Q & A with Sustainable Food Trust’s Patrick Holden

Q & A with Sustainable Food Trust’s Patrick Holden

The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) is an organization with a mission of working internationally to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems. The Trust is focused on three areas: collaboration, research, and communications.

One of The Trust's key aims is to make it easier for everyone to understand the key issues and challenges which are preventing the wider adoption of sustainable agriculture and food systems, because until more people understand these, there won't be enough pressure for change and development of potential solutions.

Food Tank was fortunate enough to interview Patrick Holden, Founder and Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. 

Food Tank (FT): Why and when did you found Sustainable Food Trust? How would you describe your organization and your programs?

Patrick Holden (PT): I'd like to say that the idea of a need for a new international organization with a mission to accelerate the transformation towards more sustainable food systems came to me as a blinding revelation in a dream, but that isn't actually quite the case! 

The true story is that over the several decades I've been working in the food movement, it has become more and more clear to me that all those who are striving to build healthier food and farming systems for the future are united by a common philosophy and some very simple principles. If you are a producer it doesn't matter whether you are a smallholder in Zimbabwe, a Welsh hill farmer like myself, or a large-scale grain producer in the Midwest; we all need to increase biological soil fertility, manage the precious natural capital of the earth including water, minerals and energy, obey the 'law of return' (which means the recycling of nutrients), mimic the biodiversity of natural ecosystems, and produce as much healthy food as is consistent with these principles on the parcel of earth over which we have temporary stewardship, however large or small.

It is exactly the same for citizens and consumers - we need new systems to produce sufficient healthy food to nourish everyone from local sources at affordable prices. Along side this, there was a parallel realization that we also share a set of common challenges, such as the tendency to work in silos, as evidenced by the separation between the Conservation and Food movements, when in fact the twin challenges of producing healthy food and protecting the natural environment should be seen as umbilically related. 

There was a growing consensus that we need to work in a new way, both to build sufficient public awareness about what is wrong with our present food systems and to promote understanding about what might be done to replace them in ways that would ensure the changes which we all want to see.

Arising from these insights, it seemed that there was a place for a new organization working catalytically to increase the degree of collaboration within the global food community. We see that need for new work in three areas: partnership building, supporting the development of appropriate research and policy initiatives, and communicating ideas and information about sustainable food systems to a much wider audience.

Luckily, there were a number of other individuals in positions of influence who agreed with all this and came together from all over the world in a series of meetings between 2010 and 2012, the result of which was the establishment of the SFT.

Although we are working internationally, we do not anticipate that the SFT will become a large organization, since there are many other NGOs and institutions out there already doing great work and there is no need to replicate their efforts.

Hopefully, through our interventions in our three key areas of work—collaboration, research, and communication—we can amplify the collective impact of the existing food movement, thus accelerating the changes we all agree are needed. 

FT: How would you describe True Cost Accounting?

PH: What many people don't realize is the degree to which the economics of our present food system are totally distorted. As a result, intensively produced food, the production of which is causing great damage to the environment and public health, appears cheap in grocery stores. Whereas sustainably produced, healthy food is sufficiently expensive to make it impossible for such products to form a central part of the diet of many consumers.

Somehow, we've come to accept all this as inevitable, but when you think about it, this really is a world of topsy-turvy economics where there is no business case for farmers to do the right thing in terms of protecting the environment and promoting public health. Instead, the farmers who make the most money will be those whose farming systems are 'mining' the planet's nonrenewable resources, destroying biodiversity, and seriously damaging public health. The reason for all this is not the fault of the farmers, it is because the so-called externalities, or the costs and benefits of different food production methods, are not factored into the equation.

So for example, a farmer who uses large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides does not have to pay for the damage caused so that his food appears cheap; whereas in reality, the farming system is incurring real costs to society by necessitating that water companies clean up the nitrates and the pesticides in the water, or more controversially, by causing doctors and hospitals to treat epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and cancer that have at least in part been caused by intensive farming.

The antidote to all this is True Cost Accounting, a project that the SFT is championing. This involves identifying, categorizing, quantifying, and putting a price on the range of costs and benefits arising from different production systems and developing various mechanisms through which we can ensure that in the future, polluters will pay and those that are producing healthy and sustainable food will be better rewarded financially than those whose food production systems are damaging the planet and undermining public health.

Undertaking this task will not be simple. It will take time to put a price on the various costs and benefits involved and will require the pressure of public opinion to persuade politicians to introduce corrective measures. An example of one such measure might be a tax on nitrogen fertilizer, which would act as a deterrent against this addictive but damaging substance upon which most of the world’s food producers currently depend.

FT: Why do you believe True Cost Accounting is important to creating a sustainable food system across the globe?

PH: The answer to that question is very simple: Mainstream farmers are never going to change towards sustainable food production unless there is a sound business proposition. At the moment, this simply isn't the case. Right now, if you farm more intensively, you will make more money, but if you farm more sustainably, as I do, you might need a day job to keep the system going!  So we have to improve the economic viability of sustainable agriculture if we want to see mainstream adoption of sustainable food systems.

FT: How would you describe the forum you held last year on True Cost Accounting? What came out of that discussion? 

PH: In 2013, we held two sessions on True Cost Accounting, the first in Kentucky in April and the second in December in London. Both events brought together an influential group of leading scientists, researchers, policymakers, NGOs, and foundations who have an interest in supporting sustainable agriculture, to discuss what actions would be necessary to correct all the economic distortions that I have described above.

As a direct consequence, there are now a number of very exciting initiatives afoot, one of which is a program led by an Indian economist called Pavan Sukhdev, a man who has already established an international reputation for his pioneering work in putting a price on nature and natural capital. After speaking at the London conference, he concluded that there was a need for this discipline to be applied to agriculture and food systems in such a way that there would eventually be a series of reports which would hopefully have the collective impact of the 'Stern' report increasing public awareness about climate change. This project would not have been initiated without the energy that was generated at the True Cost Accounting event in London.

FT: What, if any, trends have you seen in implementing True Cost Accounting either in Britain or globally?

PH: One exciting parallel example of how pricing can transform a market is the case study of renewable energy. In Europe, the German government introduced an incentive system called ‘feed-in tariffs’ whereby small-scale renewable energy generators received guaranteed premium prices for their electricity. Since the implementation of this program, there has been tremendous uptake in the installation of small-scale photovoltaic and other forms of renewable energy production. 

What we need is the equivalent of Feed-in Tariffs for food, and I believe that it is possible to create the conditions wherein this might happen. For instance, there is a lot of discussion about a sugar tax right now, which is an exact example of how you can introduce fiscal measures to discourage food systems that have a damaging impact on public health.

FT: How exactly does Sustainable Food Trust advocate for True Cost Accounting? What successes have you had on this or other issues?

PH: Our advocacy of True Cost Accounting will depend on gathering a body of good information and then implementing an effective communications plan. In doing so, our primary target audience will be the general public because it is only through public pressure from informed citizens that sustainable changes in policy can be effected. For instance, if there was a need for the introduction of a tax on Nitrogen Fertiliser, the level of which would be exactly related to the cost impacts of its use on damage to the environment and public health, we would firstly need to calculate these costs and secondly communicate this to the public, they could pressurise President Obama (who is probably already sympathetic to these arguments), to introduce the tax.