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Seeking A Saner Food System, Three Times A Day

Not all cows get to spend their days with soft green grass under hoof. For many, the picture isn't so pretty, according to the book <em>Farmageddon</em>.
Justin Sullivan
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Not all cows get to spend their days with soft green grass under hoof. For many, the picture isn't so pretty, according to the book Farmageddon.

For Philip Lymbery, head of the U.K.-based Compassion in World Farming and his co-author Isabel Oakeshott, a visit to California's Central Valley amounted to an encounter with suffering.

In Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat, Lymbery and Oakeshott write that the mega-dairies of the Central Valley are "milk factories where animals are just machines that rapidly break down and are replaced." At one huge dairy they visited, cows stood idly outdoors, some in shade and some in the sun. No grass cushioned their feet and certainly none was available to eat since, like almost all factory-farm cows, the animals were maintained on an unnatural diet of crops such as corn. The stench in the air was "a nauseous reek."

This same scene was repeated "every couple of kilometres, all with several thousand cows surrounded by mud, corrugated iron and concrete."

The hurt in Central Valley extends beyond cows to humans.

The 1.75 million cows in California generate, according to Lymbery and Oakeshott, more fecal waste than the human population of the U.K. Most of the waste matter flows to lagoons near the farms. But some escapes into the air as gas and into the ground (and water supply) through seepage. Water and air pollution, linked in part to the mega-dairies, is an immense worry for residents of the Central Valley, where, the authors report, children have a rate of asthma nearly three times above the national average and adult life expectancies are lower by up to a decade than the national average.

Similar disastrous circumstances surround mega-piggeries and industrial chicken farms in the U.S. And when those animals are turned into meat, there's enormous wastage. The single saddest statistic I have read in the realm of animal welfare comes from Farmageddon: the amount of meat discarded globally each year is equivalent to 11.6 billion chickens or 270 million pigs or 59 million cattle.

Lymbery and Oakeshott's answer to "Well, what can we do?" hit home for me. Positive change is in our hands, they insist. In the U.K. where they live, the scale of industrial agriculture is not yet huge and, even in countries like the U.S. where it is huge, there's hope. They write:

"Easy" sounds too Pollyanna-ish to my ears, but I did love the mantra adopted in the book:

It's a simple yet powerful message: At every breakfast, lunch and dinner, we make food choices that move us either toward a saner food system or further away.

My review of Farmageddon, published last week in the Times Literary Supplement, was positive. Even so, I gave Lymbery and Oakeshott a bit of a hard time for avoiding the topic of vegetarianism.

No, I'm not suggesting that everyone become vegetarian (or vegan) or that people who don't are somehow morally inferior. Though I don't eat cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, lambs, goats or cephalopods like the octopus, I do eat fish on occasion and I have recently sampled insect cuisine (cricket cookies and grasshopper tacos). I'm no purist on this topic.

And I remember from last year Tania's "can't we all just get along?" post: none of us benefits by judging others' food habits (or worrying excessively that others are judging ours).

Still, in a book that tackles how we might eat smarter for the environment, for other animals, and for ourselves, I think it's too timid to stop at "eat less meat" and not discuss the "eat no meat" option.

And what about "eat no fish"? On this topic, Farmageddon has something thought-provoking to say, as I noted in my TLS review:

About my pescatarian diet, and the type of fish I choose now and again for lunch or dinner, I'm thinking twice.

And three times.


Barbara's most recent book on animals was released in paperback in April. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.
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