Books

Book Review: Philip Lymbery’s ‘Sixty Harvests Left’ Lays Bare Farming Crisis, Makes Case For Soil Conservation

Traditionally, animals ate grass and farm waste, which humans could not eat, and produced milk and meat, which humans could eat. Now, industrial agriculture has upturned the ages-old human contract with nature. Philip Lymbery’s ‘Sixty Harvests Left’ is the story of this breakdown and how to solve it.

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The world is facing an uphill battle against the climate crises. The temperatures are rising, extreme weather events are common, and glaciers are melting. Amid all these crises, one crisis often gets forgotten: the soil degradation. 

Soil is so commonplace that we barely acknowledge its vitality. In naturalist and author Philip Lymbery’s words, we treat soil like dirt. The vital resource —the source of almost all food— is mistaken as being inexhaustible. Shattering the myth, UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Deputy Director General Maria-Helena Semedo said in 2019 that the top layer of the soil could be lost in 60 years. The grim forecast became the inspiration for Philip’s latest book’s title: Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach A Nature-Friendly Future.

Philip’s book is a critique of modern agriculture industry and human consumption. For around 10,000 years, humans farmed the Earth harmoniously. Then, things changed around a century ago.

“For millennia, farming has worked in harmony with nature. But just one lifetime ago, things took a different course with the emergence of industrial agriculture. In reducing sentient creatures to the role of animal machines, we threw away our moral compass, disregarded the importance of farming with nature and tore up our 10,000-year-old contract with the soil,” writes Lymbery. 

Sixty Harvests Left addresses two major issues: One, humans quit the ‘natural’ way of farming with multiple crops and brought in monocultures with chemical fertilisers to damage the natural ecosystem. Two, humans removed animals from farms. For thousands of years, the cattle droppings enriched the soil, worms in the soil nourished it, and crop-rotation gave the soil time to recover. That’s not the case anymore. From the United States to across the pond in the United Kingdom and Brazil, monocultures are the norm now. Animals are now farmed indoors in factories —thus the term ‘factory farm’— and are ‘produced’ like a ‘product’. 

Philip uses a mix of statistics and anecdotal accounts from a lifetime in the British countryside and work as a campaigner the world over to make a case for rewilding of farms, improving meat production and consumption, and respecting soil. Consider these statistics that Philip unearths: 73 per cent of the world’s antibiotics are for farmed animals, animal production comprises 78 per cent of all emissions, and beef and chicken from factory-farmed animals have two-times more saturated fat than pasture-fed —natural— animals. 

In 17 chapters divided in four parts, Philip walks us through the monocultures in the United States and Brazil, the factory farms in Europe and China, and the fish-farms in Africa. But Sixty Harvests Left is not an alarmist monologue. There are inspiring stories of farmers —even industrialists— who are farming in harmony with nature. From the Shropshire family in the UK to Will Harris in the USA, Philip shares stories of farmers and companies switching to regenerative farming. Hope is the underlying theme of the book. 

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Philip Lymbery's 'Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach A Nature-Friendly Future'

In Part 1, Philip lays down the foundation of the book. Some of the questions the book addresses are grounded here: Why should we care about animals and farms? Why should factory-farming of animals be checked? What are the consequences of treating soil like dirt? The book starts with a chilling account of “a wall of dust 200 miles wide and thousands of feet high” battering Boise City in Oklahoma. The description might read like a scene from a dystopian novel set in the distant future, but it happened in the Great Plains of the United States in 1935. It happened because settlers and farmers in the region killed all the bison that roamed the plains, uprooted the native vegetation, and planted wheat that could not hold the soil. The result was the Dust Bowl Era.

In Parts 2 and 3, Philip takes us through the Po Valley, Italy, the Amazon rainforests (or whatever remains of it), the factory-farms in China, fish farms in Africa, and monocultures in the United States. One theme —the central idea of Philip’s book— that emerges is the breakdown of natural cycle. Philip argues in painstaking detail and brings up science to drive what should be common sense: animals should feed on nature and humans should eat farmed products and nature-fed animal products.

Consider the following food cycle in the industrial-farming framework: Farmers clear large tracts of land in Brazil to grow soya and farmers in the USA or UK devote hundreds of acres for just a single crop like maize. In the USA, Europe, and China, animals like cattle, pigs, and chickens are fed this soya and corn. They are kept in cramped ‘feedlots’ and they never see sunlight and grass and don’t have freedom to move. To prevent disease outbreaks in such poor conditions, they are given loads of antibiotics — 73 per cent of all antibiotics. Philip argues that this system has upturned the human contract with nature. 

Traditionally, writes Philip, animals ate what humans could not —grass, farm waste, etc.— and produced what humans could eat, such as meat and milk. Now, animals are eating crops that humans could eat directly. 

To be sure, Philip is not against consuming meat. Far from it, he is an advocate of consuming meat thoughtfully. Sixty Harvests Left drives across a simple point: produce responsibly and eat responsibly as nothing is inexhaustible. 

Part 4 of the book is completely about hope. It looks at scientific innovations like cultured meat, biomass fermentation, and vertical and underground farming, which seem futuristic but are very much there today and are being finetuned everyday. Though not a scientist, Philip breaks down the complex science of these food technologies like physicist Michio Kaku breaks down space and rocket science. 

While Sixty Harvests Left is a book about the ills of modern farming, it’s also part-biography and Philip’s anecdotes from the British countryside and his scenic recollection of its flora and fauna are a reminder of what we have as a race lost in just one lifetime. But hope remains the underlying theme of the book and Philip drives the point that not everything is lost. 

When Philip at the beginning of spring sees migratory ospreys fly above his home, he writes, “I could scarcely believe it: here, for the first time above my home, was a bird long associated in my mind with landscapes restored to life. I was elated. That moment instilled in me an excitement, a renewed optimism at the prospect of a spring rebirth, where the world around me might be restored to its former glory.”

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By the time you complete Sixty Harvests Left, you would be aware of how endangered the soil —the source of almost all food— is and what we can do about it. Philip writes that you can make a change three times a day as our food consumption is directly linked to our treatment of soil.

“I have come to learn that we can all act three times a day in the meals we eat. Choosing to eat more plants and less but better meat, milk, and eggs can help unlock a healthier diet, reduce animal cruelty and head off the worst excesses of climate change,” writes Philip

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