March 7th, 2014
In Britain and Europe, our countryside is suffering the ravages of intensive farming; once common farmland birds like turtle doves, skylarks and tree sparrows have declined by up to 90%. Butterflies and bees too have declined, with less than a quarter of the bees needed to pollinate our crops.
Compared to the US, however, farmers in Britain and Europe are relative novices at the intensification game; but there is fresh impetus to intensify under the dubious justification of ‘feeding the world’, threatening to take our countryside and the quality of our food to a new tipping point. Some want to accelerate the industrialisation of farming in the name of ‘sustainable intensification’. Without a change of tack, mega-dairies, ‘battery’-reared beef and genetically engineered crops – and animals – will soon be the norm.
‘Battery’-reared beef, Argentina
During three years of investigation for Farmageddon, I became struck by the link between how animals are kept and the quality of the food they produce. Generally, the more that animals are reared on the land with natural, varied diets, the healthier and tastier the food. We instinctively know this, which is why terms like ‘natural’ and ‘free-range’ are so attractive. It also explains why marketers all too often try to mask factory-farmed food behind labels showing false depictions of green fields, small farmhouses accompanied by comforting terms like ‘farm fresh’ and ‘country fresh’.
It made me angry at suggestions that factory farming is a ‘necessary evil’ to feed the poor. I question why is it right to expect people on low incomes to have to feed their children on unhealthy food? Do we really want a decimated countryside devoid of birds, bees and butterflies? And why isn’t more fuss being made over the fact that enough grain to feed billions more people is being wasted through feeding it to industrially reared animals?
March 6th, 2014
California – Where the industrial production of a single crop is taken to new extremes.
Britain’s bees are in a poor state say researchers at Reading University. According to reports, there are now less than a quarter of the bees needed for proper pollination of our crops. This is serious stuff.
However, things are not nearly as bad as the situation I witnessed in California, the land of milk and honey. Standing amongst vast monocultures of perfectly regimented almond trees and other crops, what was noticeable was the eerie silence. Not the chirp of a bird or the buzz of a bee. They had gone, driven out by the chemical assault on the landscape, keeping nature at bay with pesticides sprayed from land and air.
Now, California’s massive patchwork of crops are pollinated by bees trucked in by hundreds of articulated lorries; hives containing 40 billion bees manually distributed amongst the crops for a few weeks before being gathered back in and trucked back out.
During my time in California following the trail of the mega-dairies peppering the landscape like vicious scars, I took time out to listen to one of the local beekeepers trying to restore nature’s balance in this forbidding environment…
This is the latest instalment in my worldwide quest to uncover the true cost of cheap meat.
Watch it here.
You can read more in ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, written with former Sunday Times journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, and available now in the UK from all good bookshops.
March 4th, 2014
Standing amongst vast groves of almond trees in perfectly regimented rows you could hear a pin drop. Not the chirp of a bird or the buzz of a bee. It was eerie. The distant thud of a helicopter breaks the silence; an aerial crop-sprayer dousing the carpets of monoculture in every direction with chemicals to keep nature at bay. The air smelt like washing up liquid; it caught in our throat and felt like it was creeping down our lungs.
Deadly harvest: spraying almond groves, California
We were witnessing what seemed like a daily chemical assault on the landscape; from aircraft, weird-looking land vehicles and protective-clad people with hand-held sprayers.
I was on a fact-finding mission with Sunday Times journalist, Isabel Oakeshott, for our book “Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat” (Bloomsbury 2014). How on a single trip, I thought, do I convince a hard-nosed journalist of the perils of industrial agriculture? The answer lay here in California; the land of milk and honey.
Not in the glitz and glamour of Hollywood or other hotspots in the sunshine state, but in the dusty valleys that yield world-renowned harvests. It was to be the Alice in Wonderland looking glass through which we would glimpse what some see as the future for food production.
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February 26th, 2014
Using human-edible crops to feed animals is “inefficient” says scientific study.
© iStock photo
Yesterday, I found myself talking to a radio interviewer who found it hard to accept that intensive high-input, high-output rearing of farm animals is inefficient. It underscored for me how decades of production-orientated rhetoric have left some with the lasting impression that industrial agriculture is somehow a miracle.
I guess it must come as something of a shock when the argument is put – as in Farmageddon – that, far from being efficient, industrial agriculture wastes food, making it harder to feed a growing global population.
Intensive agriculture measures its success on the amount of a crop produced per hectare. That in itself is not unreasonable. However, this isn’t all of the picture, especially when a third of the world’s cereal harvest and much of its soya is fed to industrially reared animals. A staggering 70% of the available food calories are then wasted through conversion to meat and milk.
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February 25th, 2014
Last week was such a proud moment. Waiting patiently to speak to the packed audience inside the heart of literary London, my co-author, Isabel Oakeshott, and I were taking part in a live interview and discussion about Farmageddon at the prestigious Bloomsbury Institute.
Billed as showcasing “contemporary thinking and new research”, the event gave us the opportunity to meet people from the Bloomsbury Book Club and talk to them about why we wrote the book and what we discovered during our travels. We follow in great literary company, with other authors invited to similar events including William Dalrymple, Elizabeth Gilbert and Margaret Atwood.
An engaged and lively audience, some of whom travelled from Somerset and Cambridgeshire to be with us, kept us talking well beyond the prescribed time.
Huge thanks to Bloomsbury Institute for hosting us and to Bill Swainson, our commissioning editor, for chairing the session.