In the beginning, when farms were places where animals roamed and grazed, it was easier to view the trade as a “circle of life” style of symbiotic relationship with humans – that is, until the rise of industralised farming severely changed everything.
Industralised farming arose in the mid-20th century in the USA and was, at the time, heralded as a technological miracle. The factory-like production of animal proteins and monocropping were praised as efficient models of economies of scale, proclaimed as the most effective ways to meet the demands of the world’s growing population. The United States, as the pioneer of this intensive livestock-rearing and monocropping culture, passed policies during the Nixon administration propelling farmers to shift from small family farms to mechanised large-scale farms that focused on single crops. As then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz put it at the time, it was either “get big or get out” for American farmers.
Fast forward 50 years, and we can now see the immense price we’ve paid in the name of progress. Today, industralised farming is viewed as a major contributor to climate change and is responsible for heavily polluting the environment along with contributing to vast declines in biodiversity, soil erosion, deforestation and impacting human health through the overuse of antibiotics and the persistent use of pesticides and growth accelerators in livestock rearing.
Monocropping requires vast amounts of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers as pests and diseases can easily wipe out fields of single plant species. These crops are essentially sitting ducks waiting for the onset of a single factor that could destroy them all. However, if different types of crops are grown together or planted at intervals next to each other, this coalition of complementary crops can help to protect against pests and diseases. In traditional farming, plants that repel certain types of pests are grown amongst others that are vulnerable to those critters in order to create natural protection barriers.
In industrialised farming, the lack of crop diversity deteriorates soil quality and the prevalent use of pesticides such as 2,4-D and dicamba kill off the very microorganisms in the soil that help to add nutrients and pull excess carbon from the atmosphere. A negative feedback loop results, with greater increments of synthetic chemicals used to increase production in the soil that is being depleted by the very use of these chemicals.
And where do most of the crops from industralised farms go? They become animal feed.
Philip Lymbery, the author of Farmageddon and Dead Zone and the CEO of Compassion in World Farming, stated, “The crops fed to industrially reared animals worldwide could feed an extra four billion [people] on the planet.”
According to the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, 80 per cent of the soy produced in the Amazon is used for animal feed. Brazil, which has recently been in hot water for its burning of the Amazon rainforest, devotes 25 million hectares of land to soy production, second only to the USA in scale.
The rise of intensive livestock rearing arose at the same time as monocropping and is a hallmark of industralised farming. The USA is still the world leader in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and today, there are more than 50,000 facilities in the country that are classified as CAFOs and another 250,000 that are just below the criteria. According to the USDA, CAFOs are classified as housing over 1,000 animal units in confinement for over 45 days a year. An animal unit equals 1,000 pounds of animal weight, and to give some perspective to these numbers, this equates to 1,000 cows, 2,500 pigs or 125,000 chickens. As documented by the UN, CAFOs are now global, accounting for 72 per cent of poultry, 42 per cent of eggs and 55 per cent of pork production worldwide. According to Worldwatch Institute, there were 15 billion livestock around the world in 2000. By 2016, that number had risen to 24 billion.
This type of factory farming is not only inhumane, but also a major climate-change contributor. When animals are so densely packed, it becomes a huge disease and waste problem, and extensive antibiotic use is required to keep disease at bay. As WHO stated, “There is now overwhelming evidence that the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics is leading to the rise of antibiotic-resistant superbugs” and “We will face a post-antibiotic era where currently treatable diseases will once again kill.”
The amount of waste and fertilisers pollutes not only land but also the oceans, with the world’s largest “dead zone” discovered recently in the Gulf of Mexico from run-off from the Mississippi River. A dead zone is created when pollutants from farms create algal blooms that suffocate marine life.
Gulf of Mexico dead zone
Methane from animal waste causes more short-term damage to the environment than carbon dioxide, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, its carbon dioxide equivalent accounts for at least 14.5 per cent of global greenhouse gases.
Where do we go from here?
We’ve seen the follies of greed and ignorance and the environmental and human health costs we’re having to pay, so is the way forward really going to be vegetarianism or veganism? Highly motivating, one-sided opinion pieces like 2018 documentary The Game Changers tell us that shunning meat will save the planet, but like all biased content, there is always a counter argument.
In The Vegetarian Myth, author Lierre Keith, a vegan for 20 years, speaks out against some of the myths of plant-based diets. In her writing, she emphasises the devastating effects of industralised farming, but she also highlights the fundamental misconception that farmed animals should eat grains.
Keith says, “For most of human history, browsers and grazers haven’t been in competition with humans – they ate what we couldn’t eat (cellulose) and turned it into what we could (protein and fat). But our industrial culture stuffs grain into as many animals as it can. Grain will dramatically increase the growth rate of beef cattle and the milk production of dairy cows. It will also kill them.”
She goes on to say that meat consumption is a natural thing, explaining that “life isn’t possible without death, and no matter what you eat, something has to die to feed you.” Healthy pastures need cows and sheep in order to flourish, but we’ve taken the grazer out of the equation and, instead, have crowded them into factory sheds.
So how can we heal a damaged planet? A key movement in recent years is regenerative agriculture. In short, this type of agriculture uses farming and grazing practices to rebuild degraded soil in order to recapture carbon and improve water cycles. So the solution to climate change could be just under our feet. Crop rotation, composting, mobile animal shelters, integrating animals into a farmland ecosystem and increasing biodiversity to rebuild soil organic matter are just some of the practices of regenerative agriculture. Grazing animals can get all their nutrients from the farms they live on, instead of inefficiently eating grain transferred from far-off monocropping farms.
First-generation Italian farmer and regenerative agriculture advocate Luca Sichel Turco gives us an example of the innovative practices from his own farm. “At the moment, I have a small flock of Layer hens for eggs and chickens for meat. I’m planning to use larger herbivores to cut down the grass, especially during the fast- growing spring season. I will start with two cows and between 10 and 20 sheep. Geese, which I had on the farm previously, are small herbivores and great at mowing down grass and fallen fruits from the orchard. Chickens and ducks scratch the soil and are great foragers, which makes the ground more fertile. The manure for the free-range animals will help to enrich the farm. The trees will produce fruit that will be picked and sold also as jams.”
Turco says regenerative farming has “a tremendous capability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. It uses principles from many farming philosophies including permaculture and agroforestry.” He says we must be prepared to pay more for products that are ethically farmed. “We are currently paying very little for very poor-quality food. Poor quality means it is full of hidden ecological, ethical and health costs.
We need to move to a system where we invest more of our total income in better-quality food. And I am not talking of truffles. I am talking about the humble chicken when it is hatched, grown, fed and treated humanely in a way that the environment is going to be richer and healthier. It is a major investment in the future quality of our environment and our health.”
Turco also details how farmers must treat animals with respect, a fundamental principle that the world seems to have forgotten. “If you want to take the life of a living being, you need to be able to be fully at peace with it. I use all the latest methods to minimise animal suffering. This usually includes stunning an animal before slaughtering it. When I kill an animal to eat its flesh for my sustenance, I renew a covenant between me and the species where its sacrifice is balanced by my promise to take care of the descendants and the whole species.”
And, truly, the proof is in the pudding. A recent study published on White Oak Pastures, a 3,200-acre, fourth-generation farm in Georgia, USA, shows that the holistic practices on the farm have increased organic soil matter, resulting in better water retention and offsetting 100 per cent of the cattle farm’s carbon emissions.
Will Harris, the owner of White Oaks and the largest private employer in the county, has been raising livestock and holistically restoring the ecosystem of his great-grandfather’s land for the past 25 years. He raises many species of animals, including cattle, pigs, goats, rabbits, chickens and ducks, on his land, alongside wild inhabitants like bald eagles and millions of insects and fungi. What has been achieved at White Oaks is a multi-species, holistically managed ecosystem that stores more carbon in its rich soils than its livestock and operations emit.
As Matthew Evans puts it in his book On Eating Meat, we as consumers in the modern food economy must be conscious participants and not allow ourselves to be deceived by someone else’s plans for profitability. Understanding the provenance of your food and voting with your wallet are the best catalysts for change.
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