End-of-year reflections: Creating conditions for transformative change

  • 20.12.2023
  • article
  • Environmental Issues
  • Global Farm Metric
  • Measuring Sustainability
  • True Cost Accounting
  • Patrick Holden

Here, we share a reflection from our CEO, Patrick Holden, who looks back at some of the SFT’s key moments from 2023 and explains why he thinks our voice is having impact like never before.

As we move through Advent towards Christmas, I want to start by expressing gratitude to our friends and supporters for your engagement with the Sustainable Food Trust. My heartfelt thanks for following us, if you do, and for your part in striving, as we all are, not only to make sense of the strange and challenging world in which we find ourselves, but also to ensure that in the future the food we eat has a better farming story behind it.

During 2023, the Sustainable Food Trust has been very much involved in the agricultural transition. While many are committed to making this a reality, there are still constraints that are preventing this from happening at the pace that is needed if we are to avoid irreversible breakdown in the Earth’s support systems.

We have been working top down, bottom up and in the middle, hopefully becoming an even greater influence for change than in previous years. Without over-claiming the progress we’ve made, I do think our voice is being heard in a way that wasn’t the case a few years ago. I shall do my best to illustrate this below.


Having recently returned from COP28, my lasting impression will be the incredible atmosphere of common humanity that arose from 90,000 people converging from across the globe, including so many young people, all of whom share concerns about whether we can keep the planet habitable for future generations.

At the summit, I had the opportunity to meet with the CEOs of some of the biggest banks, energy companies, asset management firms and supermarkets to explore how we can come together to support a sustainable farming transition. This was because nearly four years ago, the then Prince of Wales, now our King, launched the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI) at Davos, Switzerland. His idea was that, when it comes to reversing the destruction of nature and responding to the climate change crisis, we will only be able to do what’s necessary in the time available if we can harness the power of the business community to play their part in delivering the solution.

I can understand why some people feel sceptical about the private sector’s involvement in environmental and social issues given the tendency for companies’ claims about the sustainability of their products, services or operations to be seen as greenwash. Of course, we need such claims to be evidenced by trusted data if we are to avoid risk of greenwashing, but, in my view, the King is right when he says that we can’t ignore the power that private companies have and their resources to scale and accelerate positive change. Compare that with government actions as things currently stand, and one surely has to conclude that political parties generally follow rather than lead!

Through the SMI, 20 task forces have now been created – one for each sector, covering everything from agriculture to aviation, from banking to plastics and, well, you name it and it’s there. We are leading a task force focused on measuring land use sustainability impacts using the Global Farm Metric (GFM), which we explored in depth at COP28.

Patrick at COP28
Patrick speaking at a session at COP28 in Dubai this year


Food, farming and finance

Focusing on food and farming, a question arises: why is it that a widespread transition to a genuinely sustainable food and farming system has not happened yet? The simple answer is that farming in a sustainable way doesn’t pay as well as farming in an extractive way. Beyond the miss-direction of farming subsidies, a significant cause of this imbalance is the absence of the polluter pays principle, which requires the costs arising from environmentally damaging inputs and practices to be paid by those responsible for causing them.

This thread of work goes right back through the history of the Sustainable Food Trust to 2010 and led up to our 2017 report, The Hidden Cost of UK Food, by our dear recently departed friend and treasured member of the SFT Team, Richard Young, who died in September.

This report found that, for every pound we spend on food at the checkout, we spend another £1 in hidden ways, primarily split 50-50 between harm to natural capital and ecosystems and damage to public health. There have since been other reports which indicate that the real cost of our food may in fact be triple this amount, when we consider all the damaging impacts of extractive farming, whether that’s the decline of biodiversity, the loss of natural capital more generally or, especially, the damage to public health – something that Richard thought was particularly important.

So, what exactly is needed to shift the economic advantage towards sustainable farming systems? This means shifting the economic environment to such an extent that a ‘normal’ farmer (as opposed to a ‘weird hippie farmer’ like me) will look at sustainable practices and think: ‘I’m going to do that because it makes financial sense for my business.’ Related to this challenge, in a fascinating session at COP28, I met with industry leaders to discuss a range of possible approaches for accelerating the sustainable farming transition. One of these was a potential pilot project involving industry and government whereby farmers are funded for, say, five years for measuring their climate, nature and social impacts using a harmonised framework like the GFM. This payment might be a set amount of money paid to farmers for each acre that they include in the scheme.

An approach like this could have a transformative effect on our food systems, enabling the collection of baseline data that can be trusted by farmers, government, supply chains and people buying food. Once trust and reliability are established, this pioneering new mechanism, combining government funding and private sector finance, could be taken to scale, thus providing a third income stream for farmers who are delivering public goods. This is just one example of a promising collaboration at COP28, which highlighted food and farming in a way that hasn’t been seen before. You can find out more about what we discussed by watching the session here.

Inspirational farming stories

Away from the main stage at COP28, there were many exciting meetings and conversations happening – for me, one of these was my interview with Helmy Abouleish for the SFT podcast. Helmy is CEO of SEKEM in Egypt, an extensive project that now employs thousands of people and has its own schools, university, hospital and clothing factory as well as a big biodynamic farming operation across several sites that have been reclaimed from the desert. This land is irrigated with Nile water, using only 40% of the water that conventional agriculture requires.

It was very moving to talk to Helmy about his life’s work and the community he has built. Of particular interest was hearing about the launch of a soil carbon credit scheme which already includes thousands of farmers in Egypt and is set to expand to 40,000. The farmers, who are mostly smallholders farming biodynamically, are paid for the carbon in their soils and as a result their income has increased by 50%.

The scheme is being regulated by the Egyptian government making it one of the first – if not the first – in the world where the regulatory frameworks have approved the carbon credits. These farmers no longer need to charge a premium for their biodynamic products because they have had such a hike in income that they can compete with conventional farmers in the marketplace. What a wonderful thing it might be if we could do something similar in the UK.

A harmonised framework based on the Global Farm Metric used by governments and others to help farmers to recognise, over time, the impact of their farming practices on soils or biodiversity or health, would surely enable this. It would also help them to understand – and clearly communicate to others – the sustainability of their system, regardless of whether their farm is regenerative, agroecological, organic or biodynamic.

GFM farm trials
The GFM team spent the year visiting farms around the UK as part of their farm trials to test the use of the Global Farm Metric framework


The conditions for transformative change 

What are the influences and conditions which bring about transformative change? My instinct is that it is a combination of jeopardy (we often don’t act until we see that there’s a real risk to the environment or our own personal health), inspiration (if we see an example of something working, which could be scaled, that can often mobilise change) and the enabling conditions (having the wherewithal, the money, the tools, the knowledge to put principles into practice).

I suspect there is a fourth factor, a force, which manifests as a change of consciousness, sweeping through the land or even the planet, and mobilising change in a way that could not be wholly predicted. In saying this, I’m reminded of how I felt during the 1960s when I was a young man in my early 20s, inspired by a mixture of the idealism of the day, the optimism and the music, which somehow became more than the sum of its parts and manifested in our decision to get back to the land. In summary, I don’t know how the changes are going to happen, but I feel sure that if enough of us want those changes, they will happen!

Work to influence change also needs to include research and reports, drawing attention to the damage caused by the present food and farming systems or the potential benefit from truly sustainable alternatives. Examples of these reports are The Hidden Cost of UK Food and more recently, Feeding Britain from the Ground Up.

Of course, reports alone will never mobilise change, but if they are combined with the alignment of leaders with new thinking and mobilised public opinion, then you have, metaphorically speaking, a fertile seedbed for change in which germination can then take place.

For now, thanks indeed to all our supporters for their contribution to our shared commitment – of building a better food and farming system for the future. We look forward to bringing you news and updates on this and our other work, in the new year.

In the meantime, may 2024 bring you many blessings and much fulfilment.

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