World Animal Day: Why Charles Darwin and St Francis of Assisi would have been fans of organic farming – Philip Lymbery

“The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man,” said Charles Darwin. Today is World Animal Day, a time to celebrate animals across the world, be they farmed, wild or companion animals.
Organic farms give animals like pigs the freedom to enjoy a more natural life (Picture: Michael Urban/AFP via Getty Images)Organic farms give animals like pigs the freedom to enjoy a more natural life (Picture: Michael Urban/AFP via Getty Images)
Organic farms give animals like pigs the freedom to enjoy a more natural life (Picture: Michael Urban/AFP via Getty Images)

This day has been celebrated since 1931, when it was chosen to reflect the day of Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, including animals, and the founder of the Catholic Franciscan order. Legend has it that Saint Francis was able to talk to animals which is why we so often see him depicted in their company in paintings.

It is said that he would often preach directly to animals. He even tamed a wolf. So it seems appropriate that we continue to recognise October 4 across the world, as a day for animals.

Originally founded by writer and animal protection activist, Heinrich Zimmerman, author of Mensch und Hund (Man and Dog), the original World Animal Day was held on March 24, 1925, in the Sports Palace in Berlin, Germany, where it was attended by some 5,000 people.

Organisers had planned on October 4, but the Sport Palace, the only venue large enough to hold the thousands of visitors, was not available on that day! Even the best plans can fall foul of simple logistics.

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The aims of the day are to increase awareness and education, stop cruelty and recognise animals as sentient beings, so full regard is paid to their welfare.

To my mind, it is tragic that, 96 years after its inception, World Animal Day still sees many animals treated with little compassion or respect.

Whilst there has been a shift to acknowledge animal sentience (the capacity for an animal to experience different feelings such as pain or pleasure), there are still many who dismiss this and others who either don't care or don't think about it.

Worms are key to healthy, fertile soil (Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)Worms are key to healthy, fertile soil (Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)
Worms are key to healthy, fertile soil (Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP via Getty Images)

Time and time again, we read about animals who are abused, cruelly treated and, worse still, killed for amusement and pleasure. Only recently, hunters in the Faroe Islands caused widespread outrage when they wiped out a super-pod of 1,428 dolphins, thought to be the worst bloodbath of the mammals in the islands’ history. Far more dolphins were killed than the islanders could eat and many of them were incinerated.

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However, it is also true that many who own a companion animal, often an integral part of a family, can also turn a blind eye to the plight of intensively farmed animals, which adorn the books of young children or happily feature on the wallpaper and as toys in children's nurseries.

Yet the world now rears and slaughters 80 billion farmed animals every year for food. An estimated two-thirds of them endure lives of misery on factory farms.

Vast numbers of farm animals are caged or crowded, where chickens cannot flap their wings, mother pigs are crated so they can’t turn around for weeks at a time, and cattle are taken out of fields and fed grain instead of grass. It's little known, or even considered, but it is the biggest form of animal cruelty on our planet.

Few also know of the impact of those food choices on nature. Take wildlife. I’ve lost count of the times we’ve talked in our bird group about how lapwings and other species have declined locally.

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Lapwings now have the dubious reputation of being the most rapidly declining bird species in Europe. I’ve lived on a farm for four years now without ever seeing a lapwing. Nor a hedgehog for that matter. Over Britain’s biggest habitat – farmland – wildlife losses have continued apace. Populations of farmland birds have, on average, more than halved since 1970, with skylarks, starlings and lapwings among the species that have suffered serious declines.

A big reason for these declines is the way we produce food.

Much of our food comes from industrial agriculture – factory farming – which has two sides. The first side is the most well-known: taking farmed animals out of fields and mixed agricultural rotations, and instead confining them inside, which looks like a space-saving idea, but actually isn’t. Keeping them confined requires scarce arable land elsewhere to be dedicated to growing their feed. This is usually done intensively: factory farming’s second side.

As fields get bigger for intensive arable production, so surrounding trees, bushes and hedges disappear, along with wildflowers. When they disappear, so too do the insects and the seeds; along with the bats, bees and bird species that depend on them. Even the worms disappear, along with soil fertility, leaving little else but the crop. Then that crop is fed to factory-farmed animals, where much of the food value is lost in conversion to meat, milk and eggs.

Far better to have a future-fit fusion of food, nature and animal welfare. To keep animals as nature intended, in nature-friendly farms where they can move freely and experience the joy of life, fertilising the land naturally. Mixed with crops that don’t need chemicals because nature-friendly farming uses natural predators and disease control instead of chemicals and drugs. Worms instead of wormless. Soils instead of dirt.

One such example, located in the Cairngorms National Park, is Lynbreck Croft, where two enterprising young women are living their dream to live closer to the land, grow their own food and raise their own animals in their own corner of Scotland.

They describe the animals and insects that live there as part of their team, with the belief that it is their duty to ensure the animals lead the best lives they can – to express their natural behaviours, to live a low-stress life and to have the food, water and shelter that they need. No wonder then, that Lynbreck Croft has already gained great acclaim for their work and a raft of awards.

On this World Animal Day, why not consider the impact of your diet and lifestyle on animals and wildlife? By choosing to eat organic and pasture-fed meat, dairy and eggs and more vegetables, we can all make a difference.

In this way, we can genuinely love food, save nature and have aspirational animal welfare whilst protecting the future for our children.

Now, what’s not to love?

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Philip Lymbery is global CEO of Compassion in World Farming and United Nations Champion of the Food Systems Summit. He is on Twitter @philip_ciwf

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