Patrick Holden: Organic Needs Top Down, Bottom Up, And In-The-Middle Action
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Our Patrick Holden interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dave Chapman interviews Patrick Holden, January 10, 2024
Dave Chapman 00:11
Welcome to The Real Organic Podcast. Today is going to be just a little bit different, I’m going to be having a conversation with Patrick Holden, of the Sustainable Food Trust in England. And so I’m going to introduce myself a little more thoroughly. I’m Dave Chapman, because some of Patrick’s people will be listening to this as well. And I’ve been an organic farmer for 41 some years.
Dave Chapman 00:38
And actually, one of my very first teachers, Patrick was Eliot Coleman, who I know is an old friend of yours. And he just lived down the road and and I was very fortunate as a young man to encounter him at a gas station, and we became friends, quite good friends. And I’ve been a mixed vegetable farmer, and now I grow tomatoes in a greenhouse in the soil, I have to say that now, because in America, a lot of the certified organic tomatoes are hydroponic. And I also am a co founder of the Real Organic Project, which we can talk about what that means. And So Patrick, now, let me have you introduce yourself.
Patrick Holden 01:24
Well, Dave, thank you so much for inviting me to this podcast. I’ve be looking forward to speaking with you. Because I think it’s so important that we share our stories because we are joined at the hip, and we go back a long way. I’m Patrick Holden, I’m an organic dairy farmer, and cheese producer from West Wales.
Patrick Holden 01:48
And we just celebrated 50 years on our farm last July, and we had a big party to celebrate. And it’s wonderful that you mentioned Eliot, because he is a good friend, and arguably the elder of the organic horticultural movement in the USA. Just down the road from me, eight miles down the road, is a man called Peter Segger, who’s also a friend of Eliot’s, who invited Eliot to speak at a very early conference at Cirencester of the organic movement. I think it might have been 1981 or 1982. So we go back a long way. And I look forward to having this discussion with you.
Patrick Holden 02:29
I’m also the founder and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. But before that, I worked for maybe just over 20 years at the Soil Association, during which time I was involved with with others in developing the organic standards, and the marketplace in the UK.
Dave Chapman 02:48
Wonderful. All right. Well, we have a lot to talk about. Let me start to create a little context. You came from an – you grew up in the city, you came from an urban background, and you were part of a back to the land movement. Could you talk about when you went to Wales? Why you did that? And did organic even exist in your mind at that point?
Patrick Holden 03:15
Yes, it’s hard to remember exactly how the word organic came into my vocabulary. But interestingly enough, the first farm I worked on in my life was, although I’d been on some farms as a child, and I’ll come back to that in a sec – was in Hampshire. It was an intensive dairy farm. The man running it was a man called Harry Han. And I remember the first day I arrived because I answered an advertisement in a local newspaper “help wanted on dairy farm.” And he said, “What are you interested in?” I said “organic farming.”
Patrick Holden 03:50
The year was 1971. And I had come back fresh from California because my dad, I grew up in London, my dad was a doctor, and then a child psychiatrist. And he was posted out to Palo Alto, to Stanford, where he was a visiting professor during the years 1970 and 71. And that took me to Palo Alto. And then I spent the best part of a year in the San Francisco Bay Area, at an amazing time. How lucky I was to be there. And I came under lots of influences.
Patrick Holden 04:28
Really, that was, I think, a seminal moment in my development so that I came back to England in the late summer of 1971, convinced that I wanted to get back to the land and set up a rural community which would live self sufficiency of the land and all those kind of ideas which were prevalent at that time. The Greening of America, a book by Charles Wright was a huge influence on me. And just everybody else I met at that time, but before then I just had an urban childhood. But because my parents had a love of wild places, I had been on holidays in Cornwall and Devon, and then Scotland.
Patrick Holden 05:04
And then in 1966, my parents brought her ruined croft on the Isle of Skye. So I would say that if I was to sort of think back to all the influences on me during my childhood, it was glimpses of nature and kind of ecosystems. And so it was a love of nature and being touched by nature. That took me into farming via San Francisco.
Dave Chapman 05:30
Yeah. So, of course, that was such a different time. And it was my time, too – I graduated high school in 71. And it was, in America, it was a time of phenomenal change. I think it was really, the Vietnam War was the engine that drove that change. But a lot of things were changing, a lot of new ideas were being asked, and we’re still trying to work those ideas out. And I’m, I’m curious, when you went back to think of organic, what did that mean to you?
Patrick Holden 06:08
What does it mean? I think it really meant farming, although I wouldn’t have used these words, then. But it would.. it meant farming in harmony with nature, and avoiding chemicals. And I remember when I got back to England, looking around the countryside, and seeing all these kind of lured shades of green and blue, blueish-green, which are the result of nitrogen fertilizer on the crops which were growing in the fields of the south of England. I had this very strong reaction against it. And I thought this is an artificial landscape which has been colored by chemicals.
Patrick Holden 06:43
And because organic farming, I think the word was coined by a man called Lord Northbourne, who wrote a book called Land and Spirit. A wonderful book, actually. And then of course, there were lots of other people who took the word on and developed it. Lady Balfour, I’m sure we’ll speak about some of these people, and then on your side of the water, Rodale and the Rodale Institute and others. But in a way, I know that there’s probably a long conversation to have about why we alighted on the word organic.
Patrick Holden 07:16
Because certainly in the UK, during the early 80s, we had a big debate about whether we should call organic farming organic farming, even though the word was already around and had been for some time. And we said, should it be biological? Or then if you look in on the.. in Europe, ecological? Because if you look at Germany, France and Denmark… and Scandinavian countries, those words are the words that are used to describe it, not organic. Even though of course the all those people speak English and use the word organic farming. So it’s fascinating how we alighted on that.
Patrick Holden 07:51
But yeah, that’s, that’s, that’s my recollection of it. And in a way that matters, because I think the word was coining a philosophy and a set of principles, and their practical application in agriculture, which is what really motivated me much more than organic farming. It was, it was this idea of farming in harmony with nature, of aligning myself with those kind of natural ecosystems of which I now realize, I am absolutely part.
Patrick Holden 08:27
And I think I did already know that, because music was a big influence on me. There were lots of, you know, musicians at that time, Neil Young comes to mind After The Gold Rush, “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s”. But there were many more bands and musicians who were interested in this kind of thing and that touched me very deeply. So it’s music and love of nature, which took me into farming. And when you have a love of nature and ecology, when you apply that mentality and approach into farming, of course, you come up with a system of farming, which we’ve called organic farming.
Dave Chapman 09:00
Yeah. So one of the things that seem to be part of organic farming is it was a response to a growing chemical farming. And, you know, I think that’s where.. I grew up on a dairy farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. And, you know, I’m trying to remember were we using herbicides and I just can’t remember, I know we were using… go ahead.
Patrick Holden 09:30
I don’t think so because they weren’t really, they didn’t come into common use until I think the 80s. As far as I could remember. Pesticides were used, but they were sort of crude ones in the early days, horrible ones, like the ones that Rachel Carson wrote about. But they weren’t herbicides.. were I think, they came later. And certainly in the UK, I could say that, although pesticides were used, probably from the end of the Second World War onward. And of course that’s a story in its own right. They weren’t widely used until I would say, the end of the 70s. And the 80s.
Dave Chapman 10:08
Yeah, we were a fairly what now would be extremely idealic dairy farm. You’ve talked about the story that we imbibe about what a farm is, well, we actually were that farm. I mean, it was cows going out to pasture every day for, you know, over half the year, and rotating the pastures. It wasn’t the kind of, I would say high-skill pastures that, that have evolved, you know, wasn’t that mob grazing, rotational, you know, the cows are on there for two days, and then they’re off or they’re on there for six hours and then they’re off. It wasn’t like that. But it was quite beautiful, you know, and we, we grew a great deal of the cows’ feed on the farm. And there was no confinement in the winter, they were in the barn. So it’s interesting, you know, I… that was so recent, that was my childhood, that – that was the norm for dairy farming in America. And of course, chicken farming and vegetable farming and all of that…well, things have changed.
Patrick Holden 11:16
Because we come from the same time. That’s my experience, too. When we first started, when we first moved to West Wales, in the summer of 73, normal farming was exactly as you describe. Small family dairy farms, very small, there were 1000s of them. And they all were selling their milk in churns still, this is in the early 70s. And bulk tanks, which are now everywhere, didn’t really come in in Wales until the mid 70s. So we were taking our milk down to the bottom of the farm lane every day in churns. And when we got to 10 that meant 100 gallons – of UK gallons.
Patrick Holden 11:59
That was really a moment. And there’s a wonderful book of photographs called The Recent Past, which is actually photographs of farmers in North Devon in the 60s and the early 70s. And it’s so evocative, and it was quite literally the recent past and yet how things have changed during our farming lifetimes. It’s incredible. And it’s easy to forget that, it’s easy to forget how recently all this stuff changed so dramatically, and it’s still changing.
Dave Chapman 12:29
And there’s a story being told that we’ll all starve to death if we don’t follow that change, which I don’t think is true. We weren’t starving to death back then. So why did, why did that change happen?
Patrick Holden 12:42
Well, I mean, I’m just repeating a narrative, which maybe, is mostly true. But perhaps I’m just copying it as it were. The Second World War caused food insecurity, because the German U boats were sinking all the convoys coming across from your place to ours. And so everybody was worried about feeding themselves. And of course, there was a lot of hunger, people had to change their diets. And ironically, people were very, fed themselves very well during the Second World War, because they changed their diets, and they had more raw and unprocessed food and probably a better balance of diets. Not so much highly-Western processed foods, and more natural foods.
Patrick Holden 13:23
But at the end of the war, fertilizers using the Haber Bosch process, were.. had been created in factories, and the opportunity to use those factories to create nitrogen fertilizer came along. And in the UK, we had a thing called the 1947 Agricultural Act, which was the response to food shortages, which said we had to grow two blades of grass were one grew before. And so the governments subsidized crops – grain crops, milk, commodity crops. So farmers had the chemistry to increase their yields.
Patrick Holden 13:58
And then of course, later, as we just discussed, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides became available to suppress the pests, diseases and weeds, which were the inevitable consequence of agricultural intensification of long runs of arable crops. So the whole thing was a government-sponsored response to food insecurity during the Second World War, and also a belief that technology could solve the problems of the past which… were portrayed as farmers liberating themselves from the tyranny of work on the land, and, you know, developing technologies, which could make our food production more efficient. Is that your story?
Dave Chapman 14:39
Yeah. Yeah, we didn’t. We didn’t have the u-boats. You know, and we.. I don’t, I don’t know that there was food insecurity that was widespread in the US, but it certainly seemed like there was a belief that it was a smarter way to go and a more profitable way to grow. And I don’t think there was much consciousness of consequences – health consequences, climate consequences. I just think that was not part of the conversation when I was young.
Patrick Holden 15:17
Well… I read a statistic just the other day that if you look at the degree of food self sufficiency of different countries all over the world, the US still is a net surplus producer of food. So I guess that was never in your narrative food, food insecurity, because you always have boundless acres of land, where extractive farming could not only feed your population, but also be a source of income from exports.
Dave Chapman 15:45
Yes …until the music stops playing. Right, which, you know, we’re seeing, we’re seeing members of the band leaving. So we’ll see what happens. Tell me – but before we go to this – tell me how you got involved with the Soil Association. In other words, you took it from your farm, and a personal decision to join a movement. I think that’s a very significant development.
Patrick Holden 16:13
Well, I come from a family of missionaries, so maybe there’s something sort of epigenetic. But I remember when I felt part of a movement, which was a flowering of a change of consciousness. And I think many of us felt that during that time. The kind of Woodstock time and the Isle of Wight Festival time and the time of wonderful, amazing music and this feeling of feeling of a revolution of love and consciousness, which connected with a whole generation of young people with a tremendous sense of idealism. I was absolutely intoxicated by that. And I felt this huge optimism that we could respond to what we already perceived that was the ecological crisis, by getting back to the land and living more in harmony with nature – that was absolutely what took me in.
Patrick Holden 17:02
And then once I got involved with that, I realized that there are organizations representing that movement, although they came from a different time, they came from the wealth. And The Soil Association was set up by Lady Eve Balfour in 1946, just after the war. But I knew that there were some organic farmers already around who’d been practicing some time. So when I was learning my trade, as it were, after I worked on that dairy farm in Hampshire, I decided to study organic farming. And the only course that I could find at the time was a course in Biodynamic Agriculture at Emerson College in Sussex. So I attended that course. And then there, when I was there, I met a man called David Stickland, who was connected with the Soil Association. He set up a separate organization after that, but he was editor of the Soil Association Quarterly Review, which was their magazine.
Patrick Holden 17:54
And then I met the local group with the Soil Association, of course, because I was at Emerson College studying but organic agriculture, I met lots of biodynamic farmers. So, those were all massive influences on me. And when the commune landed in West Wales in 73, we sought out like-minded fellow travelers, of whom there were quite a lot, because it was kind of Britain’s California at that time. There was cheap land and, you know, you could be free. Very unlike California in terms of its weather, but the atmosphere was kind of similar. And so we decided to set up a group called the West Wales Soil Association.
Patrick Holden 18:31
And we got into campaigns, we stopped a long sea sewage outfall going out from Aberystwyth, we started tree planting, all that kind of stuff. And that led me to becoming involved on a voluntary basis with the Soil Association and then, stand for council, which I did in 1981. I didn’t get elected the first time, then I stood again the next year and got onto the council. And that heralded in a new chapter of my life, which was initially working on a voluntary basis for the organic organizations.
Patrick Holden 19:02
And then later, from about 1988 onwards, in a paid capacity because I was also involved with setting up two organizations representing organic farmers and growers, namely the Organic Growers Association, and British Organic Farmers. So I was I joined the existing organizations, and then created new ones, and then became fairly centrally involved with the Soil Association from the end of the 80s onwards.
Dave Chapman 19:33
So you got to know Lady Eve, I believe, is that correct?
Patrick Holden 19:38
I did and there was what has been described as a coup. The group of us who got elected onto the Soil Association were pretty young at that time, in our 30s, even some in our 20s. We had the audacity to believe that it was important to put organic principles into practice and develop a separate market for organic foods. And the people who were the disciples and colleagues of Lady Eve at that time on the Council were aging. And they were totally committed to the philosophy, but they didn’t really think that organic farming should be commercialized because they saw that as a danger. A danger in terms of diluting the philosophy and the principles.
Patrick Holden 20:24
So when we came along and said, “yeah, we’ve got to set up a market because we can’t make it farming in the in, in an organic way, when we’re competing against people who are having subsidies of chemicals and guaranteed prices.” So really the need to develop the organic standards came – I’m speaking personally, but I know this is a shared view – from a maybe about 100 organic farmers and growers in the early 80s who said, “Well, look, we need to define a system of farming, which is addressing all the needs, farming more sustainably in harmony with nature” write that down more or less on the back of an envelope at the time, and then take our story, because it was a storytelling exercise, to the media, because they fell in love with us at that time, to the market, and develop a story which people would buy into by paying a premium for foods produced in that way. So it was a kind of market and set of standards. And a system born out of necessity, which then developed as it did.
Dave Chapman 21:28
I just want to I want to, you know, put a bookmark on what you just said, because I think it it’s a very important conflict or coming together. And I will say that I think both sides were right. I think that that Lady Eve camp was right, that went as you bring this into commerce, it’s going to get buffeted by those forces and twisted. And if you don’t bring it into commerce, it’s never going to scale. And you know, we have to find some way to grow this food in a way that people can make a living doing it. And, or it will be very small indeed, it will, you know, essentially be estates and in home gardens. And nothing wrong with that.
Dave Chapman 22:13
My, my best friend when I was a kid, his mother was an organic gardener. She read Rodale’s magazine and she had delicious food from the garden that we ate every night at dinner. I ate there a lot. And so that’s a, that’s a real thing. But in order to take this and change the landscape, we have to take it to a commercial system of some kind. And so I agree with with that. So you went on, you , you became the director of the Soil Association? Did I get that right, Patrick?
Patrick Holden 22:49
Dave Chapman 22:49
And you also famously wrote the first organic standards for for cattle, for dairy farms, right?
Patrick Holden 22:57
Yeah, I was.. I joined the Organic Livestock Standards Committee as part of the Standards Development Exercise, which was hosted by the Soil Association. And we were just a bunch of young people, “Young Turks” the people who were, as it were ousted by us, we were known as. And but I actually I never answered your question about Lady Eve. I did know Lady Eve. And she was by this time in her 80s. And I think slightly confused by what was going on with all of us Young Turks because she liked us. And her friend and colleague, Mary Llanddwyn, who became a very close friend of mine that worked with Eve throughout her life. She basically told Eve that we were okay, we were good people.
Patrick Holden 23:42
And yet all Lady Eve’s friends and disciples on the Council were saying “no, these people are dangerous, because they’re just going to commercialize things.” But of course, that we were born… our interests was born out of our idealism. It was never a desire to make money, it was more of a survival thing than a money making thing. But I don’t think everybody understood that at that time. So back into that, and I didm so I did not only know Lady Eve, I went to see her when she was in very late life and then I spoke to her memorial service. So I had a great affection for her. And I think she was a remarkable and amazing woman.
Patrick Holden 24:14
And, by the way, the man who was responsible for taking the organic standards into the UK Government, a man called John Gummer, who’s has now been enobled and is called Lord Deben. He also spoke at Lady Eve’s memorial service. And he was at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, which I’ve just got back from. He’s now an organic farmer. So he was the Minister of Agriculture, who decided that the government needed to take on the organic standards. And unlike your story on your side of the pond, that Minister a totally gets all the things that you and I the principles that you and I share, which is rather fascinating. He’s now left Parliament, and he was Chair of the UK Climate Change Committee and he was interviewed the other day in Oxford, and basically was saying all the things that we would say, which is rather interesting.
Patrick Holden 25:06
But I think you’re right that when a set of principles and a philosophy is commercialized, there are attendant risks. So we were on the Livestock Standards Committee, somebody said, “Well, you’re an organic dairy farmer, whatever that means” you..at that time nobody even thought about organic livestock standards, “you’re doing it, you might as well write the standards down.” So that’s literally what we did. And the standards then formed the Soil Association, Livestock Standards, then John Gummer and the UK Government, took them in House in 1987. And then in 1992, the EU Organic Regulation followed. And then when did the National Organic Program start? That was a bit later, was it 24? Something like that?
Dave Chapman 25:50
I think it gets started 21, 22, something like that. So it’s been around for about 20 years. Yeah. Yeah. So by the time it kind of, I mean, we already had our own organizations with our own organic standards. You know, long before that.
Patrick Holden 26:11
Oh I know that. I met, when I came back, I came back to the IFOAM Conference in Santa Cruz in 1986, and met all the CCOF people, you know. So I know, I know a lot about your organic standards development because I was working internationally as part of the Soil Association, and have friends, organic friends all over the world.
Dave Chapman 26:31
And until very recently, almost all the organic standards around the world, essentially agreed with each other. In other words, that it’s not that people were really having different definitions of organic until recently, until the USDA started to change.
Patrick Holden 26:48
Dave Chapman 26:49
And, you know, twist the standards quite, quite substantially. Now we have organic CAFOs of chickens, of cattle, dairy, you know, large, large confinement operations being certified as organic. We have hydroponic berries, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, being certified as organic – things that would be unthinkable in the world standards, but only in the US. Unfortunately, the US has, has such a large shadow, I’m not convinced that it will remain only in the US. So that’s the battle that is going on. So did you feel that your work at the Soil Association was successful? Was organic growing? Was it being Real Organic, in your opinion?
Patrick Holden 27:44
Yeah, I do. And I think that we created a movement, the organic movement, which came together every year at various conferences and events that we hosted, which created the most fantastic atmosphere. And there were a group of us who did that. And Peter Segger, who I’ve already mentioned, was one of those. And we we organized around this annual conference which took place at Cirencester, which brought together all the early pioneers of the organic system, the people of my generation. And the event was cultural, it was spiritual. It was a sharing of ideas. We partied all night. They were fantastic gatherings.
Patrick Holden 28:29
And I think that the media, who told the stories that we were developing ourselves, came to trust us. And I think that the fact that the organic market grew quite rapidly, certainly when you know, it was between, I guess, the beginning of the 90s and about 2008, when we had the big recession. There was double digit growth every year, there was a huge amount of trust and optimism in the organic movement. And then the clouds started to gather on the horizon. We can talk about those. But I don’t think the dilution problem that you are experiencing, have experienced for many years now, was as prevalent. And one of the reasons for that was that when we were threatened, as we would see it, with hydroponic production, we went to the UKROFS, the United Kingdom Registered Organic Food Standards Committee. And we said “you cannot allow non soil-based organic production,” and we won the argument. And then because we’d won the argument in the UK, I think that sort of transferred into the EU. Since we unfortunately Brexited it’s all been a bit different since then. That’s a, that’s another story.
Patrick Holden 29:43
But I think that we survived and although there is, has been a dilution of standards in some areas, we could discuss that, I don’t think that that was ever a real threat. But what I do think, is that if you look at and I’ve heard Michael Pollan say this, if you add the amount of organic production there is in the UK and all the local foods who might not be certified but are basically running along organic principles, you add them all up together, it’s only tops 5% of the market. And now we know because of Climate Change and the need to transform the whole of agriculture, that unless we find a message and a story in a transition pathway, which eventually embraces all the farming community, we won’t reverse the Climate Change and nature loss, which is going on at the moment. Not to mention the damage to public health and all the social impacts.
Patrick Holden 30:32
So that was one of the reasons which took me to decide to leave the Soil Association, I wanted to work on a broader stage. Not because I was abandoning the organic movement, and we’re still farming organically and certified organic today, we’re the longest established dairy, organic dairy farm in Wales. But because I could see that there was a problem, which to a degree was the result of what all the success in the organic movement, and we’ve become seen as a separate part of agriculture, and I never really wanted to feel that.
Dave Chapman 31:03
Okay, good. We get into some complicated waters here. So you’re of course, the closest connection that I see is with the regenerative movement, which has got a very similar impulse. And regenerative is so ill defined that it goes from everything from some small hippie farmer who says “this is regenerative” and it’s completely organic, to Bayer Monsanto, which says “what we’re doing is regenerative.” And, and Bayer has a significantly bigger microphone. So I have a feeling that Bayer is going to win this conversation in the public, because because they control so much.
Patrick Holden 31:50
I don’t think so, I really don’t.
Dave Chapman 31:51
You don’t think so?
Patrick Holden 31:52
No, I, and this is, this is contentious. But I mean, we’re, I think there’s a deep friendship between us so we can have this discussion. It’s an important one for sure.
Dave Chapman 32:00
So I have complete respect for your point of view. And so yes, yes, have at it.
Patrick Holden 32:04
So, I mean, we’re in this, aren’t we? We’re in this right now. So today, I’ve had two or three conversations about, you know, the amount of Roundup that’s used in regenerative farming and how absurd that seems to probably you and me. Because if you are using a herbicide, the, the only way you can perpetuate a system is annual spray with Roundup, which is going to affect the soil microbiome. It’s going to wipe out all the plants because that’s what Roundup does. And it allows you to continue to grow long runs of arable crops without a fertility building phase in the rotation. That isn’t going to deliver on Climate Change or nature restoration. And it’s probably going to damage public health. I’m personally convinced that it is only a matter of time before Roundup will be banned. Because I think it’s going to be seen in the long term to be more dangerous than tobacco, in terms of what it’s done to the environment, damage it’s done to the environment, and public health.
Patrick Holden 34:20
So I think we need to hold our nerve. And I think the question about the absence of a definition of regenerative agriculture is absolutely fascinating. And I know, I deeply respect the campaign that you’re fighting with the USDA and others, and that section of the farming community that want regenerative to mean something very different from how we would see it. But I do think that there might be a different way to address this. And this is what we’ve been working with the Sustainable Food Trust on for about eight years now. Namely, to develop a framework where we can measure the sustainability impacts of all farming systems against climate, nature and people. And that globe, we’ve called it the global farm metric, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. What matters, is that you shed light and transparency on all farming systems, including organic, and you measure using the same harmonized framework. And I believe that if that happened, then the regen-light farmers, the ones who are greenwashing, let’s say, would be exposed by their incapacity to deliver on soil carbon, on biodiversity, and positive social impacts.
Patrick Holden 34:20
And I believe that that system, let’s imagine you introduce that system in America. And you have like a sustainability score of 100, which would be a composite of the climate, nature and social impacts measured in ways that we can all trust by by auditors, certifies that we can trust, including the organic certifiers. by the way. Then I think that for instance, we’re producing cheese on my farm. If we had that audit on our farm today, we would score very highly on that sustainability scale. Whereas somebody who is practicing, you know, the other kind of regenerative farming, using some chemicals and especially a lot of Roundup and no proper crop rotation, they wouldn’t score very high.
Patrick Holden 35:01
So I think that way we can maintain the organic market and have a sustainability score. And the… the ones that are diluted, the USDA kind of definition, which has been the result of very successful lobbying by those intensive farmers you mentioned, would would not score highly. But I think what we’ve got is apart from the organic certification labels, which have been degraded by what you’ve just described, there’s a huge amount of confusion out there about what foods you can trust. And I think that the idea of a common, globally-harmonized way of measuring sustainability might reconcile that and rebuild trust amongst consumers.
Dave Chapman 35:36
I… it’s a beautiful idea. But I do feel that we are all bombarded with information every day, overwhelming. I have been just one sustainability metric that we’ve had to go through, because we sell to Whole Foods, and they’ve developed their own thing. And you get ranked good, better, at best or excellent or something. We’re excellent, wonderful, but.. but nobody cares about it. I’ve talked to the people in the stores. And one guy in California said to me, when I asked about it, he said, “You know, you’re the first person in three years who’s asked me about this, this system.” So it exists, but nobody really cares about it. And many, many systems like this seem to exist. So there’s a thing about hitting a tipping point where suddenly, people care. Right now, organic is still something that people care about. One thing that’s interesting to me, Patrick, you can help me with this. What.. I think you said what, what percentage of food in in England is certified as organic?
Patrick Holden 36:53
Well, I think you mean probably between two and 3% right across the whole marketplace. There are some exceptions, like for instance, organic dairy, particularly yogurt, has a bigger market share and milk. Well, which is interesting, and kind of slightly accidental, I think. Well that may be because of welfare issues and concerns about hormones and things like that. “The milk of human kindness,” you know, there’s ..it’s complex. But basically, if you take right across the whole piece, is probably not not more than 5%. Top Max.
Patrick Holden 37:38
Yeah, that’s really interesting.
Dave Chapman 37:39
For milk they’re at 50 percent.
Patrick Holden 38:09
Okay, the religion of cheap food. It’s become, Michael Pollan’s very interesting about that. He sees it as a government policy, in order to avoid the consequences of the declining standard of living. And that as, as wages have continued to be depressed, through various government policies, actually, that cheap food is the antidote to social unrest, they keep the food very cheap. People are making money, and we the taxpayer are supporting it. So does that sound true to you? And I know that you talk a lot about True Cost Accounting. And I’d like to hear a little bit about that.
Patrick Holden 41:20
Yes, I’m not really a great fan of conspiracies. Maybe it’s just my naivety. But I think that how have we got here, the fact that most food is dishonestly priced, because it’s produced in an extractive way, which is causing damage to nature, which hasn’t been monetized. And it’s causing massive damage to public health, but appears cheap. I think the reason why governments want to perpetuate that system is because they think that it will be electorally unpopular, to do anything which puts the price of food up. And they may well be right. Unless we, meaning your organization’s and ours together, working together can inform the public about the unbelievable damage that our industrial farming systems are doing to the climate and its people, to such an extent that it becomes an electoral issue.
Patrick Holden 42:12
Are we there now? No, we are absolutely not. So you know, we’ve got the Tories in the last chance saloon right now. And likely a Labour Government getting elected. But if you go to Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party, and you say “How important you think regenerative farming, proper regenerative farming, or organic food is to the future of your government?” he’ll say “not very,” and he’s probably right. Because if you did focus groups stuff, they, that wouldn’t be raised as an as an electoral priority. So I think that’s our failure, our collective failure. I think we need to acknowledge that, and I think we can change that.
Patrick Holden 42:48
I think this, I feel there’s a time now which reminds me of when I was around, you know, the 60s and the early 70s, when there was this huge feeling of a shift of consciousness going on. And I think the Climate Change threat, the nature threat, and all the food insecurity and health issues, I think they’re coming together. And they’re creating enormous opportunity for us to work together in a new way now.
Dave Chapman 43:20
One of the speakers at our conference this year was a woman named Zephyr Teachout, and she wrote a book called Break’em Up. And it’s a book about Antitrust action, about basically, until we break up these incredible concentrations of power, we actually will be unable to create the change that we want, that that we all want.
Patrick Holden 43:42
I don’t know her, but I love her for her…work. But what I would say is that, I think we haven’t got time to fight the system to the point of it’s, into a disintegration. I think they know that unless they change now they’re going to be Kodak. And I think we, we underestimate the humanity and the fear, and the lack of unknown knowledge about what to do from some of these leaders of the world’s biggest food companies. Weirdly enough, I’m quite an orthodoxy challenger, and, you know, I don’t sell out. I mean, I’ve tried to speak truth. And I’ve definitely not been watered down in my feeling about how much things have to change.
Patrick Holden 44:27
But because the then Prince of Wales launched at Davos at the World Economic Forum in 2020, a new initiative called the Sustainable MarketsIinitiative, I have got to know many of the CEOs who are running the biggest food companies in the world, etc, etc. I never thought I would meet them, but now I actually do know them. And what strikes me about them, I mean, we’re talking everybody from through McDonald’s and Nestle, Unilever, all these big food companies, who absolutely are part of the problem at the moment for some of the reasons we’ve been discussing, but what strikes me about them is they’ve got kids. They know that their own customers don’t trust them anymore. And they don’t quite know what to do.
Patrick Holden 45:08
And I think those that don’t change, you know, quoting Dylan’s songs, got to get out in the new road if you want to lend a hand “because the old road is rapidly aging.” And I think they actually know that. And I don’t think, and I think the king would, as he now, is, would think this too, we haven’t got time for the disruptive, small-scale, CSA, farmers market movement, to completely replace those enormous food companies which predominate and are more or less in charge of all the food that’s eaten today. I think we have to persuade them to go on a new journey. And I’m not saying we I don’t believe in bottom up action. I absolutely do. And, you know, our farming system is trying to do that. But I do think we need a top down and bottom up action. And I don’t think you need to sell out just to talk to these people. So that’s, that’s a difference.
Dave Chapman 46:00
That’s wonderful. And I hope you succeed. I don’t expect to be talking to those people myself.
Patrick Holden 46:07
Why not? They need to, they need to hear your voice. Because you’re right. You know, you’re, all the people that are part of your Real Organic Project are right. And you’ve got some amazingly influential advocates and champions in your movement. And I think it’s incredible. All I’m saying is that I think they actually are more open than one might think, to listening to people like you now. I think it’s difficult to do it with anger. That’s all I would say. I think that we somehow have to digest our own righteous anger. It’s difficult thing.
Dave Chapman 46:44
I actually don’t come to this with righteous anger. I don’t feel that righteous, I think we’re all part of a deeply flawed system. And some people are doing things a bit better, but it’s very hard to change. You know, I’m, I’m struck by… Did you ever meet Emmanuel Faber?
Patrick Holden 47:03
Dave Chapman 47:04
He was head of Danone. Yeah, he did a interesting thing. I mean, he’s one of the most powerful speakers I’ve ever heard. And he was really trying to reinvent Danone. And to have them become much more decentralized and localized in their food production. His idea of decentralized would still look pretty central to me, but, but he’s trying to move the company radically in that direction, and to try and produce food that was more healthy. And he got fired when they had a down quarter.
Dave Chapman 47:39
And my point is, that I see I’m not sure that these world leaders actually have the ability to create change, because they’re part of the system. And I know I’m not, I’m not being very optimistic here. But I am trying to understand where the points of inflection are, where the institutional acupuncture points are, that we might create change. And I support the people who are working to try and change the the CEOs, good. Good luck, but I don’t know. I mean, clearly, the whole gestalt has to change in order for those people change or they just get fired.
Patrick Holden 48:20
Yeah. And I think you’re right so far. I think that the fact that he got fired was because there wasn’t a sufficient counter force to the maintenance of the status quo in terms of profits and market share, that he had to look after that was his first duty of the CEO, so his shareholders said, “Sorry, guys, you know, you’re not doing enough. We’re not going to see your share price fall, you’re out.” And so you’re right. So far. I’m saying that just in even the last couple of years, things are changing.
Patrick Holden 48:56
And I don’t think Well, I certainly don’t know. And I, maybe none of us know what the transition journey of these megalith, megalithic food companies is, between where they are now, where they need to be because we don’t even really know what the landscape of relocalized, truly-sustainable food system would look like in America or in the UK. But I think we need to go on that journey. And we need to co create the food systems which need to replace the ones that that we’ve got at the moment. And that includes the organic farming distribution systems. I mean, you know, Alice Waters is a great friend of mine. And, you know, I say to Alice, “where do you get all the foods from Chez Panisse from?” and she says, “Well, we you know, we’ve got the growers that we’ve been supporting right from the beginning.” But if you look at some of the way in which the foods are distributed and taken into the system, I’m not saying that Chez – I mean, I love Chez Panisse, it’s probably the best restaurant, you know. But I don’t think any of us are free of the systems that, you know, we are part of, which distribue our food, and I don’t know that they’re going to survive the transition that’s coming.
Patrick Holden 50:05
I don’t even really know exactly what the new ones are going to look like. And I think that it’s our responsibility to help create them. And if True Cost Accounting was applied globally, then the economics of long-distance transportation of all the vegetables from California or Florida or wherever, to every city in the US was applied, I don’t think that would work anymore. So that’s pretty interesting.
Dave Chapman 50:29
And so just for people who don’t, haven’t spent much time on True Cost Accounting, True Cost Accounting is saying, “Okay, you eat this cheap apple, but it makes you sick. And then we have to pay for the medical bill, not to mention that your life has been severely negatively impacted. But there’s there’s a medical cost to cover that. And part of the reason it made you sick is it was sprayed with something that went into the water and created illness for a lot of other people that never saw the apple.” Is that is that a very simple description of True Cost Accounting?
Patrick Holden 51:04
Yeah. So at the moment, the farmers that make the most money are probably doing the most damage to climate, nature and people. And the farmers that make the least money are the farmers who are basically farming the way we do. And why would that be the case? It’s crazy, because you’d think that the most ecologically produced food ought to be the most affordable because that’s not trashing the planet. And the reason is, because the costs and benefits of different farming systems are not either monetized or properly attributed. And as a result of that, you know, cheap milk is really costing the earth. Or cheap, anything, you know, industrially-produced, is costing the earth, but the price doesn’t get factored into what you pay. Putting that right would be called “True Cost Accounting.”
Patrick Holden 51:52
It’s a phrase actually coined by Christy Brown, who’s from Louisville, Kentucky, and is on our board. And she just said, let’s call it what it is, let’s call it out. True Cost Accounting. Just incorporate the true costs and benefits of food production into the pricing. And in the absence of that, we’re still struggling. And we need to break through. So it needs to be more affordable to buy proper food, real food, from Real Organic systems, and more expensive to buy food which is causing harm. And the science and the art and the politics of putting that right would be what I think we need to work on.
Dave Chapman 52:31
Okay, So Patrick, in your mind, there are many ways to work on this, in your mind is the the highest leverage to work on a local food system? Building that system, building the reality of how things should be, or is the highest leverage to work on reform in government and, and trying to change the system that completely supports this bad alternative?
Dave Chapman 52:58
Patrick Holden 52:58
I think both. We need to work top down, bottom up, and in the middle. And whichever our passion and our skill, that’s what we need to do. And it’s a holy struggle. You know, I think it really is, to sort this out, because what’s the future is, you know, a livable planet for those that follow us. And agriculture is in the frontline, I think at the battle with climate change and nature restoration. Unless we change agriculture, we will fail, because agriculture is the predominant land user on planet Earth.
Patrick Holden 53:06
What do you think?
Patrick Holden 53:28
And I think that it says use – I think, I believe in the idea of microcosm and macrocosm. And if you see the food system as a giant organism, then the farms and the smallholder holdings are the cells. And in order to make an organism healthy, we need to start with cellular health. And I believe that if we restore our own and develop our own farming and food systems, however small they are, and make them healthy, we are contributing towards the change of the whole system. And I think that also operates with citizens who may not produce food, but who eat it. They are in microcosm, the change that’s needed. They just need scaling up. So I believe that informed citizens can be the change.
Dave Chapman 53:47
I think it’s daunting. I think it’s daunting to create change. And it’s interesting. Let me ask you this about about Farm to Fork initiative in the EU. That’s a radical and ambitious attempt by the European Parliament to set goals which might not be met. But their goal is to reduce the chemical inputs by 50% by the year 2030, in agriculture. And to increase the percentage of agricultural land that’s certified as organic to 25% of the land. These are radical ambitions.
Patrick Holden 55:02
Dave Chapman 55:03
Do you think.. Do you think that there’s a prayer of approaching those goals?
Patrick Holden 55:09
Yeah, I do, actually. I mean, you’d mentioned Denmark and whatever it is 20% and 50% in milk. I mean, that’s cause for hope, isn’t it? I think it is really all about citizen awareness. And I think the problem we’ve got is that so many people live in cities now and they have no connection, personal connection or knowledge of the story behind their food. So I think education at all levels is part of the key, because an educated citizen can vote as well as eat differently. And, you know, we need to do that.
Patrick Holden 55:39
We have.. What really strikes me, I mean, I, because of my California year, and because I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the US over the last, well, most of my adult life I keep coming back. I believe that we are umbilically connected in this struggle. You know, we understand each other, we share a philosophy, we share a common of the history actually. And I think that even though I believe that the organic movement needs to kind of reach out and find a more inclusive way of working, I do believe that the system and the philosophy and the movement of which we are part is right at the core of what the change is that’s needed.
Patrick Holden 56:20
So I just think, what I.. I mean, this might be controversial, but when I speak in public meetings, which I do, I tend not to use the word organic, because I just think it might put up like a prejudice thing. In you know, people who are not organic farmers or, so I tried to talk about the issues. I say, “Look, you know, chemical farming is causing the destruction of biodiversity or causing climate change.” And I think if you raise the issues, and you’ve got some science to justify them, I think that’s a more-potent way of reaching people. And actually what the conclusion that they would reach if they thought about it would be that organic farming and the principles of organic farming are an embodiment of the solution that we need to find. And therefore, it will come to us.
Patrick Holden 57:06
But I think if you tried to be sort of missionary about it, and ram it down people’s throats, they sometimes have a negative reaction. And also people are very scared of change. And if you can say, I often say to conventional farmers, “Of course you’re farming that way, because it pays better.” And you can see the kind of relief that they feel because otherwise you just – well they feel attacked.
Dave Chapman 57:27
Yes. Yes, I agree. I, you know, I I actually, I believe that organic farming will work just fine in terms of creating change, as long as it works economically.
Patrick Holden 57:43
Dave Chapman 57:43
And when farmers see that they can make a living.. Let me, let me tell you a story about Vermont, the state that I live. And back around 2016, we saw a lot of farmers in the state converting to become organic farms and getting certified. And because quite simply, they could make a living at farming organically and they could not make a living conventionally. They’re too small. They’re up against the CAFOs.
Dave Chapman 58:11
And then, the CAFOs entered organic, and they could no longer make a living because it depressed the price. People were willing to pay the premium in order to get the real milk, they still thought they were getting the real milk, but they weren’t anymore. And we see those farmers going out of business. Recently Horizon, which was owned by the Danone, dropped all the farms in Vermont, and New Hampshire and Maine that they contracted to get milk from, because it just was more profitable to get the milk somewhere else.
Patrick Holden 58:41
I mean, you might think we don’t know what you’re talking about. We do. I mean, the same, it’s dilute compared to the extremity that you described, but we were feeling the heat as well.
Dave Chapman 58:54
Yeah. And that, that dilution not only makes it that the farmers can’t make a living, but it means that the people aren’t getting the food they want and they start to lose confidence in in organic, because they read about it in The Washington Post andin The New York Times. And so I think it’s a..there’s a whole downward spiral there. But I don’t think that it’s true that people won’t change because it’s odd, or because it’s called Organic. That’s true right now, if you go to Iowa or or Kansas, there’s a lot of animosity in the farm community towards organic and it’s, it’s seen as something that they only do on the coasts, and a bunch of weirdo coastal people. But actually, if they, if it was obvious to them that they could make a better living, being organic, they would. And once they became organic, they would realize that it it worked better and they’re not getting sick from the pesticides and on and on.
Patrick Holden 59:55
I agree with all of that. I think the big barrier is economic. And I think in their hearts, most farmers would want to farm more in harmony with natural systems and nature, if they could make a living so doing. I just think that the force is, you know, the tides with us. And so we just need to hold our nerve and find a way to communicate with these people and make transparent the inadequacies of the system, which is still predominating. And I think we can do that, I really do.
Patrick Holden 1:00:25
And I just feel that we’re on the edge of a big, big change. And I think the fact that the Climate Change movement have recognized that soil carbon sequestration could be part of the solution, and that we have to restore nature. And also finally, people are realizing that we have a public health catastrophe. And these are all to do with, you know, hidden costs, which if you monetize them of the present system, they’re all those forces are with us. We just need to be be able to articulate our story in a way which doesn’t threaten the people who need to change. And I think there’s some psychology in that.
Dave Chapman 1:01:04
Yeah, good. I actually don’t come to this conversation with anger. I come to it with some some anger towards the USDA for their for their failure…
Patrick Holden 1:01:16
I shouldn’t have used the word anger, I should have used the word indignation. We’re right to be indignant.
Dave Chapman 1:01:22
Yeah, yeah. But “how do we create change?” is very complicated. One thing I see in storytelling is, is now people get so many stories, it’s very hard to figure out which stories you choose to believe.
Patrick Holden 1:01:43
But I think people could recognize authenticity. And, you know, even though sometimes it feels as if, you know, other people have got messages, which you know are greenwashed, which seems to be playing out very widely. I think at the end, if you if you speak to your truth, people can sense it. So I, you know, I think the fact your, your whole campaign has, is preventing… I know, I know, it’s not totally succeeded. And, you know, I see , I realize there were forces against you.
Patrick Holden 1:02:19
But I mean, you’re holding the candle up for Real Organic. And I respect you. And I think that the organic market will survive this transition, by the way, we haven’t talked about that. But I think that you’ve got to have a kind of differentiation in the marketplace. And I think if we add a sustainability score, that will be the best guardian against greenwash and dilution. But I think the organic system and philosophy and food products do need to have a place in the marketplace to help the transition along.
Dave Chapman 1:02:51
Yeah. All right, well, we’ve run our hour. There’s lots more to talk about. But maybe we’ll have a second conversation. Patrick, do you have any last words that you’d like to end on?
Patrick Holden 1:03:07
I feel very moved to feel this very strong connection with your country, and all your growers and farmers; we have a shared view of things. I just think it is a.. it should be seen as a demand on us to work together. Because this is what we’re speaking about is international, it’s global, the principles unite us all. So I do think that if we do work together and share what we can, I think we can come through this. I feel pretty optimistic.
Dave Chapman 1:03:44
Wonderful. I will stand close to you, and hopefully absorb some of that optimism.
Patrick Holden 1:03:51
Well, thank you for all you’re doing, and all the people that you, you bought together.
Dave Chapman 1:03:58
And you too, Patrick, you’ve been working on this a long time. You know, you became an activist much, much younger than me, I really was just farming and raising my kids for 20 years in there. And then I realized one day that things were kind of going off the tracks. And I hadn’t seen it. I live in a part of the country, maybe like Wales, where I looked around, I said, “I had my doubts about the USDA running organic, but I was wrong. It’s growing. And all the farms are really organic. And this is actually working out pretty well.” And then I as we discovered that it wasn’t working out so well in the rest of the country.
Patrick Holden 1:04:40
But you know.. I know this is perpetuating the conversation. But let’s take Tom Vilsack, who is you know, politician to his fingernails, and he, I’m sure some people, you know who are part of your challenging movement, probably have kind of disparaging view about him. But in a way he’s just a politician, isn’t he? He just wants to get reelected. So he comes out with the sort of rhetoric that you’d expect him to come out with. And he’s lobbied by God knows who. And he probably, you know, is vulnerable to that lobbying power, but we just have to be the bigger force. That’s what I think.
Patrick Holden 1:05:19
Politicians very rarely lead. They just want to get reelected. And they’ll follow not lead. So I think the leadership needs to come from ideas and impulses, which go right back to the land. So I think our time is now, you know, because the people that have been left out of all this politics and this debate are practitioners. And it’s the practitioners that have the wisdom and practical knowledge of how to put his philosophy into action on the land and scale it. That’s us.
Dave Chapman 1:05:53
It has to be a coalition with the people who eat the food to or it will not succeed.
Patrick Holden 1:05:58
Yeah, you have a brilliant organic consumers movement, which is very powerful in America. More powerful – we don’t have that here yet. We have Soil Association and we just got a very small membership.
Dave Chapman 1:06:12
Patrick Holden 1:06:17
All right then.
Dave Chapman 1:06:18
Patrick, thank you so much. All right. Good, there we go. You know, I didn’t, I didn’t want to go too deeper into it, but gosh, over here, the regenerative thing.. You know, I talked to Gabe Brown once. And it reminded me of what your conversation with Lady Eve. And I didn’t have a big conversation with him. And I just asked him what he thought of what we’re doing. And he said, I’m not really interested in labels. He said, You know, I’m just interested in farming, right? Yeah. And I thought, well, yeah, you’re one of the best marketers I’ve ever met, so of course, you don’t care about labels, you are your own label. And he sells his crops very easily and for a good premium price – as they deserve, as they deserve.
Dave Chapman 1:07:15
And now he’s got a regenerative label, he’s starting. Along with about a dozen other regenerative labels. So that moment has passed, it’s hit the marketplace before, really, before it was mature. I mean, organic was pretty mature before it, it really went public in that way in America. There were a lot of organic farmers, and there was no legal definition. Regenerative, there’s a market before there’s almost very many farmers doing it. And I don’t think it’s going to survive. Pepsi, McDonald’s, and Cargill, all saying their regenerative companies
Patrick Holden 1:08:02
Well, I think you’re werong. I don’t think we want a definition of regenerative unless it’s scored in a way which we can trust. Then let them all have their own regen labels, but then we can see the wood for the trees in terms of the sustainability scores. And I think that’s the best antidote against organic greenwash: to have a sustainability score, which is accurate, that we believe in.
Patrick Holden 1:08:27
And I think that, I mentioned this earlier in the conversation, I think that the people who are auditing the organic farms at the moment, which.. the certification system, which I was part of, I was involved with creating it, I don’t think it’s the best way to to measure organic. I think it’s become a kind of cheating test. And I think we, we should hire the same people who are on the farm certifying us to be the people who capture the sustainability score, and link it to organic certification.
Patrick Holden 1:09:00
Because we have several audits on our farm each year. And we have to pay for them all and none of them tell me what I really want to know, which is whether my soil carbon and my nature, and my healthy food and nutrient density and all those kinds of things was better than last year. And I think that if you combine that with an organic audit, that’s powerful.
Dave Chapman 1:09:18
Patrick Holden 1:09:21
Or rather integrate it.
Dave Chapman 1:09:22
Right, right. I’m sure that those are going to come more and more, obviously.
Patrick Holden 1:09:30
Well Gabe wants to be a part of that. He should agree with this, because you know..
Dave Chapman 1:09:34
I think, I think he does and his regenerative standard probably will attempt to do that. I haven’t studied it. There are going to be many, many attempts. They’re going to get swirled around it’s not going to stop, it’s not gonna stop Bayer from saying they’re regenerative too.
Dave Chapman 1:09:39
We’ll all work together there’s power, there’s strength in numbers.
Dave Chapman 1:09:57
Yeah, yeah. Okay.
Patrick Holden 1:10:03
All right, well, really wonderful to speak with you.
Dave Chapman 1:10:07
Absolutely. All right, Patrick.
Patrick Holden 1:10:09
More power and more movement.
Dave Chapman 1:10:12
Yeah, thank you. I will I will send a link in a minute here that that the recording from the camera can be forwarded to.
Patrick Holden 1:10:20
Thank you so much. All right. I hope we I hope we’re together physically sometime not too distant future. I
Dave Chapman 1:10:26
would be great. If you’re coming to the US. Yeah, let me know you get anywhere close.
Patrick Holden 1:10:30
Thank you. And you got an open invitation to come to our farm if you come to the UK. Thank you. Okay, all right.
Dave Chapman 1:10:38