Changing the conversation about health

Is an ‘unusual coalition’ between vegans and farmers the only way to achieve sustainable food – and better health?

Vegans and farmers can find common ground and work together to achieve better health, the founder of the Sustainable Food Trust has told The College of Medicine.

Speaking in an exclusive interview at the Food on Prescription Conference in London last month, Patrick Holden said an ‘unusual coalition’ must happen between those who don’t eat meat and dairy products and farmers working to produce sustainable food in the UK.

The campaigner told The College of Medicine during the video interview that changes in primary agriculture – including ‘the use of pesticides, monoculture and the declining fertility of the soil’ were all contributing to increased disease and NHS costs.

Holden said working with the next generation on the promotion of sustainable food remains hugely important, saying: “Young people hate industrial livestock production. You go into a supermarket and you try to buy meat with a better story and it’s impossible.

“For many young people, veganism is a protest vote, they think: ‘I’ll go vegan to reject that’ – but actually by doing that and not differentiating between the livestock products which are good and part of the solution, and those which are part of the problem – cheap, industrial chicken and mega dairies – they’re making it more difficult for the farmers who do want to transition to truly sustainable systems to do so.”

The Sustainable Food Trust campaigns for higher welfare practices ‘to ensure livestock are part of the solution, not the problem, for climate, nature and health’.

Holden explains: “We need to become much more educated and sophisticated in our understanding of which farming practices, both plant and animal, are part of the problem – and we should shop accordingly.”

Supermarket labelling still doesn’t give those who want to make better choices about the meat they buy enough information, says Holden (Image: Pixabay/Geralt)
Veganism remains a protest vote against mass production…but does it hinder progress made by farmers to become more sustainable? (Image: Pixabay/Engin_Akyurt)

How to unite seemingly polar opposite views? “It will happen, it’s inevitable – the transition of the food systems and our diet is an unstoppable force. We need new partnerships, this siloed approach, separating agriculture from food processing from the NHS – alongside the lack of training on farming, food education and nutrition in medical school – we need to put these things right.

“We need to form unusual coalitions and prevent siloed approaches from having any shelf life in Government.”

The campaigner believes that the ongoing depletion of soil, intensified by industrial farming to meet supermarket demands, reduces biodiversity in the wider environment and diminishes the key micronutrients we need, which has an indirect impact on the nation’s health.

“The future of the promotion of the health of the nation must be linked back into primary agriculture. If you look at NHS costs, a lot of those costs are not just linked to junk food, they’re linked to changes in primary agriculture; the use of pesticides, monoculture, the declining fertility of the soil, all of which are major contributors to many of the diseases which have become epidemic now – including cancers, food intolerances and diseases of the immune system.”