At 365 pages, Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat is a long book that says very little. The views expressed by the main author, Philip Lymbery, chief executive of campaign group Compassion in World Farming, will be familiar to anyone who has read any of a long list of books bemoaning modern farming and food production by the likes of John Humphrys, Raj Patel, Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blythman.
Farmageddon is a difficult book to read and to review. It is difficult to read because the author clearly fancies himself as a novelist and, as this is not a novel, it’s annoying to have to wade through pages of flowery language describing sunsets, birdsong and childhood reminiscences before any sort of point is made. It is difficult to review because, while it is a polemic against factory farming, it contains little in the way of actual argument. Lymbery describes at length the unforeseen problems caused by industrialised agriculture – fertiliser run-off, water contamination and air pollution, to name just three. But the fundamental point of the book is to express a sense of detachment from modern society, a longing for a simpler way of life, which Lymbery feels has been lost to corporate greed - a life before concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where everyone was happy, or at least happier, with their lot.
For Lymbery, the rot started in the UK with the passing of the 1947 Agriculture Act. In the US, the 1933 Farm Bill is the point where society apparently diverged from the path of righteousness. In both countries, where once mixed farms dotted the countryside, farming became an industry. Farmers specialised: one farm concentrated on dairy, another on beef, another on wheat, and so on. So what is Lymbery’s issue with this logical division of labour, designed to increase productivity and end postwar food rationing? The age-old natural cycle, where crops and animals would rotate to replenish the soil, was lost, he says. Chemicals were used to fertilise land instead.
The sentiment Lymbery wishes to convey is that nature is ‘out of balance’, that society has gone too far in the wrong direction. His premise is that we need to relearn traditional wisdom. His job in this book is to be the prophet that saves us from ourselves. His scripture is Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s 1960s tract on the perils of pesticides. Lymbery describes visiting Carson’s childhood home, though only, it seems, so he can walk to the top of the hill at the back of the house and witness man’s folly: a factory where once there were meadows. Like Carson, he is a romantic, in the sense of the nineteenth-century reaction against the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, as his prose confirms, he is no Mary Shelley.
Here’s a flavour: ‘Along with colleagues, I spent a lot of time amassing scientific evidence to prove what seems perfectly obvious to me: that hens and other farm animals… can experience pain, fear, pleasure and excitement much in the way that we do. As many as half a million people in Britain now keep hens in their garden, and I doubt many of them would question this. They can see that what happens to these complex creatures matters to them. They can see how much it means to them to feel dust under their feathers, the sun on their wings, the soil beneath their feet. I am certain this isn’t just sentimentality. People who keep chickens and other animals for pleasure, like our pet dogs and cats, often have an instinctive connection with their animals. I certainly don’t feel the need to be anthropomorphic – to project human feelings on to animals, hens or others… [but] I could see that each was an individual with her own personality. By winter we had four… Hetty, Henna, Honey and Hope.’ Despite his protestations, Lymbery reveals sentimentality in spades.