Patrick Holden

Ashoka Fellow
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United Kingdom
Fellow since 2016
This description of Patrick Holden's work was prepared when Patrick Holden was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016.

Introduction

Patrick Holden founded the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) to catalyse the transition towards a more sustainable global food system. Having been a leading pioneer of the organic food market in the UK 30 years ago, Patrick is now building a cross-industry coalition to design and introduce a broader, more inclusive approach to allow for sustainability in farming and food systems to become mainstream. The Sustainable Food Trust serves as a vehicle for Patrick to work with industry, policy makers and consumers to increase demand for sustainable produce and design the necessary tools to implement and measure new best practice.

The New Idea

Patrick Holden founded the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) to catalyse the transition towards a more sustainable global food system. Having been a leading pioneer of the organic food market in the UK 30 years ago, Patrick is now building a cross-industry coalition to design and introduce a broader, more inclusive approach to allow for sustainability in farming and food systems to become mainstream.

Patrick’s aim is to rebuild the food system in a way which allows everyone to become part of the solution. Through influencing individuals and organisations in leadership positions, evidence-based research and knowledge sharing, the SFT aims to develop consensus and cross-field metrics that incentivise everyone – from farmers to food retailers – to strive for incremental progress towards sustainability. The Sustainable Food Trust influences and convenes all stakeholders in the system, pointing out the economic, environmental and human cost of our current food system while moving away from moralised discourses that maintain the status quo and further entrench the polarity between the sustainability movement and mainstream food businesses.
As CEO of the Soil Association – the UK’s biggest organic food organisation – and a practicing farmer himself, Patrick was a key player in establishing the organic market in the UK. However, he realised how he was part of a polarised debate that left farmers as well as consumers with a limited choice between ‘good’ meaning sustainable or ‘bad’ meaning unsustainable production and consumption. To break down this barrier, Patrick builds on the principle of True-Cost-Accounting, showing how seemingly cheap food really comes at huge cost to the environment, animal welfare and public health and creates tools to incentivise more sustainable farming and consumption practices.

The SFT team works on three levels to bring about a transformation in the global food system: industry, consumer and policy. Patrick strategically influences influencers on all levels, making a business case for farmers to produce more sustainably; educating consumers and retailers to purchase quality goods; and promoting policy change through evidence-based research. In keeping with the mission to remain a small, strategic organisation, the SFT acts as a catalyser, educating, influencing and empowering other organisations to deliver changes themselves while focusing on topics that have potential to catalyse industrywide change.

Patrick has convened some of the most influential gatherings in the UK and the US over the last four years and managed to bring big industry players from across sectors (such as Whole Foods, Mars, YUM! Brands and Kaiser Permanente, Sainsburys, Nestle, Unilever), who had not previously talked to each other, to one table. He is working between and within organisations, promoting dialogue among stakeholders, but also working with intermediaries and food retailers to push for internal changes encouraging the use of sustainable produce. At the same time Patrick runs a farm which is pioneering new methods of sustainable food production, now the longest established dairy farm in Wales making cheese from the milk of 80 native breed Ayrshire cows, recycling nutrients, building soil fertility, practicing holistic grazing and working towards self sufficiency in animal feed, bedding and energy. Ultimately, Patrick aims for a mindset shift, promoting the fundamental importance of food to all human beings and arguing that sustainable food should be a right for all.

The Problem

The global food system today is beset by serious challenges and risks. The UN states that there are currently over a billion malnourished people which is only setting the stage for a global population expected to reach 9.5 billion people by 2050, which some are predicting will increase global demand for food by 60%. There is little doubt that producing enough food without doing irreparable damage to biodiversity and to our health is one of the greatest challenges our global community faces. The threats of climate change, decreasing oil supplies, and deteriorating eco-systems are compounded with income-based nutrition and health disparities. Within this framework lies another paradox: whilst millions of people starve, other countries face public health crises such as obesity and diabetes. These global challenges are political, cross-sectoral, and endemic. The true cost of our current food system has tremendous implications for the health of our planet and the social and cultural fabric of communities around the world.
Efforts to introduce more sustainable farming methods, or systems that avoid environmental damage while producing healthy food, such as organic farming, are perceived as increasingly niche and inaccurately dismissed as less economically viable.

Unfortunately there is not currently a business case for farmers to practice agricultural techniques that would both protect the environment and promote public health, as a result of which, only industrial farming methods are considered commercially viable and while these systems produce apparently ‘cheap’ food, the cost to our planet and health is high. True cost accounting estimates the total environmental impact of the UK food system to be approximately £5.7–7.2 billion per year, or at least 6.3–7.9% of the market price of food. Our current food system is damaging eco-systems, soils, water systems and public health - none of which are factored into the price of our food.

Environmental and food activist have often found themselves at odds fighting a similar battle, but producing a dialogue that is fractured and polarised. A gap has increasingly plagued conversations between farmers, environmental activists, and industry stakeholders. There is little room for a unified front that avoids black and white or good vs bad to unify the health, environmental and food movements. As with all complex systems, global food production requires that different stakeholders work together, but no cohesive platform has emerged for them to meet and define what a sustainable food system even looks like. In return, competing and disjointed messages leave no room for sustainability to be financially incentivised.

The Strategy

Patrick’s strategy is to create a path that allows all stakeholders to contribute to and shape a more sustainable food system. The Sustainable Food Trust serves as a vehicle for Patrick to work with industry, policy makers and consumers to increase demand for sustainable produce and design the necessary tools to implement and measure new best practice. To incentivise a transformation of the global food system towards sustainability Patrick works on three levels: industry, policy and consumer.

Patrick knew that in order to change industry he had to reposition himself and collaborate with all stakeholders, regardless of their sustainability standards. Unlike other organisations, who often limited collaboration to those already engaged in sustainability movements, the SFT brings to the table those who hold power in the current food system. The SFT hosts solution-focused conferences that break down ideological barriers and promote open source research and knowledge sharing. To encourage innovation, the SFT brings leaders of niche topics, such as Ashoka Fellows Rob Hopkins from Transition Towns and Tristram Stuart from Feedback, into the conversation, catalysing the impact of many small organisations. He also engages mainstream food industry leaders. At the latest SFT conference Patrick convened leaders from large supermarket chains, fast food companies as well as health care providers such as Kaiser Permanente and major philanthropists such as the Schmidt Family Foundation, who impact farming programmes around the world through their funding. Patrick realised that demonised food retailers such as Pizza Hut are often under pressure to offer more sustainable and healthy products, as the next generations of customers, Millennials, are demanding quality over quantity. However, companies are often at a loss on how to respond to such demands as economic pressure forces them to make unsustainable decisions. This is where the SFT can provide valuable knowledge that equips mainstream and often unsustainable food producers with the tools to promote sustainable practices. SFT conferences allow for all players in the food system to build ‘coalitions of the willing’ and to co-create and introduce incremental steps towards sustainability.

Patrick also influences on a policy level using evidence-based research. Having successfully influenced several farming and agricultural policies and regulations throughout his career (including the organic dairy standards for which he was responsible for drafting), Patrick is now using the SFT as a platform to bring pressing issues onto the international agenda. In order for the small team of the SFT to have exponential impact they focus on few but strategic issues that have potential to bring about policy change on a global level. For example, SFT is currently funding research examining the implications that chemical pesticides, such as Round Up, have on human health. Another example was Patrick’s contribution to the recognition of soil carbon stewardship. Having been one of the first to champion the idea 10 years ago, it has recently been picked up by policy makers at the Paris Climate Change Conference who recommend the methodology as best practice.

An ongoing effort of the SFT is to champion the methodology of True Cost Accounting. Currently, it is more profitable to farm unsustainably than it is to farm sustainably. This is because negative externalities such as the depletion of soil fertility and the impact of intensive livestock farming methods, including animal welfare and the overuse of antibiotics are not reflected in the price of our food, with ’dishonest pricing’ sending perverse messages to consumers. Placing a clear monetary value on the benefits and impacts of different food production systems, would enable the introduction of policy mechanisms to penalise damaging practices and reward the development of systems that deliver positive environmental and public-health outcomes. Amongst others, the SFT lobbies to tie agriculture subsidies to sustainability standards; tax damaging products such as pesticides; and to promote sustainable, healthy diets through health insurance incentives.

The final strand of Patrick’s strategy is to engage and educate the public, tapping into people’s inherent, if often lost, connection to food and nature. Patrick uses storytelling as a tool for behavioural change. After being the first producer to sell organic carrots to Sainsburys in the 1980s, he then developed a bag which carried a picture and the story of their farm proving that this approach is an effective way of empowering consumers to use their buying power for positive change, since despite the higher cost of this organic produce, customers were prepared to pay a higher price. More importantly, it allowed the customer to make more informed decisions —encouraging greater transparency and consumer engagement.

The SFT also curates a well-read website and blog which promotes posts and research from many contributors in the field, including farmers, activists and academics. Furthermore, Patrick is a frequent contributor to podcasts, TV, and social media. In order to allow people to experience what sustainable farming looks like, he invites influencers, schools, as well as the general public to his farm.

Lastly, he is in the process of launching a new initiative, working with other certifiers and sustainability experts to launch a new and transparent auditing system for food products, where the sustainability of a product is graded on a scale rather than in absolute terms. It is not the ambition of the SFT to write and own such standards, but rather to act as a catalyst encouraging collaboration amongst organisations who’s buying power will be needed to ensure that such standards are widely applicable and adopted.

Patrick has built a global network of influencers and at the same time has cultivated a narrative that empowers everyone to promote a more sustainable food system. Stimulating and supporting the momentum of public pressure on thought leadership and policy, the SFT is driving our food systems to a tipping point where businesses are incentivised to contribute to more sustainable food system resulting in a virtuous circle of public health and environmental sustainability.

The Person

Patrick was born in Braintree Essex. The son of a doctor, his family lived mainly in London, but moved to the country side for a year where he discovered his passion for nature. He spent most of his time outdoors, digging ponds, and looking after his many pets including frogs, newts, and birds. Patrick finished school, but never went to university, instead doing a period of community service before studying biodynamic agriculture in preparation for his farming career. When he was 20 Patrick joined his family in Palo Alto California while his father was on a sabbatical at Stanford University. The time he spent in California had a huge impact on him and was the inspiration behind his ‘back to the land’ farming project. It was already a widespread perception in the 1960s that the late twentieth century faced a combination of a human population explosion as well as an environmental crisis, causing Patrick to believe that the world was on the verge of an ecological and social breakdown.

Upon his return to the UK Patrick and five friends moved to a remote farm in West Wales where they started a self-sustaining commune. As the commune gradually disintegrated, Patrick stayed and has farmed the same land ever since. Once the farm was up and running, Patrick became frustrated that there was no organised organic food producer movement, so he convened a meeting of pioneer organic farmers which led to the establishment of British Organic Producers which later merged with the Soil Association. During the 1980s Patrick was also centrally involved in the development of organic standards including the world’s first standards for dairy production. Under Patrick’s leadership at the Soil Association the charity grew from five to over 200 staff members, income rose from £200,000 to £10 million and sales of organic produce in the UK grew from less than £10m to £2.5b. Patrick was the driving force behind various reforms and regulations and introduced organic standards that were later implemented across the EU. Recognising his influence in the field Patrick was awarded a CBE for his services to organic farming in 2005.

More recently, not withstanding the importance of organic standards, Patrick recognised that they represent a binary approach, where you’re either certified or not, and this polarisation between producer communities could become part of the problem rather than the solution. Since he left the Soil Association Patrick has strongly focused on a more inclusive and reconciling approach, preferring to avoid the confrontational posters often adopted by environmental NGOs in favour of a more inclusive approach. “There is no doubt that we have upset the conventional farming community by continually saying we were right and they were wrong,” he said at the Wales Organic Producers’ Conference in 2011. “We should not be out there thinking and talking of ourselves as organic farmers, because that separates us from the rest of the farming community.” This wish, to be less exclusively focused on the organic brand was a factor in his decision to leave the Soil Association and start his own organisation, the Sustainable Food Trust. While his previous career gave him unique experience in how to work with industry and government, his roots as a practicing farmer continue to give him all important credibility and perspective.

Patrick is striving to create a farm which will serve as a model to pioneer sustainable farming practices, as well as an educational hub to share best practice where he is able to demonstrate the interconnectedness of soil, farming practices, and food as well as the impact these relationships have on public health and the well-being of our planet. For example, Patrick proves on his farm the value of ruminant grazing and the vital importance of grass-fed rather than grain-fed beef in sustaining the health and fertility of our soils. He views his farm as a living cell, and believes if we understand the small we can influence the big. Today, Patrick’s farm is the longest established organic dairy farm in Wales with a herd of 80 Ayrshire cows and an artesian cheese business. In a continuous effort to influence influencers Patrick was one of the people whose guidance resulted in Prince Charles adopting sustainable farming techniques at his farm, Highgrove, where the SFT now organises learning days to teach others about the importance of sustainable farming practices.