Why it’s not a case of farmers vs environmentalists

Patrick Holden, chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, weighs in on why food security and environmental sustainability are two sides of the same coin – and how regenerative agriculture could benefit public health.

Why it’s not a case of farmers vs environmentalists

As we kick off the election campaign, the question for many farmers and the wider public increasingly concerned about unhealthy food is, will food and farming be on the election agenda?

The answer is probably not, which would be a huge lost opportunity, particularly as more and more of us are questioning the sustainability of our current food production systems, and for good reason! We are nearly at the end of an agricultural chapter in which we have extracted the accumulated natural and social capital of millennia.

Whichever way you measure it, whether it be soil fertility, lost biodiversity or declining public health, the statistics tell the same alarming story. We may only have 30 or 40 harvests left, so it’s clear that the well of depleted natural and social capital is nearly empty. There is no point in blaming anyone, certainly not the farmers who have been doing their best to stay in business, nor the food companies who are in turn slaves to our insatiable desire for cheap food.

We are all responsible for the damage inflicted by half a century of industrial agriculture. Perhaps the most devastating impact is on public health. Most citizens in the western world have been involuntary participants in a long-term feeding trial which now spans two generations. During this time, we have been eating poor quality food from industrial farming systems and as Chris Van Tulleken and Tim Spector have highlighted, the cost of the damage is so great that it could bankrupt the National Health Service.

However, the good news is that having been part of the problem, our future food and farming systems could absolutely be part of the solution. Switching to farming systems that work in harmony with nature ,at scale, has the capacity to rebuild lost soil carbon stocks, restore the wildlife which once coexisted with food production and, critically, repair our nation’s depleted physical and mental health.

A UK plan for regenerative agriculture could also be a crucial pillar for building food security and helping ensure that we, as a country, are less dependent on imported food produced to lower standards, and costly fertilisers.

Very often, critics will spring up, defending the status quo by suggesting we will never be able to feed the world with regenerative and organic farming systems. To counter such criticism, my organisation, the Sustainable Food Trust, produced a report in 2022, estimating the impact of a national transition to regenerative agriculture on food production and future diets. Its key conclusions were that we could maintain our present levels of food security and self-sufficiency, but only if we waste 50% less food and eat differently, giving up cheap chicken and products from intensive livestock systems, and instead switching to plants and mainly grass-fed livestock products from regenerative farming.

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’ve been putting these principles into practice on my 300-acre farm in West Wales for over 50 years and the results are both inspiring and confidence-building. Whether measuring soil carbon, crop yields, insects or birdlife, the indicators in terms of the health and resilience of the farm are extremely positive.
Scaling regenerative agriculture could be one of the greatest challenges for humanity over the next 25 years, but it has the decisive advantage that there is no alternative.

Patrick Holden is CEO and founder of the Sustainable Food Trust

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