In 1987, Jules Pretty was involved in the secretariat for a landmark report commissioned by the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development. Called Our Common Future, this document put the environment firmly on the world agenda for the first time. Its aim was to find a global sustainable development path for all nations involved. What is remarkable, Pretty tells me from his Suffolk home, is that neither climate change or obesity were noted as potential, despite an exhaustive 900 day global research exercise.

“In a single generation” he says “some of the biggest issues facing our planet today have emerged from nowhere and many hopes have been dashed on the rocks”.

Now Professor of Environment and Society and Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of Essex, Pretty has spent the intervening 26 years studying the relationship between nature and society and what can be done to tackle these two global, life-threatening issues. His work spans the spectrum from key studies on agricultural sustainability to green exercise, consumption patterns and well being.

Pretty was the first person to put a cost on the externalities of modern agriculture. His research paper published in 2000 in the journal, Agricultural Systems, concluded that the side effects of food production was some £2.3 billion pounds. It was a figure that made researchers and governments around the world sit up and listen – DEFRA brought him to discuss the implications and it was followed up by further studies in the U.S., China and Germany.

In 2005, Pretty authored a paper – with Professor Tim Lang – that brought the local food revolution into the mainstream. Published in the journal Food Policy, it coined the term “food miles” to describe the costs of the distance food produce travels from field to factory to plate. The media loved it and picked up on the papers assertion that “local” food was better for the planet than even organic. Farmers markets, CSA’s and vege box schemes grew exponentially as people took pledges to only eat locally.

Pretty says the report highlighted the distribution issues which are still endemic in food industry. “If I buy locally grown carrots in my nearest supermarket, they will have already travelled 400 miles to a central distribution in the North West of England and back again” says Jules. The way supermarket distribution chains worked had never been questioned by their customers. Now it is a key discussion point.

The production of our food is a subject that Pretty comes back to again. It is something, he says, we are getting very wrong. “Despite great progress in increasing productivity in the last century” he writes in his 2002 book Agri-Culture, “hundreds of millions of people remain hungry and malnourished. Further hundreds of millions eat too much, or consume the wrong sort of food, and it is making them ill.  The health of the environment suffers too, as degradation of soil and water seems to accompany many of the agricultural systems we have developed in recent years.”

“What has also become clear is that the apparent success of some modern agricultural systems has masked significant negative externalities, with environmental and health problems documented and recently costed for some countries. These environmental costs shift conclusions about which agricultural systems are the most efficient, and suggest that alternative practices and systems which reduce negative externalities should be sought”.

A 2006 paper published in the US journal, Environment Science and Technology, went onto give 286 examples across 57 developing countries where sustainable agricultural practices had increased productivity by up to 85%. Pavan Sukhdev, the banker who attempts to put a financial value on nature, calls it the most important – and often overlooked – paper of our time.

Pretty’s work on sustainable agriculture – for which he received an OBE in 2006 – led onto his most recent research on consumption patterns and well-being. Pretty’s research showed that only the very poorest countries does an increase in GDP improve a population’s sense of happiness and well being. In the UK, where our GDP has increased four-fold in the last half century, our average life satisfaction and happiness has not changed.

Pretty’s point is that we live under the misunderstanding that constantly increasing our wealth and consumption will make us happier, and the evidence is just not there. Furthermore we live on a planet with finite resources and our continued growth cannot be sustained without irreparable damage to the environment we depend upon. These preconceptions” says Pretty “are putting us in a corner which will seriously challenge the basis of our civilisation”.

Pretty takes the example of the car. In the U.S., there are 80 cars to every hundred people. In India there is about one per hundred and in China, 8. However, in the next ten to fifteen years, the economies of both these countries will outstrip the U.S. and their populations will seek to emulate the consumerist lifestyle they have witnessed elsewhere. “The problem is that to resource such demand, would take 6, 7 or 8 planets,” says Pretty, “which obviously we don’t have.”

“A shift to a green economy is inevitable,” he concludes at the end of his 2013 paper in the journal, Environmental and Resource Economics, The Consumption of a Finite Planet: Well-being, Convergence, Divergence and the Nascent Green Economy. “It is simply a question of whether it occurs before or after the world becomes locked into severe climate change and other harm to natural capital.”

Rather chillingly, Pretty talks about the demise of other civilisations, which also got it wrong. “With many of those civilisations, just before the end there was a state of denial. People didn’t realise that problems were occurring, people didn’t realise that things could go wrong and they thought they would go on forever. And I think this is a major symptom of our current situation. We think we are at the end of a long, steady movement of economic and technological process and because of that we are not sufficiently humble about our current state”.

Despite his gloominess on the state of the world, Pretty says he is an optimist at heart. He finds solace and inspiration in nature, which he says comes from a childhood spent first, on the edge of the desert in Nigeria and then later, by the sea in Suffolk. It is this bond with the natural world, which he promotes in his 2007 book, The Earth Only Endures: On Reconnecting with Nature and our Place in It, as essential to human survival.

His latest book, The Luminous Coast, published in 2011, continues this theme as Pretty details his year long travels along the East Anglian coast documenting the places and people of a disappearing landscape. He does what he can, he says, to take responsibility for his individual footprint,  having installed solar panels on the roof of his house. “But real change” he says “is not going to come from the individual but from major technological, institutional and policy changes that create alternative models for the way people live”.

“We are in desperate need of some global leadership because we can’t afford to think about this for the next 20 years and then do something in the 20 years after that because the next 20 years are the ones that really count”.

Jules Pretty will be speaking at our upcoming conference on True-Cost Accounting in Food and Farming.

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