Feeding the World Sustainably: a Practitioner’s Perspective

by Patrick Holden

What does a food system that sustainably and nutritiously feeds the world look like? How do we build a food system that feeds the world, provides jobs, minimizes negative environmental impact and benefits everyone (producers, processors, sellers, consumers) along the farm to fork food chain? These are the questions we asked ourselves last week, along with David Chang and the World Bank (watch those discussions here), and which we will continue to explore on this site.

Here is Patrick Holden, the founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, offering his take:

It is enormously significant that the World Bank has decided to hold a very public debate about these vitally important questions. Few researchers, policy makers, and food NGO’s would now deny that these are exactly the issues that need to be resolved if we are to prevent a future global food crisis. However, although intellectually most people would now sign up to the need for a discussion of this kind, the apparent abundance and choice of low-priced food in the supermarkets gives rise to a condition of false optimism. This is perhaps reinforced by a belief that somehow technology will sort out the problems we now face such as climate change, resource depletion, and growing food insecurity and will magically enable farmers to double their yields on less land through so called “sustainable intensification.”

As a long-haired twenty year old, this state of what I considered to be delusional optimism definitely didn’t apply to me. I was an urban refugee, a Londoner influenced by an infusion of Californian thinking, derived from an extended stay in the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 70s. As a result of this stay, I became convinced that the world was on the edge of an ecological breakdown, and the only sensible response was to get back to the land and develop a sustainable and self-sufficient system of food production.

And so it came to pass that a group of six of us, a manifestation of the early experiment in communal living, moved to a run-down hill farm in West Wales. At the time, however, I was much more interested in designing a food system that would feed my friends and family than one that would feed the world. But in actuality most of the principles which informed our efforts were very similar to those which hero of the environment Thomas Harttung has raised to frame this debate.

We established a native breed dairy herd, producing milk that was initially sold through the national Milk Marketing Board coop for yogurt and cheese. We then went on to grow wheat for flour production and vegetables—mainly carrots for sale in local whole-food shops. This now seems like a long time ago, but as it happens, I am still resident on the same hill farm some forty-two years later, which places me in the unusual and privileged position of being able to assess the impact of my attempts to develop more sustainable farming and food system over time, both physically and financially. These strivings towards more sustainable food production methods have two distinct dimensions–before and after the farm gate. For the purposes of this discussion, I shall treat them separately.

My farming system objectives were to produce as much high quality food as possible, whilst minimizing the use of non-renewable external inputs, including mineral fertilizers and fossil fuel energy. That way I could reduce emissions and environmental pollution, whilst at least maintaining, and preferably building, soil fertility and other forms of natural capital. I also wanted our food system to be as self sufficient and resilient against the external “shocks: as possible, in terms of nutrients, seeds, animal feeds, and bedding. I wanted my farm to be agriculturally diverse as well to preserve diversity. This included the crop varieties, livestock breeds, wild plants, insects, birds, and animals. Finally, I needed to provide a reasonable economic return for myself and my fellow communards, as well as a high quality of life, in order to compensate for the isolation and all the hard physical work on our remote Welsh hill.

How did we get on? Well, as one might have predicted, the commune didn’t last long–in fact only around 18 months. But some four decades later, most aspects of the farming system we have developed are actually working rather well. We have not used any soluble chemical fertilizers or pesticides for over 40 years, and are well on the way towards self sufficiency in nutrient cycling, animal feed, and bedding. Soil fertility has also increased, as evidenced by higher yields of all the crops we are growing, which are mainly clover grass mixtures cut and grazed, but also oats, peas and, during some of the twenty years of my time here, vegetables.

My key conclusion, derived from the above experience, is that in developing truly sustainable food systems, one needs to start with the individual farm, which could be regarded as a “cell” in the organism of the wider system. If one can achieve cellular health, then as a direct follow on result, the food system as a whole has the potential to be healthy, vital, and hopefully viable. From my farming experience, I also believe that through the basic principles of sustainability and the practice of the law of return, a return to mixed farming, minimizing use of non-renewable inputs and building system resilience whilst at the same time protecting biodiversity and maintaining or even building soil fertility, could be applied on a global scale, without jeopardizing the potential of future farming systems to produce acceptable yields of high-quality food.

Even the peak population, whatever it ends up being, could be fed from such systems as long as we drastically reduce waste and adjust our diets to accord with the output of the sustainable farming systems. Really it is as simple as adhering to the ideas and the discipline that inform the principles of the Circular Economy, namely that everything is finite.

Critics might respond by suggesting that transposing the experience the lessons learned from the wet welsh hill farm right across the world, is both naive and totally unrealistic. In response, I would say that having travelled widely and visited many farms of all scales in different climatic zones, continents and soil types all over the world, from African small holdings to large European and South American arable and grassland estates, I have reached the conclusion that the same basic principles of sustainability as described above are of universal potential in their application.

However, so far I have not touched on economic viability. Let me be honest here and state that for most of the time, I have found it necessary to supplement my income from my small farm through a day job, and although I can think of many farmers who are managing to make a living through the application of sustainable principles, many if not most of them have either been catering for niche markets or have particularly well-developed entrepreneurial and business skills.

In summary, there is still a better business case for farming unsustainably, due largely to the failure of policymakers to ensure that food producers are not made financially accountable or conversely rewarded in relation to the external costs and benefits arising from different farming systems. So long as this is the case, it is unlikely that the scale of sustainable farming systems will be able to expand from its present glass ceiling status of less than 5% of the total farmed area and become mainstream.

I will conclude by sharing my beyond-the-farm-gate marketing experiences. Before doing so, l should state that in my opinion, truly sustainable and resilient food systems should ideally be designed in such a way that the maximum percentage of the ‘indigenous’ staple foods that are consumed by any particular population should be produced, processed, packed and distributed to the population centres as near as possible to the point of production.

One might refer to this approach as the ‘proximity principle’, a direction of travel which is arguably the opposite of the present industrialised commodity based globalised production and distribution systems which supermarkets rely on to source most of their products. Of course this approach should be seen as a general aim, rather than an ideology or dogma, since many countries, including the UK and Japan to name but two, have a structural incapacity to feed themselves, and in any case, large cities such as London, have enormous ‘food footprints’ which will require sophisticated, but hopefully still sustainable supply systems. One example from the past which comes to mind is the overnight milk train which used to connect the Welsh milk field to London until the Government dismembered the regional railway system in the sixties and seventies.

Over the 40 years I have farmed here in West Wales, I have undertaken, or been a part of a number of attempts, some farm-based, some involving cooperatives, and some involving companies, move towards more relocalized and sustainable processing and distribution systems, based on the above principles, but if I am honest, most of them have either not been economically viable or have failed to develop to scale.

Here is a brief overview of the fate of some of these projects: With milk, a group of us formed a small cooperative of dairy farmers supplying a local dairy producing artisan cheeses to supermarkets, but unfortunately a combination of competitive pricing and quality problems eventually lead to the company’s demise.

Since then, on our farm we have opted for 100% vertical integration. We are now processing nearly all of our milk into a cheddar cheese, made on the farm. This project is going well, but due to the failure of policy makers to recognise and reward the external environmental and social benefits of such a re-localised operation, which include additional employment and much more besides, the irony is that in order to cover our costs, we are having to price the cheese as a high-end artisanal product, uncompetitive on most supermarket shelves, and instead selling in specialist cheese outlets and restaurants where customers can afford the premiums, mainly in London, although some of our cheese is even exported to America.

This issue, of so called economies of scale and the economic advantages stemming from the ‘larger is more profitable’ reality which is only made so in a world of false accounting, is the enemy of many sustainability projects. It is made worse by the blunt instrument of a draconian regulatory system, which as an example rightly bears down heavily on large slaughter houses which pose great health risks, but ironically ends up favouring their survival, by diluting the costs per animal inspected, as a consequence making life impossible for small slaughterhouses who pose far less health risks to the consumer and are infinitely more welfare friendly to the animals.

With vegetables, it was largely the same experience. I started by selling to local whole-food shops before developing specialist markets in London as our carrot production expanded. Groups of UK organic producers then formed national co-operatives supplying regional pack houses in what could have been a brilliant experiment in re-localised regional distribution, but unfortunately the supermarkets saw it differently. For both business and profitability reasons, perfectly understandable in a world where the polluter doesn’t pay and economies of scale are more profitable, even though they have negative environmental and social consequences, they preferred the business model whereby all their meat, dairy products and vegetables should be produced in one area and then centrally packed, as a result of which all the regional pack houses had to close and the pioneering organic vegetable company virtually went out of business.

In describing these relatively negative outcomes, I am not suggesting for one moment that these are not potentially excellent models for re-localising food systems – in fact the reverse. I strongly believe that moving towards truly resilience and sustainable food systems on a global scale will inevitably require a major shift away from the current globalised centralised systems towards regional and re-localised distribution.

However, we should not underestimate the barriers to enabling the change. In addition to consumer demand, the transition will require investment in new infrastructure on the scale of a war effort, a proposition for which there is little political enthusiasm at the present time! Because of this, the shift towards sustainable food systems will be characterised by evolution rather than revolution. It will involve small but progressive steps towards more sustainable sourcing, and feature new start up businesses, as well as large food companies and retailers responding to shifting consumer demand.

There is growing evidence that the public, especially the younger generation, are encouraging such a shift. Rather like animals that know when the tsunami is coming, many young people are mindful of emerging food security and sustainability issues, and as a consequence are using their purchasing power to preferentially seek out sustainable produced, regional and artisan products and in doing so, abandoning their historic loyalty to anonymous, industrialised, heavily branded products.