11 July 2019, 14:50 PM
  • The founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust talks about the sustainability agenda
Patrick Holden on a new chapter in food

I believe we are entering a new chapter in UK food and farming history, driven by a combination of public concern about climate change, a growing recognition that transforming our food and farming systems may hold one of the keys to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, concerns about the impact of industrial and chemical farming systems on public health, and growing awareness from within the farming community itself that food production based on high levels of chemical inputs is bad for the environment, destroys soil fertility and reduces food producers to the role of commodity slavery without any tangible benefits either to themselves or the wider public interest.

The food industry needs to respond to growing consumer interest in products which are sourced more sustainably and have better provenance. To achieve this, we need a new means which measures and assesses all elements of on-farm sustainability and is inclusive not exclusive. Such a sustainability assessment would enable consumers to identify the degree of sustainability of all the foods they buy, using a scoring system based on an annual sustainability audit which would be a requirement for the receipt of future public purse support. The food industry need to play their part in food sourcing and food labelling, thereby empowering their customers to buy into the new sustainability agenda.

As a producer, I am currently required to undertake around five audits a year, each of which is costly, bureaucratic and time consuming, at the end of which I know little or nothing about whether my farming system is any more sustainable than it was last year. The other side of the farm gate, consumers are equally confused, faced as they are with a plethora of different certification schemes, all of which are using different assessment tools. If we could engineer the harmonisation of sustainability assessment, farmers would be massive beneficiaries, not least because they would be able to measure their own improvements in sustainability year on year against a framework which would enable comparison with others. The demise of independent retailers and localised processing, packing and retailing infrastructure which has been occurring throughout my farming lifetime is in part directly related to the commoditisation and industrialisation of our food systems. If there was a societal commitment to relocalising the production, packing, processing and distribution of sustainably produced food, this would create the conditions for a renaissance for small and localised artisan processors and associated retail infrastructure.

Under the Obama administration, the United States Department of Agriculture ran a programme ‘know your farm and know your food’ – such a simple slogan, but actually getting to the very heart of the issues I have been discussing. If we all used our consumer buying power as individual cells in the food system organism, whether we are individual householders, small food householders, small food businesses or larger operations, we could co-create a new food system which would address climate change, restore biodiversity, minimise use of nonrenewable external inputs, including water, soil, energy and nutrients, enhance rural employment, and enhance the wellbeing of all those involved with the wider food community including schools, hospitals, and all other institutions who are engaged with sourcing food for their employees.

I’d like to see a commitment to support the emergence of an internationally harmonised sustainability assessment tool, the use of which would enable the use of a sustainability score carried on all future food products. Also, every food business, small and large, introducing a transparent mission statement which would inform its future sourcing policy.

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