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Sustainable & Ethical Principles in Practice

News Icon 07/08/2014

Patrick Holden is the Founding Director of the Sustainable Food Trust. Between 1995 and 2010, he was the Director of the Soil Association and became a much sought after speaker and campaigner for organic food and farming. He spearheaded a number of prominent food campaigns around BSE, pesticide residues and GM food. More recently, he was a member of the UK Government’s working group on the Foresight report into Future of Food and Farming and is Advisor to the Prince of Wales International Sustainability Unit.

I’ve been a great fan of the organisation Compassion and all who sail with her for many years. So it was particularly inspiring for me to attend the launch of Philip’s really important book, Farmageddon.

The issues he raises of the devastating negative impact of industrial livestock farming are critically important in terms of the environment, human health and, above all, animal suffering. I’m delighted the book has been brilliantly reviewed and is increasing public awareness of the countless millions of hidden stories of suffering behind the mass produced livestock products that most people are buying every day.

Of course, these issues are particularly interesting to me. I am a dairy farmer who has been doing my best to put sustainable and ethical principles into practice on my family dairy farm in West Wales for over 40 years. Right at the start we tried to do the right thing by the land and the cows. No chemical fertilisers, pesticides or routine use of antibiotics for our native breed of Ayrshires. Each cow has a name. Over the years, we’ve been moving gradually to self-sufficiency of animal feed, with the cows grazing on a paddock system, along the principles of holistic pasture management.

One principle which is particularly dear to my heart is that the maximum number of cows in a dairy herd should be limited by their capacity to walk to their grazing area and back twice a day without undue stress. If you do the maths, this means that even in ideal conditions where the milking parlour is centrally situated, most of the grass around its circumference is available for grazing. Even with good tracks and other advantages, the assumption should be that half a mile is the absolute maximum that animals should travel each way. This would probably result in a theoretical limit of about 300 cows, which is really pushing it.

Go above that number and you will be either abusing the cows, or they will have to be permanently housed for much of the year, which I believe goes against all the holistic, sustainable and ethical principles which should inform the production of wholesome and kind milk. Yet tragically all the trends are going in the opposite direction. You can tell this if you read British Dairy farmer magazine or any of the other periodicals which get sent to people like me who milk cows. It’s all about testosterone charged efficiency, more and more cows, automation, fancy buildings and less and less about the cultural, social and environmental principles which I feel should lie at the very heart of all family dairy farms. It’s not that these people are bad. They are just misguided and following the money, because the truth is that if you want to survive and prosper economically as a dairy farmer, that’s the right way to go.

The reason behind this is the absence of what we in the Sustainable Food Trust are calling True Cost Accounting. It is only because of the industrial scale dairy farmers are not financially accountable for the consequences of their actions. This is in terms of depletion of natural capital, damage to the environment, impact on public health, the demise of the small family farm and, if it is possible to price such a thing, the ethical cost of intensification — that they can produce milk for less than the cost of good bottled water and still make a profit.

We held a conference on this theme in London in 2013. I’m delighted to say that Compassion contributed significantly to the success of the event. The plan is to address these inequities with a programme of work spanning the next few years, during which we will categorise the so-called externalities arising from different livestock farming systems, quantify and put a price on the damage caused, and then work out how we can ensure that in future those whose actions have harmful consequences pay for the damage at source. This will transform the economics of livestock farming in favour of the small, ethical, caring and environmentally sustainable producers, at the expense of their industrial counterparts.

Of course this raises the question — What prospects are there for us achieving this any time soon? If I’m honest the answer is that it will be a long and challenging process which is likely to take years to achieve. Work is necessary on four levels. First, research into the true costs of intensive livestock farming which, no doubt, Compassion will play a very significant role. Second, the development of policy and economic measures to correct the dishonesty of the present market. Next, persuading politicians and other industry leaders to adopt these enlightened policies. And, finally, utilising the power of informed public opinion to bring pressure on political and industry leaders to make the change.

In the end, mobilising citizen awareness will probably be the most potent agent of change, which given Compassion’s magnificent campaigning work, made possible through its committed body of supporters, is a cause for great optimism!

Patrick Holden CBE
Founding Director
Sustainable Food Trust

To get your copy of ‘Farmageddon: The true cost of cheap meat’, click here.


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