Chief Executive Patrick Holden responds to last week’s article by Jonathon Porritt on overpopulation and his criticism of the Pope.

Dear Jonathon,

Thank you so much for responding to my invitation to share your views about the problem of overpopulation for the SFT website.

As someone who has played a part in contributing to overpopulation, with eight children to my name, I confess, at least in part, to have been a significant contributor to this problem! However, without wanting to let myself, the environmental NGOs or the Catholic church off the hook, I think it is worth reflecting why it is that so many institutions and individuals end up sticking to outdated orthodoxies.

I’m no expert in the history of why and when it came to pass that the Catholic Church took the view that the sanctity of life commenced with conception, and that taking steps to prevent conception was wrong. However, trying for a moment to put myself in the Pope’s shoes, I can easily imagine how difficult it must be for him to abandon one of the defining precepts of Catholicism. For him, this must surely not just be a moral but also a political dilemma – how can he take it upon himself to decide which elements of Catholicism should be superseded by changing events and which elements are sacred?

That’s the moral part of the dilemma, but politically, if he decides to change his stance, presumably he also risks an enormous backlash from the establishment element of his church. In saying this I’m not trying to defend the Pope, as I completely agree with you that until and unless the world deals with our collective problem of an ever-growing population on a finite planet, any efforts we make to be more sustainable will be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of demand and exceed all so called planetary boundaries.

However, I know from my own experience that having the courage to abandon a principle, an ideology, a truth which is held to be of central importance by a whole movement, is not so easy and I’m wondering whether ‘hypocrisy’ is quite the right word to use when one is trying to encourage individuals in leadership positions to embark on that lonely journey?

You may recall occasions in the past when you have attacked me for a rigid adherence to the belief that organic farming, which as you know I helped to develop and promote while I was at the Soil Association, is the only way forward for global food production. Organic farming was conceived as a way of making food production more sustainable, yet I have finally reached the conclusion that, although I remain absolutely committed to the principles of organic farming, unfortunately the motives behind the organic project, at least in the UK, have been misinterpreted and misunderstood. My advocacy played a part in polarising the food community into those that are and those that aren’t organic and that has not been helpful in addressing the problems on the major part of farmed land.

I can now see that almost all farmers want to farm in a sustainable way, but many of them have become locked into their damaging production systems by financial constraints. As such, I’m now more keen to work with them to help find a way forward, than to criticise them because they can’t see a way out. And with the Pope having taken such important steps on the environment, as you recognise, maybe trying to find a way to work with him and broaden the definition of the sanctity of life, rather than simply oppose him on this matter, would bear more fruit?

But what are the key ingredients necessary for this to happen? Arguably it needs courage and humility in equal measure, but also perhaps a reconciling gesture from those that are leading the call for change? I know there is a counter argument here, namely that we need people, in this case you, to call a spade a spade, as you have done so brilliantly on so many fronts over the years. But sometimes that can exacerbate the barrier of pride; and that to me suggests we need rescuers as well as persecutors!

In response to the other issue you raise, namely whether and how we can feed the eventual peak population, I agree strongly with you on the points you make about waste. But even if we sorted this out, without making fundamental changes to agricultural practices, we will only push soils, the finite resource upon which almost all food production depends, towards collapse at an even faster rate than we are doing already.

As I know you are aware, from a report you wrote back in the 1980s, farmers have been mining soil fertility with continuous crop production fuelled by chemical fertilisers and pesticides across the globe. This has already created a situation where more than half of all soils are moderately or severely degraded. For every adult and child on the planet three and a half tonnes of soil is irrevocably lost each year. Inevitably, degraded and eroded soils will produce less not more food in future.

Some people might assume that farmers could just stop using these chemicals and still maintain continuous crop production, but that simply isn’t the case; it needs a complete change of approach. Of most significance, is the loss of organic matter, and with it the release of yet more carbon and nitrogen from the soil to the atmosphere, which is both contributing to climate change and making soils far less resilient to the increasing extremes of weather already being experienced in many parts of the world. Soils with low organic matter levels rapidly suffer from drought during dry periods, and are also more vulnerable to erosion during both drought and heavy rain.

To address this and feed what will hopefully be a reduced peak population as a result of your advocacy, we have need to reverse this decline in soil organic matter. To do that we need to return all the world’s arable soils to more diverse forms of farming, including crop rotations with a fertility building phase, which will normally include grazed grasses and forage legumes, in other words cellulose plant material which can only be digested by ruminants.

This brings me to a vitally important clarification relating to what you have said about reducing meat consumption. It is of course true that with a population of 8, 9, 10 or 11.5 billion, the last of which is one prediction for the end of the century, we will not all be able to eat meat in the prodigious amounts currently consumed in most developed countries. But while most attention is now focused on reducing the number of ruminants on the planet due to their methane emissions, which of course do contribute to global warming, though to a much smaller extent than most people have been led to believe, it is actually only grass, the one crop we humans cannot eat, which has the capacity to restore soils to productivity by rebuilding both organic matter and structure. And the only way to get human edible food from grass is to stock it with grazing animals.

And that, I have to say, presents a problem for those who argue that if we halved the number of ruminants, agriculture would miraculously become sustainable. Sadly the exact opposite is true. Yes, we must reduce meat consumption, and in many cases stocking density, but grass also needs to be reintroduced onto prime arable land. Grass and grazing livestock are also essential for biodiversity. As such, the greatest reductions are needed in relation to animals that predominantly consume grain. This is most notably chickens, despite the fact that the birds produce only minimal amounts of methane, but also intensive pigs and grain fed beef.

Rachel Carson, of course, pointed out the damage being done to wildlife by agrochemicals, but the response of the environmental and conservation movements has been to agree to the separation of nature conservation from food production, land sparing instead of land sharing, with unrestricted use of agrochemicals on all but small pockets of land taken out of food production. Yet this approach has clearly not worked, with dramatic declines in wildlife and species diversity still continuing to occur.

This isn’t to say that all cattle and sheep production is currently benign, far from it. However, if managed in the right way all pasture based livestock production systems have the potential to be sustainable, whereas continuous arable cropping does not. In the UK, for example, a large number of birds and pollinators coexist in harmony with grazing animals and one of the many reasons for their decline is that species-rich grassland has become entirely absent from some areas, as the mono-cropping of vast areas of wheat and oilseed rape have come to predominate.

So in summary, what I’m saying is that hand in hand with the need to control population growth, in order to feed a peak world population sustainably, the reintegration of crop and livestock production in the form of more mixed farming systems will be an absolute necessity. Ideally, we should also strive to match food production and population in the UK more closely by reducing the amount of livestock feed we import and eating more of the foods we can naturally produce ourselves.

It’s taken me a long time to move on from my former recalcitrant stance on organic farming and develop a broader position, without changing my fundamental beliefs. In relation to over-population it’s taken a long time for my eyes to be opened to the urgent need for further action. But, if I can swallow my pride and change, as I believe I have done, then maybe we can help other, more important, figures to broaden their positions too.

Photograph: Republic of Korea

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