Patrick Holden is a biodynamic agriculturalist serving as the founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust. He is a member of the Steering Committee for the new, groundbreaking Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) report on how to evaluate agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental dimensions across the value chain.
Founding chairman of British Organic Farmers, Holden helped establish a mixed community farm in Wales in 1973, and worked for the Soil Association developing organic standards and markets. Holden was awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) and is a Patron of the UK Biodynamic Association.
Holden sat down with Food Tank to discuss organic food systems and predatory pricing schemes in industrial agriculture.
Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEBAgriFood?
Patrick Holden (PH): The most significant is the absence of a unified system of measuring and valuing sustainability in agriculture and food systems and the pressing need for that to be addressed.
FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?
PH: To me, the most significant unintended consequence is the failure to put a value or price on the negative impacts of the current industrial farming model practiced by most food producers around the world. Food that causes damage to public health is more profitable for producers and appears more affordable for consumers than food which is preserving natural capital and promoting public health. This creates a dishonest pricing scheme and perpetuates farming systems which destroy our planet and cause a catastrophic impact on public health. That’s all unintended, but it’s happening.
FT: How can we sustainably produce enough food for a growing global population?
PH: We must produce food while preserving and building natural capital. That is our responsibility for the planet. I have 45 years of experience in sustainable farming using minimum amounts of non-renewable inputs, the result of which has been steadily increasing yields as well as rich biodiversity co-existing with the food production system. Drawing from my own experience, it’s only one farm but it represents the system of food production which could replace the present one. If we scaled and applied that to other issues, such as reducing food waste and realigning our diet with local food, I’m confident we could feed the population in a sustainable manner. However, that is a long way from where we currently stand. We waste up to 50 percent of food and our diets are wholly incompatible with the productive capacity of local food systems. But, I believe change is achievable and this change has the decisive advantage that there’s no realistic alternative.
FT: How will the TEEBAgriFood report affect the organic movement?
PH: TEEB and other organizations are using methods to measure and value sustainability to provide valuable information to policymakers who can alter the economic environment. This helps ensure sustainable food producers are profitable and sustainably produced foods are affordable. Organic farming could undergo a significant expansion to the point where organic farmers and principles become mainstream if the food becomes affordable to a larger population.
FT: How will the report be useful to farmers and consumers?
PH: It needs to be written in language that is accessible to normal citizens and not just experts. With excellent communication from organizations like Food Tank, the key message will expand across the globe, like the Stern Review. It is important because it’s not enough to influence policymakers, you must also inform public opinion. Influencing the public and appreciating their understanding of these issues is as important as the complex issues themselves. I’m confident the TEEBAgriFood report has the power to do both.
FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEBAgriFood report?
PH: The community of experts working in the field of sustainable agriculture has come together at a critical moment to harmonize the system of measuring and valuing the impact of agriculture on the environment and public health. This could be the most significant development in the last hundred years of agricultural history. The TEEBAgriFood report may correct the serious distortions which predominate our food system’s economy, making sustainable food unaffordable for many people and unprofitable for food producers. This report is a storytelling exercise. A story of food system change. We should be as accessible as a bedtime story for children: As the stewards of the planet gathered together from different walks of life, they changed their farming to address the planetary emergency of the land just in time, and we all lived happily ever after. The End.
The goal of TEEBAgriFood is to more comprehensively determine the costs, benefits, and dependencies of agriculture and food production. What makes some produce less expensive in most supermarkets is in part the use of cheap—often subsidized—fertilizers and pesticides, but that retail price does not take into account hidden costs like environmental damage from runoff or human impacts on health and livelihood. Conversely, these prices do not recognize the positive benefits created by more sustainable forms of agriculture. To ensure the sustainability of agriculture and food systems, an important step is to account for the side effects, or externalities, through market mechanisms. TEEBAgriFood is creating a framework for looking at all the impacts of the ‘eco-agri-food’ value chain, from farm to fork to disposal, including effects on livelihoods, the environment, and health. This can help farmers, decision makers, and businesses more explicitly look at the impacts of different practices and policies