The true cost of cheap meat
By Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshot
Published by Bloomsbury
pp 426 Paperback
If you eat, you should read this book. It makes clear just how far-reaching are the choices that we make. I already knew a fair bit about factory farming, so as I sat down to read this book, I was prepared for the heart-breaking descriptions of chickens confined to cages in which they can’t turn around or even stretch their wings, cows with udders so distended and distorted that they can’t walk properly, and other equally disturbing images. It is no secret that intensive farming is incompatible with good animal welfare and inevitably leads to animals suffering.
What I hadn’t been prepared for was the degree to which humans also suffer as a result of intensive farming. In California’s Central Valley, where intensive dairy farming sits alongside intensive mono-crop growing, the average life span is now 10 to 15 years less than in the rest of the state. In Chimbote, Peru, where intensive fishing is combined with fishmeal production, children suffer disproportionately from a range of health problems, including respiratory infections, asthma, diarrhoea, and between 70 and 90% of children in the town suffer severe skin conditions. Malnutrition is also rife. Despite the fact that fishing is the primary industry in the region, and the fish caught are anchovies – perfectly edible for humans – as little as 1% of what is caught is eaten by local residents. Most becomes fishmeal to feed farmed fish, despite the fact that 20 to 30% of Peru’s population suffers from malnutrition.
Land use also has an impact on human lives. As intensive farming, particularly the intensive rearing of livestock, expands, so too does the amount of land needed to support the system. We’ve all heard the statistics about rain forest clearance, but perhaps less known is the affect of those clearances on indigenous peoples, who find themselves driven from their land and cut off from their traditional food sources.
This book is full of statistics like those quoted above, and it makes for sobering reading. But it is not by any means a boring or dry read. It is written in a very conversational style, with technical terms explained clearly and simply. Although Philip Lymbery is the CEO of Compassion in World Farming, the book definitely does not come across as a piece of propaganda. The facts are taken from quality research and first-hand observations, the arguments are rational and evidence based, and counter arguments are presented and given a fair hearing.
There are also signs of hope. The consumption of meat in western countries may have already peaked and be on the wane (although demand for meat continues to increase in developing nations like China). In both Britain and America, people have begun to reject meat and eggs from caged chickens, demanding a basic welfare standard for the animals that provide their food.
We cannot be complacent, however. Agriculture is now big business, and the companies involved have influence over governments worldwide. We, as consumers, must be vigilant and insistent that what we want is not cheap food at any cost. The choices we make will make a difference.