Maria-Helena Semedo of the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said in 2019 that Earth’s top layer of soil could be lost in the next 60 years. She added that it takes 1,000 years for the formation of 3 centimetres of top soil and the Earth is losing 30 football fields of soil every minute. The maths is not in favour of humanity.
Taking cue from Semedo's warning, naturalist and farm- and animal-welfare advocate Philip Lymbery began working on the book Sixty Harvests Left: How to Reach a Nature-Friendly Future. In an interview with Madhur Sharma of Outlook, he says the industrial farming and usage of chemicals and fertilisers in the past 100 years have done what thousands of years of human activities could not do — drive our soil to a condition where it could be useless in a lifetime.
Philip argues that Earth does not lack natural food. In fact, he says we produce around two-times the food we need, but we waste it in ways one would not normally think about. He highlights that we grow grains and soya that we feed to millions of animals in caged farms. This way, forests are being wiped out to feed farm animals —not humans— which are then eaten by humans.
When asked about the solutions, Philip says international bodies like the UN, governments, people, and the civil society need to act together to save our soil. After all, nothing less than the future of the next generation is at stakes. Edited excerpts:
For thousands of years, farming sustained humans without much issues. Then within a few centuries, mostly in the past 100 years, we arrived at a stage where it's now feared the soil might be left unsustainable in our children's lifetime if not in ours. How did it happen? Is it the population burden over-exhausting the soil or is the industrial greed that's pushing the soil to its brink?
For millennia, farming worked in harmony with nature. However, one human lifetime ago, things changed dramatically: farming became dominated by industrial agriculture — factory farming. Farmed animals were separated from the land and were put into darkened sheds where they were caged, crammed, and confined. Crops started to be grown in monocultures using artificial fertilisers and chemical pesticides. Nature was swept away.
Half a century on and we are starting to realise how that shift has serious unintended consequences. Now the future depends on us making peace with nature. Soils are now ebbing away so fast that they could be useless or gone in a lifetime. According to the UN, if we carry on as we are, there could be just 60 harvests left in the world’s soils. And then what? No soil, no food, game over.
While there is so much talk about global warming, we don't hear much about soil — an equally important aspect of our lives. Why do you think soil-related issues that you highlight are so under-discussed generally compared to other environmental challenges so often discussed?
It seems to take a worryingly long time for policymakers to genuinely recognise and embrace environmental issues. There have been warnings about climate change for decades but things are only now starting to be taken seriously. If we take a similar long time getting to grips with disappearing soils, then it will be too late. Action is needed fast.
A common argument —not necessarily a scientific one— in favour of industrial meat production, such as beef production in Brazil, is that naturally farmed crops like vegetables, fruits, grains, etc. can no longer sustain the current human population. How do you look at this argument?
There is plenty of food in the world — we produce twice as much food every year as is needed. However, so much is wasted, not least by feeding human-edible crops —largely grains and soya— to factory-farmed animals who then waste most of the food content in conversion to industrially produced meat, milk, and eggs.
Vast acreages of precious arable land have to be devoted to growing feed for confined farmed animals. Globally, 40 per cent of our entire grain harvest is fed to industrially reared animals. If fed directly to people, it could sustain an extra four billion of us. Yet, as animal ‘feed’, much of the food value is lost, in terms of both calories and protein.
The bottom line is that factory farming, including feedlot beef production, does not make food, it wastes it.
Your critique of industrial animal farming can also be understood by some as an argument favouring a vegetarian lifestyle. How do you address this? Do you suggest people to give up a portion of their meat-based diet for long-term sustainability and, if possible, become vegetarians?
As consumers, we can take action on our plate three times a day by choosing to eat more plants, less and better meat, milk and eggs from nature-friendly sources such as pasture-fed, free range or organic.
Industrial animal farming also poses the risk of disease outbreaks with pandemic potential, as you note in your book Sixty Harvests Left. Do you believe the industrial farming poses the single-biggest threat —or one of the biggest threats— to our survival since not just it threatens to kill our soil but it also has a pandemic potential? Please elaborate your position on this.
Industrial farming is a huge threat to a sustainable future. Industrial agriculture is a major driver of soil degradation, deforestation, and declining wildlife. It is the biggest cause of animal cruelty on the planet, and, more recently, it has become recognised as a serious pandemic risk too — factory farms create the perfect breeding ground for new and dangerous strains of disease. Think of the swine flu and now the highly pathogenic strain of bird flu that is currently decimating wildlife, whether with feathers, flippers or four legs. Even humans have succumbed. And scientists warn that we are just mutations away from Avian Influenza becoming as infectious amongst humans as seasonal flu.
Without tackling industrial agriculture and moving to regenerative and nature-friendly farming, efforts to tackle crisis issues, such as climate change, the collapse of nature, and future food security, will ultimately fail. The future for all of us depends on ending factory farming.
How do you look at some government initiatives that seek to address crop diversity or promote better farming practices? For example, the Government of India is promoting millets globally at a time when continuous production of a small number of crops, such as wheat, is stressing the soil and reducing the food diversity. Do you believe such state interventions can help address the issues of soil and crops facing us?
I very much welcome government initiatives to diversify farming and move away from industrial monocultures or the caging and confinement of animals. These are essential for a viable future. I very much believe that governments need to create the right policy environments for change, using directives, incentives, and subsidies to steer food and farming away from cages and confinement toward this new animal and nature-friendly era.
Thank you so much for your time, Mr Philip. Before we sign off, I want to ask about the solutions. What do you believe would be a better approach to address the issues you highlight — a social movement to make people aware and pursue a change in industrial practices or state interventions where laws and policies are advocated favouring good agricultural practices? Please elaborate your position.
Great question! The answer lies in all of us playing our part — governments, businesses, the financial sector, the UN, and civil society, working in partnership to transform the food system.
It lies in governments creating policy environments for change. The opportunities for greening food production are enormous. Take subsidies. Globally, governments provide $700 billion a year in farm subsidies, more than $1 million per minute, much of which currently drives industrial farming, the climate crisis, and destruction of wildlife. That money could be far better spent redirecting it toward regenerative farming and reducing demand for meat.
The answer lies in food companies setting measurable targets for the reduction of animal-sourced foods, shunning those from the factory farm altogether. Cage-free commitments are a key prerequisite to humane and sustainable food. It lies in the financial sector ensuring that funding is only available to support the transition toward welfare-friendly and nature-positive practices.
Greening food production and managing demand for animal-sourced foods are crucial for meeting the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda. Leadership is therefore needed at the highest level through an overarching UN global agreement to transform food systems. Such an agreement should recognise food’s central role in the success of existing conventions, not least on climate and biodiversity. One that moves agriculture away from factory farming and sees animal welfare as an essential element of sustainable food systems and thereby a future for all.
In short, we need to seize the moment to move urgently and decisively toward a global agreement to end factory farming. To reset our food system toward farming with nature, not against her. For all our sakes, for millennia to come. Of one thing we can be certain — the future for our children depends on it.