The future of our food depends on small farmers and well cared-for livestock

| 19th October 2016
Well cared-for animals are crucial to food security and sustainable farming systems around the world. Photo: Paul Woods via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Well cared-for animals are crucial to food security and sustainable farming systems around the world. Photo: Paul Woods via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
Abusive farming of animals in factory farms is one of the great cruelties of the modern age, writes Philip Lymbery. While some may justify it as necessary to 'feed the world', it is no such thing. The answer lies in supporting small scale traditional farmers, and respecting the livestock that are intrinsic to sustainable agriculture across the planet.
Treating animals with respect and caring for their welfare is the ultimate key to truly sustainable agriculture. As the UN debates global food security, getting animals out of cruel, intensive systems, and back on the land, must be a primary goal.

Despite living in the 21st century, a staggering 1.4 billion people across the globe go hungry every day.

So perhaps it is no wonder that some clamor for more food to be produced, for food production to be intensified. After all, who could argue with feeding the world?

Each year, the UN holds a plenary on World Food Security - and it's taking place inRome, Italy, right now, uniting stakeholders and experts to discuss how we can develop food policies that  work for everyone, and ensure that no one goes hungry.

A side event at the plenary this year is being hosted by Compassion in World Farming and Brooke to discuss the role of livestock in sustainable agriculture. And the message we are bringing to the table is simple: livestock play a crucial role in providing food security.

This role, however, is wildly different from the one that many would have them play - crammed into filthy sheds, dosed with antibiotics, fed on pesticide-laden GM foods - even when healthy, bred to produce ever-increasing yields. In short enduring lives barely worth living.

Inefficient and cruel food production

Two thirds of farm animals worldwide are reared in these intensive systems, often living in cramped and stressful conditions. Their lives are typically spent in barren pens, crates or cages which prevent them from expressing natural behaviours such as nesting or foraging. These systems rely heavily on vast quantities of grain to use as feed.

The production of grain for animal feed creates desolate, pesticide-soaked landscapes and the large quantities of manure produced from animals crammed into intensive units can lead to polluted water courses. Biodiversity loss across the globe has reached critical levels.

Despite already producing sufficient food globally to feed the current population and more, most is wasted by feeding crops to animals. For every 100 food calories of edible crops fed to livestock, we get back just 30 calories in the form of meat and dairy - a 70% loss. In short, people are being forced to compete with farm animals for food. But we don't need to produce more food - we just need to produce it differently.

Factory farming is not just bad for farm animals, it also negatively impacts human health. It has been shown that eating too much meat, especially processed meat, can cause cancer.

The overuse of antibiotics in farming is fuelling the global antibiotic-resistance crisis. Factory farmed animals are regularly given antibiotics in their feed or water because of the higher risk of disease when large numbers of animals are kept in inhumane, overcrowded conditions. Soon, we could be unable to treat fatal diseases with life-saving drugs.

Fixing our broken food system

Many rural communities in developing countries depend on their small-scale, mixed farms to produce food. Grain and soya-based intensification of livestock production does no favours to impoverished rural communities. On the contrary, this intensification only serves to benefit large companies which profit from outcompeting small-scale farmers, and destroys local communities' livelihoods.

When shaping policies that determine the future of food, we should support sustainable agriculture and help to advance traditional farming systems that are already in place - not scrap them to build factory farms instead.

Small-scale farmers work the land in long-established ways - many using working horses, donkeys and mules to help produce food. These working animals are just as important as farm animals to rural livelihoods and we must safeguard their welfare too.

While on the surface, factory farming may present the impression of being able to feed the world, it's clearly not the cut and press solution that many profess it to be. We urgently need to fix our broken food system. If we don't change the way we produce food and treat farm animals now, the ability of future generations to feed themselves will be at risk.

It's time to replace factory farming with extensive methods and get animals back on the land where they belong. Animals reared in agro-ecological, land-based farming systems, such as mixed rotational farming, provide food in ways that are better for the environment, and animal welfare whist safeguarding future food supplies.

Mixed farming: the way forward

On pasture, animals are truly resource-efficient, as they convert inedible material into food that we can eat and use land that is generally not suitable for other forms of food production. In integrated crop and livestock systems where animals are fed on crop residues, and their manure fertilises the land, rather than being a pollutant.

Mixed farming can be restorative, instead of destroying the environment and the resources on which our future ability to produce food depends. Crop residues are recycled by being fed to animals instead of being burned or allowed to decompose and convert into greenhouse gases. The use of manure reduces the need for fertilisers and causes less water pollution.

In some areas which are completely unsuitable for other forms of food production, extensive grazing of animals can help retain carbon in the soil as well as helping to maintain landscape character and biodiversity - while also producing food.

Removing the stress caused by overcrowding, excessive group sizes and the inability to perform natural behaviours is key to fighting the global antibiotic crisis. Sustainable farming systems develop good animal health without the need for preventative uses of antibiotics - building good veterinary health by strengthening animals' immunity.

Treating animals with respect and caring for their welfare can therefore provide us with the ultimate key to achieving truly sustainable agriculture. As the UN meets to debate global food security, getting animals out of cruel, intensive systems, and back on the land where they belong, must be a primary goal.

This is the first vital step on the path towards a more sustainable future for our food.



Philip Lymbery is Chief Executive of leading international farm animal welfare organisation, Compassion in World Farming and a prominent commentator on the effects of industrial farming.

Books: Philip is author of Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat, published by Bloomsbury in 2014 and written with Sunday Times political editor, Isabel Oakeshott. The Evening Standard called it an "unusually punchy and fast-paced" enviro-shocker, while The Independent said it was an "unforgettable indictment of the new hyper-industrialised agriculture originating in the USA."

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