BOOK REVIEW

“Dead Zones: Where the Wild Things Were”

Portrait of Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming
Portrait of Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming. Photo © 2019, Thinking Animals United

This book might put you off your food. Certainly I have become more of a vegetarian since reading it. The thesis is that modern farming entails clearing forests in order to grow crops to feed animals and us. Highlights of the book are about soya and palm oil plantations where tropical forests are cleared – doing much damage to jaguars, birds and orangutans. It is not entirely about land-based farming, but also farming prawns and shrimps in the sea and using fishmeal to feed to battery chickens.

“My eyes have seen…”

Philip Lymbery tells us about his research on each endangered creature in one chapter. He has travelled to the country to investigate what is actually happening there and he relates it to farming practices in Western Europe and North America. The chapters are named after a creature – starting with elephants and going via birds (barn owls, jungle fowl, storks, peregrine and penguins) to marine iguana and shrimps. 

You may be interested to know that bumble bees are in trouble due to pesticides and other chemical fertilisers. Although not all crops are fertilised by insects, we would be in deep trouble to feed ourselves if we lost all our bees. Fortunately bumble bees are still common in our gardens in the UK, but not on farms.

Danger to wildlife

Now to the reasons why some animals are endangered. Elephants in Borneo and Sumatra suffer from deforestation for plantations of palm oil. Although the oil is used in so many products in the West, in this case it is the kernel that can be used to feed animals produced for meat. If we consumers were to choose to eat only grass fed animals, that would make a difference to deforestation. Elephants need the natural forests for their survival. However, we know more about palm oil plantations in other parts of Indonesia and the damage done to orangutans.


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Red Jungle fowl are the ancestors of the chickens and hens of today. They come from the forests and mangroves of eastern Asia and were domesticated in the Indus valley. Travellers took them and seafarers even took them to Easter Island. Mostly this chapter however tells you what you do not want to hear about intensive chicken farms all over the Western world.

There are many other books detailing this, but I was surprised to learn that four-fifths of the world’s chickens come from just three breeding companies. The New York Times observed, “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s Agribusiness.”

Deepwater dead zone

There is actually a real “Dead Zone” in the sea off New Orleans and Philip Lymbery went diving there. Not only does the Gulf of Mexico suffer from accidents like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, it also suffers from the runoff of fertilisers from farms into the rivers that drain into it. This is a problem for almost all countries where modern farms use artificial fertilisers. It is worse from the Mississippi river because of all the factories making the stuff.

There’s more!

There is too much of interest to the general public in this book to pick out more specific examples of wildlife death and destruction. It is the sheer scale of what is happening – particularly with soya being used so much to feed animals. This results in vast tracts of the Amazon rainforest being burnt and then used for soya crops.

What we don’t realise in the UK is that our animals are now being kept indoors and fed on stuff that is imported from other parts of the world. I realised this when I looked out of the window when travelling on Eurostar through Northern France where I saw only one field of cows grazing in the old-fashioned way.


“Dead Zones: Where the wild things were” by Philip Lymbery
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN-10: 1408868288
ISBN-13: 978-1408868287