Patrick Holden portrait

Patrick Holden talk

Patrick Holden portraitOur final session is about looking to the future, and feeding the future is a key issue.

Patrick wants to discuss food, so as has already been said, we’re all in. Farming has become more and more intensive, industrial and unsustainable… and unfit for purpose. His credentials for speaking draws on his decision, with 5 other possibly naive young people 40 years ago, to go back to the land in west Wales. And they put their organic principles into action.

Although the commune didn’t last, the farm did. They have had a herd of Ayrshire cows, and grew carrots for Cranks Restaurant and latterly for supermarkets and wheat milled on the farm. Now his son is turning the Ayrshire milk into cheese on the farm. So Patrick has been able to watch the land over a long period of time.

He has come up with a set of unifying principles which can be applied across scale, continents and climate: soil, health, diversity, resilience, culture and economics.

  • Over time it is possible not only to maintain but to build soil fertility.
  • Re health: pests, parasites and diseases reveal to us our management deficiencies. Instead of treating the symptoms of disease, we should be investigating the causes of health.
  • Diversity: if we farm with the grain of nature, it should be possible for biodiversity to work in harmony with respectable yields. The modern conservation movement mistakenly tries to protect nature against agriculture, and will always lose because big agriculture is the stronger force.
  • Resilience is about being able to weather sudden shocks. One way is to minimise exposure to fossil fuels.
  • The social, spiritual and cultural dimension is really important, otherwise we won’t be able to persuade young people back to farming.
  • The rest of the talk is about economics…

Forty years ago, the Common Agricultural Policy subsidised all sorts of unsustainable practices. So Patrick got involved in writing up organic and sustainable principles. Very valuable, but organic still only makes up 5% of the total market, not enough to break through into the mainstream. Why? Because the polluter isn’t paying, and the right practice isn’t getting rewarded.

True cost accounting is what’s needed. He talked with his mum a few weeks ago about Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s failure to persuade people to buy better-reared but more expensive chickens. If all the hidden costs were factored into the equation, the cheap bird wouldn’t be cheap at all. His mum asked Patrick what was the real price of the cheap chicken… He didn’t know, but he is on the case, and is meeting soon with a group of experts to understand what all the externalities are, put a price on them, and work towards policy making the polluter pay.

What are we going to do in the meantime to tackle big agriculture not in the public interest? We should change our buying criteria for staple foods. Go into your supermarket (not too often!) and only buy your staple foods which are local, regional or at least national, and whose story of production is known and certified sustainable. It will be difficult, but don’t give up. Go to the customer services desk, and ask them to change their offering. And if they don’t, take your custom elsewhere. If everyone here changes their actions, then they will encourage others, become scaled up, and we will have taken a final step in creating a much more sustainable food system. Thank you.

More Information

Sustainable Food Trust

The Prince of Wales’ International Sustainability Unit

Foresight report into “The Future of Food and Farming”

Patrick’s Do Lecture on “Why local is the answer”