Why food security must start with human dignity

Last week, we learned that the UK government is planning to stockpile food in readiness for shortages if we leave the EU without a deal next year. This week, the government held a ‘drought summit’ with the NFU and is promising new help for farmers hit by the prolonged dry weather, which is having a serious effect on the harvest. It’s a rare and shocking glimpse of the fragility of our food supply chains. What should we make of it?

Like climate change, and intimately connected with it, the food system is too big and complex for humans fully to comprehend, and it takes exceptional courage and insight to look at it squarely. Someone who did was an American academic called William Catton, wrote Overshoot back in 1980, after the oil shocks of the 1970s had begun to dent American confidence in growth. In bracing but very readable prose he attempted to describe in ecological terms the impact of human activities on the planet, and the likely consequences.

It is a very simple story: economic growth has led us to exceed the carrying capacity of the planet, and some sort of crash is inevitable. Not only that, but our over-consumption has had such a damaging effect on the planet that its carrying capacity afterwards is likely to be lower than before. At the time he wrote, climate change was still an unfamiliar concept and it only has two brief references in the index. Nevertheless, he was very clear that there would be a toxic legacy to the unrestrained growth that characterizes what he called the Age of Exuberance.

Catton likened the human race to yeast cells multiplying furiously in a vat of grape juice, eventually using up the sugars which fed them, and poisoning themselves with toxic levels of alcohol, not to mention carbon dioxide. Elsewhere, he describes Homo colossus – as he terms humanity in its modern expansionist form – as a detritovore, feeding off the decomposed remains of earlier generations of life in the form of coal and oil. Like the algal bloom in a river which is polluted by fertilizer runoff, we feast now, but we will fast later.

These are not flattering comparisons, but Catton was no nihilist. He wanted to wake his fellow Americans out of their complacency and so he put his argument in the starkest possible terms, but he didn’t preach doom for the sake of it. He was a sociologist, and his starting point was a care for people.

As he says, right in the first paragraph of his preface, ‘survival and sanity may depend on our ability to cherish rather than to disparage the concept of human dignity’, and in telling the ecological story of our rise to dominance he wished to console as well as exhort. What humans have done, he explains, is not unique to us. Any species placed in a situation of abundant resources is likely to grow and multiply until it reaches and overshoots the carrying capacity of its environment, at which point a crash becomes inevitable.

What distinguishes us from other species, apart from the technological genius which has allowed us to exploit our environment in such a dangerous way, is that we know what we are doing – or we would, if we would only stop and think. The hope is that rather than beat our breasts in despair at our awfulness, which is just another way of saying how special we are, we will wake up to our actions and to take responsibility.

One of the greatest dangers Catton foresaw was not so much that we will run out of resources (most obviously food) as that the fear of this happening will precipitate struggles that will destroy us even more effectively. This was apparently the case in Easter Island, where around 1680 pressures on food production upset a delicate social balance and led to genocidal conflict.

Whether or not our present-day global civilization is headed for a crash, then, is not the point. What matters is that collapse is possible, and we are afraid of it. An awareness of what he called the ‘unfathomed predicament of mankind’ lurks not far below the surface of our comfortable lives, and it shows up when we see the countryside turn brown as farmers are forced to feed livestock with next winter’s forage, or when we realize how quickly our supermarket shelves would empty if the lorries couldn’t get to them.

Most of the time, we don’t need to think of such things. When all goes well, global trade enables us to transcend local limitations to carrying capacity, whether it’s the cold climate of the UK or the aridity of the Arab states. But economic recession or war – and of course climate change – can interrupt that comfortable arrangement and throw us back closer to the actual capacities of the places where we live. And the UK can’t grow enough to feed itself, at least not with our current diet and methods.

Face with existential threats like this, the human tendency is to band into groups and declare other races, classes or nations to be the problem. That is why talk of controlling population growth is unhelpful; it asks the appalling question, which humans exactly are we going to throw out of the lifeboat?

To ask whether the problem lies with the affluent west, with its huge per capita consumption, or the developing nations with their rapidly growing populations, is to miss the point. They are two sides of the same coin, which is our failure to see humanity in global terms. And this is why a concern for human dignity is vital. Rather than seeking to blame and exclude, we must recognize that we are all in this together and take collective responsibility for our predicament. Otherwise we become less than human.

This will mean facing the worst that could happen: not only the extinction of human life as we know it, but also the knowledge that we have all played our part in it, when it could have been avoided. And then, taking courage and organizing ourselves so that we adjust to our circumstances with justice and compassion. It is not a cheerful prospect. And yet, just as contemplating our own individual deaths brings meaning to the lives we are leading now, it might bring out the best in us.

For those of us who are working for a better food system, it suggests a new view of our task. It’s good to debate what food and farming should look like in future, weighing up the pros and cons of intensive or agroecological farming, plant-based or animal-based diets, local or global trade, artisan authenticity or lab-grown protein. At the same time, we must let the fragility of our food system wake us up to our interdependence and focus our minds on what we have on common.

We must look for shared values, and think of food not as a commodity, but as something which connects us. This means extending compassion to migrants and those in so-called ‘food poverty’, because one day that could be us. We must plan now for a world where food is scarce, because even if that day never comes, we will have built a fairer global society. And we can start doing that right here, at home, by reaching out to our neighbours.

Today, 1st August, is Overshoot Day. That is the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. It’s hard to take in what that means, but the frisson of fear that comes with the prospect of food shortages here in the UK  suggests that it might be worth paying attention.

Soup and success: how food gives young people skills for the future

It’s mid-morning at the Llandrindod Pupil Referral Unit. A sleepy-faced teenager shuffles through the main classroom, calling over her shoulder that she’s “off to water the plants”. We follow her outside, where a trough of parsley, basil, coriander and oregano stands against a sunny wall, together with neatly aligned pots of strawberries and some pea plants that are bearing their first pods. She picks one and tastes it.

“Every day they go out there, they water those plants, they care for them,” says Linda Gutierrez, one of the teachers at the Unit. She explains that the produce finds its way into the meals that staff and students share at the centre, but it’s clear that the benefits of gardening and cooking go far beyond producing a few herbs. It is about nurturing young people who are falling through the cracks and drawing them back into shared activity with others.

ladling soup

Food is an important part of life at the PRU, which takes young people who are not able to study in mainstream education because of emotional and behavioural problems. “Some of these children have never sat at a table to eat properly – they don’t have that interaction with their family,” says Linda, who works hard to improve their social skills. “They’re not very good at joining in, so we eat together, we cook together, so they’re getting that social interaction. You learn a lot about a person by having those sitting-down chats over a meal, and they learn a lot about you.”

Linda’s affection for her charges, and her pride in them, shines through as she shares stories of their quirks and breakthroughs. Life at the PRU however is not just about providing a substitute family life for vulnerable young people. Like anybody else, they need an education and preparation for employment. The staff therefore build on the role that food already plays in the Unit and teach a Food Technology GCSE. They also have their learners take part in a Welsh Baccalaureate Enterprise and Employability Challenge, which involves developing and marketing a food product suitable for sale in a farm shop.

Linda explains the process. Working as a team – numbers fluctuate at the PRU, but for this challenge there were just three of them – they visited Penpont farm shop, Llandrindod Market and other places to research ingredients and choose recipes. They came up with Flash Soups – ‘a flash of energy’ – and designed a logo, packaging, a sell-by date, allergen information and an (imaginary) social media campaign. They held taste tests, tweaked the recipes and the shared the final results at a Young Carers’ social evening.

She shows me the videos they made as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate accreditation. One girl reflects on the tasting sessions, explaining with teenage clarity her rejection of all blended soups and weighing up the relationship between appearance and taste. Another has a more commercial eye, and is interested in how the team worked together: “The one thing that stood out doing this project was that if people were absent from a meeting we had to delay making important decisions…The business world is not as easy as I thought”.

As an add-on to the soup challenge, Linda arranged for them to take an online Food Hygiene certificate. This gave them extra confidence – it’s a qualification that not many teenagers have – and it even enabled some of them to find part-time work in local cafes. And of course, they learned a lot about nutrition and how to cook healthy food for themselves, the life skills which Linda and her team instill “by stealth”.

The plan is now to build on the challenge for next year by growing their own vegetables at their other site in Brecon. Through a skype link we talk to her colleague Terry Holmes, who takes us on a virtual tour of the new garden. Raised beds are planted with tomatoes, savoy cabbages, courgettes, snap peas, carrots, beetroot, radish, red onions and chives, and there’s a compost heap waiting for the peelings. The plants are still small and full of promise in the freshness of mid-June.

Here we meet a third student who has been working on a planting plan. He speaks in monosyllables but it’s clear how much he cares about the garden; he’s been googling to find out what’s in season and has his eye on some giant pumpkin seed, which Linda promises to help him find.

courgetteThe PRU’s food activities also give it links with the wider community. Staff and pupils have visited various gardens in the Social Farms and Gardens network, including Ashfield Community Enterprise near Llandrindod, to learn new skills. Linda has also signed the garden up for the RHS school gardening scheme, which provides information sheets, teaching ideas and advice.

As she says, “That’s what’s so nice about working in a PRU. We can be really creative, because school doesn’t work for these children. We still have to educate them, but we can find other ways to get their interest”.

Terry sums it up, referring to the youngster we just met: “We said to him only this morning, ‘How does it feel when you’ve grown something from a seed?’ And he said, ‘it’s a nice feeling, to nurture something and keep watering it every day, to see something grow’ – and you can’t believe how much the courgettes have grown!”. The same could be said for the young people themselves.

Relocalising the food chain: Why it matters and how to do it

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust, here.

One of the positive aspects of Britain’s departure from the EU is that it has sparked off a debate on the future of UK farming, requiring us to question fundamental assumptions. Should we see food as a commodity for export, or to feed ourselves? What counts as a public good? And can we restructure our food system in a way that meets more of our needs – nutritional, social and cultural?

It’s hard to escape the growing interest in local food over the past few decades. Whether it’s restaurants boasting fresh, local produce on their menus, the rise in farmers’ markets and farm shops or the growth of box schemes such as Riverford, it’s clear that people value food that comes with a story. Even supermarkets have noticed, as Morrisons credits soaring demand for regional produce for its healthy profits last year. In order to understand the movement better, and to see where it might be headed, it is worth exploring the motivations behind it.

For there is more to ‘local’ than meets the eye. After all, nobody gets excited about eating bacon from the local intensive pig unit or white sliced bread from the in-store bakery at the supermarket. Instead the term is shorthand for a vision of food characterized by small-scale farming and growing, heritage breeds, artisan processing, family businesses and traditional skills.

It is also about self-reliance and ‘taking back control’, in the sense of using what grows locally with a minimum of inputs and rejecting globalization. It is about a sense of connection, which we have traded in for the convenience of the modern food industry, but with mixed feelings, as the Food Standards Authority’s report Good Food for All notes.

But there is more to local food than sentiment. Buying locally – whether it’s food or anything else – helps build local wealth, creating jobs and opportunities. Money spent with local producers tends to circulate in the local economy, rather than being siphoned off to supermarket shareholders. It also builds food security, as it makes us less vulnerable to disruptions in the complex global distribution networks that keep the supermarket shelves full. And arguably, it creates social capital as it builds links between producers and customers and supports a sense of place.

The local food movement has been driven by grassroots action, although often with government support. One classic model is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), where customers pay upfront for a share in the harvest, thus sharing the risk with the producer. They will also visit the farm and take part in work sessions and celebrations. It asks a lot of both producer and customers, and it is transformative for that reason.

Vegetables are the traditional mainstay of CSA schemes, but bread, herbs, flowers, cheese and meat may also be on offer. Often there is an interesting twist to the food story. Brighton Sheep Share, for instance, sells lamb from Herdwicks that graze the nearby downland to maintain biodiversity. In Bristol, a micro-dairy called Street Goat uses goats to manage habitat and process food waste, while inviting its members to buy a slot on the milking rota each week, and keep the proceeds. Like many other small-scale food schemes they see themselves as part of a global movement for food sovereignty, well described by the Landworkers’ Alliance’s recent film In Our Hands in which they feature.

Less demanding of their members are the Food Assemblies and similar models based on online ordering systems, such as the Black Mountain Food Hub near Llandeilo in Wales. Here you order what you want and collect it from a central depot a few days later, a system that is close to normal shopping patterns and which saves a farmer the uncertainty and effort that comes with setting up a stall. Such hubs build relationships between customers and producers and can give farmers confidence to expand their enterprises.

Still easier, from the customer’s point of view, is the community shop, of which an example is Cletwr in Mid Wales. This mixes standard items like baked beans and white sliced bread with organic vegetables from local farms, garden surplus fruit and even Welsh wines and spirits. “We want this to be a shop that anyone can come to, to buy food, to use the café, to come to social events and to volunteer,” explains organizer Nigel Callaghan. “We’re keen on local and organic food but we don’t want to exclude people, so we have it alongside the familiar items.”

What the models above have in common is that they recognize that food is more than a commodity, and so build in a social element. This activity is necessarily small-scale, involving groups of people who know each other and leave their unique stamp on their projects. But if we are to harness the enthusiasm generated by grassroots activity and relocalize the food system at scale, other approaches will be needed.

One example is the Transition Towns network, “a movement of communities coming together to reimagine and rebuild our world”, for which local food is key. Another is the Sustainable Food Cities project, which has around 50 members including Cardiff, Leeds and Brighton. These are partnerships between public agencies, businesses, academics and NGOs – including community gardens and CSAs – which aim to “make healthy and sustainable food a defining characteristic of where they live.”

An important part of relocalizing the food system will be to use the power of public procurement. Supporting councils, hospitals and schools to buy food from a range of small suppliers, rather than the usual mass distributors, is a complex task which has attracted some of our best brains. A recent initiative that might make a breakthrough in procurement logistics is the Dynamic Food Procurement national advisory board. So far, though, there are only a few isolated success stories, such as Preston, where school meal procurement is part of the story of how the town took back control of its economy after the banking crash. The potential is there, awaiting the political will.

Could Brexit be the opportunity for a step change in our food systems? The rhetoric of ‘public goods for public money’ means paying taxes for farmers to deliver healthy soil, clean air and water and biodiversity. Why not make it easier for the public to support good farming through the food that they eat, as well? Direct subsidies for food production are out, but government can support local food systems through education, planning, research and procurement. It can also address structural problems, such as the shortage of local abattoirs which could impact the availability of local meat.

In so doing, it could tap into an unrealized potential. One of the greatest benefits of local food is that it enables the public to form a new relationship with the people who grow and process their food. We can meet the producers and ask questions. What chemicals are they using? Do their animals look well cared for? Are they a good employer? Do they contribute to their community?

Through such conversations a deeper understanding of food and farming emerges and new approaches can develop. Farmers can find more profitable markets, and ‘consumers’ can become ‘food citizens’, confident of their right to shape the food system for themselves and others. We can start to create the food system we really want.

Local food: reinventing the village shop

First published on Food Manifesto Wales

At the chill cabinet of a small shop in mid Wales, a customer reaches for a bottle of wine then does a double take. “Wine from Wales?” she exclaims, reading the label that announces it is from a vineyard near Aberaeron. “Is it OK to take to a party?” She puts it back.

cletwr cafe staffShe might have picked up many other items of locally produced food at the Cletwr Shop, which is a social enterprise on the busy A487 between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth. They sell vegetables from local smallholdings, seasonal surpluses from people’s gardens and their own jams and chutneys made on the premises, besides the usual branded products. There’s even a choice of Welsh gins: Da Mhile from the Teifi Valley, or one from the Dyfi Distillery near Corris.

But Cletwr is not just a delicatessen for the tourist trail. Here you will also find baked beans, white sliced bread and ready meals, because for many people this is their local shop, and that’s what they expect to find. The vegan cheese substitutes in the fridge rub shoulders with their dairy counterparts, and if you’re looking for a toothbrush you can choose between the wooden eco version or the usual plastic.

“We want this to be a shop for everybody, so we cater for all tastes,” explains Nigel Callaghan, Chair of Cwmni Cymunedol Cletwr, the community business which opened its doors in 2013, a couple of years after the original family-owned garage and village shop closed. “At the same time, we’re working as part of a wide group of retailers, producers and suppliers in the Dyfi Biosphere (and beyond) to promote local produce, and through that to develop and strengthen the local economy.”

The shop, which recently moved to purpose-built new premises thanks to grants from the Big Lottery, Welsh Government, the EU and others, does much more than sell food. There’s a busy café and a programme of events, from Welsh classes and ‘knit and natter’ to talks from the RSPB and sessions on local history. They host a fuel syndicate and they organize volunteer litter-picking sessions.

It’s run by a mixture of 18 paid staff (mostly part-time) and around 50 volunteers, and it’s constantly responding to new opportunities. A charging point for electric cars is to be installed soon, they’re planting a garden in the grounds, they’re about to join a toilet-twinning scheme – sponsoring a toilet in a developing country – and they’re looking into further services that they could deliver to the local community.

What Nigel is perhaps proudest of, though, is the opportunities the business provides for young people. “We invite school pupils to volunteer here for a while, and then we employ them. We put about £15k a year into the local economy that way. And we teach them the soft skills of employability, things like turning up to work on time and taking responsibility.”

Cletwr is introducing a new generation of youngsters to volunteering. “We have a lively group of volunteers here, young and old working together,” says Nigel. “Our board has renewed itself completely over the last three or four years as new people have been attracted to it, so we think we have got a good model that will last.”

It’s one of a number of community projects that have sprung up in Wales in recent years. Others are Siop y Parc, a community-owned shop in Blaenplwyf, Ceredigion and Llety Arall, a social enterprise that is building holiday accommodation in Caernarfon.

“We’ve seen the benefits that this shop has brought to the local community,” says Nigel. “We’d encourage others to do the same. All you need is a few keen people and you can bring a community back to life. There’s help and advice available – we talked to the Plunkett Foundation, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and others – and the rewards are huge.”

Once in a lifetime: Bringing food and farming closer together in Wales

This was first published on the Food Manifesto Wales website.

Our departure from the EU provides an opportunity for citizens, groups and organisations to bring about deep change in the food and farming system in Wales, and the UK. Let’s put food at the heart of this transformation.  

When we leave the EU, the familiar system of farm subsidies will come to an end and it will be up to the governments in London and Cardiff to devise a new system of public support.

The UK government is working on an Agriculture Bill which is out for consultation until May. It is mainly concerned with England, but it does contain a section on frameworks for dealing with the devolved nations. This will determine the regulatory baselines and the power that the Welsh government will have to make its own policy.

Speaking at an NFU conference in Birmingham in February, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, set forth five principles that will guide a new Welsh land management policy.

The first four are: to keep farmers on the land, to ensure a prosperous agricultural sector, to ensure that public spending delivers public goods (meaning environmental benefits) and to make the support system accessible to all.

Bringing up the rear at number five is this:

“We must not turn our backs on food production. Where sustainable production is viable, we must help our farmers compete in a global marketplace… Food is core to Welsh farming values and is emblematic of our nation. We already have a thriving food and drink industry and this is the time to advance it.”

It is good to see the link being made between farming and the food industry. The Welsh Government’s Food and Drink Action Plan for 2014-2020, Towards Sustainable Growth, recognizes that 170,000 people are employed by the food and drink supply chain in Wales and that it is an important contributor to exports, jobs and general prosperity.

However, food is much more important than this, as the government’s own underlying Food and Drink Strategy for 2014-2020, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, makes clear. It is also about health, culture, education, food security, environmental sustainability and community development.

So let’s not talk only about jobs and exports, important though those are. Food is central to the way we hold together as a society and feed our young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable. It is the foundation on which future generations will literally grow.

As we embark on a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ to set a new course for land management and all that flows from that, it is imperative we take a broad approach, recognising the complex relationships between our food, farming, society, economy and environment.

A systems approach to food and farming

Let’s look at a few things we might want to do if we thought farming was, at least in part, about producing food for the people of Wales.

For one thing, we would align farming with public health as well as the environment, so that we grow food that meets our nutritional needs. That would mean putting more land under horticulture, in particular. This is the focus of the Peas Please campaign, which brings together government, farming, supermarkets and caterers in a concerted effort to have the UK eat more vegetables. We might also grow more grain for human consumption.

We would use the power of the public purse to support this new model of farming, getting Welsh-grown food into public sector catering, such as schools and hospitals. Professor Kevin Morgan in his 2015 Senedd paper Good Food for All enlarges on this point and calls for a programme to train procurement staff in ‘values-for-money’ purchasing which stimulates sustainable food production and underpins education and community development.

We would also want to make sure that the public, and especially young people, understand how food is produced, so that they can support nature-friendly, high welfare farming with their votes and their shopping choices.

That would mean supporting links between farms and schools, backed up with gardening and cookery to help young people make the connection between nature, food and human health.

It would also mean supporting food festivals to tell the story of farming (and fishing), as well as promoting community gardens which introduce growing skills to so many people.

All this would encourage the public to place a higher value on food generally, and to waste less of it. It would create a climate where people were willing to pay more for high quality produce, and so generate more rewards for the people who work so hard to produce it and bring it to our plates.

Finally, we would want to enshrine the inseparability of food, farming, the environment, health and culture in a new alignment of organizations and policies that ensures that we gain as much benefit as possible from joining the dots. Local groupings such as Food Cardiff are an example of what can be done; we need to work nationally as well.

It is human nature to divide into competing interest groups, or siloes that ignore each other, and so we need to make a positive effort to work for unity and understanding. We call on the Welsh Government to engage with civil society and business and unlock the power of food to bring us together into a new vision of a healthy nation.

Llun/picture: Anthony Pugh

Relocalizing the food system: could schools be the place to start?

This post was written for the Wales Food Manifesto (but I changed the title)

We often hear how young people have become disconnected from food. They don’t know where it comes from and they can’t cook a meal. Of course that matters and we need to do something about it, but if we turn the problem around and ask how young people can help shape the food system, we have a much more interesting question.

Let’s visit a classroom in rural west Wales, where a class of 13- and 14-year-olds are studying local and global food as part of their geography course. They check over the menu from a local restaurant and discuss the arguments for regional food: it’s fresh, it boosts the rural economy and creates jobs, and it saves on transport and therefore carbon emissions. But it may be expensive, and going to the supermarket is so much easier.

Also in the classroom is a dairy farmer, we’ll call him Neil, here to talk about his work and help with their discussions. The pupils have been preparing for his visit with help from their teacher, who has helped them get a picture of what farmers do and think up some questions for him. She has also had to help them over a few prejudices absorbed from the media.

Although this is a rural area, most of the pupils have no direct experience of farming, and they are curious to meet someone from such a different walk of life.  The fact that Neil is an ex-pupil of the school, and that most of them presumably consume dairy products on a daily basis, only underlines the gulf in understanding that has grown up between farmers and the public.

Neil is apprehensive. He tweets: “About to talk to a classroom of year 9 pupils… #lambtotheslaughter”. It’s a while since he was last in a classroom and he is not sure what to expect, but he is interested to take the temperature of public opinion.

Standing in the front of the curious teenagers, he talks about the family farm where he produces milk, beef and animal feed. He explains the double impact of Brexit: the loss of European subsidies, without which (unless the UK government picks up the tab) many farmers might go under, and the change to our trading relationship with the EU, which could deprive farmers of a big chunk of their market.

One pupil ventures a question: has he diversified? Yes, he has converted farm buildings into holiday cottages. He has also looked into bottling his own milk, which would mean that he could sell it for £1 a litre instead of 24p. The trouble is that he would then have the job of marketing it himself which carries a high risk. You can’t stockpile milk till the price goes up.

So he goes for the simpler option of selling his milk to a big dairy, his animals to an abattoir, and grain to an animal feed mill. His produce therefore bypasses the high-end tourist restaurant with its venison and crabs and leaves the county, along with the profits from the various supermarkets where most people do their shopping.

As the discussion continues, it becomes clear that the pupils and the farmer have made the same deal: commodity farming and supermarkets, rather than the local diversified food chain so beloved of the tourists. It falls short of the ideals we have been discussing, but it’s easy to see why.

There are powerful forces of policy, convenience and lifestyle that have taken our food systems inexorably away from labour-intensive mixed farming, small herds, specialist shops and weekly markets, to the system we know today. And Britain has since the industrial revolution had a policy of cheap food for the cities, which has made it hard for us to develop a food system that is flourishing in its own right, and means that Brexit could produce a step change in the wrong direction.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. If there were the demand and the infrastructure – and of course the willingness to pay – farmers like Neil could grow at least some food for local markets, insulating themselves from the ups and downs of global trade and becoming less reliant on subsidies.

Research suggests that this might not be an impossible dream. As Amber Wheeler found with her 2013 study Could the St. Davids peninsula feed itself? local food self-sufficiency is theoretically feasible in at least one part of rural Wales (and see Simon Fairlie’s Can Britain feed itself). We might not aspire to such hard-core self-sufficiency, but it is surely worth exploring.

To reshape our food system so that farmers were supported by local markets would take concerted action by policy makers, government, business and the public. It would require a very strong motivation to reverse decades of urbanization and globalization.

But then, isn’t that sort of collaboration exactly what the Well-being of Future Generations Act is supposed to promote? And a recent report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy on the implications of Brexit for agriculture calls for long-term collaboration between government, business and others to build the agri-food sector and increase the resilience of rural communities.

We didn’t come up with any answers in that geography lesson, but the question hung in the air. Maybe our young people can change the world, given the right opportunities. Maybe our schools can be a crucible in which new visions can develop.

Afterwards, a relieved Neil tweets again. “Really enjoyed talking to the pupils this morning. Future’s bright”. There may be challenges, but if we face them together, who knows what we might achieve. I think we all felt the excitement of new possibilities.

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“Rather than an argument, we can have a conversation”: How food draws us together in the vision for a healthy society

This article was originally published by the Common Cause Foundation 

When the idea of a food manifesto for Wales was first mooted some years ago, I was sceptical. With so many factions in the food world, it was hard to see how there could be any meaningful alliance that didn’t simply add to the confusion.

You can slice the cake many ways. One is the division between ‘big food’ – the supermarkets with their global supply chains, the agrochemical companies and others – and ‘small food’, the world of the community garden, the farmers’ market and the artisan baker. One side is apparently only concerned with profit, while the other is a niche pursuit that avoids the real challenges.

In parallel with this is the ideological conflict between ‘food security’, which usually means increasing food production using technologies such as genetic modification, and ‘food sovereignty’, which asks how power is shared in the food system and recommends reducing waste and distributing food more fairly.

Then there are the groups that simply don’t talk to each other. Economists, for instance, like to see the food industry adding value to raw materials and creating jobs, while public health officials would rather we ate less processed food, which tends to contain too much sugar and salt. Thus government policies can pull in opposite directions.

It was in an attempt to map the mental landscape of the food sector that a group of us at Aberystwyth University (later, Bangor University) led a project we called Food Values in 2015-16. We held a series of events around Wales, mostly based on shared meals, and talked to people about what food meant to them.

We did indeed find revealing differences in people’s values. But what was much more interesting, after many conversations with students, pensioners, refugees, homeless people, government officials, farmers and others, was how much people agreed on some basics.

Just about everyone expressed how much food meant to them personally, and how important it was that everyone should have good food to eat. There was concern that the modern drive for convenience is leading to a loss of social connection, which interestingly enough is echoed in the Food Standards Agency’s report Our Food Future.

It bears repeating how powerful this collective wish is. In comparison, money and technology take a back seat; it doesn’t ‘all come down to price in the end’, as we are so often told.

Seen in this way, the question is not ‘can we afford better food and social justice?’ but ‘how can we organise the economy so that it is in service to human happiness?’ This very general question is particularly powerful in the case of food, which has a way of reminding of us our dependence on each other and the physical world.

So strong is this wish for a healthy, fair food system that it isn’t necessary to iron out all the differences. You can be working for a multinational food company or a community garden and still want to see children eating more vegetables and less sugar, and old people sitting down to a meal with friends.

Rather than an argument, we can have a conversation, as we join our different perspectives and explore how to overcome challenges and bring about the happy, healthy society we would all like to see.

And so earlier this month we held a meeting to share a draft Welsh Food Manifesto based on citizenship and shared values. The enthusiasm was palpable as representatives from farming, public health, school meals catering, food waste groups, community gardeners, agricultural scientists and others came together to see what could be done.

It’s an act of faith, but it might work, because it runs with the grain of human nature and so taps into fresh energy. As a friend of mind remarked about the community meals she regularly attends: “I love coming here because I really do want to work for a better world. Some friends think I’m being unrealistic and there’s no point trying, but I feel normal here, I fit in.”

If you would like to get involved with the Manifesto and help shape the food system in Wales, you can get in touch via: hello [at] foodmanifesto.wales. 

Manifesto for food to nourish a healthy society

This article was published in the Western Mail on 13 February 2018

A report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy published last month forecasts tough times ahead for Welsh farming. It recommends, amongst other things, investment in longer-term partnerships between government, food retailers and others to grow business networks across Wales.

Meanwhile, in other circles, there is concern that the food industry is suffering from a skills shortage (and an image problem) and that it needs to do more to tackle public health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

Elsewhere again, there are social concerns. Increasing demand for food banks has led to the formation by Welsh Government of a Food Poverty Network. Children are growing up in a world where food comes from the supermarket shelf, and there is an epidemic of loneliness: people of all ages who eat alone, and not by choice.

It seems that the crisis facing farming is part of a much bigger picture of social disconnection from where our food comes from, where competing points of view struggle for air time in the rush to promote simple solutions. The pressures of Brexit only serve to intensify the discord.

But if the threat to farming subsidies and export markets provides a painful stimulus to action, it also gives us permission to think more deeply than before and question received truths. Discussions about food readily reveal ideological splits – the current debate about meat-eating being just one of them – but food by its very nature also brings people together.

While we may have very different views on what constitutes sustainable food production and makes for a nutritious diet, we can nevertheless agree on some shared values. We surely all want to see a Wales where everyone has enough to eat, food is of high quality, and we are fair in our dealings with each other.

Fortunately, we have some new structures to support a fresh approach to food. One is the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies to act in a more collaborative way with business and civil society, and thus gives NGOs a new opportunity to step up and be heard. Another is the Assembly’s Rethinking Food in Wales consultation (closed, but still in progress).

There are also many encouraging initiatives that use food to cross sectors and silos. The Nature Friendly Farming Network honours the unity of food production and care for the environment. Food Cardiff brings together the public sector, academia and community groups to tackle problems such as school holiday hunger. The UK campaign Peas Please includes supermarkets, farmers, caterers and others in a bid to increase vegetable production and consumption.

There is a bigger question here. Could it be that the future of food and farming is not simply a practical challenge, to be sorted by new partnerships, but also a means to creating a more connected society and thus tackling many of our social ills? Food creates a human connection which is ultimately closer to most people’s hearts than money. We want a thriving economy, but it should be in support of human happiness, not the other way around.

That is the thinking behind the Wales Food Manifesto. The process began in 2015, with the support of Sustainable Futures Commissioner Peter Davies and former environment minister Jane Davidson, and can be described as a conversation that is gaining momentum. The aim is to develop food policy from the bottom up, with regular blog posts on our website from individuals and organizations.

Last week the Manifesto took another step with a public meeting at the National Botanic Garden, where speakers from the RSPB, NFU, Transition Bro Gwaun, Wright’s Food Emporium, Just Food Abergavenny and Food Cardiff set out their aspirations and considered how a national food network or alliance could support them to be more effective, for the good of everyone.

Taking part in the discussions which followed were representatives from different parts of the food chain from field to fork, as well as groups with a community or health focus. Some were senior members of staff in national organizations, some were self-employed people taking a day away from their businesses, while others were volunteers making inspiring contributions to their local communities through gardening, shared meals and debates.

We need all points of view to get the full picture, and last Friday was just a beginning. We won’t agree on every detail of the perfect food system – far from it – but by coming together to learn from each other, we can find some new ways forward.

Mwy o wybodaeth:  www.maniffestobwyd.cymru – more information at www.foodmanifesto.wales

Let’s not put food and farming on the curriculum

I’ve often wished I could have a fiver for every time someone says that we need to do more to teach children where their food comes from. And I’d like another fiver, please, for every time someone concludes the conversation by saying the government should ‘put cookery/gardening/farming on the curriculum’, as if that would put everything right.

Why? Because the absence of cookery and food production from the curriculum is a symptom of a wider social problem. Our entire society has lost touch with where food comes from, and what it really costs – so why should we expect schools to be any different? This is something we all need to do together.

Requiring schools to teach gardening will not be much use when we have a generation of adults who regard the soil with suspicion and have no idea how to grow food. Cookery teachers are in short supply. And farms tend to be out of sight and out of mind. It will take much more than an edict from above to turn this problem around.

In any case, Successful Futures, the new Welsh school curriculum, won’t be like that. As Prof Graham Donaldson explained at a conference in Cardiff last month, it will not be driven by content, or even skills.

It will be about the qualities that young people must have if they are to cope in an unpredictable future. Even computer programming, or coding, the latest exciting skill to hit the classroom, may not stand the test of time. And let’s not get started on handwriting.

Instead, schools will be given more powers to decide how they achieve the four principles of Successful Futures. They are to be ready for anything, as follows:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives;
  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work;
  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world;
  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

After the constriction of the curriculum in recent years, this is a breath of fresh air, and food education delivers on all four points. But it won’t be easy. The plan relies on teachers stepping forward as leaders of culture change, when they work in a setting that is risk-averse and the school day is already crammed with duties.

School inspections are a prime source of pressure, and high expectations from government and a consumer mentality on the part of the public lie behind that. So how can we have ‘experimentation without anxiety’, as one teacher put it?

The hierarchy of the education system can be powerfully inhibiting for those who are inside it, affecting pupils and teachers alike. It is hard to see how it can change on its own. But if teachers can form alliances with outside providers who are free of those particular pressures, they might find fresh inspiration for their professional development.

This is perhaps the real significance of food education. Just as pupils who visit a farm or do some gardening enjoy release from the constraints of the classroom and learn in new ways, so teachers can benefit too. In the natural world, or even in a factory or other workplace, teachers can relate to their pupils in new ways.

Different values are engaged in these settings, where educational achievement in the narrow sense is not the primary focus and instead exploration and curiosity are encouraged. There is a natural democracy too in gardening, farming and cookery which cuts through the individualism of modern life and encourages a more collective response.

Meanwhile, if those of us who have things to offer schools can ourselves learn to work cooperatively with an eye to the bigger picture rather than our own particular enthusiasms, we might help a new model of education to emerge.

models of cooperation

The talk is of culture change. But that calls for new structures to prompt different ways of working, and there are some encouraging models we could build on. The Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools Scheme, for instance, brings together a wide partnership to get children learning outdoors, including farm visits and school gardens.  It  actively works with teachers to develop new approaches.

The Dyfi Biosphere Education Group does a similar job in the Machynlleth area (though it is currently without funding) while at a national level, the Real World Learning Cymru partnership is another route through which the interests of food production can be supported in schools.

Then we have the Healthy Schools Schemes, Eco Schools and other agencies that give schools valuable specialist help. But perhaps the most important source of support for food education is going to have to come from outside the already over-stretched education world.

We need businesses and community volunteers to step in. The food industry could tackle its skills shortage as well as supporting education by working more closely with schools. Other businesses can sponsor activities as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. Grandparents and retired people can be key to keeping a school garden going.

There is a crucial role here for government in convening discussions locally, and in funding training and support for such new approaches.  That will cost. But we have to make it work somehow, because there are few things more fundamental than food, and if we get that right, the benefits spread far and wide.

The new curriculum and the Well-being of Future Generations Act both provide opportunities for joined-up local action that makes a difference. Let’s make the most of them.

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

When a production worker at savoury snack factory Calbee UK in Deeside, north Wales, heard that a café serving supermarket surplus food was opening in nearby Buckley, she was keen to get involved. But she didn’t just sign up as a volunteer. She told her employer about it, and now they are one of the café’s regular supporters, donating their own products and releasing staff to volunteer at the café in the company’s time. It’s just one example of their commitment to “make a positive and lasting difference to local people”.

“When we get involved with a local project we don’t just give money and walk away,” explains Mags Kerns, Human Resources Manager and Community Champion at Calbee. “We want to offer personal support, to get under the skin of a project. The café is great because they are making such a contribution to the community, bringing people together and relieving loneliness, as well as serving meals on a Pay As You Feel basis so everyone can afford to eat there. We’re glad to be part of that.”

Values are very important to Calbee UK, which was set up two years ago as a subsidiary of a Japanese company. Calbee Inc was founded in 1949 with the aim of tackling the malnutrition that was afflicting post-war Hiroshima. It was a particular emphasis on calcium and Vitamin B which gave the company its name. The Deeside factory supplies vegetable-based snacks under the brand name Yushoi to most of the main supermarkets, as well as Marks and Spencer’s Eatwell range. The bulk of its ingredients, especially peas, are sourced from the UK, although some such as rice are imported.

“Deeside was a perfect location for us,” says Managing Director Richard Robinson, “and we’re really excited about our growth plans here. The Japanese and Chinese are really investing in food businesses in the UK and Calbee is a great sign of how global the food industry now is.” He also acknowledges generous support from the Welsh Government, who helped them to source their premises and set up an apprenticeship scheme, besides investing in the facility which began production in 2015. Calbee, which now employs 50 people and is still only at about 25% of its capacity, is on course to turn over £65m by the end of 2020, and wants to become “one of the UK’s best savoury snack suppliers”.

Clearly, performance and success are important to the company, but their vision is much broader than that; they also want to have “a leading role in supporting the industry voice on health and well-being” and it’s clear that they see money as being in service to people, rather than the other way around. “Values run through all we do,” says Mags. “We’re proud of our low-fat, high-protein products that are not just tasty but healthy too. And it’s really important to us to be a responsible employer, as well as contributing to the community.”

Sometimes this attitude shows up in small ways that make a big difference. All staff are known as ‘colleagues’ rather than ‘employees’, which reflects the company’s flat structure and helps to create a sense of collaboration in the workplace. When a colleague is rewarded for exceptional performance they are given a day off – that is, time to spend with their families and friends – rather than a cash bonus, neatly demonstrating the company’s priorities. They are also encouraged to volunteer for the local community in company time. “Our colleagues and their families are partners in our business,” as their values statement has it. And they pay well too, as an accredited Living Wage Employer, another reason they have no problems recruiting staff and absenteeism is minimal.

“People knock on our door with their CV,” says Mags. “Of course, they don’t always have the skills we need, but working with Coleg Cambria we are able to offer apprenticeships that lead to a qualification in Food Manufacturing Excellence. In fact, all our staff take it, right up to management level, because it’s important we have a shared understanding of what the factory is about. And we’re glad to be supporting the development of food skills in Wales generally.”

Calbee could have some encouraging lessons for the food industry in Wales. As it takes a stand for shared values centring on human dignity while also achieving healthy growth and profitability, it shows how business can be a force for good. “Together we laugh, learn and love what we do,” they say on their website. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a workplace like that?