A Journey Back to Farming’s Future: Compassion in World Farming’s Extinction or Regeneration conference, May 2023, London
Watch Philip Lymbery’s speech here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JC0hUEV6r98&list=PL-7iZXkicZxe2SXhwXA0JaR3p64OBQXKH
On 11th and 12th May 2023 Compassion in World Farming (@ciwf) hosted the Extinction or Regeneration Conference in Westminster, London, the forerunner of which had taken place in 2017. Led by @ciwf’s global CEO Philip Lymbery there was a dizzying array of speakers. The incredible opening message from Dr Jane Goodall DBE made me feel quite weepy, others, whom I did not know, such as Chatham House’s Professor Tim Benton were superb in a different way; their precision of knowledge delivery was truly impressive. Yet, as the conference progressed, it became clear that while the diagnosis – the cause of the problem was shared – remedies and cures mirroring in part the differing cultural landscapes represented in the conference’s speaker line-up – could not be blind-eyed.
Thursday 14th May; in-person attendance – a common diagnosis
Owing to a train driver strike on 12th May I was only able to attend in person on the opening day, and the purpose of my short report is to provide an impression of what was a very powerful conference, organised loosely around these three reflections:
- The conference’s main theme;
- Which speakers particularly impressed me;
- Where was dissent apparent.
The conference’s main theme
I felt the backdrop to this event was Philip Lymbery’s masterful Sixty Harvests Left (2022), which documents how the world is going to hell in a handcart because of industrial agriculture. The double whammy of soil losses alongside human population growth and unsustainable consumption trajectories that will require a further 25 per cent of farmland – principally to be stolen from wild forests – presented a truly apocalyptic vision of the future by 2050. At every level, from habitat loses and species declines, climate anxiety, local community impoverishment and illegal migration pressures; all caused by Big Ag, Big Finance, the overconsumption of meat. Camouflaging this compelling truth is the ideology of ‘sustainable intensification,’ premised on the assumption that a growing human population requires us to grow more food. But as speaker after speaker emphasised, we already produce more than enough food, underpinned by a grotesque wastage not least in converting plants into ‘animal protein.’ Much of the conference presented different metrics supporting the same diagnosis and explored how to change the narrative, which would lead us to consume less meat, return production to small-scale farming, benefitting the farmers themselves and the environment, and producing healthier food for everyone. And many speakers also spoke of compassion, within which arc of moral concern animals were placed centre stage. But not all, and here is where the difficulty perhaps lay. Everyone concurred on what the problem was, but not all agreed on solutions. I felt some speakers wanted to say the remedy was veganism, but held back from saying so as the Conference aimed to reach an audience of policy makers and politicians, and if the V-word became too prominent, the very people Lymbery et al. want to influence would stop paying attention. How closely these people were listening anyway is a moot point. A stone’s throw from both houses of parliament, I didn’t spot an MP or peer on the attendee list.
The majority of speakers (alongside a smattering of industry representatives who added important perspectives) were either professors, best-selling authors or campaigners of international statue, headlined by Dame Joanna Lumley at the evening reception. I cannot do justice to the breadth and quality of contributions made, but will highlight some of my favourites. I will start with Dr Vandana Shiva; I hung on every word. What I managed to scribble down spoke of “extinction being designed by industrial agriculture,” “the militarisation of the mind,” the Big Ag input industry being led by a “poison cartel,” we have an “assumption of superiority, in which we are locked into an anthropocentric arrogance.” Dr Shiva would not honour processed food with the epithet food, as it is “anti-food.” We needed to stop thinking of ourselves as consumers and instead as members of the earth community, and to recognise all family members as sentient, including plants. This shift in attitude, would help us embrace a ‘new humility’ to put producers in their place, and as co-producers we would stop causing harm.
Perhaps less evocative, but no less compelling, was Melissa Leach CBE’s presentation about pandemics, and how what has been and is to come can all be associated with our appalling treatment of animals mostly via intensive rearing systems. I don’t want to forget Professor Rattan Lal, with his focus on soil (“without which, there is no life”), and his urging of “eco-intensification” in place of ‘sustainable intensification’ – soliciting the first cheer of the day. There was emeritus Professor John Webster, with his discussion about sentience (how can we discuss anything to do with animal agriculture without highlighting sentience!), then Jennifer Jacquet, whose presentation included the image of Captain Paul Watson sitting on the back of a harpooned whale calf in 1975, thus shifting the public mood against whaling. Later we heard from Professor Carl Safina, who represented one of the reasons for my attendance, having met him at the sister conference of 2017 and been spellbound by his book Beyond Words. He gave a fascinating lecture featuring his new book Becoming Wild, which focuses on culture emphasising yet again (as if needed) that human and nonhuman animals are more alike than some of us like to think, and that extinction has an important cultural dimension.
Routes to transformation
The latter half of the day had a different feeling, focusing on praxis not diagnosis. The indigenous scholar and activist Dr Lyla June presented her ‘kincentric approach,’ which enjoined us to consider the animals we prey on as relatives, “like our grandmother.” To show respect for our relatives we consume every part of the deer we had hunted, or allowed larger eels to live (to produce lots of little eels) in an example from Australia. There is little doubt that environments with indigenous stewardship are cared for significantly better than typical western anthropogenically shaped environments, but perhaps aspects of this ethos can be queried.1
Finally some farmers, beginning with Ruud Zanders, a Dutch poultry farmer, who cited Frans de Waal to suggest his chickens have feelings. Hot on his heels came Reginaldo Haslett-Marrogquin, founder of Tree-Range Farms, who claimed that his free-range approach would enable all of the whole world’s chicken farms to be accommodated within one and a half USA states, and that there was no need for us to reduce our chicken consumption (accompanied by some vigorous headshaking from fellow panellist Dr Pierre-Marie Aubert). So, the day started with Dr Jane representing the hopes of a life-long scientist and campaigner espousing a vegan diet, to a self-made businessman messaging that we could farm and eat as many chickens as we liked. I was disappointed not to be able to pose a question highlighting this contrast. But then, as we headed to the reception with Dame Joanna, I spotted Ruud Zanders behind me.
Seizing the moment: “Have you heard of Marc Bekoff and his colleague Jessica Pierce’s concept of the ‘knowledge translation gap,’ referring to their research that, following Darwin, there is not so much as a difference in degree between us and other animals, but no difference at all.” “No,” he said. I tried again. “Surely, if you believe chickens have feelings, we should not be killing and eating them.” It is odd how sometimes off-piste conversations reveal the most. “I don’t eat chicken or eggs,” he said, “I completely agree with you.” He must have seen the confusion on my face, and continued that we should reduce all farm animals to chickens, cows and pigs, and then after 10 years reduce our consumption of these too. “Telling people to go vegan, that would not work, but gradually reducing, that is the way.” If only Ruud had made this part of his presentation, or was he hoping to introduce veganism via stealth. But I valued his input and admired his integrity. Individuals, on the front line, trying to make a difference, are often overshadowed by lofty headline speakers – who people like me came to hear and rub shoulders with. But this conference did give voice to alternative views (even if I did not agree with them all), and platforms for rising stars who I felt would undoubtedly make their mark in years to come.
15th May; virtual attendance – transforming our health and diets
At home, starting to write up this report while watching the 2nd day virtually, two speakers in the penultimate session made stop typing. Dr Shireen Kassam and Isha Datar were both forces of nature, the former a medic working with cancer patients, telling us (I was so glad to hear this) that we don’t need to find improved ways of farming chickens and cows, because health reasons alone demonstrated through multiple indicators that a vegan diet was far better for a well, longer life. As a vegan of 10 years, she was a picture of glowing health, and was the session chair, Joyce D’Sliva, a vegan for a mere 48 years. Dr Kassam was followed by Isha Datar, of New Harvest, a not-for-profit cellular agriculture company. “If cows are the new coal, factory farms are the equivalent of coal mines, and we should be closing them down not opening new ones!” Both passionate, compelling and life-affirming performances.
The main part of the conference then concluded with a final manel, featuring earlier speakers including Dr Susan Chomba. Her closing remarks expressed relief that the conference was “cognisant of local differences,” by which she meant it was okay for some cultures to continue to consume our animal relatives. Some in the global south at 2022’s COP27 argued the case for continuing to burn coal and do we here have a similar case of special pleading to be allowed to continue to eat meat on cultural grounds and because meat consumption levels and animal rearing practices have very little impact on climate change compared to the Global North? This view too can be questioned.2
And then Lymbery’s final speech. But after two or three minutes suddenly he disappeared from my screen, and I failed to retrieve him. A frustrating aspect of virtual conferencing; missing the dénouement.
Saturday 13th May; back to my usual routine
“I’ll have a coffee with chocolate and a sausage roll please,” said the lady ahead of me in the queue at my local bakers, where I find myself most Saturday mornings buying our weekly loaf. There is usually a line-up waiting to buy processed meat products, and the juxtaposition between two heady and stimulating days and most people’s consumption habits could not have been more stark and dispiriting. But this is what Lymbery et al. are up against, and while some conference views jarred, the overwhelming task is to challenge this embedded culture of buying “anti-food” which causes such catastrophic harm. The severity of the challenge cannot be underestimated, and my quibbles about some views expressed at that moment seemed rather irrelevant, and yet…
Monday 15th May; is my enemy’s enemy really my friend?
Over the weekend I had decided one of my rescue sheep, a Wiltshire Horn called Prickle, was not able to share all of Professor John Webster’s five freedoms, and indeed, as barely eating over the weekend, probably none of them. I had to involve a vet as the final kindest thing I could do for her. Running a small farm animal sanctuary makes life quite complicated sometimes, but at the same time helps to see things very clearly. Aside from Lymbery’s incisive diagnosis, the messages from the conference that will live on for me came from Dr Vandana Shiva – who perhaps stole the show: “Compassion feeds the world; compassion heals the world; compassion sows the seeds of hope, compassion is not a means to an end but the purpose of life, we should give up anthropocentric arrogance for humble service.’’
Yet, how can these sentiments be reconciled with Dr Susan Chomba’s closing remarks in which she expressed her intentions to endorse the continued consumption of our animal relatives. And over and above this difficulty is the challenge of making politicians and policy-makers across the world take any notice at all. To my mind recognising different views could be construed as mixed messages, allowing a ‘business as usual’ agenda to make headway. To avoid this, I think clarity would be helpful, and compiling a position statement or article acknowledging but also quantifying and qualifying difference in order to hone in on the key message and campaigning platform would be invaluable. The Dutch chicken farmer, Ruud Zanders, or even Henry Dimbleby, another headline speaker, who argued that in 150 years we will look upon meat consumption as we today consider bullfighting, at least intimate directions of travel, both practically and morally.
But suggesting that some populations, wherever they are, can continue to consume animals at low levels, makes no sense to me, any more than some countries being allowed to continue burning coal. Nevertheless this is an issue involving many agents and vested interests, where complete accord was always unlikely, and until recently rarely spoken of at all. Navigating this complexity is clearly one of Philip Lymbery’s many strengths, and hats off not just for organising a wonderful conference, but for also galvanising a movement for change. Anything to dismantle industrial farming can only ever be for the good. An alliance of Big Ag’s foes, with all, or perhaps because of our differences, may be the only way to achieve this objective, upon which @ciwf’s Extinction or Regeneration Conference may prove to have been an important milestone.
1Dr June suggested that her people had lived in what is now known as the United States 23,000 years ago. But I think it is accepted that the arrival of the first nations in the Americas directly resulted in mass extinctions; (Bunzl, M., (2021), Thinking while Walking; Reflections on the Pacific Crest Trail, New York, Perry Street Press, p. 29) the later arrival of Europeans “wrecked destruction on the nature they found… [and] the nature that they found had already been destroyed once before.” (Bunzl, Op.cit, p. 28.). The stewardship of the prairies struck me as perhaps suppressing seral succession, and indeed western colonisation from the from the late 15th Century onwards, and the 90 per cent reduction in indigenous peoples, resulted in vegetation regrowing, or rewilding as we now might say, to the extent of slightly affecting the climate. So, indigenous stewardship may also represent anthropogenic reshaping, one not necessarily benign or natural as it was directed towards serving people’s needs.
2Dr Chomba’s argument ignores the impact on habitats through grazing. Clive Hambler and Susan Canney report that cattle reached East Africa only 3,000 years ago and that local vegetation did not ‘co-evolve’, but rather foraging harms native herbivores (Hambler, C., and Canney, S., (2013), Conservation, 2nd Ed, p. 54.), “must inevitably be in competition with, and at the expense of the species using the same food” (Hambler and Canney, Op.cit., p. 56) as well as lead to the persecution of predators such as the spearing in May 2023 of Amboseli National Park’s oldest lion, Loonkiito. Ultimately Dr Chomba’s argument, as with all animal consumption, boils down to creating a hierarchy of moral worth topped by humans (Heister, A., (2022), Beyond the North American Model of Wildlife Conservation. From lethal to compassionate conservation, Palgrave Macmillan, p. 30).