In Depth

Patrick Holden: What is a sustainable and healthy diet?

Patrick Holden, PHC 2019

Patrick Holden guides us through a talk which impresses the importance of the interconnectedness of farming and health.

The enlightening talk covers many topics, all connected with farming but tied together with the health of humans and the environment.

He starts his talk with the question, “What should I eat that is healthy and sustainable from a farming perspective?”

Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, approaches this question from the farming perspective. Patrick is founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust and has been running his own farm in Wales, as sustainably as he can, since 1973.

Sustainable farming

His farm is set up so that there is a natural cycle of regeneration. Cows graze and provide milk for cheese. The cows provide manure which is a natural and rich fertiliser. Crops and grass then grow on the fertilised soil that can feed the cows.

The right kind of crops, such as legumes, can provide nitrogen back to the soil. Natural gasses from the making of silage is collected and used as a source of energy for the farm.

Patrick Holden: “If the planet is an organism, it’s sick”

Patrick likens farms to “the metabolism of the planet”. His view is firmly based around the idea that if we wish to effectively address climate change, the way we farm and the way we eat needs to change.

In the previous few decades, farming has undergone a lot of changes. Chemicals and artificial fertilisers are being used as short cuts and the extensive use of endocrine-disrupting chemicals has harmed the biodiversity of farmland.

The message Patrick provides is that modern short cut methods of farming are harming the land, “if the planet is an organism, it’s sick”, he intones.

Patrick tells how for many years he grew carrots on his farm. However, streamlining of supermarket logistics has meant the nearest packing station for carrots is now too far away for Patrick’s farm to continue growing carrots.

Agriculture as the primary health service

Patrick talks passionately about the work Sir Albert Howard who studied farming in India and learnt how sustainable farming techniques prevented disease in the crops.

He impresses the importance of the interplay between the soil, plants, animals and people on health. If the soil, animals and plants in our environment are healthy, then we as humans will be healthy.

He notes that Lady Eve Balfour, co-founder of the Soil Association, stated: “we should regard agriculture as the primary health service.”

While the NHS has traditionally treated medical conditions once they have developed, the health of food and our environment represents a much earlier stage at which disease can be prevented.

At what cost?

The vast majority of modern farms are driven towards producing high yields of crops at low cost to the farm businesses. However, what is the true cost of this way of farming?

Patrick draws our attention to the ‘Hidden Cost of UK Food’ report. He states, “for every pound that we spend in the shops on food, there is another hidden pound, split 50/50, between damage to the environment and damage to public health.”

Farmers may save money by using cheap fertilising methods and pesticides, but the cost is borne out in other ways; on the environment and human health.

Patrick touches on the recent EAT Lancet report that puts across the case for plant-based diets. He states that, “the authors were well-meaning but none of them understood agriculture”.

Patrick believes that meat farming is very much sustainable, provides natural fertiliser and that the ‘methane cycle’ has been working perfectly well in the environment for millennia. The real danger for climate change, Patrick warns, is the continued widespread use of fossil fuels.

Harmony

Nature works in balance and Patrick illustrates this with a series of slides showing how patterns in nature are repeated in small creatures up to the structure of galaxies.

Patrick uses this to illustrate the importance of working in harmony with, rather than against nature.

He ends his talk saying, “We have plundered the resources of the planet in a couple of lifetimes, and now it’s time to do something about it.”

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