Philip Lymbery | Factory Farming Threatening Our Planet
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Factory Farming Threatening Our Planet

Credit: luoman

Last week the BBC’s documentary Meat: A Threat to Our Planet included presenter Liz Bonnin hoisting herself up a rope into one of the heights of the Amazon rainforest to visit a harpy eagle chick in her nest. The view from the nest at the top of the tree revealed that almost all the surrounding forest had been cut down for cattle grazing. The consequence for the eagles was not just the loss of habitat but also the disappearance of the prey animals on which their survival depends. 

The magnificent Harpy Eagle | Credit: Thorsten Spoerlein

Today (4th December), World Wildlife Conservation Day, provides a focus for the many excellent organisations and campaigners working to end wildlife crimes, including trafficking in endangered species. The piles of skins, tusks, bones and scales resulting from seizures around the world are visible signs of the suffering endured by animals at human hands. But loss and degradation of habitat is perhaps the greatest danger facing wildlife species everywhere.

I witnessed the devastating consequences of habitat loss first-hand when I travelled to Brazil as part of my investigation into the role that factory farming plays in the threat of extinction for one of the biggest and most iconic cats, the jaguar.  Home to half of the world’s remaining jaguar population of 15,000, Brazil holds the fate of this beautiful big cat in the palm of its hand. 

When I thought of jaguars I had imagined them skulking through grassland or slinking through the dense vegetation of a tropical rainforest, but when my quest took me to a flat and featureless expanse of soya in Brazil’s agricultural heartland, I thought I was in the wrong place.

I had flown from Sᾰo Paulo to Goiânia in the country’s Midwest region, where I’d picked up a 4×4 hire car for the journey through mile upon mile of undulating cattle pasture. Travelling through the state of Goiás towards neighbouring Mato Grosso, the land finally flattened out into endless crop prairie.

Every now and then, a collection of skeletal towers would loom on the horizon as we passed a grain mill, and then more fields of soya. Signs on some of the fences every few hundred metres advertised the latest crop trial or GM invention that otherwise would be growing anonymously by the roadside.

When people think of deforestation, they tend to associate it with logging to make way for housing and crops for human consumption. In fact, the real driver is the farming of soya and corn on a huge industrial scale, much of it destined for factory farmed animals. Vast areas of the rainforest and savannah are turned over to these industries and Brazil is now second only to the USA in soya production and is the world’s leader in soya exports.

The headline-grabbing fires in the Amazon this year have destroyed even more millions of hectares of forest habitat. Panthera, the cat conservation organisation, estimates that 500 adult jaguars may now be either homeless or dead.

Factory farming drives declines in wildlife like jaguars

In all the time I spent in Brazil talking to others concerned for the plight of the big cat, I never once saw a wild jaguar. Once worshipped by the ancient Maya and other civilisations like the Aztec and Inca, jaguars are now considered vermin by farmers, who resent the loss of the occasional cow being reared for beef. As their habitats are razed, jaguars are being driven out and when they venture onto open land – for want of anywhere else to go – they are often shot on sight.

How many people imagine, when they eat factory-farmed meat, that their bargain-basement chicken nuggets and pork chops reach their plates via the felling of rainforest trees and the loss of iconic species?

How many people know that in the last 50 years, since the widespread adoption of factory farming, the total number of wild mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish worldwide has more than halved?

As you pause today, to think of the wildlife left on our planet, please also think of what you will do to help.  Please remember also that it is possible for us all to make a difference with the food on our plates. Eating more plants, less meat and milk and avoiding the produce of factory farms will help cut out farm animal cruelty and save iconic wildlife too. There is no greater signal we can send to the world at large than with a conscious change in our buying and eating regime.  Thank you as ever for all your support.