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Why what's on your plate matters to the planet

Eating & Drinking
Long read

Emily Clark

8 April 2018

If someone told you that the future of the human race depended on organic farming, you might think they were being a little dramatic. Maybe you wouldn’t invite them back to the pub. But that is the compelling and crucial take-home message in a new book about how wildlife – and people – are affected by large scale use of chemicals. 

Dead Zone: Where The Wild Things Were connects the food on our plates to the fields of corn, soybean, palm and wheat that globally cover the same amount of land as the EU. These monocrops are soaked in chemicals and mostly end up feeding cows, pigs and chickens in overcrowded barns and cages.

About 70% of farm animals in the UK are fed and reared this way, propping up Britain’s unquenchable love affair with the supermarket meal deal, Greggs sausage rolls and late night stop-offs at the fried chicken shop.

But let’s not lambaste ourselves just yet. Philip Lymbery, head of the charity Compassion in World Farming, and the author of Dead Zone, is on hand to explain how we got here and what we can do about it – starting with our food choices. 

Deadzone Organic Farming3

The monoculture farms of soy, palm and wheat cover a portion of the planet the same size as the EU

Compassion in World Farming

Much of the way the world farms now, Lymbery explains in the book, has to do with an outdated post-WWII mentality: grow as much food as possible. This emphasis has continued, regardless of the impact of the methods or whether or not we need this much.

With it has come the rise of chemical pesticides, which are also used to make bombs and nerve gases. One farmer interviewed in Dead Zone says an average intensive wheat crop today might have nine chemicals applied to it, which Lymbery says inflict "untold damage on wildlife, including bees".

Bees, which pollinate many of our crops, are a good example of our reliance on a varied not monoculture ecosystem. More widely, we depend on biodiversity to keep fields healthy and capable of sustaining life — for example, worms help distribute nutrients in the soil.

Lymbery says only a fraction of agricultural chemicals are absorbed by plants and soil — the rest leach into the environment. He adds that "lots of nutrient fertilisers on tired soils leaves them vulnerable to heavy rain, washing both soil and nutrients into rivers, lakes and streams".

The problem, then, is self-perpetuating: the more we use chemicals to grow monocrops, the more chemicals are needed as wildlife suffers and the nutrient-rich soil is washed away.

"Darwin believes that the chief driving force behind the current huge decline of worldwide species is our insatiable appetite for meat"

Agricultural chemicals endanger us in other ways — in 2014, WWF warned they pose a real risk to UK drinking water. The threat to our health is also becoming more widely understood and documented.

Dead Zone discusses how pesticides banned in many countries are used to grow soy in Brazil, directly causing hundreds of deaths. The EU imports half of its soy from Brazil, four-fifths of which goes to feed to our farm animals.

One more thing. When chemicals eventually reach the sea, they cause miles of ‘dead zones’ around the world, where oxygen levels are depleted to the point where fish die or are forced into other waters. The Baltic Sea is home to the world’s biggest coastal dead zones, which are exacerbated by overfishing. Good job, humans.

Deadzone Organic Farming1

Choosing products with soy and palm oil in can mean you're supporting deforestation and biodiversity loss

Compassion in World Farming

The big message here is, herbicides and pesticides are bad news. Our heavy handed use of them means British soil is now predicted to only have 30 to 40 years left of fertility. Organic farming, it’s argued, would help us dodge this fate.

For Lymbery, it’s time to ditch monocrops and switch to mixed crop farms, where manure from a few grazing animals helps fertilise the soil.

He explains: "We need to move away from industrial monocultures of single crops, a large swathe of which is grown to feed factory farmed animals that never see the light of day. We need to stop doing that for all our sakes. One, because factory farming is the biggest cause of cruelty on the planet. And two, because industrial agriculture is a major driver of wildlife decline and therefore is precipitating ecosystem collapse."

For him, feeding crops to animals that we could eat ourselves is inefficient and uses up a lot of land. It also promotes deforestation as the population grows.

He says this is the ‘antithesis of feeding the world’ and calorie-wise, the energy from eating the crops directly (rather than feeding them to animals and then eating the meat) would feed an extra four billion people.

He’s not alone, among other similar thinkers is Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson Chris Darwin who Lymbery interviewed for his book. Darwin believes that the chief driving force behind the current huge decline of worldwide species is our insatiable appetite for meat.

Lymbery advocates reducing on our meat and dairy consumption by half. Before you panic, it doesn’t necessarily mean we all have to go vegan.

"Brexit, Lymbery says, is a "fantastic opportunity to set a whole new course for food""

A solution, Lymbery says, is not only to eat less meat, dairy and eggs, but buy better quality when we do eat those things.

He asks: "Are vegan diets always more environmentally friendly? Well no, if the plant foods are coming from chemical-soaked monocultures.

If people want to make sure that they’re eating food that comes from welfare friendly, environmentally friendly sources then buying food that is clearly labelled as organic or pasture fed or free range is clearly the way to go."

Lymbery also says he avoids palm oil after visiting Sumatra, even if it has ‘sustainable’ certification.

"What’s sustainable about producing a product in a way which allows nature no coexistence, which means that elephants no longer have that space for their homeland?" he asks.

The same applies to soy grown outside of Europe and Canada, which fuels deforestation. He notes that soy milk from Alpro as well as own brand from Tesco, Co op and Waitrose pass the test, but other brands often do not.

Deadzone Organic Farming5
“Are vegan diets always more environmentally friendly? Well no, if the plant foods are coming from chemical-soaked monocultures...”

Beyond that, how do we feed ourselves in a way that would pass muster by Lymbery?

In Dead Zone, we are introduced to John Turner, a Lincolnshire farmer who co-founded the Pasture for Life label. His cows roam on a mixed farm, munching their way through fields of grass, clover, wildflowers and herbs, and silage in winter. No chemicals and monocrops here.

Beef, lamb and dairy with the Pasture for Life label is sold through butchers, farmers’ markets and online. Or you can do a bit of research to find farmers nearer you that offer the same guarantee.

It’s not just animal products. Organic veg boxes are often cheaper than supermarket veg and buying directly from small farmers means the middle man doesn't get his cut — schemes such as Farmdrop and the Food Assembly were set up to do just that. Buying organic food on a budget is difficult, but cutting down on animal products could be part of the solution.

For farmers, Lymbery describes how going organic can actually be cheaper, as pesticides cost a lot of time and money to apply. Leaving the EU could help us encourage the switch. Brexit, Lymbery says, is a "fantastic opportunity to set a whole new course for food".

He explains that EU subsidies largely incentivised industrialisation — and this money could now be redirected towards a British countryside that leads the way in greener, more wildlife friendly farming.

If Brexit brings with it subsidised organic fried chicken shops, then maybe the world won’t seem so bad after all.  

Dead Zone: Where The Wild Things Were is out now published by Bloomsbury.

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