Land, food and people: lessons from the Isle of Man

Originally published by Wales Food Manifesto

Bees hover over marigolds, cornflowers and yarrow in full bloom around the edges of a field of beans which stand blackened and dry, ready for harvest. Beyond, the land slopes down to the valley bottom, where small herds of South Devon cattle are grazing the species-rich wetland meadows. Hedgerows abundant with blackberries, hawthorn and guelder rose divide Guilcagh farm up into small parcels, where Jo Crellin also grows wheat for milling and hay for the horses of the nearby riding school. This is the Isle of Man, where the sunny low-lying northern tip, in the rain shadow of Snaefell, is well suited to cereal cultivation.

We’re on a walk organized by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, and the co-existence of food production and nature is certainly a strong theme of the discussion. There is also a historical dimension: archaeological evidence suggests that people were growing wheat here  almost 6000 years ago. But it’s not just about a timeless rural idyll. Back at the farm, Paul Fletcher, owner of the cows we admired earlier and the new Chair of the Island’s Agricultural Marketing Society, explains his vision for a food chain that connects people to the land not just through the food they eat, but also through knowledge and understanding.

“We want to see personal connections up and down the food chain,” Paul says. “Retailers, food businesses and farmers need to meet so that they understand each other’s work and build trust in the food system. When you buy produce from Manx farms you become part of a unity of people and nature, and we want to make that easier for people to understand.”

It’s a familiar theme: the public has become disconnected from the land, and food has become a mere commodity to be traded like any other. Telling the story of food, by making the food chain visible and personal, doesn’t just secure the livelihoods of farmers and enrich the tourist experience; it can also help to reinvigorate a sense of community, place and belonging. This is a quality which it can be difficult to articulate, let alone assign a monetary value to, but which is readily conveyed in the context of farmers markets, school visits to farms and farm walks such as this.

genuine IoM meatEvery society has its own take on the story of its homegrown food. The Isle of Man has some defining characteristics which are unique to a small self-governing island with its own quirky fauna (it lacks badgers, foxes, moles and toads, but has a population of feral wallabies), and yet are instructive to us in Wales and beyond. At 32 miles long and 14 miles wide – which is one-third the size of Ceredigion, which it resembles with its rolling hills and fishing villages, but with a slightly bigger population – it corresponds roughly to the area covered by a market town and its hinterland, which is what many of us have in mind when we talk about ‘local’ food.

At the same time it has a national government with powers that Wales is still dreaming of, and it’s outside the EU, although in practice very tied to it by trading arrangements. That means for instance that it finances its own farming subsidies out of domestic taxation, it has fixed the retail price of home-produced milk at 60p a pint and it owns all the land over 200m. Meanwhile the obstacle of the Irish Sea, which is reckoned to add 20% to the cost of goods that are ferried across, is a powerful stimulus to local food production and contributes to the island’s diversified farming system, which supports a creamery, an abattoir and a flour mill, besides supplying eggs and vegetables.

It’s also been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere region, which is simultaneously an accreditation for the Manx balance between human activity and the natural world, and a stimulus to develop new approaches to sustainable development. As such, it is part of an international partnership of reserves which includes such iconic sites as Ayers Rock and Yellowstone National Park – and in Wales, the Dyfi Biosphere centred around Machynlleth – with a remit for educational exchanges and research.

The Dyfi Biosphere, which spans three local authorities (Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Powys), is dominated by beef and sheep and has few opportunities so far for creating branded products for export, but the cultural conditions are not so different. Both Biospheres have a Celtic language and rich cultural history, both have strong farming traditions, and both have a strong sense of place and family roots. Both also benefit from a dynamic population of incomers who are attracted to the natural beauty and atmosphere of the western margins and ready to envision a bright future.

As we in Wales face the uncertainties of leaving the European Union we have an opportunity to ask ourselves what future we want for our food system, and we have much to gain by talking to others who are grappling with the same challenges. It’s a time for building new partnerships, and the Isle of Man and the network of Biosphere reserves can offer Wales a new perspective on the relationship between land and people.  It’s worth further exploration, as we transcend our local identities to find the universal values of place-based development.

Where the food industry meets the public

Last year at a Welsh Government conference, a speaker from the corporate sector remarked on how central the food industry is to our lives, because ‘food is the cultural fabric of society’. My ears pricked up because this echoed so strongly the findings of our Food Values project, which showed how food touches us emotionally, as a symbol of connection and belonging. Food is so much more than a commodity to be bought as cheaply as possible, even though often we behave as if it were.

Later at that same conference a speaker from the Food Standards Agency presented similar findings from their report Our Food Future. The public, they found, however much they might appreciate the convenience of the modern food system, regret the loss of social connection that it has brought. They miss the cooking and eating together that used to be so much a part of our lives, and they feel alienated from the food chain, no longer knowing quite where their food comes from.

Meanwhile, if people have mixed feelings about the benefits the modern food system has given them, then the food industry too suffers from a lack of engagement by wider society.  According to the Welsh Government’s food and drink action plan Towards Sustainable Growth, businesses find it difficult to attract staff, and there are skills gaps in all parts of the sector. This holds back growth and has led to a reliance on migrant labour, which is a particular worry as Brexit approaches. The fact that even universities and colleges struggle to fill places on food courses suggests that the industry has a problem, as expressed in the National Centre for Universities and Business report Leading Food 4.0.

How then might we build a better relationship between the agri-food industry and the wider society of which it is a part? Clearly, they need each other. Food businesses depend on customers and employees, and the public needs healthy food. Too often though the relationship between the two founders, because it is based on a limited understanding of how people think and act. We talk about the public as consumers who merely buy things, and we see business as being all about money, but these are over-simplifications. A deeper appreciation of human values and behaviour might yield new approaches.

Consumers and businesses certainly do exchange goods and money, but this does not define the people who manufacture our breakfast cereals, manage our supermarkets, pack our fish or serve us tea and a sandwich at lunchtime. They have families and live in communities, just like everyone else. Regardless of our job descriptions, we all want to be part of a society where everyone has enough to eat, where food is healthy and wholesome, and where the next generation grows up able to cook proper meals.

As for the public, we want there to be enough high-quality jobs to go around, we need to know that our food supply is secure and we are capable of appreciating the complexity of the modern food system even if we don’t want to take in all the detail. It doesn’t, actually, “all come down to price” – not if you ask the question in the right way, away from the bargain counter.

Bridging the disconnect

So how can we tackle the disconnect between the food industry and its customers? A good place to start might be the relationship between supermarkets and the public. I was reminded of the ‘fabric of society’ when I visited one of our local supermarkets recently to discuss support for our community garden. I met a member of staff responsible for community links and she explained how we could apply for quite generous funding through a scheme administered by a third-party charity. Our project would be compared with several others, and the outcome would be decided on a vote by the store’s customers. It is a start – a supermarket consulting its customers about how it can support community projects – but it is an arm’s length approach which falls short of genuine engagement.

On another occasion, I saw the awkwardness of this relationship from the other side of the fence. A colleague and I were visiting the smaller supermarkets in town to invite  them to an event on food waste. None came in the end, mostly because they were too busy, but one manager did seem genuinely interested. She told us how she liked to support local activities, supplying school sports events with snacks for instance, and took satisfaction from the end-of-day discounts at her store which benefited people struggling to make ends meet. She obviously saw herself as a part of her local town and was proud of what she did, but regretted that her work had to be invisible because head office did not allow her to give interviews, and anything outside the control of their corporate PR executives would be regarded with suspicion.

This suggests a major, missed opportunity. What if supermarket staff were encouraged by their head offices to take a few risks and engage with community groups and local government to help shape and learn from the local food system? That would be very much in the spirit of the Well-being of Future Generations Act that Welsh Government has made a high priority. And what if the public broke out of the consumer mindset and emerged as active citizens, ready to speak up for the things they really care about: health, friendship and thriving communities, not just convenience and affordability?

A recent report on Food Citizenship indicates some of the potential that could be unlocked if businesses invited the public to participate more fully in the food chain. The Coop, one of the participants in the report, has an inclusive business model, being formally owned by its customers. They are looking at making this more visible in their stores, and it will be interesting to see how far they take it.  Other businesses are using the B Corp certification model to develop their social and environmental performance.

There are other links to be made too. A school visit to a farm or a food business can open young people’s eyes to the technical challenges and job satisfaction brought by a career in food, whether in an artisan workshop or a huge production line. Food festivals are an opportunity for food manufacturers to meet the public, engage them in tastings and explain their values. These initiatives all serve to bring food businesses and their customers closer together, with benefits for recruitment and understanding. They also oblige businesses to be more accountable, which might not be comfortable but is the other side of that valuable coin called loyalty, an increasingly important quality that forward-thinking companies honour through their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

There is much more we could do in Wales. As a nation we are an ideal size for low-risk experiments and new approaches to food values. We are a nation of innovators and ready to embrace change. We are limited only by the stories we tell ourselves, especially the one which says that business is just about money, and that money is all that matters. It will mean some radical changes in how we work, but let’s build new partnerships between business and society. Let’s go beyond PR and advertising, to transform the food system from within.

chefs serving soup

Turning consumers into food citizens

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

Some words are so powerful that we don’t even notice the effect they have, because they frame our thinking so completely. One such word is the term ‘consumer’. We are all so used to hearing about consumer choice and consumer rights, as well as being bombarded with advertising and images of wealth in the media that drive consumerism, that we accept this limited view of ourselves as merely people who buy things. Instead of being active citizens who participate in society at large, we find our value in the status that our lifestyle gives us. Of course, consumers can use their purchasing power positively for change, but it is still a narrow perception of our potential, and one which does more damage than we might think.

A 2012 study called Cuing Consumerism found that encouraging people to think of themselves as consumers rather than citizens, for instance by showing them pictures of luxury goods or merely using the word ‘consumer’, made them less likely to act in a cooperative way and even evoked feelings of depression and anxiety. The implication is that referring to the public as consumers, and filling our public spaces with advertising, may be creating a society that is unhappy and ill-equipped to collaborate on the challenges which it faces.

It also follows that if we could be freed from this narrow conception of who we are, and become ‘people’ or ‘citizens’ instead, we might reform how we see ourselves and unlock fresh energy and vision. The New Citizenship Project is a social innovation company set up in 2014 to catalyse this process and build a more participatory world. It recently partnered with the Food Ethics Council and other organizations including the RSPB, the Coop and the Food Standards Agency to explore how the story of the self-interested, passive consumer shows up in the UK food system, and what a shift into active citizenship might mean.

The Food Citizenship report documents many encouraging examples of this approach in the food system. While the power of the consumer is limited to making choices about what to buy, a citizen will feel more responsibility for how food is produced, not merely reading the label but enquiring more deeply into the food chain. Open Farm Sunday, for instance, allows the public to meet and engage with farmers face to face, going a step beyond merely exhorting them to blindly back British farming, while food hubs such as the Food Assembly allow people to shape their local food system in partnership with producers. The People’s Food Policy, for England, takes this approach to its logical conclusion, giving the public a role normally reserved for government.

As we switch our mindset from consumer to citizen, we unlock big changes. The report describes how the language of serving, policing, informing and competing gives way to a new vocabulary: facilitating, enabling, engaging and collaborating. Customers become partners and NGOs don’t lobby so much as build movements. Vexing questions are reframed: instead of asking how food can be made affordable for all – pushing prices down and devaluing it – we ask why so many people are hungry and demoralised, making it difficult for them to be proactive citizens who help shape the food system. Recognizing that basic inequality, we can tackle it at its root.

The shift into food citizenship is well illustrated by the public response to food waste. From the point of view of the consumer, there is hardly a problem at all, although government programmes may encourage us to change our habits. Meanwhile, for business and government, it’s an unintended consequence of an otherwise very effective food supply chain, a loose end that needs to be tied up, most contentiously by using it to solve another modern scandal, food poverty.

But the citizen in us feels outrage, strong enough to wake us up from the trance of consumerism. Food waste, we realize as we contemplate mountains of rotting produce, is not just profits thrown away. It is an insult to the workers who grew it, the people who could have eaten it, the animals that died to produce it and the wildlife that its cultivation displaced. It is a symbol of the way that we have put profits before people, and a negation of our humanity. In response, community groups have sprung up with their own solutions, making a stand for values of care and justice.

One such project is the Brixton Community Fridge, which allows businesses and households alike to pass surplus food to a good home. Others, such as the Transition Bro Gwaun food surplus café in FishguardAber Food Surplus in Aberystwyth and a global network of Real Junk Food cafes, make creative use of surplus food – mostly perishable items that need to be eaten promptly – to power community development, not merely passing it on to local charities but also using it for community meals and cafes that draw people together for discussion and friendship.

They may measure their results in terms of tonnes of food saved from landfill, or carbon dioxide emissions averted, but their real significance is arguably the way that that they transform our relationship to food. The vegetables, fruit and bread that they collect are no longer consumer items, with all the associations of choice and profit that implies, but nor are they waste, and so we come to them with fresh eyes. For a moment, as a crate of carrots is handed over from the supermarket or as bowls of soup are ladled out at the community meal, we see food as the gift that it always was, and ourselves as human beings, equal in our dignity and vulnerability. Then a new conversation starts.

Sat around the table, breaking bread with our neighbours in traditional fashion, we ask the questions that are the business of the citizen. Does everyone have enough to eat? Are we producing healthy food? Are we caring for the soil and our wildlife, and are we rewarding our farmers, processors and cooks fairly? Are we bringing up the next generation with the skills and awareness they will need to feed themselves properly? We consider what sort of food system we want to see in our town, and ask ourselves how we might help that to happen. People volunteer for the community garden, organise seed swaps and discover a new interest in local politics.

Because the shift from consumer to citizen, although it starts with a stirring in our deeper selves that is about values and feelings, can in the right circumstances lead on to action. Through taking part in surplus food projects we discover our own agency. Something that had been a very general concept – a better world for all, a stronger local community – becomes grounded in the particular: I peeled those carrots for these people, you delivered those grapes to that hostel, she enjoyed the fruit crumble we made, we raised this much money for a homelessness charity. Such things are good and we can do them.

In this way, community food projects radicalize their participants. It isn’t easy; the people who lead them are well aware of the ambiguities of their work, as they patch up the holes in a leaky food system and bump up against the failures of social care, often for little or no pay and with a precarious hold on their premises, supply chains and staff. But there is a determination that arises from the vision of a better future.

As Heather McClure, a recent graduate of Aberystwyth University and a director of Aber Food Surplus says, “We’re not here to help supermarkets with their public image, or to solve the problem of food poverty. Our work might seem to fit that story, but to me, food waste distribution is a lens through which to look at our food system. It’s our entry point, and we want to make big changes.” The food citizen has their work cut out.

scallop fishing boat

Scallop fishing in Cardigan Bay: sustainable or not?

This article was first published on Food Manifesto Wales

It’s easy when talking about Welsh food and food security to forget that a significant part of what we produce comes not from the land, but from the sea that surrounds it. The Welsh fishing industry is small in scale, with little more than 400 vessels, most of them under 10m long. Combined with some marine aquaculture, the first sale value is £29m annually. But fishing in Wales has a historic, cultural and social significance, and in rural coastal villages where there are few jobs to retain young people, every small business counts.

Making sure that Welsh fisheries have a sustainable future is the work of the Welsh Fishermen’s Association (WFA). Although it is now funded by the Welsh Government, the WFA began as a voluntary organisation bringing together five regional fishermen’s associations who wanted to bring their traditional livelihood into alignment with the modern world of quotas and EU regulations. Its growth has been a personal quest for chief executive Jim Evans, a second-generation fisherman based at Aberporth near Cardigan, and his wife Carol.

The WFA works with Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and fisheries scientists, combining the fishermen’s practical experience with modern scientific methods in order to shape fishing policy with an eye to the long-term future, as well as day to day profitability. One of their main objectives at present centres on the king scallop fishery in Cardigan Bay (so called to distinguish them from the smaller queen scallops which are caught around the Isle of Man) for which, in due course, the WFA hopes to obtain Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.

If the latest government proposals for the management of the fishery come into force, then according to a recent pre-assessment report by consultants MRAG, Welsh scallops should meet the requirements for the MSC label. This is accepted as the gold standard for sustainable fisheries and already held by scallops from the Isle of Man and Shetland. The label, the WFA hopes, could mean interest from supermarkets, investment in processing facilities and a secure market for a healthy product that contributes to the economic and social wellbeing of coastal villages.

“At present, Welsh scallops are taken to Cornwall, Ireland and northwest England for processing and export,” says Jim. “We want to keep that added value in Wales, and we also want people to value Welsh seafood as a healthy part of our diet, and of our culture. We care about our coastal communities and our traditional way of life, and that’s why we have tried so hard to ensure a sustainable outcome.”

There is a problem, though. The scallops in Cardigan Bay, although sometimes gathered by divers, are usually harvested by towing a rigid structure with a chainmail collection bag along the seabed, a process known as dredging. This has attracted strong criticism from environmental groups concerned about damage to the seafloor ecosystem. The controversy centres around the EU-designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) near Newquay, where seabed features such as reefs and sandbanks, as well as a population of bottlenose dolphins, earned it protected status in the early 2000s.

Concerns were first raised in 2008, when growth in the local scallop population together with scallop fishery closures elsewhere in the UK led to a spike in fishing activity in Cardigan Bay, attracting boats from far afield. In response, environmental groups alerted the European Commission and the Welsh Government temporarily closed most of the SAC to scallop dredging. Now only one small part is open, from November to April each year, subject to annual assessment.

After that experience, the WFA convened the first meeting of the Scallop Strategy Group made up of Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales, Bangor University scientists, the seafood authority Seafish and fishermen. Its task was to collaborate on extensive new research into the fishery, including seabed mapping, studies of the impact of different fishing intensities and trials of technology to monitor the use of dredging gear.

This led in 2016 to proposed new management measures that are now being considered by a new government-led group. This includes environmental organizations and will in due course form an advisory board to monitor a future fishery. The new Measures will involve limiting both the annual catch and the amount of seabed disturbance, as well as monitoring fishing activity and avoiding certain areas altogether, and it is this which will be the route to the MSC label.

The controversy that was sparked in 2008 has not gone away, however. Environmental groups (who were not included in the Scallop Strategy Group because NRW was present as statutory conservation advisor), would still like to see a complete ban on dredging in the SAC. They argue that the Bangor study did not take into account damage that had already been done by fishing, and that a fairer approach would have been to use a pristine area of seabed as a reference point. They also point out the value to tourism of the dolphins, and fear that they may be affected by the dredging.

The debate about the scallops of Cardigan Bay raises many questions, and one of the most important has to do with the decision-making process itself. In a world where nearly every aspect of human life has some impact on the natural world, people will always disagree about where the limits are to be set, and compromise is inevitable. How do we do that in a way that hears everyone’s concerns, honours the complexity of the situation and allows a shared understanding to emerge? Wales has the Well-being of Future Generations Act which places a requirement on government to collaborate with business and civil society on these important matters, but we are only just beginning to find out what this means in practice.

Jim is clear on the WFA’s position. “We have always maintained that decisions about the scallop and any other fishery in Wales must be evidence-based. We understood the risk of participating in the Bangor study, because there was no guarantee of payment for the month-long experimental fishery and we had to cover vessel costs from the scallops we harvested, and of course we knew that the scientific evidence could have concluded that scallop dredging wouldn’t work in Cardigan Bay. We continued with the research because we are passionate about maintaining our fishing communities and the mixed fisheries on which they depend.  I am delighted that seven years work has resulted in early indications that we are on course to meet MSC certification requirements.

“Unless we all agree to abide by the evidence and the democratic and regulatory processes, how can we have a proper debate? It becomes a battle of opinions and that is no way to decide our futures.”

Organic farming: values that won’t go out of fashion

Organic sales from Welsh farms are up, according to the Organic Centre Wales 2016 producer survey report published last month, even though the area of land certified as organic has fallen. This piece of good news reflects a 7% increase in UK retail market sales of organic food in 2016, according to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report, which puts growth down to continuing enthusiasm for healthy lifestyles, ‘free from’ eating and knowing where food comes from.

But are consumer trends really a sound basis for a food production system that is all about the long-term care of soil and nature? Given the interdependence of food producers and the people they feed, it is vital to bring the two into the closest possible shared understanding of what it is all about. That means looking at our values, which was the topic of the Food Values project that we ran at Organic Centre Wales in 2015 in partnership with geographer Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, now at Bangor University.

Part of our role at OCW was to build the organic market, working in partnership with farmers and businesses to develop and share messages which went out on leaflets, on social media, and even the backs of Cardiff buses. We put a lot of thought into this, working out what people were looking for, and how to give them reliable information that would help them choose. One thing we knew was that food scares like mad cow disease or the horsemeat scandal are good for organic sales, and we tended to take that as a starting point, even if it did feel opportunistic.

People obviously don’t like the idea that their food might be contaminated, and even without a major scandal like BSE, there is the ever-present problem of pesticides. The obvious tactic is to say that “organic food is free of pesticides” – except that it’s not true. Pesticide residues are everywhere on the planet by now, and more to the point, organic producers do use a few pesticides under certain conditions, just not very much.

This introduces an unwelcome shade of grey into the message. But it gets worse. Saying that organic food is relatively free from pesticide residues carries the implicit message that non-organic food might poison you, and quite apart from the negative advertising which so irritates conventional farmers, research from social psychology suggests that playing on people’s fear in this way might in the long term actually be detrimental to sales.

The thinking, summarized by Common Cause, an organization whose aim is to strengthen compassionate values in society, goes like this. We all hold a mixture of values, ranging from what might be described as the self-centred ones of security, status, wealth and power, to the altruistic ones of social justice, unity with nature and equality. However, we are social creatures who change our allegiances constantly according to what we are talking about or where we are, seesawing between these two tendencies with little awareness of how easily we change our minds.

Primed to think about our health, for instance, we temporarily forget about social justice and the environment. Telling people that organic food is safe, therefore, while it may help sales in the short term, also makes us that bit more selfish. We start to turn organic food into a mere consumer item, and a luxury one at that. This is not what the organic movement was supposed to be about. Lady Eve Balfour, when she wrote The Living Soil in the 1940s, was talking about a healthy society, based on healthy crops and livestock, reared from healthy soil. She was not thinking of a niche product for ABC1s living in the southeast.

The key shift might be to stop talking about consumers, and start seeing the public as citizens who want to make the right choices for future generations, because actually that is what makes us happier in the end. This is the argument behind the New Citizenship Project’s recent report on Food Citizenship. If we talk to people as if they cared about the animal welfare, the environment and the health of humanity in general, then they will tend to respond in kind, welcoming the opportunity to step out of their passive role and make a real contribution.

Instead of customers they will then become participants and even partners in the organic movement, as Community Supported Agriculture schemes have long demonstrated. This is an opportunity for the organic sector to shake off the elitist image it has acquired in the UK and to position itself as part of a progressive alliance for social change. Sustainable food production is a natural companion for global justice, equality and human rights, and the shared values behind these campaigns means that they reinforce each other’s messages.

How to talk about organic food

As a step in that direction, we produced a guide in 2015 called Communicating organic food values, a guide for producers, which is available on the OCW website. It explores the values that producers hold – for instance, benevolence, self-direction, achievement, security, tradition, recipra ploughed field on an organic farmocity, pleasure and broad-mindedness – and asks what these mean in the context of their work. Our message was that producers should sift out for themselves which are most important to them. They should then speak out confidently for what they believe in, facing honestly the tension between the idealism that has driven the organic movement and the need for businesses to make a profit.

Organic producers need not be at the mercy of food fashions powered by consumer anxiety, and maybe they shouldn’t exploit them either. They can instead help to shape the food system by engaging with their customers as fellow citizens, making it clear what they stand for: a farming system that builds the soil rather than depleting it, that coexists with nature, that provides meaningful work and is the basis for a fair and healthy society.

The OCW survey, which was commissioned by the Organic Research Centre, found strong interest from farmers in converting to organic production. With dwindling government support for organic farmers via the Glastir Organic scheme, and with no staff at OCW, the organic sector in Wales might appear to be at a low ebb. But the values that it stands for will not go out of fashion and that’s something that farmers, growers and the public can all get behind, organic or not.

Picture: organic farm on Anglesey by Rosie Boden

Business and well-being go together: a look at corporate food values

This post originally appeared on the Food Grads website

Food businesses like to talk about their values. Many of them have obviously worked hard to identify the fundamental principles that underlie what they do, and to communicate this to their staff, customers and trading partners. And the clear message is always reassuring: we do the right thing at Megafood PLC because we really care, and so you can relax. We are good guys.

It’s great that any business examines its values. But it’s worth taking a closer look, because values are not always what they seem. A  body of social psychology research compiled by Common Cause has found a complex picture. One of their findings is that we all hold a wide range of values, many of which appear to contradict each other, such as power versus equality, or ambition versus humility.

This means that we are constantly balancing one against another – but it’s more like children on a seesaw than an acrobat on a tightrope. Sometimes we behave selfishly and sometimes we are generous. One minute we want to belong and the next we want to stand out from the crowd. Out shopping, we are seduced by novelty and back home we cherish tradition. It’s a story of polar opposites.

There are laboratory experiments to demonstrate how readily we change sides. Engage people in conversations about achievement and success, and they are less willing to do someone a favour. Talk to them about kindness and generosity, and they temporarily forget their concerns about getting ahead. And there are real life experiments too. Live in a country where health care is free at the point of delivery, and you get citizens who value interdependence and a sense of belonging. Weaken the welfare state and values of self-reliance and individualism start to flourish. Values are in endless flux, both shaping and responding to the world in which we find ourselves.

What does this have to do with food businesses? Unfortunately, many of them miss this dynamic quality and put out messages which are oversimplified or even contradictory. Take UK supermarket Sainsbury’s, for instance. They say: “Our values underpin our strategy – they make good business sense and give us real competitive advantage.”

A supermarket poster about values

Supermarkets: do they live up to their values?

Now, there is a real power in that statement. The way that food businesses talk about their values, backed up by heart-warming promotional videos, does indeed make them more attractive. But does it really make sense to say “our desire to be nice to everybody is going to knock the opposition out of business”? And what if sticking to your values means losing money, as it sometimes must?

The fact is that businesses do need to turn a profit, and so the corporate sector isn’t purely altruistic. None of us is – we all practise a healthy selfishness. So it is not a criticism of food businesses to point out the limits of their generosity. The problem is rather that they gloss over this when they claim that to be ethical and profitable are somehow the same thing. They may go together, and they may not. That is why it is so important to hold businesses accountable, and see how they put their values into practice.

Telling a bigger story about our values

The answer is to tell a bigger, richer story about the world. We need to honour the tension between making a profit and doing good, rather than pretending they are the same thing. It’s not that self-centred values are ‘bad’, and altruistic ones are ‘good’. It isn’t a choice between economic realism and fluffy idealism, either. It’s about holding both sides of the story, seeing how our way of flipping between them is a limitation of our minds rather than a fact about reality.

Ethical business means treating money wisely, using it to do good. It means thinking about money, but seeing beyond it. It’s challenging, because money has a way of taking us to places we do not want to go. We all live with that – individuals , businesses, community groups chasing funding, and governments. Whatever PR departments may say, there are no easy answers. There are only people who are willing to hold that tension, take risks and turn their minds towards the common good. Those people are to be found in government, in community groups, in schools and hospitals – and in food businesses. Business and well-being go together, because we need them to. It’s our only hope.

graphic poster

Joining the dots of the Welsh food system

This article originally appeared on the Food Ethics Council website

Food in Wales means many things. For some it is sheep on the mountains, shellfish in Cardigan Bay and black and white cows in the ‘milk fields’ of the southwest and the northeast. For others, it is free school breakfasts, a childhood obesity rate that is the highest in the UK with over 28% overweight or obese in the most deprived areas, and a population that doesn’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. Then again, it is an industry with an annual turnover of nearly £17 billion that employs a quarter of a million people, a money-earner that can never be outsourced. Or it is the growing number of food banks – 157 last year – which co-exists with the 300,000 tonnes of food waste thrown out by Welsh households in 2015, below average for the UK.

It is prestigious food festivals and high-end restaurants, and it is parents who don’t know how to cook a meal from scratch and children who have never seen a cow. It is back gardens, allotments and community gardens where many of us grow at least a few veg, and it is Welsh cakes and cawl, the remnants of our peasant food culture. And it is our connection with the natural world: the winter stubble and hedgerows that shelter nesting birds, the bees that pollinate our orchards, the grassland that puts carbon in the soil and keeps the climate cool.

When food is so much part of our lives, and has so many apparently unrelated aspects, how do we join the dots and make it work on all fronts – health, the economy, the environment, social justice, farming, climate and culture? It is an absolute necessity for our survival that we all work together on this, but so often the pressures of rapid change set one interest group against the other and the system fragments. Economic expansion may have an unacceptable environmental cost, affordable food means low pay for those who produce it, nutritionists don’t talk to farmers (much) and food education struggles for a place in an overcrowded school curriculum.

And it’s not just at the policy level that we are divided. As a society, we are increasingly isolated from each other, as the technologies that are supposed to connect us actually draw us apart: the car that means we can live far away from our jobs and families, the internet that gives us enough company not to bother with our neighbours down the road, the smartphones around the dinner table – and in many homes, no dinner table at all. Loneliness is epidemic, and in a culture where the economy is all-important, those who are not in good jobs – the young, the old, the underpaid, the sick, their carers – get left behind.

What’s needed is a national conversation, ideally over a meal, that emblem of togetherness. We need to step out of our professional and economic roles for a while and connect as human beings. We also need to move beyond the comfort of our own kind and seek out those who see things differently, not just because there are joyful discoveries to be made, but also because sometimes the very discomfort of such encounters wakes us up to new possibilities. That is the buzz that happens when a farmer goes into a school classroom, for instance, or a supermarket manager delivers surplus food to a Christmas dinner for homeless people, or a primary school teacher learns some gardening from a grandparent.

Rather than seeing the complexity and rival agendas of the food system as a problem, we could see them as a sign of unrealized potential. What new connections could we make? And what fresh enthusiasm might be released if we thought we could really make a difference and that it was worth trying? The more intractable a problem may appear, the greater the benefits that might result. Now is the time for creative thinking, for imagination, for play. Feeding the world is a job for the arts as much as the sciences.

This is the premise of a proposed new Food Network Wales. So far it is simply an idea and an invitation, linked to a Food Manifesto Wales that has been ticking over for a few years, gathering blog posts and followers. It aims to be a space where conversations can happen and new ideas emerge, as well as a conventional network that will make some new connections in the food system. It has only just begun and will only grow if it meets a need and attracts support; it is an act of faith. It does however have strong underpinning values, and it builds on some encouraging developments in Wales and beyond.

One of these is human rights, including the right to food enshrined in international law and placing obligations on government and business. Another is the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015 which requires public bodies to work with business and civil society on matters which affect the general population, and to extend this concern to generations yet to come. Our commitment is therefore to a food system which is fair, provides good food to all, enriches our lives, supports human connection and coexists with a thriving natural world. Just as importantly, when compromises inevitably have to be made, these should be on the basis of respect and dialogue. Sensitive issues should not be settled by a contest to see who can shout the loudest or buy the most advertising space.

Running alongside this, we need a step change in the way we think of ourselves, leaving behind the passive role of the consumer and the employee and claiming our agency as citizens, as the New Citizenship Project’s Food Citizenship report argues. It is not enough to excuse ourselves on the grounds of the power wielded by governments or multinational corporations, or the limitations of our job remits, or the unfairness of the ‘system’. We can all do something, however small, and that counts.  Citizens are to be found everywhere: in government, in community groups, in business. It is time we identified ourselves as such.

Could you be part of the new Network? Read more about it and complete our survey.

The power of food businesses to do good

One dark, damp evening just before Christmas, my partner and I turned up at a local supermarket. The Fresh Produce Manager, who was expecting us, proudly handed over thirteen crates of assorted produce and helped us stack them in our campervan. There were carrots, satsumas, potatoes, grapes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, little pots of fresh herbs, lettuces, a melon or two and a LOT of beetroot. All appeared to be in perfect condition, but there was one thing wrong.  They had passed their Best Before date and would be thrown out unless we could use them quickly.

The next day we dropped the food off at various charities around town. Several crates, including the sprouts and satsumas, would find their way into a church Christmas dinner, and a hostel for homeless people took much of the rest. It was satisfying to think of the herbs going into stuffing, of the fruit sitting in a bowl to grace the hostel table, of the solid nutrition for people who perhaps didn’t always eat so well, and even of the cash that hard-pushed charities could save on their bills.

We were working a shift for a surplus food distribution group that sprang up recently in response to public outcry about food waste. According to FAO figures, roughly one third of all food grown is lost or wasted at some point between the farmer’s field and our stomachs. It is built into the way food is handled, from the outgrading of misshapen fruit and the Buy One Get One Free offers that encourage customers to buy more than they need, to the public expectation that shops will always be stocked with everything and the fact that for most of us food is cheap enough to waste.

Surplus food waste redistribution takes many forms. There are dedicated organizations such as FareShare, community fridges both literal and virtual, apps and surplus food cafes. Where I live, a group of volunteers pick up produce from two supermarkets which they pass on to a handful of charities. Once a month or so they use it for a community meal, bringing people together and raising money for local causes like the community garden.

There is no doubt that the exchange meets a need on both sides. Supermarkets hate the bad press that results from sending perfectly good food to landfill while demand for food banks is rising, and for charities and community groups it’s a nearly-free resource that can save money, generate goodwill and bring people together. But it’s worth a look at what going on under the surface.

THE SHIFT FROM CONSUMER TO CITIZEN

Talking to shop staff it’s clear how much they enjoy the chance to do something useful. After all, it’s their local community too. For every supermarket worker who sticks to their job description and accepts the routine waste of good food, another is thrilled to do a bit extra. As we accepted our random abundance of food from the supermarket worker that December evening, our shared good deed felt like a triumph of common sense over the system, and we celebrated.

What if that spirit of common humanity was allowed to direct our food system? The story of profits and shareholders is not the only one. It’s a noble calling to feed people, as food businesses do, and we are missing something if we assume that making money is what they are ‘really’ about.  As Henry Ford said, “A business that makes nothing but money is a poor business”.  We need to tell a bigger story.

In our local communities we know the power of relationship and generosity. We sense that it’s a stronger story in the end than the one about money. And that spirit lives just as strongly in the people who work in the food industry. Now is the time to name it, so that we unleash the power of business to do good: for our health, for our farming systems, for our communities.

It’s the shift from the consumer to the citizen. One is passive, the other is able and ready to help shape the world in which they live. In the UK the New Citizenship Project has been asking: Could a small shift in thinking – from Consumer to Citizen – make a big difference in our food system? Let’s see what we come up with.

 

Teaching children where their food comes from and why it really matters

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

A class of seven-year-olds are making maps to show where their food comes from. Choosing suitable symbols, they mark their homes, the school dining room, the local cafes, chip shops and the supermarkets where their parents shop. The weave of their daily lives is revealed: the Saturday shop at Tesco followed by football practice, Sunday lunch at the pub, the family meal in the evening or maybe chips on the way home from school. Then they go a bit further up the food chain: where do these shops and cafes get their food from? It’s time for a discussion about farms and whether you can grow oranges in the UK.

The children soon realize how much they don’t know. They plan an enquiry into the matter, using the internet and interviews. A farmer comes in to answer their questions, and it’s then that the magic happens. Children are enthralled to find out that it might actually be someone’s job to grow potatoes, milk cows and drive tractors. They lap up not just the fascinating details – like the existence of machines for scratching the backs of cows and how the potato farmer buys his potatoes back from the supermarket in the spring because he doesn’t have cold storage on the farm and his own potatoes have started to sprout by the end of the winter – but also the generalities of what it feels like on the inside of farming. “What’s good about being a farmer?” “If you hadn’t decided to be a farmer, what job would you have chosen?” they ask more than once. He talks about being in the fresh air, caring for animals, sharpening his skills and deriving satisfaction from producing food that people need.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. This matters, because children are growing up in a world that endlessly gives them the message that happiness comes from earning lots of money, having the latest gadgets and wearing the right brands of clothes. The education system, meanwhile, is increasingly based on the notion that academic achievement is all that really matters, leading to an emphasis on the things that can be measured – numeracy rather than creativity, literacy rather than self-expression. Qualities like kindness and courage, literally, don’t count. This can create a dichotomy between success, status, money and security on the one hand, and generosity, community and connection with nature on the other, and it is worth a closer look at what is going on.

Research from social psychology collated by the Common Cause project, which aims to make compassionate values central to public life, reveals a complex picture. It shows that we all hold a broad range of values, many of them apparently contradictory, but all corresponding to a genuine need. Thus, success is an important value (if you doubt that, consider failure), but so is humility, in the sense of appreciating our dependence on others. Our brains however find it hard to hold both these values at once, and so we seesaw between them, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In the garden, cutting lettuce for dinner, it is easy to feel close to nature, but in the bright lights of the supermarket we easily forget that and look for a tasty bargain. Similarly, talking about money makes us selfish, while the story of a refugee child drowning can inspire an upsurge of generosity.

What does this mean for education? A fascinating experiment carried out at Cardiff University shows how excessive enthusiasm for academic success might have unintended consequences. The experimenters asked one group of people to sort through cards bearing words like ‘capable’ and ‘successful’, so that they were tuned into their desire for achievement, while another group sorted words associated with altruism, like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘helpful’. They were then given a puzzle to solve, and asked to help the experimenter with a task. The result was that the group that had been primed for achievement did better at solving the puzzle than the other group, but they also turned out to be less likely to help the experimenter. Could it be that pushing young people to pass exams will make them selfish?

Fortunately, good teachers – left to themselves – know how to guide children towards a more rounded view of life, helping them to widen their circle of concern from themselves and their friends to humanity in general and to nature and the planet. They see how the security of belonging to a family or nation can nurture their curiosity and give them the confidence to explore new worlds, coming up with fresh solutions to the challenges that humanity faces. They know that success is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be contextualised. Achievement should help children to develop self-respect and confidence, and to share their gifts with others; it should not be about becoming ever richer and more powerful at the expense of the planet. And that is where food education comes in – as an antidote to consumerism, targets and competition.

There is something inherently democratic about food. We are all equal in our need for it. Sitting around the table for a meal reminds us that we all deserve to eat, and that we have an obligation to ensure that others can too. Studying the food chain cuts through the notion that we are self-made individuals, and reminds us of our interdependence. Not only do we rely on a vast worldwide network of farmers, growers, supermarket shelf-stackers, cooks, bakers, abattoirs, vets, food scientists and lorry drivers to feed us three times a day, but we are all ultimately dependent on healthy soils, rainfall, sunshine, bees, worms and the rest of the biosphere to keep us alive. We cannot separate ourselves from this.

On a farm visit, children encounter the natural world, appreciating the compromise between human needs, animal welfare and wildlife. When they make the connection between farm animals and the food chain, or see the uncultivated margin around a cereal field where wildflowers and insects flourish, or learn how drought and flooding can destroy crops, they see the tough decisions that need to be made if we are to feed ourselves. Back in school, following crops such as broad beans and potatoes from seed to plate, they gain skills and confidence as they learn to partner with the rhythms of the seasons. The enthusiasm and earnestness with which some children will plant, weed and dig in the school garden suggests they are gaining something more necessary to them than exam results. Maybe it is because they sense their need for a deeper connection with nature, which according to the RSPB report Every Child in Nature is an important support for health, well-being and personal and social skills.

The school curriculum is notorious for its pendulum swings, from a prescriptive top-down approach to local autonomy, from narrow academic goals to a child-centred focus. Schools may yet be freed from the assumption that they exist to produce a skilled workforce that attracts inward investment, and instead be encouraged to embrace a wider more holistic vision of the education they provide. In Wales, a new curriculum arriving from 2018 balances academic achievement with ethical citizenship, creative expression and confidence, and offers hope of a fresh start in our schools. Until that time, food education should be embraced not just because of the contribution it can make to attainment but also for its moral basis. It’s time to give children a proper grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

People at a farmers market

The future of farming will depend on what the public asks for

This article was first published in the Cambrian News 

When NFU Cymru Livestock Board chairman Wyn Evans was growing up, his grandparents’ upland farm near Aberystwyth was a model of self-sufficiency. They grew grain, hay and green fodder for their animals, just buying in a little extra feed for a milking herd of 20-25 cows, and sent their small flock of sheep up the hill to graze in the summer. The land supported four people working full-time on a wide variety of tasks and produced milk, beef, lamb and potatoes for local consumption.  farmer in barn with sheep

It’s a way of farming that has vanished. Speaking at February’s Let’s Talk About Food event in Aberystwyth, Wyn described how he and his wife combined that farm with other land they bought and now keep sheep and beef cattle on 230 acres, sending lambs to the abattoir in Llanidloes and on to Sainsbury’s, while the calves go to other farmers for fattening. He employs only a little part-time labour.

“The main change has been the grip of the retailers,” he explains. “We love to do our shopping in one place, and so we go to supermarkets. But that way, beef and sheep farmers get on average less than the cost of production, and depend on subsidies.” With Brexit, Welsh farming is at a crossroads: it will either move to very large-scale farming to stay competitive, or with government support, strong domestic sales and access to the EU market, family farms might stay in business.

All this might be seen as simply a problem for farmers to sort out, but the public are involved too. The countryside, its wildlife, its soils, its amenities and of course its capacity to produce food are of concern to all of us. Now is a crucial time for food producers and the public to come together and ask what food system we want to see, and that was the bigger question at February’s event, organized by the Aberystwyth Food Forum with support from Ceredigion Council’s Cynnal y Cardi programme.

Looking for local alternatives

The Forum was set up last year to see how everything to do with food in our area can be developed and celebrated for the good of all. Members include Aber Food Surplus, who redistribute supermarket surplus to charities, and Penglais Community Garden, and it holds regular Pay-As-You-Feel meals in cafes and community centres in town, bringing people together for discussion.

We want to ask questions about where our food comes from. The supermarkets are not the only show in town. The Treehouse buys direct from many local organic and low-input producers, selling vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy in its shop and café, and there are several excellent family butchers selling local meat. The twice-monthly farmers’ market is thriving, and many eateries boast local produce on their menus.

Perhaps Brexit is an opportunity. “I would support any outlet for agricultural produce,” said Wyn. “Let’s educate people – they don’t have to go to the supermarkets. There are other choices.”