Unlocking barriers: What has the SFT achieved so far and what’s next?

  • 01.05.2024
  • article
  • Diet and Health
  • Food Education
  • Global Farm Metric
  • Measuring Sustainability
  • Policy
  • True Cost Accounting
  • Patrick Holden

With the publication of the Sustainable Food Trust’s next major report due this summer, CEO, Patrick Holden, reflects on seven key challenges and successes of the SFT so far, and looks ahead to the release of what will be a pivotal work on the future of sustainable food.

In 2011, shortly after I left the Soil Association, a number of individuals suggested that I should capitalise on the network of influential contacts I’d accumulated and launch a new organisation. I did – and it became the Sustainable Food Trust (SFT).

The idea behind the SFT was to be ‘inclusive and catalytic’. I didn’t want to build a large organisation because I had ‘been there and done that’ during my time at the Soil Association. Instead, I wanted to work with a small but trusted team of individuals who were committed to accelerating a change in how we farm and eat, a change that was trying to happen but was being held back by some significant barriers.

A dozen years down the road, we understand what those barriers are, and we are beginning to unlock them.


1. Misdirected agricultural policy

From a post-war, 70-year perspective, I’ve witnessed how a succession of policy instruments, both in the UK and the EU – and mirrored in the US – have encouraged farmers to intensify and expand, using industrial systems which have been highly profitable, but only because of their extractive nature. As a direct consequence, the farming systems that we have today are in a major way responsible for climate change, catastrophic biodiversity loss and enormous social harm, especially in relation to growing public ill-health.

Ironically, these post-war policies were well meaning, catalysed by food insecurity during World War II, but the unfortunate consequences have been fairly disastrous. Reforming these policies has been rather like reversing a super tanker – first, there needs to be a collective will to act and then policies need to be redesigned and directed once again towards incentives that support food production working in harmony with nature.

The SFT’s advocacy of such policies has been consistent and of critical importance. I believe we can now claim that we are beginning to be a significant influence on policy reform. For instance, in the UK, Defra and the devolved nations are beginning to understand that rather than have separate support for biodiversity stewardship, they need to take a more integrated approach and back farming systems which deliver on nature as well as food.

2. True cost accounting

The SFT’s work on ‘true cost accounting’, a term that was coined by one of our board members, Christy Brown, focuses on the need to price impacts – or as economists call them ‘externalities’ – arising from different farming systems. Without this approach, the profitability of farming and the affordability of food is distorted. Put simply, farming intensively has paid better than farming regeneratively because of the failure to enshrine the ‘polluter pays’ principle, so apparently ‘cheap’ food was dishonestly priced as it didn’t reflect the consequences of the industrial farming systems behind it, on climate, nature and people.

The SFT produced a landmark report – The Hidden Cost of UK Food – in 2017, updated in 2019. This was in large part the work of my recently departed and much-loved colleague, Richard Young, whose forensic mind enabled him to piece together the range of negative impacts in industrial farming and put a price on them, famously with the headline “for every £1 that we spend on food at the checkout, we spend another £1 in hidden ways”. These hidden ways include taxation, lost income due to ill health, and the price of mitigating and adapting to climate change and environmental degradation.

True Cost Accounting

3. The Global Farm Metric

As the work on true cost accounting proceeded, it became part of the global language describing food system externalities. However, quite quickly, we realised that many studies evaluating food systems externalities have used different frameworks of measurement. As a direct consequence of this, it was impossible to come to a settled conclusion about the perverse economics that industrial farming was running on.

Faced with this challenge, the SFT decided to turn its attention to developing a globally harmonised framework for measuring land use sustainability impacts. This initiative has now borne fruit in a framework of common measurement, the Global Farm Metric (GFM). The GFM coalition now numbers more than 130 organisations and is widely regarded internationally as the most accurate and comprehensive holistic framework for measuring land use sustainability.

The arrival of a common way of measuring sustainability impacts will protect against the risk of greenwash, while shifting the economic climate towards regenerative farming. This provides the conditions for a mainstream transition away from damaging farming practices, if we can overcome the key barrier to change, namely finance.

4. Finance

As I have observed from personal experience, during the 50-year chapter of my farming life, doing the wrong thing has paid and doing the right thing hasn’t. Despite this I’ve stuck to my convictions; helped by my day jobs and more recently turning our milk into cheese, we have been able to demonstrate at Holden Farm Dairy that truly regenerative farming can build carbon, increase biodiversity and have brilliant social outcomes.

Much of the work of the SFT has focused on improving the financial climate for an agricultural transition to regenerative practices. This work has taken multiple forms, including the aforementioned policy work, but the most exciting recent development comes from my involvement with the Sustainable Markets Initiative (SMI) launched by the then Prince, now King Charles, in 2020 at Davos which brings together some of the world’s most influential corporate CEOs.

This privilege has enabled me to convene the SMI Cross Taskforce Group working under the heading of ‘Financing the Agricultural Transition’. We are planning a collaborative effort, the result of which will be to introduce a so-called ‘third income stream’ for farmers, initially in the UK and Germany but hopefully also in the US, enabling food producers who deliver so-called public goods to be rewarded for climate, nature and social impacts. It would be hard to understate the importance of this breakthrough.

Bringing together a unique combination of stakeholders who hitherto did not see themselves as having a direct involvement with primary agriculture, has been one of the most important achievements of the SFT. This community includes farmers and land managers joining forces with banks, asset managers and investors, insurance companies, utilities, food processors and retailers, auditors and the voluntary sector. Never in my farming lifetime has it been possible to convene such a potent group of interests around one single challenge – accelerating the transition to truly regenerative farming.

Patrick Holden speaking at the Sustainable Markets Initiative forum at COP27. Photo courtesy of James Robinson


5. Modelling food systems change

In 2022, the SFT published another report Feeding Britain from the Ground Up. It explored a number of frequently asked questions: Could we produce enough food if the whole world transitioned to sustainable agriculture? What would be the physical and dietary impacts of such a transition? And what would these same food systems look like if they were scaled up across a nation?

The report enables the reader to envisage the impact of a transition to climate, nature and people friendly farming across a nation, using half a dozen different farming system models, each adapted to the differing climate, soil and topographical diversity of the UK’s landscapes.

It found that a UK-wide transition to sustainable farming practices, to tackle the climate, nature and public health crises, could produce enough food to maintain and potentially even improve current levels of self-sufficiency, provided we ate differently, ate less and cut food waste.

SFT CEO, Patrick Holden, highlights our Feeding Britain report during our session 'What role for grazing livestock in a warming world?'

6. Decentralised food systems

Umbilically linked to our Feeding Britain report are the implications for the way in which nations throughout the world harvest, process and distribute their food. Such systems have become so centralised that many supermarkets and food processors today use as few as one abattoir, cutting and processing plant, vegetable packing operation and processing unit, to supply entire ranges of ‘own label’ products. These systems not only eliminate the identity of the farmer and the food story behind them, they encourage commodity sourcing and over-processing, leading to diets comprising over 50% of ultra-processed food.

It will take time, investment and political will – all of which are rather lacking at the present time – in a world suffering economic downturns, conflicts and confusion about how we achieve farming systems that can support the health of both people and planet.

7. Informing public opinion

It was Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association, who crystalised the most important objective of that organisation: creating an informed body of public opinion to drive the change towards more sustainable farming and food systems. Around 80 years later that public understanding is still reaching historic lows, and for this reason alone, it must feature as one of the SFT’s priority activities.

Enabling more people to have a first-hand experience of the story behind their food is so important. The SFT is seeking to establish a national and potentially international, network of Beacon Farms, that will act as an educational platform, offering visitors from all walks of life a ‘seeing is believing’ experience that could change their lives. As an urban child, I was taken by my mother to visit a farm in Essex when I was five years old. The experience was so profound that it altered the course of my life. The smells and atmosphere of the small barn where I encountered 10 to 15 dairy cows have never left me. I am convinced it is an experience which every child should have a right to.

Young entrant farmers

Turning a corner: Our next milestone

The prevailing view on sustainable diets and farming is based on overly simplistic and siloed thinking. Oft-repeated statements like ‘animal fats are bad for you’ and ‘chicken is more climate-friendly than beef’ have come to be accepted as orthodoxy, despite having roots in research that has now been discredited. 

It is hugely frustrating that decision makers continue to disregard the mounting body of evidence pointing towards the effectiveness of more integrated solutions to our interwoven crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and declining public health. What we need are systems of farming that enable the production of nutrient-dense, health-giving food in harmony with nature.

We hope that the SFT’s next report, due out this summer, will represent a major step forward in the sustainable food debate. It lays out the crucial role that grazing livestock play in sustainable farming systems that build soil fertility, capture carbon and promote public health. We look forward to sharing more with you on this important report, which will underpin much of our work over the coming months.

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