Must humans eat meat, especially of an animal reared in factory farms? Well, these are not the best of times to ask or answer such questions in India. But once politics takes a backseat, humans in India—and elsewhere—will confront a rather disturbing reality: food enough to fill the stomach of over 400 crore people, which is more than half of the global population, is devoted to feeding factory-reared animals meant for human consumption. A competition is on between men and factory-reared animals for food, the impact of which can be disastrous. Philip Lymbery’s Dead Zone: Where The Wild Things Were doesn’t advocate absolute vegetarianism, but calls for an end to senseless factory farming that is at odds with mother nature. On one hand, farmers protest against dwindling returns and, on the other, millions go to bed hungry everyday. Both malnutrition and obesity are rising at a fast pace. Lymbery’s book is replete with such paradoxes. Today, one-third or more of the entire global cereal harvest, and nearly all of the world’s soya, is devoted to feeding industrially-reared animals, he says. “Access to sufficient food of sufficient quality is the real issue, not the dubious-quality food we can produce.
Yet, still policy-makers pursue the expansion of industrial farming, seemingly at any cost.” Nearly half of the world’s meat now comes from a factory instead of the traditional mixed farms. He cites more frightening statistics to support his claim. About two-thirds of the overall loss of wildlife is driven by food production. Nearly half the world’s usable land surface and much of the water used by humans is devoted to agriculture that is also meant to feed factory-reared animals. The total number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish has halved over the past 40 years. Roughly 70 billion animals are reared every year for human consumption, two-thirds of which are done on factory farms, where the animals chomp their way through food that would feed billions of humans.
“Indeed, the biggest single area of food waste today comes not from what we discard in dustbins, but from feeding human edible crops to industrially-reared animals. Together they emit more greenhouse gases than all of the world’s planes, trains and cars combined,” Lymbery claims. With global livestock population expected to nearly double by 2050, more pressure will be on a natural world already in steep decline. The USA, the book says, went into an overdrive in corn production with massive state support following the Great Depression in the 1930s. The cereals became so cheap that they were looked upon as little more than animal feed. Pastures were put to plough to produce more animal feed. Soon, such a style of factory farming found its way to Europe and began to replace traditional methods.
Many countries that received massive US support, aimed at rebuilding Europe after World War II, became the continent’s most intensive farming nations, including the UK, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Germany. “Meat became cheap but at what cost?” the book asks. Landscapes were swept away by carpets of uniform crops, while birds, bees and butterflies, along with the insects and plants they feed on, went into decline. “Laying hens ended up in battery cages, pigs in narrow crates or barren, crowded pens, while chickens were selectively bred and reared to grow so fast that their legs could barely support their outsized bodies,” Lymbery writes.
But flagging such pressing issues is just one part of the book. What is remarkable is the author’s personalised account of the devastation industrial agriculture has wrought on nature and other species. The author went on a global safari—from the rainforests of the Amazon to the palm plantations of Sumatra—to focus on a dozen species, including elephants, penguins, polar bears, jaguars and rhinos, which are on the verge of extinction. He feels it’s the race to produce cheap meat out of factory-reared animals that has driven these species, which have nothing to do with farming, to extinction. For instance, within just a single elephant generation, over a third of the natural habitat of the endangered Sumatran elephants in Indonesia is gone. Even orangutans and tigers there are being forced out of their abodes, which is being replaced with vast palm cultivation. All for the sake of producing edible oil and palm kernel meal for animal feed!
Some may call the book’s claims of danger to nature and wild animals exaggerated, and argue that factory farming is a necessary evil. After all, we need to feed a growing population with limited resources, they will say. The book, however, seems to suggest that the world has enough food to take care of everyone’s needs if only they can cut wastage. Animals, even those meant for human consumption, are not “biological machines to be churned out as quickly as possible, just another product on an assembly line”. Food and nature can, and should, go together, the book suggests. And when they do, food obviously tastes better. The book leaves one wondering about the arrogance of humans, who believe they own the planet and only they get to decide who deserves to exist and who doesn’t. Rabindranath Tagore’s observation perhaps sums it up the best: “Man is worse than an animal when he is an animal.”