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Sir Patrick Holden: The true cost of cheap food? We have only 30 harvests left

Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, on the urgent need to rebuild our food and farming systems.

You need to look at the great sweep of history to understand where we are now. And for farming, you need to go back a century to when agricultural intensification became possible through various technical and scientific innovations. Most notable was the manufacturing of nitrogen fertiliser. It was originally just a by-product of producing explosives, but it was found to artificially stimulate plant growth.

Production accelerated, especially after the second world war when masses of explosive plants became redundant overnight. Now there was a new, highly profitable industry to feed. At the same time, governments were playing their part. In the case of the UK, the introduction of the 1947 Agricultural Act guaranteed prices for grain, dairy, and other products.

Those conditions together created a financial climate where producing much food as cheaply as possible using chemistry paid off. As a direct consequence, farming traditionally using crop rotation – which had maintained fertility, encouraged biodiversity and built up carbon stocks for the best part of 8,000 years – now paid less and all but ended.

All over the world, a series of changes were set in motion where food became commoditised, its production based on the artificial stimulation of growth. This included the livestock industry, where animals went into sheds and onto high-protein grains. All this intensification caused disease, but we found a way to suppress it—herbicides and fungicides for crops and antibiotics for animals. But we forgot that diseases are a symptom of imbalanced nutrition.

The infuriating thing is that we already knew this. Albert Howard, the British agricultural scientist, was sent to India in 1905 to teach the Indians how to adopt western methods. But he had the humility to realise that he had nothing to teach them. He said we should regard pests, diseases and parasites as “Professors of Agriculture” and a sign of poor husbandry. They reveal to us our management deficiencies. But we ignored it, instead developing the art of chemical suppression with poison. And these are poisons. The clue is in the name – anti-bio.

Fast forward seventy years, and today, we have a race to the bottom. Commodity crops are sold at eye-wateringly cheap prices, bought up by supermarkets and food companies in their own race to the bottom too. They are desperate to satisfy their shareholders and customers, who they think want cheap food. They buy as cheaply as possible and process the hell out of it to add value. Now everyone is a commodity slave, and 95% of our food is produced unsustainably.

Those farming in a way that damages public health or the environment must pay the cost of the damage

Climate change, biodiversity loss, food insecurity and ecosystem collapse is the new threat born out of this situation. More and more people are realising that unless we switch the whole of our farming systems to sustainable methods, we’re not going to have a liveable planet. That changes the whole discussion.

For most of my farming career, we’ve been trying to build our niche organic market. But we need a bigger discussion on a bigger stage to create an economic and policy environment where all farming moves to sustainable and regenerative food production. We need to create the conditions where that is possible. Right now, it’s not.

Farmers may have become philosophically aligned with the principles of sustainability. But when they try to farm that way, they either have to have a niche market or get another day job. So most farmers don’t switch, and there remains a series of barriers preventing mainstream farming from going ecological or regenerative.

And what are those barriers? First, we’ve got to make sustainable farming and food production pay. Furthermore, those farming in a way that damages public health or the environment must pay the cost of the damage. That hasn’t happened – ever. The polluter hasn’t paid, and the subsidies have been misdirected. Could it happen? Yes, of course! But only if the policymakers consider it in their best interests to do that.

Politicians will always ask how things play out with the electorate to ensure they are re-elected. So, if they apply the polluter pays principle, or redirect the subsidies to sustainable farming, is that of any interest to the electorate? Right now, the conclusion is that cheap food rules, despite the fact we know we only have 30 years of harvests left.

After Covid-19, that may change. People have thought long and hard about the story behind their food and have suspected that the quality of the food they eat isn’t very good. That’s why so many people have bought vegetable seeds, and local food production has thrived. Online direct sales between farmers and customers have grown. Stuff is going on below the radar of the big supermarkets that is very interesting and disruptive in a positive way. But we can only break through into the mainstream if politicians decide to do two things; apply the polluter pays principle and redirect subsidies.

The most critical barrier of all is to have an informed public. Not just a few people or the obvious people but the mainstream public. If they’re not informed, change won’t happen. In addition to creating a sustainable agriculture framework for politicians to adopt, we also need to have a way of getting these messages out to mainstream public opinion. That needs to be targeted communication campaigns, and we really need to work on that front.

The big hope is that the climate change agenda could massively influence sustainable food. People are realising that a third of emissions are down to food and agriculture. If you reward farmers for being carbon stewards, that’s a game changer. The Welsh government are currently designing a policy package which will be a support scheme for regenerative agriculture. If that happens, it will be the first government in the world to do that. So, we can be a little bit optimistic.

All farming intervenes with ecosystems. Human-come-lately has had a massive effect on the pristine wilderness of planet earth. We have destroyed most of the rainforests, and way before that, we changed the environment of the UK from a pastural, forested place to being mainly agriculture.

There is a big debate between land sparing and land sharing. We could intensively produce food in a very chemical but very sustainable and protected way, using only a small amount of land and restoring the rest to nature. Or we could adopt regenerative and sustainable methods on all farmland, reverting the decline in carbon stocks, reversing the collapse of biodiversity, cutting out the use of poisons and artificial stimulus, and still producing enough food to feed people. It’s the question of our time.

When you crop a field with grain or vegetables, you mine the soil carbon. But if you switch all farming to regenerative, both for livestock and crops, you could not only stop the release of carbon but turn the soil into a carbon bank again. I am personally convinced that if we had a global switch to good regenerative farming including crop production, we would all but solve climate change.

People have got used to cheap food, all food, all the time from anywhere.

We need to eat in alignment with the productive capacity of the sustainable farming systems in the region where we live. We at the Sustainable Food Trust are working out what that means. First, we map the UK agricultural farm systems and categorise the farm types. Then we apply the application of sustainable and regenerative farming to work out the capacity of each farm. Once you have the output, you add it up across the country and divide it by the number of people. Therein lies the diet consistent with applying sustainable farming practices for that region or country.

We are publishing our report this year to give some guidance to people, and that includes the capacity to eat meat. We’re not ethically opposed to vegetarianism or veganism, but we don’t think a totally non-meat diet is the answer and is practically applicable. It’s about eating in alignment with what our farmers are producing. That’s sensible.

People have got used to cheap food, all food, all the time from anywhere. We do need to think globally, but we need to act locally. We used to. But all that local infrastructure for delivering local produce to the local community has gone. Today, if you go into any supermarket, you will find just about all of the food is produced on some commodity slavery farm. Produce will go through a centralised abattoir or processing plant, onto a single-pack house, onto a centralised distribution system, and out to the supermarkets.

It’s not wrong that one carrot grower pays better than 20 or 100 across the country. But our economic system is dishonest and doesn’t reflect externalised costs such as the environment, social deprivation or public health. When the full cycle is considered (true cost accounting), it doesn’t pay. In the absence of the polluter paying, everyone is bearing that responsibility.

When I look at where we are, I think of Yeat’s poem The Second Coming. “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last”. I think we are about to enter a great shift. Health emergencies are a great concentrator of the mind. We’ve had a big shock to the system with Covid-19. Probably the biggest in 100 years. It has made us rethink everything and ask questions.

The preconditions are there to bring about this massive shift. We can all make it happen because we all spend money on food. If we start to ask who produced our food, whether it is near where we live, or if it is sustainable, then we’re forging that path forward. Even if we applied that to just 25% of our food, that is huge. We could put supermarkets that don’t care for the environment, our farmers or our futures out of business. They know that.

We shouldn’t rule out the possibility that there could be a rapid rethink to improve our food and farming systems. Our actions collectively scaled up can produce massive change. I think that’s a hopeful message.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity - 9th July 2020


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