Philip Lymbery feeds pigs

Philip Lymbery is the CEO of Compassion In World Farming and a veteran campaigner on animal welfare issues, wildlife and the environment. His books include Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat and, most recently, Sixty Harvests Left: How To Reach A Nature-Friendly Future, both published by Bloomsbury.

Your new book argues that we need to move away from industrial farming and towards regenerative farming methods – such as rotating crops, minimising the ploughing of soil and using manure and compost instead of fertiliser to enable soil regeneration. Why is this so important?

The food system can’t go on as it currently is. If we continue with industrial agriculture then the very thing we need for the production of most of our food – the soil – will be gone within a single human lifetime [because industrial farming techniques are depleting healthy soils]. That’s a frightening prospect... Industrial agriculture needs to end. It is providing us with an illusion of cheap and plentiful food today but is creating the conditions for catastrophe tomorrow.

Why is healthy soil so important?

Soil does three really important things. It not only produces 95 per cent of our food but it’s also pretty much the only thing which stops rainwater from simply running into rivers and back out to sea. It holds rainwater against gravity for our thirsty plants. Healthy soil does that; impoverished soil doesn’t and is susceptible to flash flooding and to drought.

Soil is also a massive carbon sink. It holds nearly twice as much carbon as there is in the atmosphere. But the bad news is, because of the way we’re treating it, it’s releasing that carbon back, making climate change even worse.

So if we want to carry on producing food, if we want to harness water for the future and if we want to tackle climate change then there’s a really straightforward way of doing that, and that is to get behind soil health and move away from industrial agriculture.

Has any good come from the developments of industrial farming?

Industrial agriculture came about in the middle of the last century off the back of the Second World War... Huge bumper crops meant that grain became so cheap and ubiquitous that you may as well just feed it to animals, and then we started to keep the animals in confinement. This whole cycle of feeding grain to animals, the animals then convert it to meat, milk and eggs really inefficiently, so that most of the food value in terms of calories and protein is lost in that conversion – that came about as a space-saving idea, as a way of creating more food. But it’s come at a big price and it’s had unintended consequences... Now that we know about them, we need to deal with them...

The great news is that there are life-affirming, beautiful, compassionate solutions at hand to help us get there. So [that means] moving from industrial agriculture to regenerative farming and at the same time reining in our diets so that we’re not eating the planet by consuming way too much meat and dairy from farmed animals... The way we can do that is by eating more plants and less and better meat, making sure that any meat we do have comes from regenerative sources.

The other great news is that the portfolio of alternative proteins is now starting to growit’s not just plant-based alternatives to meat, we’re also seeing the rise of cultivated meat from stem cells grown in a bioreactor. The US Department of Agriculture just gave the green light to the production and commercial sale of cultivated meat to consumers in America, and what happens in America quickly comes to the UK.

The other form of producing alternative proteins is through precision fermentation. This is programming microbes to produce precise molecules, specific proteins. In this way we really can create new and interesting foods that can satisfy the desire for meat but without the downsides.

Does the answer lie in innovation or going back to the basics?

It’s both. It has to be both, in my view, because yes we do need to go back to the basics of farming... but if we simply try to produce the same amount of meat [as we currently are] with regenerative methods, that will continue to take us over the edge of planetary boundaries. So it has to be a move to regenerative farming which boosts soil health, brings back biodiversity, satisfies animal welfare, gives us nutritionally better food and creates a sustainable future... but at the same time reduce the amount of meat and dairy from animals that we are as a global society consuming... And I think it’s an easier sell to consumers if you can replace the meat that they’re currently eating with something that has some level of equivalence.

What would the shift to regenerative farming mean for the price of food?

We have to remember that food is currently produced in a distorted economic bubble. So-called “cheap” food is something we pay for three times: The first time at the checkout at the supermarket; the second through our taxes, in subsidising agriculture – there are billions of pounds a year going to subsidising agriculture, mostly to encourage it down the wrong path; and the third is much more significant financially, our tax pounds going to clean up the mess to our health and to the environment that’s created by the so-called “cheap” food culture.

What I think we need to do is to create the economic environment where we do the right thing, where we create a future for our children, we move to regenerative farming, and we make it a policy that decent food, planet-saving nutritional food, should be a basic human right. It shouldn’t be something that you have to be well off to afford.

Can we produce enough through regenerative farming to feed our growing population?

The answer to that is yes... We currently produce enough food for more than twice the population of the planet. We just waste so much of it ... The amount of grain fed to farmed animals worldwide every year represents enough food to sustain four billion people annually. Much of the food value of that grain is wasted when converted to factory farmed meat, milk and eggs, which represents the biggest single form of food waste on the planet.

Whose responsibility is it to fix this?

It really needs leadership from the highest level, so here we’re talking about the United Nations who should be creating a global agreement to move away from industrial agriculture towards regenerative production. Governments absolutely need to create the policy and subsidy regimes that are going to be necessary to shift production and consumption patterns in the way that we need. Companies, too, need to come on board... And we can all seize the power of our plate three times a day by choosing to eat more plants and less and better meat.

Are there any broader lessons we can take from what we got wrong with industrial farming?

We have to take a 360-degree perspective. If you look at things just through one lens – just through climate, just through profit, and so on – you can solve one problem but create half a dozen others. So we do need to take a holistic view and let’s not forget that we are part of nature, we rely on nature for the air we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat. Let’s never see ourselves as separate from it.

This article is a preview from New Humanist's autumn 2023 issue. Subscribe now.