Sixty Harvests Left: How to reach a nature-friendly future
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, 2022, 359 Pages
Hardback: £25.00 | ISBN: 978-1-5266-1932-7
Review by Simon Leadbeater
Compare and contrast
The last book review I wrote for ECOS was Nick Hayes’s The Trespasser’s Companion, where I lamented that the author’s one or two good ideas were lost in a morass of incoherence, unevidenced assertions and invective aimed at people rather like me. I also confessed to being bound by the outlook of a small landowner. Here I also find myself confronted by a quandary influencing my take on Philip Lymbery’s book, but my overall judgement in this review could not be more different from the last one.
Sixty Harvests Left is a deeply impressive work, meticulously and authoritatively referenced with a golden coherent thread running from beginning to end. The book should be compulsory reading for government ministers and on the school curriculum. Hyperbole? Not so, for two reasons. First, food is and has always been a fundamental of human existence, yet, by and large, we give it not a second thought. But food is far more than just what we eat; its production and distribution have transformed the globe over millennia as nothing else has. Second, the food many of us take for granted, but also much of the shaping of the physical world around us, is predicated upon a violence integral to the food creation process, all mostly unseen and unspoken of. We are indebted to Philip Lymbery, therefore, for resolutely continuing the conversation, making us appreciate the consequences of that most quotidian of actions, what we put on our plates. For that service alone this is an invaluable publication with so much to admire, but what leaps from the book’s pages for me is Lymbery’s incessant drive, indefatigable curiosity which doesn’t ‘take no for an answer,’1 and his gift for boiling down complex issues into digestible assessments we can all understand. And what he is telling us is utterly compelling. Change is upon us whether we like it or not: “[d]o we change the way we farm, or do we let it change us.”2
My dilemma alluded to earlier, however, is that having been a vegetarian and more recently vegan for most of my life, how do I handle Lymbery’s core prescription – to return farm animals to the land – animals which are then killed for meat. Context matters. Lymbery sifts through complex evidentials. His outcoming diagnosis is stark and straightforward, but his solutions are nuanced and subtle, advocating a “profusion of possibilities” to transform our attitudes towards meat.3 I interpret both as a very welcome and indeed vital change in our direction of travel, which I also recognise may be a more expedient way of achieving real change than the position I myself espouse. The scale of the crisis is so immense, entrenched vested and opposing forces so powerful, if, as I believe, Lymbery’s approach is the best hope we have of effecting real change, then all of us should support him.
The unfolding crisis caused by ‘Big Ag’
Sixty Harvests Left (2022) is the last in a trilogy series beginning with Farmageddon (2014) followed by Dead Zone (2017). The book is divided into seasons, starting in Summer and aptly concluding with Spring. Highlighting the core components of a book, which combines a global perspective along with detail such as the background to forest losses in the Amazon, contrasted with examples of good practice hope spots4 from across the world, is in itself a challenge. I hope what follows conveys the tenor, range and quality of the book.
Lymbery starts (and ends) with the dust bowl of the mid-west of the 1920s (which associated with the Great Depression of 1929 created the conditions for factory farming), pointing out that something similar is taking place in eastern England today. Here, ‘fen blow’ is causing the loss of one inch of soil per year, meaning that we will run out of top soil in 50 years, meaning no food for a growing population from within the UK’s main breadbasket, meaning, extrapolated globally, only one fifth of farmland left in 60 years, or, worst case, all but 5 per cent gone.5 The origin of this problem is that “soil is commonly seen as… a growing medium rather than a living organism.”6 Why is this happening? Farmers have broken their contract with the land by replacing farm animals with chemicals, which while producing improved outputs initially, harvest yields have plateaued since the turn of the century.
This sets the scene for the rise of Big Ag, and the catastrophic consequences its domination has had for our climate, wild habitats and nature more broadly across the world. When Lymbery was growing up in the 1970s roast chicken on Sundays was a treat, whereas now meat has become an everyday meal,7 people eat nearly twice as much seafood as a century ago,8 and almost all this food comes from animals being incarcerated in windowless barns or fish lagoons. Lymbery discusses the frankly unspeakable welfare implications this has for the animals themselves, and the additional consequences of this food production system in terms of the destruction of nature and climate. I am not sure whether this was deliberate on the author’s part, but almost until the end of part 3, Winter, I found myself getting angrier and angrier. Learning about the correntao, a chain between two bulldozers ripping down the Amazon rainforest, was a difficult read, but rather than blame the Brazilians Lymbery makes it clear that “the cheap soya-fed meat on our supermarket shelves”9 is the real culprit leading to a sixth of the Amazon having already been lost.10 A ‘land-use cascade’ is at work, meaning the best trees are felled for timber, the rest burned, then the land is grazed. The real money, however, lies in soya, so ranchers routinely sell the land for crops and progressively steal more of the forest.11 Later we learn that 350 wild fish are required to produce one Scottish factory farmed salmon,12 that the demand for fishmeal, by destroying the local Gambian economy contributes to illegal migration,13 elsewhere is “causing seabirds to starve,”14 and is contributing to polar bears becoming practically extinct by the end of the century.15
Much of the human and animal suffering documented throughout the book is beyond decent contemplation. Lymbery effectively communicates what Big Ag means for the individuals and families whose lives are often swept pitilessly away, while cementing the connection between these individuals and the unfolding climate catastrophe caused by Big Ag. Food production is responsible for between 21 and 37 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), 78 per cent of which is from animal agriculture (more than all transport forms combined), due to increase by 87 per cent by the mid-century: “more people eating more meat from resource-intensive industrial agriculture makes for a hothouse planet” together with increasing the demand for cropland, and water by two thirds.16 Despite plant-based diets becoming normalised alongside a plethora of food innovations, meat and fish consumption is increasing overall.17 Based on current trends 1 billion additional people equates to 10 billion extra farm animals, and by 2050 it is projected that global farmland will need to increase by 25 per cent.18 As human-beings combined with our livestock now constitute 96 per cent of the world’s biomass, our wild kin comprising a paltry 4 per cent,19 a growing human population combined with current levels of meat consumption can only accelerate the rate of plant and animal extinctions. Lymbery weeps at the thought,20 as should we all.
This collision of converging crises requires a plurality of solutions…21
One, but not the only proposal advocated by Lymbery, is to restore farmers’ contract with the land by returning farm animals, alongside the re-introducion of rotation crops, and to definitely empty the factories of all imprisoned ‘livestock’. This is key to restoring the soil, the central leitmotiv reinforced throughout Lymbery’s book. Well cared for soil could produce 60 per cent more food22 while simultaneously off-setting between 10 and 20 per cent of all GHGs.23 After the ocean, soil is the most important sequester of carbon.24 This approach represents one of what Lymbery calls his three Rs. The second R is to eat less and better meat, thereby reducing meat consumption by half across the world (more in the EU and US); the third R is to restore nature by renaturing or rewilding, examples given being Holkham in Norfolk and Knepp in West Sussex.25 How might these three Rs come about? Clearly a change in global leadership is required, and Lymbery sees hopeful signs in Joe Biden assuming the US presidency, and the UK government’s apparent recognition that diets should contain less meat.26 For myself, I look forward to the range of innovations he explores, such as cultured meats, whose cost efficiencies will ultimately “cut the legs off factory farming,” which, after a reflective pause, will make us acknowledge as the “… cruellest folly of our time. Like the slave trade, we will wonder how we let it happen.”27
What I liked about Sixty Harvests Left
There are aspects of this book I especially appreciated. Lymbery’s personal vignettes of being back home with his dog Duke, evocative descriptions of nature, and bringing to life what this global crisis means for local areas, families, individuals, wild animals. His analyses of, for example, the horrors lurking behind such an innocent sounding product as parmesan cheese,28 were very revealing. Notably he demolishes the idea that industrial farming is required to produce more food for a growing population, as the world already produces twice as much food as the human population currently needs.29,30 He also debunks what superficially many will consider part of his plurality of solutions. He challenges the prospect of insect farming, based on a food conversion ratio whereby more resources are expended for food value, and on welfare grounds. Ants, for example, pass the mirror test,31 which, incidentally, Duke would fail. And he also points out that eating less beef does not necessarily entail improved welfare as 160 more animals die per cow (as an aside, Lymbery’s comprehensive index enabled me to find the page for this assessment straight away).32
Reading Lymbery’s book also mapped some important aspects and times in my own life. My wife comes from Norfolk, is very familiar with ‘fen blow’ and the Holm Fen stake sticking 4 metres proud of the surrounding shrinking peat is seared into the collective consciousness of East Anglians.33 I grew up near Rothamstead, the original home of agricultural-chemicals34 and even went to a school named after the founder, Sir John Lawes, Bt. I now find myself living a stone’s throw from where the author of Animal Machines (1964),35 the first book exposing factory farming, Ruth Harrison’s parents lived, and thus, I surmise, her residence if not birth place. And I even met Lymbery himself briefly at Compassion in World Farming and the WWF’s Extinction Conference,36 when I gate-crashed a conversation between him and the actor Peter Egan.
Books as weapons37
How did this book come to be written, and its two predecessors. Three decades ago Lymbery embarked on a journey to seek the truth about food and how we treat farm animals, “to get under the skin of industrial farming.”38 And now he has written a book engendering hope based on action. The basis for this action Lymbery makes clear. And he helpfully reminds us (which is not the same as being repetitive), as we need reminding again and again, that we need to eat more plants and less meat, resulting in a kinder world and climate change mitigation. This cannot be said too often. I earnestly hope this book proves mightier than the entrenched vested interests behind Big Ag combined with the indolent eating habits of the majority of us.
Reconciling Sixty Harvests Left with ethical veganism
As a vegan, do I believe animals should be used as a means to an end, that end being soil restoration? In one sense obviously not. In another, let us prioritise and examine the choices before us. Do I want to witness an ever warming world alongside further habitat destructions? No. Does Lymbery offer a range of solutions to address both these trends? Yes. Is his approach more likely to be accepted by governments and the wider population than an exhortation to veganism? Again yes. Lymbery repeatedly emphasises that farm animals are sentient, and values their welfare highly. I surmise the cruelty inherent in factory farming is what set him off on his quest to expose industrial animal agriculture for what it is, and to thereby end it, in the first place. I also, however, find reasons within Lymbery’s book to see him charting a trajectory ultimately eliminating the use of animals in agriculture. He quotes an XR farmer who openly says he does not like killing his buffalo,39 and offers the prospect that eventually “regenerative farming will move beyond farmed animals altogether.”40
Caring for the earth
Lymbery’s book concludes by emphasising that all life is interconnected, and that our future depends on treating this life with compassion and respect. If we adopt the range of measures and behavioural changes he advocates, 60 harvests will be transformed into “infinite sustainability.”41
In closing, there are two central messages I take from Lymbery’s superb book. First, in this review I cannot avoid repeatedly deploying the term ‘consequences.’ It seems to me that only immature people are oblivious to the link between actions and consequences (certainly I remember been chastised by frustrated parents along these lines). Should we not as a species finally grow up by waking up to the consequences of our individual and collective actions? Envisage food laid out in a straight line, in which a coalescence of different forms creates a continuum in terms of their impact on our health and that of our wider ecosystem. Arranged thus, it becomes clear that factory farmed food is at the poisonous tail-end of the spectrum, for us as individuals and simultaneously for our shared planet. It is well beyond time to change our eating habits towards the more medicinal side of the food spectrum, comprising mostly vegetables and fruit, whole grains, and so on, which naturally enough will be beneficial to us as individuals, families, communities, and for our global environment.
For my second message I would like to return to Lymbery’s insight early in his book, that soil is a living organism – or perhaps coalition of organisms – rather than merely a growing medium. Soil holds a quarter of the world’s biodiversity, is made up of, inter alia, 30 thousand worm species, 5 million types of fungi, 1 million species of bacteria, an elephant’s worth within 1 hectare of healthy soil.42 However, if, as notable mycologist Paul Stamets asserts, fungi are sentient43 and we know from Darwin44 that worms exhibit cognition (as admirably explained by Anja Heister,45 the author of the next book I am going to review), then at what point do we declare the soil itself to be sentient, or at the very least the teeming organisms, who are in practical terms inseparable from soil and for whom soil is their main home? Caring for soil in a fundamentally different way is not only imperative as one of the means to address the climate and biodiversity crises, but treating respectfully is emphatically the right thing too. This surely proves the universal rule; compassion towards all never harms, a principle Philip Lymbery has made us realise should emphatically be extended to the very earth beneath our feet.
1Lymbery, P., (2022), Sixty Harvests Left: how to reach a nature-friendly future, Bloomsbury, p. 108
2Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 282.
3Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 260.
4A term borrowed from Mission Blue(https://mission-blue.networkforgood.com)
5Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 46.
6Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 10.
7Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 198
8Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 124.
9Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 80.
11Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 76.
12Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 124.
13Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 126 – 7.
14Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 134.
15Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 96.
16Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 95.
17Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 239.
18Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 200.
19Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 199.
20Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 198.
21Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 270.
22Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 42.
23Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 102.
24Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 46.
25Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 272, 270.
26Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 281.
27Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 264.
28Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 85.
29Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 167.
30Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 114.
31Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 115.
32Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 239.
33Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 10.
34Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 43.
35Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 198.
36Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 235.
37Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 107.
38Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 156.
39Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 106.
40Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 266.
41Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 287.
42Lymbery, Op.cit., p. 283.
43Stamets, P., (2000), Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, Third Edition, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley
44Darwin, C., (1881), The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms,John Murray, London
45Heister, A., (2022), Beyond the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation: From Lethal to Compassionate Conservation, Palgrave Macmillan, Switzerland, p. 31.