Dead Zone: Where the Wild things were

Alan Thornett reviews Philip Lymbery’s important new book from Bloomsbury (2017)

Bloomsbury Publishers, who published Elizabeth Kolberts The Sixth Extinction in 2014 has published another important (and highly readable) book on the biodiversity crisis, this time by Philip Lumbery a bird watcher, nature lover, the chief executive of Compassion in World Farming. He is the author of a previous book on food production Farmageddon: the true cost of cheap meat published in January 2014. It is not written from a socialist perspective but is highly valuable nonetheless.

It is also a wide-ranging book. After detailed coverage of the fate of a series of individual species such as the bison, the Asian elephant, the water vole, the bumblebee, the barn owl, the nightingale, the white stork and the peregrine, it goes on to make a devastating critique of industrialised farming methods (the subject of Farmageddon) both from the point of view of the treatment of the animals themselves and its impact of the environment.

He also makes a powerful case at the global level. When looking at the dire situation of human beings on planet Earth today he draws on the powerful example of the rise and fall of the people of Easter Island in the southern Pacific Ocean—one of the most isolated places on earth—as an illustration of what happens when delicate eco-systems are upset by deforestation and rapacious farming. The early Polynesian settlers had found a plentiful environment on their arrival on the island that could sustain a good living for them. As the population grew, however, they felled trees that once covered the island in order to grow food. But when the last trees disappeared so did their means of fishing. The population continued to grow until they were left marooned and impoverished with wars breaking out between the clans.

Likewise, he says, life on Earth has thrived for billions of years. ‘Wonderfully diverse civilisations have evolved, powered by an abundance of natural riches. The world is now home to more than 7 billion people and a multitude of different plants and animals, all with their part to play in a complex web of life.’ In the ‘blink of an evolutionary eye’, however, ‘one particular species has gone from newcomer to the dominant force in shaping the planet: us. We now stand he says, at an ‘almighty crossroads’, a unique period of history during which the future of life on the planet will be decided.

We (human beings) can’t carry on as before, he argues. He notes that species are already disappearing at a rate 1,000 times faster than normal and that the total number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish has halved in the past 40 years. And what is the primary reason for all this destruction he argues is food production. About two thirds of the overall loss of wildlife, he says, is driven by food production. Almost half of the worlds useable land surface and most of its available fresh water is devoted to agriculture. He describes it this way:

‘Some 70 billion farm animals are reared for food every year, two thirds of them on factory farms where they chomp their way through food that could otherwise feed billions of hungry people. Indeed, the biggest single area of food waste today comes not from what we discard in the dustbin but from feeding human edible crops to industrially reared animals. Together they emit more greenhouse gases than all of the world’s planes, trains, and cars combined. Yet the global livestock population is expected to near enough double by 2025, further stepping up the pressure on a natural world in steep decline.’

Food production, he argues, has become just another industry churning out raw materials in a way that is presented an efficient but is in fact grossly wasteful. With abundant artificial fertilisers during the great depression corn production went into overdrive as cheaply produces grain was used as cattle feed. Today one third of the entire cereal harvest, and nearly all of the world’s soya, is devoted to feeding industrially reared animals. Lumbery also notes that the increasing use of antibiotics in livestock farming is also a problem and is seen by the World Health Organisation as a major factor in the rise of superbugs and the increasing resistance of bacteria to the anti-biotics available in our hospitals.

Dead zones

The most disturbing part of the book, although a comparatively short section of it, is that which is reflected in its title: dead zones. He particularly focuses on the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, which is the second biggest in the world. The link that Lymbery goes on to make between factory farming and dead zones in the oceans is a frightening one.

He points out that the number of dead zones around the world is doubling every decade. There are now more than 400 dead zones covering some 95,000 square miles. Most are found in temperate waters off the coast of the USA and Europe. Some are also brewing in the waters off China, Japan, Brazil, Australia and New Zealand. There are about 40 dead zones around the coast of the USA—the biggest in the world is in the Baltic.

The Gulf of Mexico dead zone emerges every year from February to October. Loss of oxygen creates a lifeless bottom layer of water that stretches from the shores of Louisiana to the upper Texan coast covering an area the size of Wales and as a result bottom dwelling animals with no escape —shrimps for example—are wiped out.

The generator of dead zones, Lymbery says, is clear: it is fertilizer. In terms of the Gulf zone, the culprit is fertilizer that is used to produces the vast grain crops of the American Mid-West—an area of intensive corn and soya production where large amounts of nitrogen is applied to the soil every year to produce grain mainly for meat production. Whilst 160 million tons of nitrogen is produced every year for agricultural purposes only a fraction of that which is spread on the fields ends up being absorbed by the crops—the rest ends up as run-off.

The run-off that feeds the Gulf dead zone is from the American Mid-West via the Mississippi river. The Mississippi drains land from more than 30 states, making it by far the biggest drainage system in North America. Nitrogen applied to the cornfields of the Mid-West makes it ways though the creeks and rivers, into the Mississippi itself and into the Gulf of Mexico created the dead zone—the more nitrogen applied to the crops to get a bigger yield the bigger the resulting dead zone.

Crucial tipping point

Lymbery argues that although the planet is remarkably resilient we are now reaching a tipping point in its ability to take any more punishment and that agriculture, which swallows up nearly a half of the planets useable land, two thirds of its fresh water and inflicts damage on the soil that is vital for the food we eat is playing a major role in this with a global population that is now over 7 billion.

He takes up the issue of the $42 billion palm oil industry in Malaysia and Indonesia in particular, which is set to triple by 2050, and it’s devastating effected on biodiversity through deforestation and then the vast mono-cultures it creates. When flying over some of the plantations, he says, it is hard to believe that the giant green carpets could be the source of so much harm:

Sadly, he says, such plantations: ‘made up of mile after mile of a single species of tree, supported by the usual barrage of herbicides and pesticides, creating a barren landscape. A single hectare of rainforest (an area equivalent to roughly two football pitches) can hold more species of tree than there are tree species in the whole of the UK. By contrast, palm plantations are just that—palm and more palm.’

As the human population rise, he argues, ‘so the quest intensifies for more land to cultivate. Right now, we are in no danger of running out of food (distribution problems not withstanding), but the environmental damage attached to the way we are choosing to produce it may be irreversible.

An area of cereal cropland the size of France and Italy combined will be needed by 2050 to keep pace with the demand for food. Up to a fifth of the worlds remaining forests, he argues, will be gone in the next three decades—much of it to grow crops for feeding animals for the meat trade:

‘Great swathes of extra cropland look set to join the chemical soaked arable monocultures of East Anglia in England. The seas of swaying corn in the Midwest of America soya in Brazil set fair to extend still further. There’ll be more fields of maize like the ones I saw in rural Asia… The encroachment of agriculture into the remaining wildlands, together with the onward march of industrial farming, will almost certainly cause irreversible damage to biodiversity, forests soil and water.’

He is cautious about giving an opinion on the rising human population of the planet, but he is clearly concerned. ‘To me’, he says, ‘the link is obvious. An extra billion people come with 10 billion extra farm animals, together with what that means in terms of land water and soil’.

Throughout human history, he goes: ‘for better or for worse, homo sapiens have outdone all comers, from the magnificent mammals like the bison that roamed the American plains in vast numbers, to birds like the passenger pigeons that once flocked in great grey rivers through the sky, and to species of fellow humans like the Neanderthals. Whatever has stood in our way, and more often just in our reach, we have erased it. Now we have met our match. The great irony is that our most fearsome competitor for food—livestock—has been put there by us.’

The book has mixed messages when it comes to solutions. At one point, he argues that enough food for 8 or 10 billion people could be produced without destroying the planet if the wastage in the food production and distribution system was cut out—which is indeed scandalous and massive, with over a third of all food produced being lost to wastage. His overall thesis, however, certainly in relation to meat production does not bear that out.

Nor does he urge people not to eat meat (which again is the logic of his overall thesis) or even to cut down on meat, only to eat meat that has been humanely reared—perhaps that reflects his job.

Despite these ambiguities, however, and the fact that is it not written within a socialist framework, this book—Dead Zone: Where the Wild things were—is a highly valuable contribution that deserves to be read by all those who are concerned about the dire situation facing the ecology of our planet.

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