Philip Lymbery: Why factory farming is a wildlife disaster

The loss of such iconic species is a high price to pay for supermarket shelves stocked with cheap meat, writes Philip Lymbery, Compassion in World Farming's chief executive and author of Dead Zone

I have always been around animals. As a child, my mother and I kept bantam chickens and homing pigeons in the backyard. Even back then, I was fascinated with birds, their power of flight and sense of freedom. I loved watching them, seeing them flap their wings, peck at the ground – just doing what comes naturally. Soon, every spare moment was taken up with my thirst for knowledge about birds and other wildlife.

The moment that opened my eyes to the realities of intensive farming was when a speaker from Compassion in World Farming came to my school to do a talk. I remember seeing pictures of hens in battery cages so small they couldn’t stretch their wings. I was outraged, and I vowed to do something about it. Ten years later, I was working for Compassion (and am now chief executive).

The links between factory farming and wildlife decline are not immediately obvious. Indeed, it was a while before I grasped the full extent of the impact. The sight that really sparked me to dedicate a book to the issue came a few years ago, while I was visiting South Africa for the launch of my first book, Farmageddon.

African penguins are being driven to the edge of extinction, because we’re hoovering up their food from the sea

I was near Boulders Beach along the Cape Peninsula, where a colony of African penguins had recently set up home near to residential houses. A visitor centre there sold all kinds of penguin memorabilia. What struck me was a display board listing the ‘threats’ to the species, which included “reduction of penguin food supply by commercial fishing”. In other words, African penguins are being driven to the edge of extinction, because we’re hoovering up their food from the sea – and there’s little left for them to eat.

Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were by Philip Lymbery.

You might think this fish is ending up on our plates, but most of it is being ground down and fed to farm animals – caged and confined in factory farms. I found that African penguins in South Africa and Humboldt penguins in Peru have suffered serious declines in numbers.

That’s why I decided to dig beneath the surface and write Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were. I had to find out how many other cherished wildlife species were being impacted by factory farming. What I found was staggering.

In Sumatra, deforestation to make way for intensive palm plantations is destroying the last of the Sumatran elephant’s habitat. I discovered that large quantities of palm kernel, the edible nut from the trees, is being shipped out to feed intensively farmed cattle and other animals back in the EU.


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This boosts the profitability of the palm industry, encouraging further deforestation and more species-rich jungle to be cleared for sterile plantations. These remarkable creatures are down to their last 2,500 individuals.

In Brazil, it’s the relentless march of soya and ever-expanding industrial agriculture which is the culprit. Brazil is the world leader for soya exports. The once rich and varied rainforests are being destroyed, leaving little behind for the jaguar: no home, no food, no protection from land-owners who see them as pests. Today there are only around 15,000 jaguars left in the wild, and half of them are in Brazil – the fate of the species truly lies in the palm of its hand.

The loss of such iconic species is a high price indeed to pay for supermarket shelves stocked high with cheap meat – but species closer to home are suffering at the hands of factory farming too, such as the barn owl, the skylark or the bumblebee.

In the 50 years since factory farming was widely adopted, half the world’s wildlife has disappeared.

Factory farming sets off a cascade of devastating cruelty, with animals crowded in sheds and the creation of vast crop
prairies, which leads to the removal of many trees, bushes and hedges; and the loss of wildflowers, seeds, insects, birds, bees, bats and other wildlife.

Losing bees forever would entail a chain reaction of unimaginable scale

Ecosystems are like society’s life-support systems; without them, the environment that supports us stops functioning properly. For species like the bumblebee, their role is crucial: bees are one of the species responsible for pollinating a third of our crops worldwide. Losing them forever would entail a chain reaction of unimaginable scale.

It’s easy to clamour for increased food production to feed the growing population in an attempt to justify factory farming. But the truth is, factory farming wastes food, not makes food. We already produce enough food for twice the human population today, but most of it is wasted.

I believe that all animals deserve to feel the joy of living – the fresh air, sunlight on their backs and space to roam. What I’ve discovered through my travels for this book is that when animals are returned to the land in the right way, in mixed rotational farms, whole landscapes have the chance to spring to life.

Helping to revive a living countryside can be as easy as choosing to eat less and better meat, milk and eggs from pasture-fed, free-range or organic animals – with a cascade of positive benefits for the environment, wildlife, farm animals and us.

Philip Lymbery’s Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were (Bloomsbury, £12.99) is out now