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Patrick Holden on Peak Oil and the Transition Towns concept

saconf2With next weekend’s Soil Association conference, One Planet Agriculture becoming the first ever Soil Association conference to be sold out in advance, it would appear that its theme of peak oil and the relocalisation of food production has hit a chord. Speakers include Richard Heinberg, Colin Campbell, Jeremy Leggett, Jonathan Porritt and Transition Culture’s own Rob Hopkins. The Soil Association just posted a podcast and interview in which Soil Association director Patrick Holden waxes lyrical about the impact that peak oil and the Transition Towns concept has had on his, and the Association’s, thinking. I will report in detail on the conference, and try and write up most of the keynote speakers. Here is the text of Patrick’s interview….

One Planet Agriculture - 18/01/2007

Interviewer: I’m going to be talking to Patrick Holden, the Director of the Soil Association, about the forthcoming Soil Association conference, One Planet Agriculture – preparing for a post-peak oil food and farming future. So Patrick, in a nutshell, what is One Planet Agriculture?

phPatrick: Well, I think it is the most important theme that the Soil Association has ever pursued at a national conference. That isn’t to define what it is, or to address your question, but I think it’s important that that’s the scale I think of and the breadth of the subject that this conference hopes to address.

The conference was fully booked a week ago, and never in the history of any conference we’ve ever organised have we experienced so much interest. In fact, we probably could have booked this conference twice over, and we are seriously considering running it again in Scotland and possibly even in London in the future, because the idea is so big, that it actually should encompass the Soil Association’s future development and direction. In fact, one can see One Planet Agriculture as a defining campaign which we can address over the next few years.

I think to get a feel of what the conference is all about, one needs to look back at the history of the Soil Association – back to the ideas of the founders, which at the beginning of the 20th century set out a different agenda for agriculture based on the principle of farming for positive health.

But at that time, the direction of agriculture was really oppositely inclined to the founders’ principles because we were at the beginning of the industrial age. We were using artificial fertilisers which were manufactured from fossil fuels and the beginning of the 20th century drive for increased production lead to a form of agriculture which dominated the whole of the last century, during which time the world has consumed the fossil fuel capital that was generated by perhaps 100 million years of earth evolution in just over a century.

And now, we’re approaching the end of the fossil fuel era, which we may well come to describe with hindsight as a sort of extravaganza where we lived beyond our means, treating capital as income and squandered all this energy.

Interviewer: Okay, so this isn’t new territory for the Soil Association? You’re saying we’re returning to our roots?

Patrick: I don’t think the founders realised the extent and the scale of the fossil fuel bonanza that we were embarking upon at the beginning of the 20th century, but I think their ideas encompassed a form of agriculture which intrinsically didn’t need to be powered by fossil fuel energy. Now that might have been an accident, but the idea of building fertility - using crop rotation, farming in such a way that the plants and the animals had positive health to the extent that they didn’t need pesticides, antibiotics and more recently mutilations to deal with the consequences of ill health - has now come round full circle.

And at the beginning of what I think will be a post-fossil fuel era, we need a new form of agriculture which will be able to exist with a mere fraction of the fossil fuel energy that we’re currently using. Maybe as little as 10% by 2030. And those conditions define the need for a new approach to agriculture which, in fact, WWF and David Miliband both have defined as One Planet Living or One Planet Agriculture. We’ve recognised that that is right.

Interviewer: Well I’m glad you’ve mentioned David Miliband because, as you say, he came up with that phrase. So aren’t you just stealing his phrases… and clothes?

Patrick: Well I think many people have been using the concept ‘One Planet Living’ and consuming the resources of several planets in order to sustain our Western lifestyles for some considerable time. It was brilliant of WWF to define a campaign ‘One Planet Living’ and it was very clever of David Miliband to recognise the power and potency of it.

Although I have to say when we met David Miliband back in the autumn, one of the things I said to him was, “Do you realise.. are you serious about One Planet Agriculture?”, and he looked a bit shocked and taken aback and said, “Yes, of course we’re serious. Defra wouldn’t have launched this initiative if we weren’t serious about it.” And I said, “Well, do you realise how radical it is?”. And I think he was slightly taken aback, because of course, One Planet Agriculture is radical.

It represents a departure from the previous fifty years of farming, during which time the Soil Association has spent an enormous amount of energy developing and defining a system of sustainable farming which avoids artificial fertiliser, and I think will play a pivotal role in One Planet Agriculture – 21st century agriculture. But, and I think this is an important point, we have to acknowledge that, that system of farming, organic farming, which the Soil Association has lead, is only one piece of a bigger jigsaw puzzle of sustainable development.

And in my view, it’s the Soil Association’s responsibility to address these wider issues at a time when the whole of agriculture is going to change and we won’t be unaffected by some of these changes.

Interviewer: So you would totally disagree with Miliband’s more recent statements where he rather saw organic food and farming as a market sector, and all this climate change and peak oil issues, important as they are, not really the Soil Association’s agenda? You’re saying ‘Absolutely, it is!’?

Patrick: Yes, and I think that’s one of the unfortunate consequences of the Soil Association having come to be so centrally associated with organic food and farming. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but actually the ideas of the founders were bigger than that.

Their philosophy had huge strategic breadth, and in fact, we ought to be at the tables of sustainable development on climate change; on energy use; on soils; on the role of soils both as a water holder and a sequester of carbon; on the whole issue of food security and how we can feed the world in a post-fossil fuel era. These are enormous debates, and of course, organic farming fits very well into them, but they are a bigger debate and I believe that we’ve now got to expand our view so that we make sure that we’re at those tables of discussion.

And in a way, that’s the defining theme of this conference. It’s about two things – it’s about expanding our vision in the way that I’ve just described. But it’s also I think about recognising that government-led, centralised systems of farming and food distribution which have dominated the 20th century will not be appropriate for 21st century agriculture. I believe that localism and cellular, from the ground up activity will be the defining impulse of 21st century agriculture. I think the Soil Association has to reflect that and hopefully play an important role in a shift of direction and that’s what the conference will hopefully initiate.

Interviewer: It sounds like the Soil Association has taken David Miliband’s challenge to UK agriculture to move, to shift to One Planet Agriculture extremely seriously and put together a great programme, but in your dealings with Miliband over recent weeks, months, do you think he really gets it?

Patrick: Well, plainly he doesn’t and I must say, when he made his remarks in his interview to the Sunday Times about there being no evidence of food quality and health benefits and then making reference to the purchasers of organic food making a lifestyle choice, I felt a little bit irritated and a little bit depressed.

logoI say only a little bit because I don’t think the remarks of one Secretary of State, however upwardly mobile he is in political terms, is going to make too much of a dent in the huge surge of public interest which is informed by common sense and intuition as much as science, and I’m not excluding science, which is manifesting in the organic market.

But, having said that, it is sad, when confronted with the greatest challenge that this planet has ever faced, and given the fact that organic food and farming systems could play a major role in delivering a One Planet Agriculture, that the Secretary of State simply doesn’t understand the depth of the importance of our ideas.

It’s worth remembering that the founders’ view was that if you get the farming practice right, health of plants, animals and people will be the outcome. So the health principle was implicit, explicit in the founders’ philosophy. And it’s simply not good enough to dismiss it, just because the science doesn’t exist.

For instance, it’s jolly lucky that we weren’t informed by that sort of approach when we took the decision to ban the feeding of animal protein to ruminants back in the ’80s before there was any scientific evidence of harm. But of course, if the government had to listened to that common sense view, we might have avoided BSE and CJD.

Now that isn’t to make an anti-science statement, it’s simply to say sometimes public opinion runs ahead of the science, and in making informed decisions, we should take into account the existing science, the precautionary principle and the common sense of the public.

Interviewer: What are delegates who go to conference going to hear that they can do? What are they going to come away with do you think? What do you hope that they’ll go ‘Right, we’re going to go back to our communities and do…’ What?

Patrick: Well, I think they’re going to be taken on a journey, and this may sound a bit self-centered but I… in a way I hope that the journey that the delegates will go on is a sort of echo of a journey that I’ve been on in the last six months or so.

I knew about peak oil and about the concept that we may be near the time where we consume the most oil in the history of the planet in a single year, but I learnt at a lecture which was given by a man called Rob Hopkins, down at Schumacher College in Devon in March, that the peak oil year may be upon us, and in fact it might even be this year.

But, even the, as it were the optimists, if you see them that way, are saying that it’s almost certain to happen by 2020 at the latest and I think the smart money is on the peak oil year occurring within the next four to five years.

Thereafter, there’s likely to be a 3% annual decline in the availability of fossil fuel energy. And if one remembers the populations of China and India and Africa, all of whom are wanting to use more fossil fuel energy each year, the impact of a progressive descent of that kind will necessitate managing on a fraction of our current fossil fuel energy, let’s say by the year 2020 or 2030.

And Rob Hopkins who had coined the idea of a transition town suggested that it was important that society as a whole should start an immediate forward planning exercise to manage this energy descent. But not working from the top down – you know, governments telling citizens to turn their television monitor off – nothing wrong with that per se, but actually working from the ground up.

So citizens take control of their own destinies on a village, town or even city level and organise energy descent plans which they are part of. In fact, more than that, they actually lead. Of which, food and farming plays a central role.

That’s the big idea which I think should be presented to delegates during the Friday morning session at the conference, and then the whole of the rest of it will be devoted to workshops where the delegates and some panellists on various workshop committees will discuss how they can put these ideas into practice on the ground.

Interviewer: So this is real grassroots action?

Patrick: Yes, I believe that the organic movement and the Soil Association in particular has become rather over-centralised over the last ten or fifteen years and I think it’s time to reverse that and to recognise that real change always happens from the ground up – it’s how the organic movement was born and I think it’s how it will further develop in its next chapter.

Editorial Notes: Rob is currently up to number 8 of a series on 10 First Steps for a Transition Town Initiative. We'll provide links to them all in a few days, but you can head over to Transition Culture now to check them out. -AF

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