a world with more than a billion more mouths to feed, there could be a third less soil. A terrifying thought.
US President, Joe Biden, has described the 2020s as the ‘decisive decade’ on climate change.
The available evidence shows that a focus on fossil fuels alone won’t cut it; that without ending factory farming and associated high-meat diets, our current decade will give way to the ‘desperate decade’ of the 2030s where government leaders then could be scrambling to do what they should be doing today to stave off the ‘deadly decades’ to come. To avoid a planetary tailspin.
What the data tells us is that shifting to regenerative food and farming needs to happen sooner rather than later — by 2040 latest.
The great news is that safeguarding the future for polar bears, pigs, chickens, and generations of our children means embracing better welfare for us all. By ending factory farming, we can ensure happiness for people for many decades to come based on a balanced planet and happy animals. Never has there been a better time to dial-up the power of happy.
Philip Lymbery is the Global Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming International and United Nations Food Systems Champion
Note: This article was first published in The Scotsman on Monday 29th November, 2021