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“Farmers are trapped by the economics. We eat their food, so if we want them to change, we have to change”

Categories: Features

Patrick Holden, an organic dairy farmer and founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, on why our food system needs to change if irreversible climate change, a biodiversity catastrophe and the breakdown of civil society are to be avoided

Interview: Ellie Costigan
Images: Orlando Gili / Steph French

Patrick Holden is the founder of the Sustainable Food Trust, a charitable organisation that strives for a better food and farming system, for people and planet. A self-proclaimed hippy, when Patrick set up his west Wales community farm in 1973, he wrote the rules on organic dairy farming. Alongside his internationally influential advocacy work, Patrick continues to produce exceptional cheeses (one of which, the cheddar-like and utterly delicious Hafod, can be found at Neal’s Yard Dairy) from the milk of his Ayrshire herd.

You’re known for promoting a more ‘sustainable’ food system. What do you mean by that?
It’s the food system we all need if we’re going to avoid irreversible climate change, biodiversity catastrophe, a breakdown of civil society, and all the other things we’re scared about these days. The pre-requisite for a stable and civil society is a secure and relatively local supply of food. We want to produce food in a way that protects and preserves our human capital. Also, the food we produce needs to be of high nutritional quality, otherwise we’ll continue to have the problems we’re experiencing in the National Health Service—it would currently be more accurately called the National Diseases Treatment Service, because it’s picking up the bill for deficient agriculture. To do that, we need a return to farming systems that build soil fertility through crop rotation. You need the cycle, because that’s the way to build soil. That’s the way all the soils of the world have been built, through this kind of practice—either managed by nature or managed by us.

What changed?
During the second world war, we made explosives using a process of fixing atmospheric nitrogen, called the Haber-Bosch process. Once the war was over, we didn’t need explosives anymore—but we could use the same process to make nitrogen fertiliser, which became widely available. Farmers realised if they put it on the fields, they could avoid the need for crop rotation—not realising that the traditional method was not just providing nitrogen, but also providing carbon, which is vital for soil quality and fertility. Our wonderful UK soils are carbon rich—or were carbon rich, before the agricultural revolution. Unfortunately, we’ve been mining the accumulated fertility of generations. Now we need to put it back.

Many people are advocating a move toward more plant-based diets. Is that the right way to go?
A lot of young people in particular are turning to vegetarianism or veganism and there’s a big campaign now to eat less meat, but better, and move to a plant-based diet. A lot of young people are responding to that, thinking that it’s the most responsible way to eat in a world of climate change. In fact, what we need to do, in my opinion, is differentiate between livestock that are part of the problem—feedlot beef, intensively reared chickens and pigs, intensive dairy—and support the livestock and products that come from systems that are part of the solution. Without a healthy, buoyant market for grass-fed beef and lamb, dairy, pastured chickens and pigs, the farmers that need to rebuild their soil can’t do that.

Right now, the market for beef is on the floor and farmers are going out of business. It should be remembered that 71 per cent of the United Kingdom’s farmed area is grass—so my message to the vegetarians and vegans is, try to align your future diets to what we could actually produce from this nation if we farmed in a sustainable way. If you recognise that, then you need to differentiate between livestock that you shouldn’t eat, and livestock that you should—that is, if you’re not ethically opposed—and feel good about it. Methane emissions do come from ruminant animals, beef or lamb, but the soil carbon gain has the potential to more than offset that.

Patrick Holden

The narrative surrounding the nutritional merits of meat has fluctuated over the past few decades. What’s driven that?
It’s fascinating. The trend away from fatty meat towards lean meat and away from butter and dairy fat towards margarine goes back to the 1980s, when the government published a report which basically said that animal fats and sugar are bad for you. A journalist called Geoffrey Cannon got hold of this report and wrote a big headline story in The Sunday Times. The food industry was upset about this, especially the sugar industry, which embarrassed the government, so they commissioned another report from the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food and Nutrition Policy. It was published a year later, and it focussed purely on the fact that animal fats are bad for you. It turned out that many of the people on the board had interests in the sugar industry. It was a brilliant plot to deflect away from the damage that sugar is doing to public health and put it all on meat. The rest is history. The whole of the modern British diet was shaped by a report that was dominated by vested interests. Now there’s evidence emerging that even saturated fats from animals aren’t necessarily bad for us. The whole thing has turned.

Have those myths about health influenced the general shift toward plant-based diets?
There are conspiracy theorists that think the turn towards veganism and vegetarianism is backed by vested interests—I’m not that much of a cynic. I think it’s simpler than that. I think young people are, quite rightly, angry about the industrialisation of food and farming. They hate intensive factory farms. The younger generation are mobilised by their power as citizens to bring about change by their actions. But in reacting as they have, they’re throwing out the grass-fed ruminant baby with the bathwater of industrial feedlot beef and intensive chickens. I think there is a learning curve here.

Between the turn of the 20th century and today, we’ve switched our dietary fats from 80 per cent animal and 20 per cent plants, to the other way around. If you look at where those dietary fats come from, it’s palm oil, soya oil—which is genetically modified and causing a huge amount of soil erosion in South America—and crops like almonds, which everybody thinks are very good, but if you go to California, you’ll find that it’s a disaster, in terms of desertification. We need to think very carefully about where all our food comes from, not just meat.

What do you think is the main obstacle to transitioning to a more sustainable food system?
That’s the question: how does change happen? I think it happens through a combination of external circumstances. A problem emerges, it gets to a critical point where people begin to realise something’s wrong, and that creates a degree of fear—what will happen if we don’t change? People in a leadership position think, yes, we do need to change, and then policy makers start to work out how we can. But they won’t do that unless there’s pressure from the public. I think right now the pre-conditions exist: there is growing awareness that agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to climate change, and unless we change our food systems, we won’t have a planet fit to live on—and that’s really the truth. I think we’re near a tipping point. I’ve been involved with advocacy for more sustainable food systems since the 1970s; it’s only now I feel that change is happening. A lot of young people, millennials, feel there’s a shift at hand. I think that’s really positive. But I think the shift needs to be grounded in a better understanding of what the issues are.

Do markets have a role in reconnecting consumers with farmers?
At the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference, we had a session on plastics. A guy called Phil Haughton, who runs Better Food in Bristol, put his hand up and said: “I can’t help feeling that getting plastics out of our food packaging is treating the symptom, not the cause. The cause is the move away from farmers’ markets and a direct relationship with our fresh food, toward wrapping it all in plastic and shipping it great distances.” I think he’s right to a large extent. The renaissance of the farmers’ market movement is a fabulous expression of that, and long may it continue to grow and prosper, because it’s needed. Not least, it gives farmers an opportunity to cut out a couple of links in the profit chain and sell at affordable prices, to people who they actually meet, which is a brilliant thing. Even certification is not needed if you know your farmer. The Americans had a scheme during the Obama administration, called Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food—a wonderful motto for markets. As the great food journalist Eric Schlosser said, the thing about the way most food is produced these days is, if you knew the story behind it, you wouldn’t want to eat it. That’s the truth. Which is scary. It’s such a powerful thing to think about. We need to know more about the story behind our food and when we do, we need to still want to eat it.

Patrick Holden on his Welsh farm

You’re first and foremost a farmer: how did you come to be engaged with the more political side of food?
I grew up in and around London. I used to go on holidays to do with farming, so I had these glimpses of nature. Then my dad moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a visiting professorship. When I was about 20, I went out there, drank the Kool-Aid, came back and decided I wanted to get back to the land and live self-sufficiently. A group of us moved to Wales, that was in 1973, and set up a community farm—it’s still there. That was how I got involved in farming. We established the dairy herd—bought some Ayrshire cows from Scotland—started milking them and have carried on ever since.

As soon as we started farming, we knew we wanted to do so in a sustainable way, and that meant organic farming. We just did it out of instinct, really. Then we wrote some standards, because there weren’t any. I wrote the world’s first draft of the organic dairy standards. A group of us got involved with the Soil Association Livestock Standards Commission. It became clear that an organic market was starting to develop and there were lots of farmers interested, so I became more and more involved and eventually started working for the Soil Association. I worked my way up the Social Association and headed it up for 15 years. That took me through to 2010, when I left to set up the Sustainable Food Trust.

What prompted the move?
The Soil Association is an incredible organisation and its founder, Lady Eve Balfour, was an amazing woman, a visionary. But, in some ways, it is misunderstood, in my opinion. A lot of people now have a negative view about organic food—that it’s elitist and you have to be rich to afford it—but that’s not really the Soil Association’s fault. The real reason behind that is, the polluters are not paying. If you want to buy proper food, sustainable food, you have to pay more, because the apparently cheap food isn’t really cheap at all, it’s produced using methods that degrade the environment and cause pollution. It’s destroying the balance sheet of nature. I thought, well actually, if we’re going to save the planet, we need to be more inclusive—change the economic policy framework in which all farmers have to operate, so that all farmers can move towards more sustainable methods. That was a major influence on my decision to set up the Sustainable Food Trust. It’s not operating at odds with the Soil Association, it’s just got a more inclusive agenda.

A big question that’s often raised is whether sustainable farming practices can be economically viable for both farmer and consumer. Do you see a time where these things will go hand in hand?
These things can work in harmony. Many thousands of farmers all over the world would prefer to do what they probably know in their hearts is the right thing. If we can shift the economic conditions, whereby farming in a more sustainable way and producing healthy food pays nearly as well, or even as well, as what they’re doing at the moment, they’ll shift. Who wouldn’t want to farm in harmony with nature? To preserve biodiversity, look after animals as best we possibly can, and promote public health? The only reason why farmers are not doing those things is they’re trapped by the economics and the policy environment into a race to the bottom on price. We are the people who eat their food, so if we want them to change, we have to change. We have to realign our diets. We need to be discerning about which livestock products we eat and once we’ve understood that, we need to eat them. We won’t keep the farmers who are wanting to return to mixed farming in business unless we eat their food.

We spend about 10 per cent of our disposable income on food—it used to be around 30 per cent back in the seventies. I know we have legitimate, big expenses, but actually we could afford to spend more on food. Besides, we’re paying in hidden ways for the so-called cheap food: we’re paying with our health, our water bills, we’re paying in climate change, and we’re passing on that damage to future generations. We must do this. We have to know more, and we have to use that knowledge to shop in the right way—Borough Market, farmers’ markets, finding ways of supporting producers directly, that is absolutely the way forward. We are causing irreparable damage to the planet: we need to use our food buying power to support producers who are not causing it. It’s an incredibly empowering thing to do as a citizen; to use your money to support a more sustainable food future.