Patrick Holden has welcomed a far-sighted presentation from the Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Gove, at a conference on The Future of UK Farming organised by the Sustainable Food Trust.

The Environment Secretary was careful not to pre-empt the conclusions of Defra’s consultation on the future of UK agricultural policy, which ends on 8 May, but set out his vision for the UK and became the first Defra Minister to accept the critical link between sustainable food systems and healthy diets.

He said, “How we produce our food is also about the health of the environment – our universal life support system,” which must be protected and enhanced, “Or else we hack at the roots of the tree of life.”

Hinting at Defra’s direction of travel, the Minister continued, “There is a growing public interest in where our food comes from. How it’s grown, how animals are kept, what the impact of particular methods of cultivation might be…. And there is a growing public interest in the impact of our current diet on our health. We are moving from a world where the major killers were communicable diseases… to one where the principal causes of mortality are non-communicable diseases, such as heart and lung disease, cancer and diabetes.

The Sustainable Food Trust has long argued for recognition that in the UK, where two-thirds of farmland is under grass for sound environmental reasons, that grazing animals and red meat are critically important to sustainable food production and healthy diets.

Michael Gove appeared to support this position stating, “A balanced diet, rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, beans, pulses and cereals, fresh dairy produce and protein sources such as fresh fish, offal and properly sourced meat is critical to human health and flourishing.”

Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, said, “It was heartening to hear Michael Gove recognise that livestock will play a central role in sustainable farming systems in the future.

The atmosphere of this conference and the reception to the new thinking about the need to rebuild soil fertility and biodiversity through a mainstream switch to sustainable food systems suggests we are nearing a tipping point.

Farmers and land managers representing many hundreds of thousands of acres gathered here at Fir Farm to learn more about the opportunity and challenges of switching to sustainable food production. Reception to the presentations confirms my impression that we are nearing a tipping point where a major scale transition to mixed farming, reintegrating food production with nature conservation and rebuilding soil fertility will be possible.”