Issue 1, Autumn 2019

Food for thought…

One man’s mission to transform the way we see the meat on our plate

By Kate Ford  |  21 Aug 2019  | 
© Richard Dunwoody

For more than 25 years, the Chief Executive of Compassion In World Farming, Philip Lymbery, has been battling to open people’s eyes to the way their meat is produced. At this year’s Oxford Literary Festival, the audience for his talk ‘Saving life on Earth: Feeding people without trashing the planet,’ was an unlikely mix. It included non-meat eaters and farmers - some of whom employ the ‘pasture-fed’ methods which Philip promotes around the world.

His efforts to convert farmers and countries to less cruel, more sustainable food production methods have earned him many awards, including an International Golden Dove for Peace prize. 

Following his talk, I had the pleasure of interviewing the 53-year-old university professor and animal advocate to ask some more about his work. His gentle manner and approach starkly contrasts with the shocking statistics and detail he quotes from the United Nations and other sources.

Out of sight, out of mind

In a world where so many people are starving, we produce enough food per year for 16 billion people, says Philip. But most of it goes to feed animals in a supply chain that is wasteful and damaging to the planet. Intensive farming - which accounts for most of how we get our meat - is “the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet” claims Philip. This, he says, is because the majority of the animals in these large factory-type farms are kept in confined spaces which restrict their natural behaviour. And the large scale of these places mean these creatures are effectively “out of sight, out of mind.”

© Compassion in World Farming

For example, even in the UK, where pig ‘stalls’ are banned, a large proportion of pregnant sows are kept in farrowing crates, purposely to stop them lying down and crushing their newborn piglets. This hinders the sow’s natural instincts and the urge to create a protective nest for her young. “Pigs are as intelligent as dogs and there would be an outcry if we treated them in the same way,” says Philip. 

“What happens to animals matters to me and to many people. Most ordinary people don’t want to see cruelty to animals. They don’t want to see a damaged environment and they want to eat healthy, nutritious food.” But meat is a hugely, resource-intensive product, he explains, taking a vast amount of the Earth’s land surface to produce the grains and crops to feed livestock.

We only have 60 harvests left

The heavy use of fertilisers and other chemicals means that the world’s soils are becoming so depleted that UN figures suggest that we only have 60 harvests left if we continue farming it in the same way. “Eating less meat takes the pressure off hard-pressed landscapes, it means that forests can be allowed to continue to be giving us oxygen to breathe, that rivers can run clean and that our soils can be left for future harvests.”

Somewhat worryingly, the UK is moving more and more towards the ‘mega-style’ farming of the USA where large numbers of animals are kept confined and restricted, often in cages, being fed plant protein crops which need to be grown on a huge scale. The supporting evidence of cruelty should be enough to bring about change, but Philip believes “selfish” politicians and big businesses with vested interests are keeping us in a “Dark Age” of cruel animal practises. 

Philip explains, “What’s holding us back and keeping us locked into this factory farming paradigm worldwide are the vested interests, the chemical companies that provide fertilisers and pesticides, the cage manufacturers, the animal feed companies. 

We need leaders that are going to recognise that time is running out, that we are squandering the future for our children.

“The biggest struggle is getting politicians to pay attention to an issue of such importance, when what feels important to them is the more immediate political thing of getting elected, quite frankly. What we need really is selfless leaders again, we need leaders that are going to recognise that time is running out, that we are squandering the future for our children.”

Advocating pasture fed

Philip’s organisation advocates meat from ‘pasture-fed’ animals which he says is more nutritious because it is lower in saturated fat. And the animals themselves, reared on organic or free range farms, are treated more humanely. He believes that people may not even realise they are buying into harsh animal practices because the intensively farmed meat is labelled with words such as ‘farm fresh’. He would like people to wrest back control by looking out for pasture-fed, free range or organic meat, milk and eggs.

What about people who cannot afford the higher cost of this type of produce? Philip says that he would love to see subsidies given to organic and pasture-fed farmers, coupled with taxes on the cheap intensively farmed meat. Philip travels the world to speak with farmers, businesses and government officials. In spite of the seeming lack of political support, he remains deeply hopeful of success. “I’m spurred on seeing people really being happy that we are able to make better lives for our animals, that we are able to create better environments for nature and that we can preserve the future for our kids,” he says. 

International reach and local change

CIWF’s campaigning work is even helping to change practices at farms in China, which is home to half the world’s pigs. When he first started working in China 15 years ago, there was not even a term in their language for ‘animal welfare’ and there were no anti-cruelty laws. Compassion In World Farming has helped introduce ‘good pig’ awards, and now “more than a million pigs a year are living better lives.” Last October, China held its second world conference on animal welfare.

As the years have passed, Philip’s mission has taken on a new urgency. Land clearances for crop production has led to huge declines in the world’s wildlife. And meat production is also inextricably linked to climate change. As well as the effects of transporting livestock, the methane emitted by the animals themselves makes up more than 14 percent of global greenhouse gases, according to UN statistics. In response to farmers who contest that ‘pasture-fed’ or mixed farming may not be economically viable, Philip says that intensive methods have actually led to a decrease in profits for many. And whilst those farmers’ income is decreasing, the profits of feed companies and those that provide products such as animal antibiotics is rising. He says the current £3.6 billion subsidies for farming goes to promoting ‘bad’ food and could be diverted to produce ‘decent’ healthier meat.

Philip gives example of farmers such as Tim May, at Kingsclere Estates, who switched to ‘regenerative agriculture’ after struggling to get good returns on increasingly depleted soils. Also the ‘pasture-fed’ practitioners, such as those listed on the www.pastureforlife.org website, who sell meat from their outdoor reared animals.

More work to be done

There is much work still to be done in the way animals are slaughtered, no matter how they are reared says Philip.  The contentious ways in which livestock is killed, both in the UK and around the world, evokes extreme reactions. The CIWF has recently produced a new report setting out what the Government needs to do to achieve ‘a new food system that is nourishing, sustainable, equitable and humane.’ And it continues its campaign to end the use of crates and cages for animals, where “hens can’t even stretch their wings, where mother pigs can’t turn around for weeks at a time and are made to face the wall. These kinds of cages and crates really belong in the Dark Ages,” says Philip. “And that’s why we are calling for an end to the cage age, an end to this egregiously cruel way of keeping animals.”

Let’s have decency, let’s have compassion in world farming.

Philip Lymbery is the author of ‘Farmageddon - The True Cost of Cheap Meat’, and ‘Dead Zone - Where the Wild Things Were’. Proceeds from his book sales go to support the work of the CIWF

About Compassion in World Farming:

CIWF was set up by British dairy farmer Peter Roberts in 1967 after he was ‘horrified’ by the development of intensive factory farming that confined animals into small spaces.

Since then, the organisation has achieved many changes to practices and laws, including the landmark decision by the EU in 1997 to legally recognise animals as sentient beings, capable of feeling pain and discomfort.

CIWF issues good welfare awards and also has branches in China, USA, Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, Czech Republic, Italy, France and Spain.

For more information, visit www.ciwf.org  and www.philiplymbery.com

www.pastureforlife.org for details of pasture-fed produce and local farmers.


How you can help: Look out for the Pasture for Life logo when shopping for meat products, as this guarantees the animal has been 100% grass-fed.