An Interview with Patrick Holden CBE, Founder of The Sustainable Food Trust
The proliferation and popularity of blogs and social media have provided platforms for both new and veteran voices in the world of sustainable agriculture, climate change and ethical food production to disseminate their news and views globally. Farmers, growers, producers, retailers, politicians and writers are now all inter-connected: with a push of a button we can follow Ed Dowding of Sustaination, creating an online map linking local farmers, shops and consumers; we can see videos of the growth and development of Alice Water’s Edible Schoolyard Project in California and read the online Tweets of @GMWatch to keep updated on the biotech industry or @ProfTimLang on the link between the cost of fossil fuels and sustainable food production. One new website to add to the reading list is that of the Sustainable Food Trust, or SFT. It launches at the beginning of April 2012 and I went to Bristol to meet its creators, Patrick Holden CBE and Aine Morris.
Patrick worked for the Soil Association from 1988 till 2010 and was its Director for fifteen years. During his time, the charity’s offices grew from a staff of 5 to over 180, income rose from £200 000 to £10 million and sales of organic produce rose from £50 million to £2 billion in the UK. Now, from his home in a terraced house south of Bristol, with a small team of supporters and helpers he is facing a new and international challenge, potentially far greater than the role he left over a year ago. In the last year alone he has travelled internationally 21 times, mobilising support and galvanising action from some of the world’s leading and influential writers, campaigners, politicians and activists in the fields of conservation, biodynamic agriculture, renewable energy supply, compassion in world farming and environmental science. His starting point is simple:
“We need to get back to basics. We need to transform the current food production system and its damages to health and the fragility of our planet. We need to create a new forum, a social movement for change that tackles head on food shortages, the growing world population, scarce energy reserves and dwindling water supplies. The situation we face at the moment is extremely serious and time is running out for a solution. The SFT has been created with four main goals in mind: to communicate and promote a collective global vision that inspires and supports increased local action; to build a global alliance of key influencers and facilitate collaborative working; to inform and strengthen the influence of public opinion and, lastly, to work to elevate the status of food and farming policy.”
First and foremost the SFT is a participatory platform and a connective tissue, inviting all producers and consumers to take part in the debate, to vocalise concerns about GM foods, supermarket dominance, food security, climate change and environmental damage.
“It is vital that financing should be given to good farming, farming that does no environmental damage. There needs to be complete accountability so that the producers of pollution are made to pay at source. The costs of pollution should be hypothecated in order to allow subsidies to be re-directed to farmers who look after the environment and bio-diversity.”
Patrick knows at first hand the importance of working with nature. In the last 40 years he has managed a 250 acre dairy farm, home to 70 Ayrshire cows, near Lampeter in west Wales. It is the longest established organic dairy farm in Wales and is run bio-dynamically. His son Sam and wife Rachel are cheesemakers on the farm, producing Hafod cheese, an unpasteurised cheddar style cheese. He has always maintained that enough food can be produced organically to feed the world’s burgeoning population as long as our diets change. This would mean a far lower dependency on grains, less meat consumption (in particular white meat such as chicken or pork, both meats from animals reared on a grain intensive diets) and more seasonal, local fruit, vegetables and cereals.
Aine is the Director in charge of communications at SFT and her task is to create an online forum and a social media strategy where the most insightful and influential educators and writers can bring their thoughts and solutions to a wider, collaborative community. She has recently graduated from the Slow Food University of Gastronomy, UNISG, in Bra, Italy and has been working with a Bristol based agency to create the SFT website.
“We are going to publish content and commentary from change-makers, influencers, activists, authors and organisers – those in positions to offer unique insight and inspiration. In a practical sense this means a web-platform that hosts a range of multimedia content: articles, blogs, videos and images. This platform will become a trusted and reliable source of information for opinion and commentary on the latest developments in sustainable food.
Our authors will be established voices of the Sustainable Food Movement, people like Alice Waters, Eric Schlosser and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and also the organisers and community activists that represent the innovators and emerging future leaders. We believe that this is the first time that such a diverse range of engaged and active change-makers will have the opportunity to showcase their work in one place.”
Aine stressed to me how important it is that for a food movement to draw in participants, the website needed to be informative, educational and interesting without doom and gloom mongering. This will be a balancing challenge. We both agree that engaging the interest of the young generation is essential to the success of the SFT, as well as more freely available food educational programmes for mothers and children, who are the hope for generations to come.
As a result of his work with the Soil Association, Patrick has a proven and successful track record at raising money from like-minded organisations and individuals: despite his seriousness and commitment as a campaigner he is also well known for his charm and poise with people from all sorts of backgrounds. Humour is the strongest weapon in breaking down social barriers. He is as comfortable discussing organic farming at Highrove with his close friend the Prince of Wales, who he credits with being one of the most important supporters of the organic movement in the world, as he is promoting the environmental agenda at Downing Street and at the G20 Summit or talking to journalists about the perils of intensive agriculture. He has put his skills of identifying the key influencers and garnering their support to good use.
The founding partner organisations include Ecotricity, Triodos Bank and Compassion in World farming and they have all been invited to contribute content and commentary, either in the form of articles, blog-posts or short-films. Funding has been secured from the Christensen Fund, a San Francisco based private foundation, established in 1957, which donates grants to assist holistic, agro and bio-cultural diversity and food sovereignty in communities all around the world. As difficult as it is in this modern age to get access to sponsorship, the SFT has managed to do so, facing stiff competition.
So what can the organisation bring to the table that the myriad of other campaigning trusts, the Slow Food movement and the Soil Association itself have failed to do? In many ways there is a gap for a body that brings together the various disparate voices of the food movement, not with a singular agenda but with a collective mission.
“There is no need to replicate the work that other organisations are doing, and there are plenty of people very active in the sustainable food movement. What we do need to create is an organisation that brings fragmented issues and groups of people together co-operatively to face the challenges of climate change, food shortages and energy depletion. It’s not a question of “us and them” or trying to create an elitist, empire building clique. The larger challenge in front of us is to transform the current thinking: through thorough research, scientific evidence gathering and transparency the SFT is going to engage not only the attention and support of food policy makers and the multi-nationals that currently drive the agenda, but also the farmers and the consumers who have lost trust and need greater clarity. It is everyone’s right to know where their food comes from, how it is made and produced, and it is our aim to include everyone in the conversation.”
And the conversation is raging all around us. In his “perfect storm” speech, of 2009, the government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor John Beddington, a world expert on the sustainable use of renewable resources, warned of impending world food and water shortages, mass migration, cross border wars and insufficient energy:
“If we don’t address this we can expect major destabilisation, an increase in rioting and significant problems with international migration as people move out to avoid food and water shortages.”
Currently food reserves are at an all time low, and yet by 2030, when the world’s population will reach 8 billion, we will need to produce 50% more food, 50% more energy and 30% more fresh water. Sea levels are rising, glaciers are melting and forest fires are increasing at the same time as pests and diseases threaten harvests in the third world and those countries that have critical land mass and resources to produce food suffer from insufficient or poor storage facilities. As over 1 billion people on earth are now considered by the United Nations to be malnourished, humanity faces a troubled future and more than ever, the resilience and future of farming methods and food sustainably lie in the balance.
To join in the discussion, contribute to the debate and offer your support to the SFT, get in touch with either Patrick or Aine through their website or follow them on Twitter. Let them know what you think: every voice counts.
Sustainable Food Trust: www.sustainablefoodtrust.org
Follow the team on Twitter: @SusFoodTrust