One of the key aims of the Sustainable Food Trust is to build a global food network that accelerates the transition towards a sustainable food system for our world. SFT director Patrick Holden spends a lot of his time speaking to people across the globe about sustainable agriculture, working to influence policy, practice and change.

In January, Patrick was invited to speak by PELUM-Zimbabwe, a member of the African Biodiversity Network, which works to improve the livelihoods of small scale farmers in the country. Collaboration and partnership are important strategies for extending the thinking on how food systems might be redesigned with sustainability at the heart, and the opportunity to engage new audiences in other parts of the world knits together a wider community of people committed to sustainability in food systems. During his trip, Patrick visited Zvishavane, Chimanimani and Hwedza where he interacted with small-scale farmers who are shifting their practices towards sustainability.

But producers are only part of the equation. Consumers also need to be involved. It is only through citizens working together that policy will shift. Patrick stressed the need for this shift in policy, giving examples of how restrictive the current framework in most countries is for developing sustainable food systems. “It’s time to think imaginatively about redesigning our food systems,” and to privilege sustainable practices over unsustainable ones. “Why is doing the wrong thing, still more financially profitable than doing the right thing?”

Patrick is particularly passionate about “building connectivity” amongst ordinary people around the world on food issues. This is essential to building a bottom-up citizens’ movement. Big corporations are far more powerful than ordinary citizens and consequently set the agenda for government policy. Public figures like President Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron feed their families organic food but neither ever speaks about this in public.

Communicating sustainable food issues as widely as possible to a broad public is a core part of SFT’s mission. SFT is currently doing work around ‘quantifying externalities’. This means putting a value on the damaging impacts that result from intensive farming practices and recognizing the public benefits delivered by sustainable producers. This creates incentives for consumers to support them.

Patrick gives frequent public talks, like the one in Zimbabwe, in order to ensure that government bodies, foundations and financial supporters of sustainable food systems understand the issues at stake in how our current global food systems operate and why sustainability must become a core value of these systems.

With the rise of industrialised food production in the 20th century and the development of pesticides and herbicides, the use of these chemicals has become widespread across the world. Patrick comments that, “It’s been a binge period in which we have been dining out on the resources of the planet as if they were limitless.”

Chemical intensive agriculture has been mining the soil for more than half a century now, with devastating impacts. The globalisation of industrial agriculture and the imbalances created by it in our delicate environmental ecosystems, has created a system of food production that does not have the resilience to withstand sudden shocks. So the question we face now is: can we develop less fragile food systems?

There are two opposing answers to this. One is to look to technology to provide the answers, with GM as the most pervasive method being adopted. The other, is to increase the health of the land being farmed, with a particular focus on soil fertility. It is this position that SFT is committed to.

A food system built around increasing and maintaining soil fertility has many positive impacts. It requires a holistic approach to food production that supports biodiversity and minimizes the use of non-renewable resources. It produces seed locally so that plants are adapted to local soil and better equipped to respond to climate change. Economically, it re-localises the production and consumption of staple foods, creating closer and more loyal links between producers and consumers. It ultimately maximises the production of fresh and nutritious food. Each individual farm is a cell of the whole food system. Conservation organisations shouldn’t need to protect nature from farming, if farming methods work with nature.

Patrick concluded his talk to PELUM by commenting that “What is happening with our food systems is possibly the biggest challenge facing humanity. We have a responsibility to work together.” He is excited, both personally and at a global level, because he feels there is an underlying understanding amongst more and more people that we are living beyond our means and that it is time to work together as citizens to change this.

As a heartening conclusion to the PELUM-Zimbabwe talk, the formation of a Zimbabwe Citizens Food Group to promote sustainable practice in agriculture was put forward. It is just this sort of active outcome that SFT hopes for from the travels of our director.

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