Episode #114 Stairway to Heaven: Food, Farming and the Regeneration of our landscapes with Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust
How can we improve our health, reduce the costs to the NHS by 50%, restore soil biodiversity, reduce flooding, reverse ecosystem decline and draw carbon down from the atmosphere into the earth’s crust? Regenerative Farming does all of these and more – and Patrick Holden, Founding Director and Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust is at the heart of a movement to spread the word around the world.
Patrick has been a farmer for many decades. After studying biodynamic agriculture at Emerson College, he established a mixed community farm in Wales in 1973, producing at various times: wheat for flour production sold locally, carrots and milk from an 85 cow Ayrshire dairy herd, now made into a single farm cheddar style cheese.
He was the founding chairman of British Organic Farmers in 1982, before joining the Soil Association, where he worked for nearly 20 years and during which time the organisation led the development of organic standards and the market for organic foods.
His advocacy for a major global transition to more sustainable food systems now entails international travel and regular broadcasts and talks at public events.
He is Patron of the UK Biodynamic Association and was awarded the CBE for services to organic farming in 2005.
Patrick is passionate about the application of Nature’s principles of Harmony to food and farming, which is explored in the SFT’s latest initiative, The Harmony Project.
In this episode, Patrick talks about the work of the Sustainable Food Trust in building a commons-based trust network which can co-create a global farm metric to assess farms around the world for their environmental impact in all ways. With this, farms can really begin to assess their own impact, and political institutions across the world can begin to rewards farms and farmers for restoring our land to the extraordinary fertility and abundance that we used to take for granted.
Manda: My guest this week is a long time hero of mine. Patrick Holden is the founding director and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. But for many decades before that, Patrick has been a huge name in the world of organic and sustainable farming. He established a mixed community farm in Wales back in the 70s; in the 80s he was the founding chair of British Organic Farmers, and then he joined the Soil Association and worked for nearly two decades. During the time where the organisation really was the foundation of the development of organic standards and creating the market for organic food, that seems so obvious to us now that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when it wasn’t there. And it isn’t just me that thinks he’s a huge name in this. Back in 2005, he was awarded the CBE for services to organic farming. He’s also a patron of the UK biodynamic association. I now, as I said, is the founding director and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Patrick Holden.
Manda: So Patrick Holden, definitely one of my favourite people. Patrick thinks I’m a lot younger than I am listeners. We’re not going to go into the differential between what he thinks and what’s true. But also Patrick’s been one of my heroes for quite a long time; since I’ve known that organic farming was a thing, which is longer than probably it should be. So welcome to the podcast, Patrick.
Patrick: Thank you very much. It’s lovely to talk with you.
Manda: And we’ve got over our tech crises, so we’re doing the best we can with the sound. So you are I think one of the founding members and certainly the chief of the Sustainable Food Trust. Can you tell us what it is and what it does? Because we’ve looked a lot at regenerative farming on the podcast, but I really want to look now at food systems, not just how we grow it and how that could sequester carbon, although I want to go into that, but really how we create a whole system around food in this country that is also replicatable across the world. So what is it? Where did it start and what’s your involvement in it?
Patrick: Okay. May I answer your question slightly obliquely, by saying that I’ve been a farmer practising sustainable methods as best I know how for many years. In fact, 50 years next year. I was one of the back to landers back in the seventies. We set up a community farm in West Wales, which is still going today. It’s had several chapters to its history, all of which are fascinating, but obviously we’re not here to discuss those. During the very early days of the farm we realised that we couldn’t sell produce on the conventional market because the prices weren’t good enough to cover our costs. There was the Common Agricultural Policy back in the seventies and farming was subsidising things; and we weren’t using chemical fertilisers or pesticides so we thought, OK, we’d better define and promote a separate market for the foods produced by sustainable agriculture. That initiative, which I was part of back in the 80s by this time, was the beginning of the development of the organic standards. And for many years I was involved with standards development, but also then I joined the Soil Association and for about, I think, over 20 years I worked with the Soil Association. For the last 15 of which I was the director. And the Soil Association, which was formed in 1946 by a woman called Lady Eve Balfour. It’s become known as the organisation, which is the champion and the advocate of organic farming. But in fact, if you go back to its origins, lady Eve and all her fascinating friends and colleagues; it was actually more like an organisation that wanted to promote a switch to sustainable agriculture in a broader sense. And it then got kind of narrowed down into the organic agenda, and I was very much part of that.
Patrick: But around 2010, it became clear to me and others that the advocacy for organic farming had partially failed, in the sense that it had reached a glass ceiling of a kind of market for people who thought organic food was better, were prepared to pay more, and it was niche. Whereas meanwhile, the planet was going to hell in a handbasket and we were facing climate change, the destruction of biodiversity, growing public ill health, and it was clear that a mainstream complete transition to regenerative food systems was necessary, if we were to avoid a planetary catastrophe, at least a catastrophe for humanity. So I left the soil association, that’s the short version, and decided urged on by others, to set up a new organisation: the Sustainable Food Trust. And our mission is to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems working locally and globally. So our work really is international. And we’re a small organisation, not a big one. Like the association is today, we only have about 20 people working for us now after 10 years. But we hope that we are working catalytically, seeding new thinking and new ideas and new projects. And hoping to increase the body of informed public understanding of all these issues, so as to create the conditions for a really rapid expansion of sustainable food production and farming everywhere.
Manda: Thank you. I’m very impressed that you can get an elevator speech that succinct. And there are a lot of things there. Let’s take it back a little bit because I think for a lot of people, differentiating between organic and sustainable is not an obvious thing. They think that the two are synonymous. I had quite an interesting altercation with a gentleman at a conference that we held here, who was quite adamant that regenerative farming and organic farming were the same thing. And my understanding is that regenerative farming is by definition organic, but that organic farming can be thousand acre monocultures. It’s just that you’re not putting necessarily the same inputs into the Land. I have a friend who’s just retired from being an agricultural salesperson for inputs into the Land, who said he sold far more to the organic farmers, it was just that it was slightly different, what he sold. But he was still selling things to control soil conditions or to control pests or whatever else. So could we unpick the different bewteen organic and and what we would know, I think call regenerative. Particularly with a view to sequestering carbon and see what the distinctions are. And if I’m right, and if I’m wrong, that’s fine.
Patrick: Well, yes, I’ll have a go. And it’s a really important issue and question. It’s really a definition question. And with the benefit of hindsight, which is always a wonderful thing, I can see that a line drawing exercise, below which farming was not organic and above which it was, was always destined to cause friction. So once you say this is organic, you can’t use this and you can use that, etc. You will get an equal and opposite body of critics, half of whom will say the standards are just too dilute and the other half will say they’re much too high, normal farmers can’t reach them. And in a way, both of those critical camps are right, because it’s always worth striving up the stairway to heaven. So you want to go higher. And equally, if you set your standards too high, you might rule out normal farmers for whom incremental steps would be a better way forward. So in a way, the thing about regenerative farming is it means all things to all people at the moment. You can describe yourself as a regenerative Farmer and still use roundup, for instance.
Patrick: Yes, lots of regenerative farmers still do use herbicides. So actually, we do need the rigour of a set of standards and people who check. That’s what the farming system really is. But equally, we need a kind of incremental approach where you can move up the ladder. One of the projects that the Sustainable Food Trust is leading is what we are calling a global farm metric. And this idea is that you create, instead of having an organic standard for the beautiful and the, you know, the morally superior and then the great unwashed are not organic. You have literally a series of framework of categories and units of measurement, which is a common language for measuring farm sustainability wherever you are. So you’re in Shropshire or you’re on the borders, I’m in Wales. You would measure your sustainability using the same framework and units of measurements as I would measure mine. Or you could go to a smallholder farmer in sub-Saharan Africa. They would use the same framework and units, etc. In other words, a common global language for farm sustainability assessment. And then I can go to the soil association, I’m still certified organic. I’m one of the, I think we’re the longest established organic dairy farm, certified organic dairy farm in Wales now. And I could say to the Soil Association, Look, don’t send your inspector to me for a couple of days and charge me a lot of money. Here’s my annual sustainability audit. You make a decision about whether I meet the Soil Association’s organic standards, and I’ll be proud to have certification for another year. But I can send exactly the same audit to the Welsh Government or to the Red Tractor people who also want to audit me to make sure I’ve got safe food for normal markets, et cetera.
Patrick: And one audit would do per year. And more than that, because right now I’m certified organic, as I said. But each year the inspector comes, checks if I’m not cheating, all that sort of stuff. At the end of which I do not know in all honesty, whether my soil is better than last year, whether I’ve got more biodiversity, whether I’m more circular economy and the nutrient cycling is going well, etc. I want to know those things. Actually, that is my striving. I want to strive to be more beautiful and harmonious in my farming system. And so I want to say if, let’s say, the score, the sustainability score on the global farm metric had a scale of 100. If I’m 70 this year, I want to be seventy one next year, and I reckon that is the aspiration of every farmer in the world. So that’s what we’re trying to do. And it’s a bit like accounting protocols; you have an audit for your accounts, then it’s using the same protocols they do in Australia or anywhere. We want the same thing for farming, a common language. So exciting. And that way we’re kind of liberating ourselves from the tyranny of ‘term’ wars. You know, are you regenerative, agro ecological, biodynamic or organic? Well, maybe I’m all of the above, but I’m measuring it.
Manda: Brilliant. So in that case, are you envisaging that this will also become like a red tractor or an organic imprint that the consumer further down the line can look at a number? You know, this year I’m 70, last year I was 65. We’re aiming to be 72 next year and this is what we’re doing and here is the produce as a result of this. Because at the moment, the value of organic is, you know, our kids feed it to their kids and believe that they’re not feeding them Roundup, for instance. And that this matters to them, because they read stuff that tells them that eating roundup is bad. So is it likely to become a standard for food do you think, in the long run?
Patrick: The honest answer is I don’t know. But I hope that the emergence of a framework with a scoring system can coexist with the existing certification schemes. So let me give you an example. Let’s say I continue to be certified organic with the Soil Association. Imagine a labelling scheme which might carry the existing certification mark, but would also have a score on it, as you just suggested. So I could be selling my exceedingly delicious and rather expensive cheese for people who want to buy organic cheese. But it would also have a sustainability score and mine would be 71. Maybe somebody else’s cheese would be 72 or 68, and you then get some idea about the difference between the two farming systems. But it would be yes, you’re in or you’re out. Well, it would be with organic, because you’ve got set market thresholds. But you see the whole spectrum and this I think, the great thing about it, is it would deal with greenwash. So lots of big companies are saying we’re going regen now, and there’s a tendency to feel mildly suspicious of that because you think, Well, what do you mean by that? So if they had a sustainability score, it’s fine isn’t it. It’s just completely transparent and you could be the judge. We could be the judge. And what is fantastic is that more and more big food companies and retailers see this, and they’re committed to work together to try to achieve it. So I’m optimistic.
Manda: Brilliant. Yes. That makes a lot of sense. Because the more transparent it is and the more people can look online and see how you got to that score… Because a number is just a number. And presumably. Ok, so can we unpack the global farm metric a little bit? Because I think this sounds really exciting. Because I’m imagining, let’s say I’ve created a wetland. I was watching an ecologic video the other day of using willow tree plantations instead of reeds for water purification. Let’s suppose I stick one on the farm in a place where if we set up the micro dairy, the runoff will go through it and we guarantee clean water down to our river, which is full of pearl mussels. And I’m guessing that would be a good thing, and I would like that to be quite well marked. But it might be that I’m still, I don’t know, deep ploughing the land somewhere because I think this is a good idea and somehow it must be quite complex, I’m thinking, to create a metric that values the good stuff, and the good stuff is highly variable, while still saying ‘You know that thing, I don’t know, you’re putting Roundup out there. That’s that’s probably not quite such a good idea, you know, so we’re marking you down for that. And maybe next year we can manage not to do that. We’ll mark you up again’. How have you structured this to take that level of complexity into account? Because I’m guessing that you will have done because you know these things.
Patrick: Well, we spent the last five or six years discussing exactly these issues with a group of farmers and land managers. Because we concluded when we set out on this project that the best people to co-design and evolve this framework will be the farmers and land users themselves. And so to your question, you’ve got a treatment plant which is taking, let’s say, effluent from a dairy or even from a septic tank, whatever it is. Water which has got a pollutant burden and you’re purifying it biologically and then the effluent is so clean you could even drink it, maybe. And so your issue would fall into two categories: nutrient cycling, because obviously in a circular farm economy, all the nutrients would be saved and hopefully recycled or returned. But also water quality. So those are two of our categories; nutrient cycling and water. And one of the two of the metrics for water would be the biological oxygen demand or a pollutant measure of the water leaving the farming system or the outfalls and also sedimentation. Because apparently that’s quite a good yardstick. Sorry I should use a metric stick. We need to find the key ways, the barometers, if you like, of the health and efficiency of the system. And those would be the two of the ones we’ve chosen.
Patrick: Also with water, another one would be the degree of rainfall, trapped water in the form of springs or whatever, roof water, fossil water and mains, which represents the water mix of the farm. And that would be another unit of measurement, from which you devise the total score on water. And then, of course, with nutrient cycling, it’s all about avoiding leakage, recycling the nutrients, all that sort of stuff. And then there are another 10 other categories- Sorry nine other categories- there are 11 altogether. You start with the productivity and the profitability of the farm, and then you add soil, nutrient cycling, biodiversity, crop and livestock husbandry, social and cultural impacts, et cetera. And you with each of those 10 categories, plus the productivity and profitability, you have some sort of scoring system. Of course, this is an interesting issue. Because at the moment, everyone is measuring net zero because most companies have made a legally binding commitment to go towards net zero. And any company, whether it’s a bank or a retailer or a food processor that is involved with agriculture, has realised that the net zero commitment involves their farm customers or their farm suppliers. So they’re very interested in going net zero, which is a carbon or emissions measurement.
Patrick: But of course, if you don’t measure biodiversity or animal welfare, two of which units of measurement are in our global food metric; you might have a very carbon friendly system but it might be horrible for the cows and horrible for nature. So we think there needs to be a sort of balance between these different areas, categories on the overall assessment. And then you get into complicated issues like weightings. How important is reaching net zero by comparison with biodiversity, for instance? And what we are saying at the moment is we’re just trying to get each category with a really accurate, yet manageable series of units of measurements, which the farmer wouldn’t have to have an army of scientists and pay a fortune to deliver. And if we can get that, then we can worry about the weightings later because probably different people would put different priorities on them. But we’re making serious progress. We’ve got sixty five organisations in the collaboration so far, including banks, retailers, big food companies, small food companies, organic farmers, certification bodies, all sorts. WWF are in the partnership. It’s very exciting. And there’s universal consensus that we have to do this, because if we’re going to manage the climate change emergency, we have to measure the impacts of food and farming.
Manda: Brilliant. Yes. And with the common metric. So. I have one short question and then I want to look at a kind of policy question. In your metrics is soil sequestration of carbon; So I’m guessing organic matter percentage in the soil. Is that one of your metrics?
Patrick: You’re absolutely right. That’s one of the metrics for soil. Another one is biodiversity; is an earthworm count. Because we thought that would be a proxy for everything. That if earthworms are there, other stuffs there.
Manda: But you can do that with a spade and a bucket and you don’t need an army of scientists, so you could just go and do it.
Patrick: Exactly, yes. And then another one is water infiltration. So if a soil is well structured and porous, if you put water into a drain pipe, you know, and then watch how quickly it is drawn down into the soil when there’s a certain moisture deficit, that tells you a lot about the health of the soil in terms of its structure. There are others, too. But let’s say that the top level units of measurement need to be really simple, but at the same time deliver a reasonably accurate picture about the state of the particular category. That’s what we strive for. But some other people would want to do so-called ‘deep dives’, which is a phrase that I find mildly annoying but anyway, I know what it means. And have secondary and tertiary metrics, so you get a more comprehensive picture. So for instance, if you were a kind of biologist, somebody who was specialising in biodiversity, you might want to measure a whole host of different species. But then which are the species which by their presence or absence would give you a reasonably reliable picture of the total biodiversity picture? We don’t even know the answer to that yet, but we’re on it.
Manda: Ok. Gosh, this sounds complicated.
Patrick: It does. But our existence and our relationship with the world around us is complex but beautiful. We can measure the microcosm and understand the macrocosm so we can study our own health as an individual human being and have deep insights into the health of the population as a whole. So if we can find the right microcosm to measure on the farm, we can already know so much more about the world in which we find ourselves. Because the conclusions and the metrics will be universally applicable. That is our striving. And of course, these units of measurement may never be crystallised and in a way, rightly so, because we might get better at measuring things. But that’s OK.
Manda: Yeah, that almost has to be built in, I would think so. Is this something that.. So could we measure our global farm metric if I downloaded a, I don’t know, a pack from you? Could we actually measure it on the smallholding? Is that a thing we can do now?
Patrick: It’s still in development, but you could download from our website a lot of information about the global farm metric. And you could have a go on your own farm. And quite soon, I’m thinking during 2022, we’re going to take further steps forward. We’re working on an app, a sort of farmer friendly app. It’s not, by the way, that we are going to go into the certification business. We’re definitely not. I’ve been there and done that. But in any case, even if I had an aspiration, I think our ability to work in the Commons would be adversely affected if we were trying to develop our own thing. And we’re not. So we’re trying to hold this space and build trust amongst a community of people, including certifiers, but also big food companies, small food companies, farmers, farming organisations. And we’re saying to each other, Let’s work in the Commons. It’s a demand on us to do that right now, in these very perilous circumstances. And the response so far has been brilliant. And so to your question, we hope that a small farmer or a large farmer would be able to do a self audit or participate in an audit, which would get them points with the Welsh Government in my case, or DEFRA in your case, et cetera. So that you could use it for multiple purposes, including assessing yourself against yourself on an ongoing basis.
Manda: Yeah, which has to be one of the most important, although in the kind of farming environment at the moment, particularly in England. Wales, I’m very impressed to say is a slightly different ecosystem. But they seem to be searching for ways to funnel money to farmers that are going to be constructive and they don’t seem to be making their mind up. So in the 65 organisations and clearly some really big hitters, are any world governments really paying attention to this? Or is it a degree too complex for them? Because governments in my understanding, they kind of like basic numbers that are, you know, flat. And this feels like a dynamic thing. Are they listening?
Patrick: They are listening. And it all started with Michael Gove. Have thoughts about that on a postcard or whatever in the chat…
Manda: And the sad thing is that Michael Gove is coming out as one of the, you know, super brains of the of the current executive, which is a really terrifying concept. But there we go. It’s all comparative.
Patrick: Okay, well, here’s the story. Tell it how it is. I met Michael Gove at a House of Commons reception organised by the Save Our Soils Coalition. I was one of the speakers, he was another. And this was shortly after he became secretary of State at Defra. And he came up to me and he said I was really interested in what you’re saying – because I was just talking about the global farm metric, amongst other things, and also about actually, funnily enough, what I was showing was the story about insects on my windscreen. Because I’d had this very interesting experience where I’d driven back from London down the M4. This is October, I think, and not a single insect splattered on my windscreen. And then when I got to Wales, there were a few moths and then when I got to the bottom of my farm drive, it was incredible. I mean, it was as if it had been manufactured, specially with a fake thing. There seem to be hosts of insects just springing up in front of the car, and I thought, Wow, why is this? Of course, it might have been a fluke, but I think it might be a combination of the fact that we’re a livestock farm, but we don’t use any chemicals and we’d be looking after the soil.
Manda: For a long time.
Patrick: Yes, for many years. So Michael said to me,( note, I called him Michael!) Here’s my mobile number and I want to keep talking. And so we had a lot of engagement with him while he was secretary of state. And he, like he is now doing in his new department, had a transformative impact. But then, of course, he moved on. And I think it was a bit like the Queen Bee leaving the hive. You know, there are a lot of headless people wandering around Defra wondering what to do, and nothing much has happened since he left. Now you could say that’s sort of, there’s a pattern there with Michael Gove. He goes into places, he stirs them up and then leaves. I guess that’s what politicians do. But he did set into motion some good things, and we have been involved with tests and trials at Defra and it’s an ongoing process. Don’t hold your breath, but do keep your fingers crossed that eventually Defra will adopt our global farm metric, or a version of it.
Patrick: Because they can see that measuring the impact is an essential part of a management process. So if they’re going to deliver public money for public goods, they have to demonstrate it. And you can’t demonstrate it without measuring it. So what we want to see is that when you fill in your Elmes Sustainable Farming Scheme application form, you’ll have to say I’m happy to undergo an annual sustainability audit, which hopefully they will help pay for as part of the process. As a precondition for entry. That’s what we think should happen. And the Welsh Government you mentioned and the Scottish Government, the Northern Ireland department, they’re all interested in this as well. And I would say that it’s a fairly good chance that all of them will adopt a sustainability assessment audit as part of the new schemes. Let’s hope it’ll be the same one.
Manda: Yes, that would be good. And also then I’m guessing what we ideally want is for this to to be global. That governments, whatever it is, 142 governments around the world, all take it up. Because then we have a common language to speak in terms of global agriculture. Any signs from further afield?
Patrick: Well, I think you’re absolutely right there. I think it’s essential it it has to be global. Think about, for instance, a big supermarket or even a big food company. They’re sourcing raw materials to make their products from different countries, so if they’re not using the same framework to measure the sustainability, then it doesn’t work. So I think it does have to be global, like it does have to be with accounting protocols. And also, you know, these trade deals that have recently been done, grubby little trade deals, I’ll say with Australia, New Zealand, which are just Liz Truss. Let’s hope she doesn’t replace our prime minister, sorry to say this. But she did these deals and was celebrating them, and I thought they were appalling. And the NFU lobbied the government to set up this so-called trade commission, which was an attempt to stop those deals happening. I sat on one of the subcommittees of that trade commission. I said repeatedly during the process, Look, what you need is to have this harmonised framework for measuring farm sustainability because that could become the basis of a new international framework, which would regulate all international trade and agricultural products. So let’s say, if you wanted to trade foods from America to the United Kingdom, you would have to meet a minimum sustainability score on the metric to be tariff free. And on the basis of do no harm, if you’re farming system as scored on the metric did harm, then you’d have to pay a tariff to compensate the farmers in the UK for the damage done. And that system could work universally. The Trade Commission were not interested in that then, but I heard yesterday that Minette Batters was saying that UK farmers had been treated like pawns in the game. So I’m going to talk to her now and I’m going to say, Minnette, you know, why don’t we do this? Because I think she really knows about it and she’s been a participant, but I think there’s a compelling case for it now.
Manda: Yeah, if we can get it past the politicians.
Patrick: I think politicians only do what gets them re-elected. And I think that if there’s a tide of public opinion running, that if you pay attention to this sort of stuff, it’s going to score your points with your voters, then they’ll do it. So we just have to mobilise this tide of informed public opinion, not just farmers, but everyone about these kind of issues. Because in relation to climate change, people don’t think about this very much. But what covers the planet now? It used to be beautiful rainforests and other pristine areas of wilderness. Now it is farms. The farms are sick, the farms have been poisoned, their natural capital has been extracted and they are contributing towards climate change, losing their soils fast and contaminating even the foods we eat. So the patient Earth is sick because the farms are sick, so we now must restore the farms, the patient Earth and its population to health. And we will only do that if we change our farming practice.
Manda: Yes, brilliant. I listened to David Johnson of New Mexico University, University of New Mexico, the creator of the Johnson-Su Bioreactor, who claimed (and I didn’t look at the primary data) that if all of the farms that are currently farmed industrially around the world all went to regenerative properties that build soil – So I’m defining regenerative agriculture as agriculture that sequesters carbon, builds soil health and depth by building soil biodiversity – If they all did that, we would be back at pre-industrial levels of CO2 within 10 years. And I, when I heard that, I thought, Well, this is a no brainer. Yeah, Monsanto goes out of business, but Boo-Hoo will think of something else from Monsanto to do. They can go back to producing nerve gas and dynamite, whatever it was, they did first. And I’m thinking that if that were a concept out there, it’s one of those numbers that seems to me, first of all, if it’s true, it’s unassailable. But I don’t know if it’s true. So my first question is, have you heard it and is it true? And then next, I would like to move on to this tide of public opinion. I just listened to a TEDex from London, and it was yet again the if we all went vegan, we’d solve the climate emergency in five years because we wouldn’t have any carbon in the environment. And the whole thing is just the numbers that they paint. This statistics that they look at, they’re of questionable veracity to begin with and then they cherry pick them. So I’d really like to look at the regenerative farming versus vegan education that we need to do. How do we get that out? Because the whole vegan thing seems to be gaining momentum. So have you thoughts on how we educate people about the nature of regenerative farming?
Patrick: Well, you ask two important questions. The first of which is were regenerative farming be taken to scale, meaning global scale across all the world’s agricultural soils, would it be possible to draw down so much carbon that we’d be back at pre-industrial levels? The honest answer to your question is, I don’t know. And I suspect no one knows. Maybe we couldn’t reach that lofty goal. But what is undeniable is that if we switch to farming practises based on biological systems involving crop rotations and avoiding nitrogen fertiliser and chemicals globally; we would draw down a huge amount of carbon from the atmosphere and re sequester it in the soil. And there was at the COP21 in Paris, the then French minister, Stephan Mathole, introduced a new initiative called Quatre por Mille, four per thousand, by which he meant that we should set a target for every farmer in the world to sequester point four percent increase soil organic matter per year. And there are lots of people signed up to this, including the British government, ironically, but nothing happened. But I think that was a brilliant initiative, and that’s what we need to do. How far we get down that road, I’m not sure, but I think we can go a long way, because what is clear is that the soil is the world’s second largest carbon bank only after the oceans, and it’s the only area where we can actually strip CO2 out of the atmosphere and put it back into the Earth’s crust. So it is very exciting.
Patrick: On the second point, which is related, obviously; the UK Climate Change Committee are advocating a transition to a largely based, plant based farming system and diet because they want to get rid of ruminants, sheep and cattle because – not get rid of them, but drastically reduce their numbers – because they think that those ruminant animals, because they emit methane, are one of the principal causes of climate change. And I think that in making that suggestion, they are showing fairly profound ignorance of agriculture. So what they’re recommend is so-called Land-sparing. You further intensify on the best Land, which is more food with responsibly used chemicals, that kind of thing. Thereby leaving more land to be rewilded or reforested or grow biofuels. And the principal casualty of that is the livestock. And I think that that is entirely wrong. And the counterargument to that is the Land-sparing argument, where you farm in harmony with nature, you move to biological systems, as I’ve said, and you harness the role of livestock and yes, ruminant livestock, grazing livestock, cattle and sheep and dairy cows, to turn the grass (temporary or permanent} into food that we can eat. You should remember that sixty six percent of the UK agricultural land area is currently in grass or pasture.
Patrick: And if we didn’t have those ruminant animals, we’d have a lot less food and more than that, the animals manure integrated into a grazing system is a vital part of fertility building. And so, obviously, conversely, industrially produced livestock: chickens and pigs in sheds and industrially managed dairy cows are absolutely part of the problem. So we, the citizens who eat food, which is all of us, need to differentiate between the animals which are part of the problem and those which are part of the solution, and shop accordingly. At the moment, we are very confused about this and all this plant milk, plant based vegan revolution, which people in good faith think is the solution and they are doing their bit by switching to a plant based diet. I think they’re misinformed. I think that actually a diet which is compatible with regenerative farming, will contain quite a lot of livestock products. Luckily, I would say, because it’s good for our health. I know there are a lot of issues sort of wrapped up in that quick statement, but I think it’s important that people should know that there are a lot of us and the numbers are growing who think that sustainably and compassionately managed farm animals are absolutely consistent with climate change. And if we don’t eat those products, we’re not helping the farmers who want to make the change.
Manda: Ok, so where do we go from here with the Sustainable Food Trust and in our way forward of making that happen? So I’m thinking community supported agriculture, all the things that we’ve talked about in the podcast before for people. Which is shop locally, support your local farmer in whatever they’re doing, and if you can help them to move towards better practise, then do. Because even spreading the word that the global farm metric exists to a lot of farmers will be will be useful. What else can people listening do, to find a sense of agency and to feel that they are being part of the solution and that it isn’t buying almond milk from, you know, monocultures in California.
Patrick: We’re producing a report which is going to be launched within the next eight weeks, maybe even sooner than that, called Feeding Britain from the ground up. And the report was commissioned to answer a question; My question. If the whole of Britain was transitioned to regenerative farming, how much food and in which proportions would be produced from that system? And the reason I want to know is because I eat food and I want to align my diet to what the farmers would produce and in those ratios. Because if I don’t do that, then they’re going to have trouble selling their products. So in commissioning this report, we weren’t trying to do a kind of nanny state on people and tell them what to eat. We are rather giving them information upon which they can make informed choices. So for instance, if you’re not a vegan or a vegetarian and you want to know the answer to that question, I can give you some sort of preview headlines. The grain output under a sustainably from Britain would dramatically decrease, and that’s because all the arable areas would have to go into a crop rotation, 50 percent of which would be grass and clover or something like that, which means you only got 50 percent of the area growing grain. And the yields would be lower because the farmers wouldn’t use nitrogen fertiliser, because that’s a chemical approach. We’re switching to a biological approach here. Add that up, and it’s over a 50 percent decline in yields. So that would mean luckily enough, 50 percent of all the grain that we currently produce in the UK is fed to intensive pigs, poultry and dairy cows.
Patrick: So it means no more intensive livestock, because there just wouldn’t be the grain to feed them. Conversely, we will still have pigs and poultry and dairy cows. The dairy cows and sheep… The beef and sheep will be predominantly fed grass and nothing else. The dairy cows will be fed mainly grass, but some supplement concentrates. The pigs and the chickens would be free range. The pigs would be fed swill, which would be legalised again by the Prime Minister now. Then all the other arable by-products and other wastes that we consider the waste, whether it’s whey or, you know, green waste and all these things, which currently are not recycled, would go through the pigs. And then the poultry would derive maybe at least a third of their diet from grazed grass and grubs and stuff that they can get from the pasture. So we’d have less and more expensive pork and chicken. Chicken would be a treat, which is how I remember it when I was young. Once a month. Would we still import food? Of course we would, because there are sixty seven million people in the country and we are structurally deficient in the capacity to feed ourselves. But in relation to our staple foods, we can be nearly self-sufficient. If we waste less food, we eat differently. And the eating differently bit is what our report is all about.
Manda: Brilliant. I think we should stop there. I just have one last question. If you were prime minister… So are we going to make you prime minister for the next five minutes. What would be your first actions? You get in and they have this hundred day thing? What are your priorities if we were given the capacity to make the changes?
Patrick: Well, my father always used to say and I think he had me in mind when he was saying this: power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. So I’m mindful. My dad’s been dead a couple of years, but I feel his presence very strongly at the moment so I’m mindful of his words and the wisdom of them, especially in current circumstances. And so I think I would I would need to be mindful on a daily basis that I’d probably do the wrong thing because it would go to my head. But I definitely would say that the health and prosperity of this nation is built upon the health of its people. And the health of its people, in turn, depends on the health and vitality of its agriculture. And I think our civilisation is built on the soil and to the soil it must return. So if we’re going to reinvigorate the health, mental and physical health of this nation, we need to start with working with nature. And then producing a genuine surplus from the raw materials which God has given us. And the soil is one of those. So we restore the soil to health. We introduce regenerative farming systems across the country, which cuts the NHS bills by half. Crime rates drop. We all meditate of course… There’s more.
Manda: Oh, we have a whole new podcast, Patrick as prime minister. I love it. But in the meantime, because I know you have another deadline. Patrick Holden, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast. That was that was a rare and real treat. Thank you.
Patrick: Thank you very much for inviting me.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Patrick for the gift of his time. For the depth and clarity of his thinking. It’s so refreshing to listen to somebody who understands that what we need is to build a commons and to build trust, and that box ticking exercises are not where it’s at anymore. And for everything that he’s doing, I will put links to the Sustainable Food Trust into the show notes and also Patrick has an Instagram at Havod Cheese for his farm. So I will put all of that there. And as ever, please, if any of the spoke to you. Go away and work out what you can do in your life to support your local farmers. To get involved, to help them to perhaps take the global farm metric and run with it and see how it works in your local area. Because it’s if each of us begins to do this and begins to tell the people around us, these are the stories that will make the difference that will change the world. As Patrick said, we need to build that momentum. We need to be the catalysts. Each of us. That small node that fires off in all directions and begins the avalanche of change that we have to see now. If we’re going to get to where we need to be in a time frame that matters.
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