A conversation with Patrick Holden

Patrick Holden is the founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust.

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 organization led the development of organic standards and the market for organic foods. A graduate of Emerson College in the U.K., he established a mixed community farm in Wales in 1973, producing, at various times, carrots, wheat for flour production sold locally and milk from an 85-cow Ayrshire dairy herd, now made into a single farm cheddar style cheese by his son, Sam.

Patrick Holden herd

Photo by: Steph French

WHAT’S MORE VEXING TO YOU: THAT FOOD PRICES ARE DISHONEST, OR THAT IT’S SO HARD TO CONVINCE PEOPLE TO PAY MORE FOR THEIR FOOD?
I think when we buy food, everyone is attracted by a lower price. That’s just reality, isn’t it? We’re kind of hardwired to look for a bargain. But the problem we’ve got at the moment is that just about all food pricing is dishonest because there are hidden costs. Let’s say I’m producing cheese: You add up the cost of production, and the price is that cost. In other words, you add up the inputs and the outputs, and then you set a price. But then if you add in either the social costs or the social benefits, the price of the food is adjusted either upwards or downwards. Upwards if the producer has to pay for the full cost of production or in terms of damage to the environment or to human health. Or downwards if the producer is delivering benefit to society. But the challenge comes: How you can internalize that or make sure that all those costs and benefits are appropriately recognized in the production system and marketplace?

WHAT’S THE 30-SECOND SOUNDBITE DESCRIBING TRUE- COST ACCOUNTING FOR FOOD?
It’s a system of accounting which recognizes all the costs and benefits of different food production systems and reflects them accurately in the prices that producers pay for their production system or the benefits that are delivered by the production system.

The cost of food that we pay in the shops will reflect its true value, which isn’t the case right now. Perhaps you can challenge all of In Good Tilth’s readers to come up with a message or soundbite, because that’s what we need to cut through the clutter and noise.

HOW DO YOU CREATE AN ACCOUNTING PROCESS THAT ISN’T CUMBERSOME OR RIGID?
Another way to frame the question is: “How the hell can you get those values?” I think it is absolutely possible to go about identifying, categorizing, quantifying and eventually monetizing the costs and benefits arising from different food systems. An example can be a farmer that buys a pound of nitrogen fertilizer. Let’s say it costs a dollar. The manufacturing process of that fertilizer causes emissions of nitrous oxide and CO2. When the fertilizer is put onto the land, there are further emissions and factors on site. Some of the nitrogen gets into the water, and the clean up costs are paid for downstream, literally. And nitrous oxide is one of the major air polluters which is causing quantifiable and monetizable public health damage. There’s no reason why you can’t add up all those costs associated with the use of powdered nitrogen fertilizer and put a figure on it. And then there must be a way to hold someone financially accountable for all that damage in one way or another. If that was to happen, then the price of food produced with nitrogen fertilizer would increase fairly substantially.

Patrick Holden dandelion

Photo By: Steph French

HOW DO YOU SELL THIS IDEA TO THE MANY STAKEHOLDERS TO ADOPT IT INTO PRACTICE?
Professor Johan Rockström of the Eat Forum has been promoting the concept of “planetary boundaries.” He says that agriculture and food are the key areas where planetary boundaries are being exceeded. And if we don’t change our food systems—not in terms of niche but fundamentally right across the board—and we don’t start by 2020 and we don’t achieve a complete change in our food systems by 2050, we’re going to have irreversible climate change, probably a public health catastrophe and arguably an environmental and food security emergency as well. So, if we start with that premise, and we say, “What is the biggest single barrier to change and transforming our food systems and making them sustainable so that they’re not exceeding the planetary boundaries?” the answer is true-cost accounting.

HOW DO YOU FRAME DISCUSSION OF THIS GLOBAL ISSUE TO BE POSITIVE AND ACTION-ORIENTED?
It’s ironic that while I might constantly refer to negative externalities or degradation to natural resources, I’m a very positive person. For example, tomorrow, I’m going to Prince Charles’s farm to answer the question: “What should I eat to be healthy and sustainable?”

In other words, how can I change my behavior, as a consumer, to buy food from sustainable farming systems and benefit my health? And in what proportion would those foods be produced by a farm that’s on the same journey?

That is entirely a positive approach. There needs to be a bit of fear, but I think inspiration is the force which will change the world—not guilt or concern about the coming catastrophe. The psychology of this is critical. And in my opinion, the messaging should be more positive than negative.

HOW DO WE ELIMINATE DIVISIVE, “US” VERSUS “THEM” LANGUAGE INHERENT TO PROMOTING A SHIFT TO MORE ECOLOGICALLY AND SOCIALLY SUSTAINABLE FOOD PRODUCTION?
We need to change the symptoms by which we evaluate the food that we produce. I was one of the architects of the organic standards with the Soil Association. I have come to the conclusion that separating the good farmers from the bad farmer—“Worthy people like me deserve to be morally superior” and “The other guys that are trashing the planet . . . ”—is really unhelpful. And it’s not even accurate. In response, we’re organizing a working group, mainly farmers but also organizations, to look at a new way of assessing the sustainability of different food products, which is inclusive—not exclusive. The shift to true-cost accounting would put everyone on a journey towards more sustainability. Each year, I would have the chance to improve my performance from the year before. It wouldn’t be a way to divide those who are from those who aren’t. It would be like a stairway to heaven in the sense that every step I take gives me a better score and a better sustainability rating.

cow

Photo by Steph French

The beauty of this system is that everyone’s in—nobody’s bad; people are assessing their performance against their own performance of the year before. It’s a very unhelpful thing that we’ve done in polarizing the farming community and setting one group against another.

WHAT ARE SOME EASY WINS TO GET STARTED ON TRUE-COST ACCOUNTING?
I do think we can begin with factors, such as nitrogen overuse or pesticide application, where there is absolute clarity of physical, environmental and health impact[s]. Those impacts can be monetized. It makes a fairly compelling case for finding a way to ensure that, in the future, producers are accountable to the damage they’re causing. The other thing we can do is make the future receipts of all subsidies, whether it’s through the Farm Bill or the Common Agricultural Policy, be conditional on the farmer doing no harm. What if the subsidy payment can only be accessed if I became a soil carbon steward, for instance? Farmers that could be verified to be increasing the amount of carbon stored in their soil to support the organic matter could be paid directly for that gain. And that money needn’t come from a new source. It could come from existing subsidies that are coming through crop insurance and other mechanisms within the European Union or the Farm Bill. Society’s already accepting that farmers do need to be supported. So, it’s just a matter of persuading the policy makers that subsidies need to be allocated in a different way.

Patrick Holden with cows

Photo by Steph French

WHAT ARE YOU REFLECTING ON AS YOU PREPARE TO TAKE THE NEXT STEPS FORWARD?
I just read a book by a doctor who says there’s “physical food” and then there’s what he calls “essence food.” And essence food is like feeding the higher part of ourselves: our emotional, spiritual and vital health. In the end, wellbeing will come from that. And I think that who amongst us doesn’t want to be healthy? And I think that’s the most positive thing of all—this incredible life force which is in all of us. We want to be healthy; we want to pass it on to our children. And that is such a powerful force that I think it will overcome all of the negativity that’s throughout this discussion and the barriers standing in the way for big change. There’s a lot of inertia which is still in the way of us being able to internalize these costs and benefits in a pricing system. But I believe that it is inevitable that we will prevail because the fact is there’s no alternative.