Monday 31 October 2022



"At the heart of sustainable change lies a recognition that all life on our planet is interconnected, and that our future depends on treating it with compassion and respect."

Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. Her latest publication is This Book is Cruelty Free - Animals and Us, a guide to compassionate living for teenagers and adults. She is a long-term supporter of Compassion in World Farming, and campaigns with Feed Our Future.

"This is now our planet, run by humankind for humankind," David Attenborough has written, quoted by Philip Lymbery. "There is little left for the rest of the living world." Our food systems are part of that domination, and Lymbery outlines powerful reasons for transforming the way we farm, eat and live if we are to have a future at all. 

Philip Lymbery is ideally-placed to write this important and timely investigation into the present and future of food and farming. As Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming he has a wealth of knowledge and experience; he's travelled widely in his investigations, spoken at international conferences and written two previous books on different aspects of this subject: Farmageddon and Where the Wild Things Were (both of which are on my shelves).

His latest book is already receiving more attention than its predecessors - coinciding, as it does, with George Monbiot's equally important Regenesis, published earlier this year, and with a general rising of awareness of the links between food production and climate breakdown. It's not a message the majority of the public wants to hear, but for those willing to listen it's ever clearer that the planet can't sustain regular meat-eating in the affluent countries of the world: animal agriculture is responsible for 14.5-16% of global emissions and is a major driver of habitat destruction. And meat-eating is due to increase drastically as developing countries aspire to the excesses set by the US, UK and Australia. We have to make the connection between what's on our plates and the climate crisis that's all too evident. "I fear for those who will bear witness to the next ninety years, if we continue living as we are doing at present" - David Attenborough, quoted again.

Backed up by studies and references, Sixty Harvests Left could have been offputtingly dense, so it's a tribute to Philip Lymbery's skill that he makes it compellingly readable. The title is taken from a stark warning given in 2014 by the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organisation that topsoil is being lost at such a rate that only 60 more harvests could remain, and both Lymbery and Monbiot stress the importance of soil structure and how its importance has been underestimated, the drive for increased productivity leading to overuse of fertiliser and the removal of trees and hedgerows. Lymbery's book illustrates this by opening with a vivid description of the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, immortalised in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Although the impoverishment of the soil caused by over-ploughing and the destruction of native vegetation proved devastating, we don't seem to have learned from it. More intensive farming, higher yields and bigger output have been the goal for so long that the cost to ecosystems has barely been questioned. 'So much of our societal thinking is based around the economy,' Lymbery writes: leaders seem to imagine that infinite growth on a finite planet is somehow possible.

Industrial scale animal farming produces cheap meat but at a high environmental cost. "Factory farming is a cruel and wasteful process ... Animals reared in this way eat vast quantities of grain and waste most of its value in its conversion to meat. In this way, we waste crops enough to feed an extra 4 billion people." Lymbery doesn't dwell here on the cruelties of intensive farming but clearly that's another factor. "Long-hidden behind a veil of closed-door secrecy, misleading labelling and opaque government handouts, factory farming will come to be seen as the cruellest folly of our times. Like the slave trade, we will wonder how we let it happen."

There's hope, though, if we're prepared to adapt. Like Monbiot, Philip Lymbery enlarges on the possibilities of precision fermenting, which is being developed to produce what looks and tastes increasingly like meat and can provide protein for a fraction of the environmental cost. Yes, we'll have to get past public squeamishness at the notion (illogical though it is to feel revulsion at fermented protein while happily consuming slaughterhouse products); but this will surely be an important way to feed future populations. It's one of several solutions we need, another being regenerative farming, or agro-ecology. Lymbery visits farmers for whom sustainable land management means reintroducing wildlife, re-establishing native vegetation and treating the soil as the precious resource it is. For such farmers as Jake Fiennes in Norfolk, the presence of grazing animals is important, though they aren't viewed primarily as a source of meat. Sheep on Fiennes' farm are seen mainly as tramplers of the soil, providers of dung and lawnmowers for conservation grazing. Nature can respond, if given a chance.

Sixty Harvests Left is structured around the seasons, beginning in summer and ending in spring, each section introduced by Lymbery's reflections and observations on rural walks with his dog Duke (he wrote the book during lockdown). It's inspiring as well as informative - I'd say a must-read for anyone concerned about nature, animals and the future of food. But do we, and especially policy-makers, care enough to listen, and make the necessary shifts in behaviour?

"At the heart of sustainable change lies a recognition that all life on our planet is interconnected, and that our future depends on treating it with compassion and respect."

Sixty Harvests Left is published by Bloomsbury.

See also: Wilding by Isabella Tree

The Garden of Vegan by Cleve West

George Monbiot's Regenesis: Feeding the World without Devouring the Planet  is published by Penguin.

Linda Newbery's This Book is Cruelty Free: Animals and Us is published by Farshore.

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