By Philip Lymbery with Isabel Oakeshott

Farmageddon is one of a number of recent investigations into the food industry. That an investigation is necessary into something as intimate and essential as the food we eat is news in itself. Revealing the “truth” behind our daily bread (and meat) is hard work for two reasons. In the first place, there’s a lot that the industry doesn’t want consumers to know: about the environmental impact of what they do, about how unhealthy their products are, and in particular how disgusting and cruel their treatment of animals is. Most industrial farms have security only a little less tight than that surrounding nuclear power facilities, and in some jurisdictions there are even “ag-gag” laws preventing journalists from reporting on such matters. But making the task of speaking out even harder is the fact that most people don’t want to know. The dark side of food is just another one of those deliberate blind spots of twenty-first century life: we know that something is wrong, and that the situation is only getting worse, but we’re also pretty sure there’s nothing we can do about it. Easier, if not best, to turn a blind eye.

As a result, while (perhaps more than ever) we are still what we eat, the dissociation is now nearly complete. There are occasional scandals that catch the public eye – horse meat in burgers in England, the abuse of dairy cattle in Canada, E. coli outbreaks here and there and everywhere – but as the authors of Farmageddon point out, such events only serve

to underline for many how little we know about our food: what’s in it and how it is produced. There are fears of a gulf in understanding about the food on our plate; more than a third of young adults in Britain don’t know that bacon comes from a pig, milk from a cow or eggs from a hen.

We might think of this as a sort of mental farmageddon, or farmicide: one where the reality of farming has been erased or mentally cleansed, in part by industry propaganda (the myth of Old Macdonald’s all-natural rural paradise), but mostly by sheer ignorance. An ignorance that all parties feel is bliss.

The problem, as with so many problems we face relating to the environment and the global economy, is that the current model is unsustainable. As industrial farming became a treadmill, producing “more and more with less and less, so often for diminishing rewards,” soil was exhausted, diversity diminished, natural systems broke down, and all the time the food got worse and worse (both in term of taste and nutritional value) while farms became mega-polluting torture centers.

If we open our eyes just a little it becomes clear that capitalism in our time is making less and less sense. Take, for example, the matter of disappearing bees. Bees, as everyone used to know, play an invaluable role in the pollination of fruit and vegetable crops. In recent years there have been numerous news reports of trucks overturning and spilling out clouds of these buzzing migrant workers. What’s going on? We need only look at the employment of bees in the production of a single (inessential) crop:

Every year, in late winter or early spring, some 3,000 trucks drive across the United States carrying around 40 billion bees to California’s Central Valley, which houses more than 60 million almond trees. The orchards cover around 240,000 hectares of land, stretching the best part of 600 kilometre and producing 80 per cent of the world’s almond crop – the largest pollination event in history. Buying in these services is costly: Californian growers now spend $250 million a year on bees. It is yet another sign of how nature’s support systems are breaking down in the wake of unsustainable farming techniques.

What will happen when nature’s support systems break down entirely is explained in the next paragraph where the authors describe what they are doing to deal with the same problem in China. There, work teams of villagers perform the task themselves, using pollination sticks made of chicken feathers and cigarette filters. “They climb the trees and dip their sticks into plastic bottles of pollen, then dab the pollen onto each individual blossom.”

Welcome to the twenty-first century.

The bottom line, which we are fast approaching, is that the current system of global food production is bad for everyone, and indeed pretty much every living thing on the planet. The good news is that we are nowhere near the Earth’s carrying capacity. The present system is actually horrendously inefficient and wasteful. As the authors report, “North America and Europe waste up to half their food – enough to satisfy the hunger of the world’s billion undernourished people between three and seven times over.”

The bad news is that there’s no profit in any of that. Furthermore, moving from industrial to local farming, and farming “as though tomorrow matters,” would be very difficult even if there were incentives in place to make it happen. So much irreversible damage has already been done we may never find our way back to the garden.

Review first published online June 30, 2014.

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