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Rewilding with George Monbiot

December 19th, 2014
George Monbiot

George Monbiot

George Monbiot is author and columnist for The Guardian who writes with passion and insight about the environment. You may have seen his thought-provoking article on the role of meat in our society recently, which opens with the line, “From chickens pumped with antibiotics to the environmental devastation caused by production, we need to realise we are not fed with happy farm animals“.

George is someone I have long wanted to host here on my website. I am thrilled to have him as my guest interviewee this month. This is the first of a two-part interview. 

I recently read George’s book, Feral: Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, which I found a gripping read; utterly fascinating, compelling and thought-changing. Its impact on me was such that I did something I don’t usually do – sent copies to people as a ‘must-read’. Feral made me reappraise my long-held belief in conservation as simply preserving habitats in timeless isolation. It has fired my thoughts about the need for a much greater restorative emphasis in the way we view the countryside. Whatever your views, take a glimpse at how rich the countryside around us could be through the pages of Feral.

Philip: George, on the subject of rewilding of the countryside, I found your recent book, Feral an absolutely gripping read.

Feral by George Monbiot

Feral by George Monbiot

What inspired you to write it?

George: I badly wanted to reconnect with the living world, which was one of the reasons why I moved to mid-Wales. But when I got there, I discovered that there was even less wildlife than in the city from which I had come. The hills are almost treeless. You can walk all day and see a couple of crows and no other birds. You can get down on your hands and knees and look for insects, and you’ll be lucky to find any at all. The entire landscape has been sheepwrecked.

At sea the vast shoals of fish and the reefs of sedentary creatures have been ripped to shreds by trawlers and scallop-dredgers. But it was an encounter there with one of the last members of the British megafauna that set me on the course I was to follow. One day I was kayaking in a rough sea close to the coast of Cardigan Bay. A bull dolphin leapt over my boat. As he did so, he made eye contact with me, and we held each other’s gaze until he crashed back into the water.

It is hard to describe the exhilaration I felt. It was an epiphany. From that moment I knew I wanted to live in a world in which such encounters are common. Instead of just fighting the bad things that are happening, I wanted to campaign for the return of missing natural wonders in this country, to bring back the forests and their wealth of species, to restore the lost marvels of the living planet. Soon after that, I came across the term rewilding. It exploded in my mind. Suddenly I knew exactly what it was that I was looking for.

Philip: What did you learn whilst writing Feral about the role of industrial farming in shaping the countryside in Britain and Europe?

George: I realised that there is a socially-constructed silence about what industrial farming has done to the living world. What I was looking at in Wales was mass destruction caused by an arm of the industry that for many centuries has been considered almost holy.

Sheep-farming has been venerated by the pastoral literary tradition since Theocritus, in the 3rd Century BC. He associated shepherding with virtue and purity, the antithesis of the corruption and scheming of the city. His theme was embraced by Virgil and by the New Testament, in which Christ is portrayed both as the Good Shepherd and as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God, “which taketh away the sin of the world”. The Elizabethan poets – Marlowe, Spenser and others – revived the tradition, with their eclogues and idylls about the pastoral life. And it lives still on Sunday night television, which is incomplete without a romanticised vignette of the shepherd’s life.

Yet this tradition, which we are taught to venerate, turns out to be amazingly destructive. More so, perhaps, than that of any other industry, if you compare its impacts to its production. Sheep farming in the uplands of Britain is amazingly unproductive, largely because the soil has been stripped down to almost nothing over the centuries. In Wales, for example, 76% of the land is used for meat production, but Wales imports by value seven times as much meat as it exports. There would be no hill farming at all in Britain if it were not for public subsidies. Yet, across almost all our uplands, it has turned what was once a rich, forested ecosystem into bare and blasted wet desert, in which you’ll see even less wildlife than in the chemical monocultures of the lowlands.

Look out for part two of my fascinating interview with George Monbiot.

Paradise Lost

December 17th, 2014

“Plundering the seas to feed factory farms.”

During my trip to Peru, I visited Asia Island, home to the Peruvian Booby. I was told that out in the oceans, was the last link between factory farmed animals and our plate.

Millions of tonnes of small ocean-going fish were being hauled out of the ocean and shipped off to be fed to factory farmed animals. The Peruvian Booby feeds on the fish – and there is the link – if the fish go, the birds go too. Stefan Austermuhle, a local conservationist, described to me just how drastic the depletion of this species had been. If we were to go back 60 years, the island would be covered in seabirds like the Booby.

Have a look here at my latest film to see how Asia Island has been all but deserted by seabirds and the reason why we should stop plundering the seas to feed factory farms.

For your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.

Why did a farmer in a chicken suit cross Europe?

December 12th, 2014

As we near Christmas, it’s natural to take stock of the year. As I think back on an action-packed 12 months, which have included around 40 speaking dates talking about my book, Farmageddon (more of this in an upcoming blog post), one that sticks in my mind is the ‘39 Days for Rosa’ tour.

Johanna, Sam and Tamsin chalk up a storm in Copenhagen, Denmark

Johanna, Sam and Tamsin chalk up a storm in Copenhagen, Denmark

Three incredible volunteers: a free-range chicken farmer, an animal welfare campaigner and an animal science student, toured Europe this summer on behalf of our Labelling Matters campaign, calling for honest labelling of chicken meat.

They made a gruelling journey dressed as “Rosa” the chicken, taking in 21 countries in 39 days – the average lifespan of an intensively farmed meat chicken – documenting their travels as they went.

Our volunteers, Tamsin, Sam and Johanna, visited the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, Spain, France and Belgium.

They were greeted by supportive members of the public, keen to have their photo taken with Rosa. People tweeted the European Commission to demand honest labelling, followed Rosa on Facebook and Twitter and signed our petition.

Rosa flying the flag for honest labelling in Amsterdam

Rosa flying the flag for honest labelling in Amsterdam

Rosa was very popular with the media and our fantastic volunteers were able to spread the message about the scandal of dishonest labelling far and wide. Food labels can be misleading, using meaningless terms like ‘farm fresh’ and ‘free-run’, which have no legal definition.

Our message demanding honest labelling made the pages of over 100 news websites, magazines and newspapers – including national publications such as Germany’s Der Spiegel – and featured on national TV channels.

The Rosa team also met politicians and supportive EU animal welfare organisations across Europe. For their grand finale, they handed a petition signed by 85,000 European consumers to Czech MEP Pavel Poc, Chair of the Animal Welfare Intergroup of the European Parliament.

This summer the focus was on labelling of chicken meat but Labelling Matters calls for compulsory “method of production” labelling on all food-related animal products. We think the label should be able to answer the question “how was this animal kept?”

Our call for honest labelling did not end with when the tour finished. The EU Commission was impressed with our Europe-wide campaign and we met with Europe’s Agriculture Ministers in Brussels. We’ll continue to push for honest labelling of chicken and indeed all food-related animal products in Europe and beyond.

Rosa amongst the bubbles in Berlin

Rosa amongst the bubbles in Berlin

Until then, look for RSPCA Freedom Food, free-range or organic to ensure your chicken had room to spread their wings and move around.

Labelling Matters is a coalition campaign, which is also backed by World Animal Protection and the RSPCA.

Take action:  Honest labelling of chicken meat could help transform the lives of chickens across Europe. Please add your voice today and call for a simple change in the law by tweeting a message to the EU Commission.

Is that what they mean by “All Natural”?

December 9th, 2014
Leah Garcés with Craig Watts

Leah Garcés with Craig Watts

Midnight under a starlit summer sky and the North Carolina countryside is alive with the buzz of cicadas and the low blow-horn of distant bullfrogs. I’m in a Chevrolet four-wheel drive nestled unobtrusively amongst the sheds of a poultry farm. As we wait patiently for something to happen, it has all the hallmarks of a bizarrely memorable night; keeping out of sight so we wouldn’t be seen by workers; reacting to unexpected sounds or flickers of distant headlights. But despite the subversive feel, there was no fear of being caught by an angry farm owner; he was sitting right beside me in the driving seat.

I first met Craig Watts earlier that day to get a rare glimpse inside America’s poultry industry. It’s big business here in North Carolina, the fourth biggest ‘broiler’ chicken state in the USA, churning out 785 million birds a year worth $3 billion.  I arrived with Compassion in World Farming’s US director, Leah Garcés, to find Watt’s aboard a bright orange mower cutting the grass round his white clapboard homestead. He was ruggedly handsome in sleeveless t-shirt and dungarees, thick greying hair and engaging brown eyes.

Watts married Amelia, his childhood sweetheart, in his twenties and went into chicken farming because he wanted to be his own boss. However, he quickly found out he was anything but. Now 48 years old and with two young sons and a daughter, he farms chickens, lots of them, on contract to one of America’s biggest poultry processing companies.

Craig's broiler shed

Craig’s broiler shed

Like an army of contract growers across the country, Watts has been running on the debt treadmill to stand still. He invested around half a million dollars in four state-of-the-art buildings like long, low-slung warehouses for raising meat chickens. Watts provides the sheds, land and labour, the contractor company provides the chicks, the feed and specifies how they should be reared.

It was a unique chance to see the kind of conditions that all too often lie behind labels like “all natural” in grocery stores across the US. Watts beckoned us out of the blinding midday sun and into the dusty gloom of the chicken shed where a caustic feeling of ammonia-ridden air hit the back of my throat. My eyes adjusted to focus on the carpet of white motionless birds that stretched away, covering every available inch of what seemed like a 20,000 square foot corridor with whirring giant fans at each end. “I told you, a sea of white”, he quipped.

44276In this video, Chicken Factory Farmer Speaks Out, you can see what we saw; the effects of hothouse rearing, where the birds have been genetically selected to grow super-fast and fed a rich diet in intensive conditions.

I asked him what he sees as the future of the industry; “I think it’s almost going to have to be a start over. I think we’re past the rewind button here. I think this has gone too far.”

To find out how you can help our Better Chicken Initiative, click here.

“I’ve never seen anything quite this bad”

December 8th, 2014

These are the words that I said as I looked around the devastating effects of the fishmeal industry in Peru.

I visited a bay that is a ‘dead zone’ – caused by the fishmeal industry and the water pollution it is causing. There has been massive reductions in once common seabirds species like the Peruvian boobie. Local children have blister-like sores caused by the extreme pollution.

Children with skin blisters; wildlife driven to the brink. Watch my latest short video, an overview of my trip to Peru showing how the fishmeal industry is destroying entire eco-systems and polluting local communities- simply to produce cheap feed for factory farms.

For your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.

Farmageddon on film

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About Philip Lymbery

Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive Officer of Compassion in World Farming and co-author of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. He is an internationally respected authority on the impact of industrial agriculture on people, animals and the planet.