Philip Lymbery Interview

August, 2019

Toward … and Away from Farmageddon

Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive Officer of Compassion in World Farming, an award winning author, ornithologist, photographer, naturalist, self-confessed animal advocate, and commentator on the global effects of industrial farming.

Philip has worked extensively on animal welfare, wildlife, and environmental issues for 25 years. Described as one of the food industry’s most influential people, Philip has played a leading role in many major animal welfare reforms.

At what point in history did industrial agriculture become a global environmental threat?

After 10,000 years of growing food in harmony with nature, the middle of the last century saw the rise of factory farming.

Farm animals began disappearing from the fields into windowless sheds crammed with cages and crates. Age-old crop rotations that utilised nature’s way of fertilising soil and controlling pests gave way to monocultures doused in fertilisers and pesticides.

With nearly half the world’s usable land surface devoted to agriculture, the way we feed ourselves is now a dominant activity on the planet, affecting not only animals but also the natural ecosystems on which human society depends.

I’ve seen the effects myself.

In Sumatra, I’ve seen forests razed to make way for palm plantations for the processed food industry and to feed factory farmed cattle, particularly in Europe. As the forests go, so too do the homes of orangutans and the critically-endangered Sumatran elephant.

In South Africa, South America and the North Sea, I’ve seen how vast quantities of tiny fish are scooped out of the world’s oceans to be ground down for fishmeal to feed factory farmed fish, chickens and pigs, leaving marine life like penguins and puffins starving.

In the last 40 years, since the widespread adoption of factory farming, the world has lost half of all its wildlife.

Factory farming plays a major part in the steep decline of bees, essential for the pollination of a third of our crops.

It plays a big part in the decline of soils. The United Nations warns that, if we continue as we are, treating soil like dirt, then we could have just sixty years left in the world’s soils. At that rate, a child born today won’t have reached retirement age before he or she perhaps witnesses the death of our soils, the end of the food system as we know it. No soils, no food. It’s as simple as that.

The loss of our natural world is a crisis at least as big, and far more permanent, than climate change.

Some 75 billion farm animals are reared for food every year, two-thirds of them on factory farms, with numbers growing all the time. Together, they emit almost a sixth of all global greenhouse gas emissions; that’s more than all the world’s planes, trains and cars put together.

It’s long past time for the world to wake up and end factory farming.

Is the current model of exploiting nature for food economically sustainable?

Our diets high in factory farmed meat, eggs and dairy are literally eating the planet.

It’s true that industrially produced meat, eggs and milk are cheap at the supermarket checkout. However, the low cost of these products is achieved only by ignoring the true costs in terms of the detrimental impacts of industrial agriculture on human health and the natural world on which we all depend.

These so-called “negative externalities” represent a market failure in that the costs associated with them are borne by third parties or by society as a whole and are not included in the costs paid by farmers or the prices paid by consumers.

I’d like to see fiscal measures being used to lower the cost of quality food for both farmers and consumers. This could be paid for by placing taxes on the inputs of industrial agriculture such as chemical fertilisers, pesticides.

How can actors from outside the farming industry speed up its transition towards more humane and sustainable food systems?

We can all help by joining the movement for change, pressing government and corporates to take this issue seriously.

For me, bringing about a solution globally requires a global agreement, to replace factory farming with common-sense farming, before it’s too late.

As consumers, we can also take action on our plate; we all have the power to reduce an awful lot of farm animal suffering and save wildlife three times a day through our food choices; by choosing to eat more plants, less and better meat and dairy from animals kept pasture-fed, free range or organic.

When and why did you decide you wanted to dedicate your life’s work to animal advocacy?

Until my teens I was ignorant of factory farming. The moment that opened my eyes to the realities was when a speaker from Compassion in World Farming came to my school to do a talk. I remember being horrified at the pictures of pigs and calves in factory farms. The hens in battery cages and how they couldn’t flap their wings, never mind fly, particularly upset me. I thought about the wild birds that had fascinated me since I was very young. The hens in cages seemed a crime. I was outraged, and I vowed to do something about it.

Whilst it was my passion for animal welfare that led me to campaign against factory farming, it’s become obvious over the past few years that ending factory farming is non-negotiable if we want to secure a safe future for our children.

Your investigative work, writing, photography, and generally, your skill in communicating ideas – to what extent does it all help to win hearts and minds for the cause?

I’ve found that the most effective campaigns are those driven by passionate, informed people using their power as both citizens and consumers.

Since its founding over half a century ago Compassion in World Farming has sought to build and communicate a powerful evidence base for ending factory farming. For example, our exposés of the suffering of animals in factory farms led to legislative bans across the European Union on the use of battery cages, dry sow stalls and veal crates.

Revealing the results of our global investigations of the impacts of factory farming on animals and the environment in my books Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat  and Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were has proved to be an excellent way of increasing our audience and access. For example, the books have given rise to speaking opportunities and media coverage of the issues in over 20 countries. In Spain the publication of a Spanish edition of Farmageddon in Pictures led to Compassion receiving such a large amount of coverage and support that we opened an office.

In 2017 you organised the world’s first extinction and livestock conference, aimed at bridging a long-standing divide between conservation and animal welfare. This is one of the priorities for Thinking Animals United as well. Are you optimistic about the prospects of overcoming the schism?

Yes, I’m hugely optimistic. I think our conference was a real turning point. Since that time, I’ve seen Compassion as being at the heart of a new breed of ‘animal welfare environmentalists’.

For me animal welfare is a central component in the overall battle to save the planet. Farm animal cruelty and the collapse of the natural world are rooted in a fundamental disconnect between humanity and nature. By turning living sentient creatures into animal machines on factory farms, we’ve created both the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet and a major driver of wildlife declines worldwide. Cruelty to farm animals and nature’s demise go hand-in-hand.

It therefore follows that to truly address widespread environmental and conservation concerns, a key step must be ending factory farming.

We’re seeing animal welfare emerge into the mainstream of societal concern. Not a day seems to go by nowadays without the publication of another expert report warning of the need for action to stabilise the climate and stop wildlife declines. We’re seeing all kinds of organisations starting to prioritise action on meat and dairy.

I would add that, if anyone missed our conference, films are available online and the book inspired by the conference was published last year: Farming, Food and Nature: Respecting Animals, People and the Environment.

What are Compassion’s current priorities and how do you see them expand or evolve in the foreseeable future?

Our campaign priorities are set out in our five-year Strategic Plan published last year.

Our work is built around three goals:

  1. To achieve recognition that global action is needed to end factory farming and reduce overall meat consumption in favour of regenerative agriculture.
  2. To drive legislation to achieve better standards of animal welfare through campaigning and advocacy.
  3. To drive better animal welfare standards in the global food supply chain by working with food companies.

For the past year a key priority has been our European Citizens’ Initiative campaign, which calls for an end to all cages for farm animals throughout the EU. This campaign has seen Compassion standing should-to-shoulder with partners in our biggest ever coalition: 170 organisations all working together with the aim of gathering one million signatures from EU citizens within a year.

Our Good Farm Animal Welfare Awards programme and collaborative partnerships with food companies are a key part of our drive towards a more humane and sustainable food system. I am humbled to share that since our food business programme began in 2007, we’ve worked with over a thousand companies to achieve commitments that will bring better lives to over 1.7 billion farm animals.

We’ve set ourselves clear targets towards our goal of ending factory farming, including seeing a reduction in the production and consumption of meat, fish, milk and eggs and campaigning for a global agreement to end factory farming in favour of regenerative agriculture. I’m looking forward to talking more about that at the Rethinking Animals Summit in September.