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Patrick Holden with his dairy herd. Photo: Steph French ( / SFT.
Patrick Holden with his dairy herd. Photo: Steph French ( / SFT.
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Patrick Holden: 'cheap' food is costing the Earth, and our health

Emily Lewis-Brown

7th April 2016

Food has never been more affordable for middle class families in rich countries. But it comes at a high cost: the impact of industrial food production on health, environment and society has never been greater as Patrick Holden explained to Emily Lewis-Brown. Now the real cost of food US production will be examined in a ground-breaking conference in San Francisco.

If you told the real story of farming, what goes on behind closed doors would be upsetting. It's covered up by brands with images of outdoor mixed farms, with cows in meadows and hedgerow-lined hay fields blooming with wild flowers.

The post war drive for food security through industrial farming and ever-cheaper food has, ironically, put both our health and the future of farming at risk.

Food prices have been kept artificially low, while the true costs of food production have been obscured - and are increasingly unaffordable. A conference taking place next week in San Francisco aims to put this right: The True Cost of American Food.

Patrick Holden - dairy farmer, sustainable food campaigner and organiser of the conference - believes that sustainable farming is being held back by the way that food prices are kept artificially low through mechanisms which hide the real cost of foods and place those costs elsewhere - on communities, our health, and the environment.

"When we unravel the hidden costs of food and farming, we find that our food systems are generating diets which we pay for many times over in hidden ways", he says. "They are making us sick and degrading the environment, which is vital to the future of our food security and health.

"Everyone has a right to good food that is affordable and nutritious, but the belief that making food cheap was the most important goal, facilitated damage to our natural environment and public health. This was made possible by cheap oil and technological innovation. It was hard for consumers to see the changes to the food we eat, as companies increasingly obscured the story of how our food is produced.

"If you told the real story of farming, what goes on behind closed doors would be upsetting. It's covered up by brands with images of outdoor mixed farms, with cows in meadows and hedgerow-lined hay fields blooming with wild flowers."

Milk cheaper than bottled water

Patrick had an urban childhood, like millions of other people who live in cities now, but his family moved back to the land in the 1970s to live on a farm. His deep understanding of agricultural practice developed from farming his mixed dairy farm in Wales, where he still farms as sustainably as possible.

That means he knows from personal experience the plight faced by many farmers: "Dairy farmers are now slaves to the commodity market. To survive economically, they need more and more cows, kept more and more intensively. Milk is sold for much less than the cost of its production - it costs less than a bottle of water now. How on earth can this be? Milk is a vital source of nutrition and farmers should be paid for the true cost of its production."

Of course for many families it's great that we spend less now than ever before on food: most of us spend less than 10% of our disposable income on food - and this is seen as a good thing. But that cheap food comes at a high price:

"The apparent cheapness of food is an illusion, because behind the price tag lie a series of hidden costs, none of which are reflected in the price of food. These hidden costs are paid in damage to the environment, depletion of the Earth's resources, and public health."

Adding up the impacts

Patrick is involved in research with the UN's The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) initiative that traces the true costs of food. But to make all those statistics real, he says, take a carton of milk, and consider the costs of its that we have to pay for without realizing it - on top of the suffering that's routinely inflicted on animals under industrial farming systems.

"You've got damage to the environment from the pollution of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, degradation of the soil and declining biodiversity, along with the contribution that agriculture makes to climate change.

"Then there's a high cost in human health, especially, at the moment, in the rise of untreatable infectious diseases from the over-use of antibiotics in humans and farm animals. But this also includes the costs of the obesity epidemic caused by industrialised diets.

"And there are significant social costs - agricultural workers suffer unduly from labour abuses across the world which sometimes extend to the condition of slavery. These costs are not currently paid in the price of our food and this is not being recognized by politicians nor properly addressed by the people who should be addressing them."

The True Cost of American Food

What is needed, he says, is a 'True Cost' account of our food system. That's one of the core missions of the Sustainable Food Trust, which Patrick launched in 2013 at a major conference on the topic in London, bringing together the world's leading experts on True Cost Accounting.

"For obvious reasons all farmers have to follow the best business case", says Patrick. "But right now if you farm intensively and cause damage to the environment and public health, you will make more money than if you switch to sustainable methods. The aim of the San Francisco conference is to do something about that - we want to create the conditions where producing food in a sustainable way is the most profitable option for producers and the most affordable for consumers.

"We believe there are many opportunities to intervene and shift the dial in this direction. For instance, we can redirect Farm Bill subsidies to favour sustainable practices, we can tax farming which causes damage to the environment or public health, we can harness the power of the financial community to preferentially invest in sustainable agriculture and food companies.

"It's all about carrots and sticks, we want to encourage the right kind of farming which benefits the environment and public health and discourages food systems which lead to climate change, pollution and disease."

Next week's 'The True Cost of American Food' conference will bring together leading experts on the environmental, human health, and cultural impacts and costs of American food systems with a clear objective in mind: to fulfil the right of every citizen to affordable, healthy, sustainable food.



Conference: The True Cost of American Food conference will begin with a reception on Thursday 14th April, and will feature keynote addresses, local and artisan food, and a cultural program.

This will be followed by a full two days of plenary and two sets of 8 parallel sessions on Friday 15th and Saturday 16th April at the Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. The Sunday offers a variety of field trips to local food businesses and farms.

World class speakers will discuss the reasons why food from the most damaging production systems appears cheap, when its real cost to the environment and public health is very high. They will also explore ways in which the food and agricultural economics can be made more honest, thus creating the conditions for a major global transition to more sustainable food production and consumption.

Register for the conference online.

Find out more about the Sustainable Food Trust.


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