Get into a conversation with a dairy farmer, and sooner or later you’ll find yourself talking about lactations and abattoirs. Patrick Holden, who owns an 80-cow dairy farm in Wales, likes to brag a little about his cows: how long-lived they are, how healthy they are, how good their milk is.

In November, Patrick delivered a talk on “Soil, Food and Health” at the Bloomberg School at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s 16th annual Edward and Nancy Dodge Lecture. The address focused on the need for agriculture to shift its focus from chemistry to biology. Mainstream agriculture, Holden said, has created a catastrophe in the making with regard to soil. This “soil abuse” is a result of using petrochemical fertilisers, pesticides, and other unsustainable practices in order to increase crop yields. While the short-term effect of these methods may be increased crop yields, the long-term effects are contributing to what he calls the irreversible breakdown of the planet’s natural systems. “That breakdown will be okay in a Gaian sense,” he said, “but not from a human standpoint.”

Holden and the SFT advocate for a better kind of husbandry of soil, one that builds its fertility through biology. Cultivating healthy soil and environment with methods such as crop rotation and holistic grazing will create a dynamic equilibrium that creates a positive state of health for humans, animals, and the planet. Just as humans have gut biomes, he says, plants have a similar symbiotic community of fungi and bacteria in their root hairs. “It’s extraordinary biology,” said Holden.

One of the shortcomings of the conservation movement, he said, is that instead of going after agriculture and trying to prevent soil abuse and other abuses, the movement’s strategy has been to protect parts of nature by creating parks and reserves. This, he says, ignores the fact that our food systems are at odds with nature. Or perhaps the idea of taking on Big Ag is too daunting. Either way, he said, “It’s a grim picture.”

But Holden said he thinks we’re on the cusp of a massive change, a perfect storm being enacted by the under-30 generation. These millennials will force us to redesign our food system by using their buying power to encourage corporations to practice the law of return, recycle nutrients and align our diets.

As for Charles, Prince of Wales, Holden said that he’s been an environmental champion since the 1970s, learning about biologically sustainable agriculture with a curiosity that must have come from his own intuition. The Prince delivered his “Future of Food” lecture in May, 2011, putting forth ideas about food system reform that Holden referred to as “courageous.” “He’s a remarkable man,” said Holden, “a visionary, an artist.”

Holden closed his talk by advising those in the food movement to refrain from seeing themselves as morally right or superior. “If we demonize all these companies,” he said, “It’s difficult for them to make the moves they need to make.” Corporations do what they have to do, given the systems and policies in place. Instead of demonizing the corporations, he said, it would be better to change the policies that incentivise harmful agricultural practices.

This article was originally published by the Center for a Livable Future.

Photograph: Steph French

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