‘Farmageddon’ 10 years on & you won’t believe what’s happened

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Credit: Philip J Lymbery

Emergency approval for a bee-harming pesticide by the UK Government has once again sent shock waves through the countryside. Permission to use the banned neonicotinoid in England for the fourth year in a row is seen by environmentalists as a “deathblow” for wildlife

Sadly, I’ve seen for myself the havoc that widespread pesticide use can wreak. 

A decade ago, I was in California standing amongst never-ending rows of almond trees. It was the latest leg on a global quest to find out what’s going on in food, farming, and the countryside. I was on a mission to see what was really going on behind commonly used food labels like ‘fresh’, ‘farm fresh’, or ‘country fresh’.

I remember how the lines of trees were perfectly straight and lifeless. I never heard the chirp of a bird or the buzz of a bee. Instead, I’d hear helicopters and vehicles spraying pesticides on adjacent crops. It was part of an incessant spray fest that had done for the wild bees. 

The result was that 40 billion bees had to be brought into the state every year by thousands of trucks to do what nature could no longer do: pollinate the crops. 

I took to the air in a small plane to get a bird’s-eye view of the wider scale of intensive farming. The sheer scale of this vast agricultural patchwork quilt was eye-popping. There were huge continuous fields of crops, no hedgerows in between. 

Every now and then, I saw what looked like a vicious scar on the landscape. These were mega-dairies, each with up to 12,000 cows in each dusty paddock, not a blade of grass in sight. This is what was being touted as the future of farming in Britain. I was aghast. To me, it looked far more like a nightmare vision of ‘farmageddon.’

At first glance, the connection with farming in Scotland or the green pastures of England may not be obvious. Yet chemical pesticides are very much part of the armoury used in the war against nature in our countryside. 

Much animal farming here too is just as intensive, but often tucked away from public gaze. Chickens, pigs, and cows confined in crowded barns. 

The impact on the environment, the quality of our food, and animal welfare was published in my book of that journey behind the scenes of global agriculture: Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat.

Cattle grazing on pasture | Credit: Philip Lymbery

Ten years on, things are starting to change. 

Yes, there are set-backs like the reapproval of the bee-harming pesticide. But there are signs of things changing for the better. There is now greater awareness that better food comes from nature-friendly farming practices. Live animal exports from Britain are on their way to being banned. There is a groundswell of interest in regenerative farming in harmony with nature. Only last month, government leaders at UN climate talks recognised that the way we produce food has a big impact on global warming.

We can all be part of that change by eating more plant-based foods and choosing meat and dairy from better, more animal welfare and planet-friendly farming practices like pasture-fed, free range, or organic.

Note: A version of this article was first published in The Scotsman on Friday 26th January, 2024

Main Image: Most dairy cows in Italy are housed permanently | Credit: CIWF

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