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Review of ‘Sixty Harvests Left’ by Philip Lymbery

Paul Appleby reviews the latest book by Philp Lymbery. The facts and statistics outlined in the book are shocking.

Sixty Harvests Left is the third in a series of books by Philip Lymbery, Global CEO of the farm animal welfare charity Compassion in World Farming, documenting the disastrous effects of intensive (factory) farming on farmed animals (Farmageddon, 2014), biodiversity (Dead Zone, 2017), and the environment. The book’s title comes from a prediction made in 2012 that with the current rates of soil degradation the Earth only has about 60 years of topsoil left.

Two of the main causes of topsoil loss are overgrazing by livestock and the intensive cultivation of arable crops required to grow their feed, and the author reports examples of these malpractices alongside the rise of ‘mega-farms’ (defined as those with more than 125,000 birds reared for meat, 82,000 egg-laying hens, 2,500 pigs, 700 dairy cows or 1,000 beef cattle) in countries as diverse as the US, China, Spain, and in the UK where there are already well over 1,000 such farms.

This makes for grim reading, but the author finds reasons for hope in a range of solutions “including regenerative agroecological farming, plant-based diets, urban farming using hydroponics and aeroponics, [and] alternative proteins from precision fermentation and cultured meat.” These are considered in some detail in a chapter entitled “Rethinking Protein”, and the author recognises that “if we are to save the planet, by the middle of the century, we must reduce our consumption of livestock products globally by at least half.” This does not mean that Lymbery’s solutions are entirely animal-free: regenerative farming can involve restoring farm animals to the land to produce foods such as the organic, pasture-fed beef and lamb recently characterised as “the world’s most damaging farm products” by the environmental writer and activist George Monbiot. (A prime example of this, described in the book, is the Knepp Wildland project in West Sussex, where the introduction of grazing animals, including beef cattle, pigs, ponies and deer, to former intensive arable and dairy farmland has heralded the return of trees and an abundance of rare species including turtle doves, white storks and purple emperor butterflies. However, as Monbiot points out, Knepp “generates just 54kg of meat a hectare”, making it a very inefficient way of producing food.)

In summary, conservationists and animal welfarists will appreciate the author’s vision of a nature-friendly agriculture without intensively farmed animals, while vegetarians and vegans will welcome the recognition of plant-based diets as an integral part of the future. Above all, Sixty Harvests Left is a mine of valuable, referenced, and quotable information, some of which is listed below.

  • UN estimates suggest that the amount of meat wasted every year is equivalent to 15 billion animals being reared, slaughtered and binned (Preface, xii).
  • 40 per cent of the global grain harvest, enough food to sustain 4 billion people, is used as animal feed (Preface, xiv).
  • As much as 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally are caused by our food and the way we produce it (Preface, xvii).
  • More than 40 per cent of species in Britain have declined since 1970, while one in every seven of its wildlife species faces extinction (page 16).
  • Since 1975 … nearly a third of the world’s arable land has been lost to soil erosion (page 45).
  • The production of animal products is responsible for up to 78 per cent of [agriculture’s greenhouse gas] emissions … the livestock sector produces more greenhouse gases than the direct emissions from all forms of transport (page 95).
  • If we carry on as we are, food will be responsible for more than half the emissions it would take to reach two degrees of global heating, with the majority of these coming from animal farming (page 105)
  • A single farmed salmon takes about 350 wild fish to produce. To put it another way, the Scottish industry feeds as much fish to its salmon as is eaten by the entire UK population (page 124).
  • According to the UN, 90 per cent of the world’s marine fish stocks are now fully exploited, overexploited or depleted (page 136).
  • 73 per cent of the world’s stock of antibiotics goes to farmed animals, largely to ward off diseases associated with intensive farming (page 162).
  • The public is providing $700 billion a year in global farm subsidies (page 166).
  • In Britain, about a tenth of land is urban, while 70 per cent is devoted to agriculture (page 200).
  • A longstanding study has shown cultured meat production to be 80 to 95 per cent lower in greenhouse gas emissions and 98 per cent lower in land use than conventionally produced meat products (page 243).
  • In the UK, where 55 per cent of cropland is used to grow animal feed, a third of that land could provide 62 million adults a year with their five daily portions of fruit and vegetables (page 284).

Sixty Harvests Left by Philip Lymbery. Bloomsbury, 2022; hardback, £25.

Paul Appleby is a Fellow of the UK Vegetarian Society and a former trustee of the Society and the UK Vegan Society.  He was secretary of Oxford Vegetarians (the forerunner of OxVeg) for 25 years from 1983 to 2008.  Until he retired in 2020, Paul was a Senior Statistician at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, working mainly on long-term studies of the health of vegetarians and vegans, including the EPIC-Oxford study.

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