Cleaning nitrates out of our rivers is everybody’s business

Welsh Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths has claimed that poor farming practices are leaving many water courses “devoid of fish”, and that she will be introducing tougher regulations in 2020. These will mean penalties for farmers who do not comply. But some people are arguing that this is the wrong approach, and we should be looking at local cooperation rather than top-down regulation. To understand this, it’s important to understand the bigger picture.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is as much a part of modern life as the car and the television, just much less visible. Chemical companies have been producing nitrates since the Second World War, when the factories that had been making explosives were turned to peacetime uses, and it’s now a cornerstone of modern farming. Applied judiciously, it speeds up plant growth and allows farmers to make the most of a short growing season.

But it comes at a cost. For one thing the manufacturing process requires a lot of oil, as nitrogen and hydrogen have to be combined at high temperatures and pressure. And because nitrates are highly soluble, they are easily washed into rivers where they cause aquatic plants to grow too fast, upsetting the ecological balance and damaging both wildlife and fisheries. This is a particular problem in Pembrokeshire, where concerns about nitrate pollution in the river Cleddau and Milford Haven have already led to calls to declare the area a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) under EU law.

This would mean that farmers would be obliged to cut their fertilizer use, and also face restrictions on how they can spread nitrogen-rich slurry, or manure, on the land. They would for instance have to store it if the land is waterlogged, waiting for dry conditions so that it is absorbed into the soil rather than running off into rivers. Financial margins in farming are tight, and farmers say that cutting production or investing in bigger slurry tanks would put some of them out of business.

Also, it isn’t just cows that produce manure. Humans do too, and sewage plants are responsible for a fair proportion of both nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Cleddau. The river catchment is now ‘full’ of nutrients, making further economic development unacceptable. Clearly, nutrient pollution needs to be reduced, but this is a problem caused by human activity in general, and it doesn’t seem fair to hold farmers solely responsible. Could there be a better solution?

At Pelcomb Farm near Haverfordwest, farmer Mike Smith and soil expert Jon Williamsspread soil analysis reports out on the kitchen table. Jon points out the 2013 analysis for one particular field, which shows an imbalance between magnesium and calcium. Magnesium is important, he explains, because it is an essential part of the chlorophyll molecule. Without enough magnesium, crops cannot photosynthesize efficiently, however much nitrogen they are fed.

Magnesium also however has the effect of binding soil clay particles very tightly, and needs to be counterbalanced by calcium, which produces a looser soil structure, good for aeration and drainage. By 2017, applications of magnesium have brought the soil back into balance and increased the efficiency of nitrogen use.

By this and other adjustments, such as avoiding compaction with heavy machinery, Mike has been able to reduce his use of nitrogen fertilizer on his intensive dairy farm to a third of what it was, saving money and protecting the quality of the river water. He also keeps a careful eye on his slurry.

“For a farmer, slurry is a valuable resource, full of nutrients. We don’t want to lose it to our rivers! So we do a soil analysis before we plant, say, a cereal crop, and we analyse the slurry as well. That way, we can apply the right amount to the land and cut down on artificial fertilizer too.”

Rather than the NVZ, Mike wants to see a voluntary scheme, where farmers are accredited in rather the same way that a beach gets a Blue Flag for its water quality.

The First Milk dairy cooperative of which Mike is a member has already shown how farmers can work together to clean up their act. In 2005, Welsh Water served notice that they would no longer treat the effluent from First Milk’s Haverfordwest cheese factory at their sewage plant, because they needed the capacity for new housing development.

After prolonged negotiations between First Milk and Natural Resources Wales, an agreement was reached in 2011 whereby treated effluent from the cheese factory could be discharged directly into the Cleddau, providing that the member farmers offset these nutrients by changes to farming practices further upstream.

Building on this success, there is a new initiative to introduce a nutrient trading scheme which would allow farmers to be rewarded for better management of nitrates. Any new housing development, hotel or factory will put extra pressure on the Cleddau catchment, and so needs to come with a plan to ensure that there is no net increase in pollution.

The EU funded project BRICs, or Building Resistance into Catchments, is working on a trading scheme that would allow farmers to sell credits to developers, thus spreading the cost more fairly. It would also introduce a culture where farmers are seen as business leaders, rather than offenders to be policed.

BRICs is necessarily a partnership project. It works with a wide range of organizations, including land managers, industry, conservation organizations, the farming unions, Welsh Water, farming cooperatives, local authorities and Natural Resources Wales.

There’s a lot at stake. Not only is it important to open up new capacity for industrial and housing development in the area, but good farming practice is of vital importance in itself, and farmers need to be properly supported to do this.

Out in the field at Pelcomb, Jon gets his spade out and digs a hole. The turf comes out easily, and the soil underneath is dark, sweet-smelling, loose and crumbly, with a few stones, worms and a healthy mesh of grass roots. “This is how it should be,” he says. “Soil is a living thing, full of bacteria, fungi and worms, and it wants to be in balance”.

He explains how natural processes in the soil produce 80% of the nitrogen a crop needs, and artificial fertilizer often does more harm than good. Organic farmers avoid it altogether, relying on crop rotations and careful manure management to do the job.

“Welsh soils contain plenty of organic matter because they’ve been under grass and livestock for so long. If we can manage our soils and manures properly, we can cut our dependence on synthetic nitrogen, build soil fertility and go a long way towards reducing the carbon footprint of Welsh agriculture,” he says.

The Pembrokeshire experiment will see if a fairer system of sharing the costs of good soil management – and therefore of food production – can help build a culture of cooperation and trust that will benefit the natural world on which everything depends.

Previously published on Food Manifesto Wales (with a different title and intro)

Nourishing the struggle, from protest camp to retreat centre

Climate breakdown, plastics in the sea and the impacts of austerity are all prompting  people to take radical action. It’s exciting to be part of a new future, whether that’s setting up social enterprises, joining protests or working with the casualties of public spending cuts. But it isn’t easy, and alongside the inspiring success stories there are many people who are burnt out and disillusioned.

How can we nourish the inner life that is so often depleted by fighting the system? That is the inspiration behind a new retreat centre in mid Wales. Just over a year ago, Ru Raynor was cooking meals for 30 on a Rayburn at Grow Heathrow, the protest camp which has occupied the site of the proposed third runway since 2010. Now she is cooking instead for people who need a break from busy lives and who are alive to the value of contemplation as a counterbalance to activism.

Noddfa Dawel, or Tranquil Retreat, is only a few miles from Aberystwyth

noddfa dawel

but sits in a secluded valley where sheep and red kites far outnumber people. The building, a modern prefab which formerly housed a therapeutic centre for people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency, has a quiet welcoming presence.

It’s a place of simplicity, with no television, no WiFi and no work to be done beyond a little washing up.

“Boredom and downtime are absolutely encouraged,” runs the countercultural message on the website. Art materials, musical instruments and books are readily available and there are wonderful walks to be had, from the stream on the valley bottom through woods to the open vistas of the hillside up above.  But the stillness of the place was my strongest impression.

woman with hens

Ru at Grow Heathrow

It is a world away from Grow Heathrow, but it is very much born out of Ru’s three years at the squat, which formed in the aftermath of the first Climate Camp held at Heathrow in 2007. Although Grow Heathrow is a protest against airport expansion, it also stands for something very positive: the use of high-quality agricultural land to feed people. There is a strong market gardening tradition around the local village of Sipson, the ‘pantry of London’, which once had orchards, a jam factory and greenhouses.

“Local residents support the camp because they don’t want to lose their homes, and they value the area’s market gardening history,” Ru explains. “So we picked up on that and food became central to what we did.”

At the camp, she learned how to grow food in raised beds, polytunnels and glasshouses. Much of what they ate though came from London, where residents would salvage waste food from dumpsters. She remembers containers full of not-quite-perfect tropical fruit at the Western International Market, and the bounty to be had outside Whole Foods in Kensington.

Being off-grid, with solar and wind power, Grow Heathrow is an experiment in a different way of living. “We would have to chop wood for the Rayburn before we could cook dinner, and we had to be creative and make use of whatever food we happened to have. It was a challenge, but it was fun. Before, a salad to me would have meant some iceberg lettuce and half a tomato, but at Grow Heathrow we would make great bowls of homegrown leaves, with marigold petals and borage flowers, a real celebration.”

Food is important at Noddfa Dawel too. Ru grows salads and vegetables in the garden and in a neighbour’s polytunnel, supplemented with a wholefood order. The menu is vegan and gluten-free. “That’s a diet that most people can eat, and it’s important to me that guests can relax and enjoy their food. I don’t want anyone to feel like they are an exception or have to justify a special diet,” she says. Meals at Noddfa Dawel are abundant and varied, and Ru is adept too at weaving leftovers into the next meal. What doesn’t get eaten by guests goes into the compost or is fed to the neighbour’s chickens.

Ru is clear that the environmental movement needs some TLC. Grow Heathrow is a busy place, being a meeting place for activists and a base for environmental action, which has its plus and minus points. “It’s exciting to live like that, changing the world through collective action, but it’s challenging too. You get conflicts when people are living together so closely, and not under the most comfortable conditions. Now I want to provide some respite for people who are working on the frontline of social change.”

You don’t have to be an environmental activist to stay at Noddfa Dawel. Past guests have also included writers and artists looking for a quiet place to work, and a social worker, and Ru would like to hire the centre out as a venue for group activities too. But its inspiration is in the value of silence, space and quiet companionship as a way to come up with a positive response to the urgent demands of a crazy world. Who doesn’t need space sometimes “to reconnect with nature and the self”?

Welsh farming and food policy after Brexit – what is food really for?

Ths has also been published on Food Manifesto Wales

It’s an interesting time for Welsh food policy, with two major consultations running at once. One, Brexit and our Land, is about support for farming in Wales after we leave the EU next year, to be phased in from 2020-2025. The other is to develop a new action plan for the future of the food and drink industry when the current plan expires at the end of 2019.

Taken together, and in the context of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, these consultations allow for a significant change to our food system in Wales, opening up a space for fresh thinking. But they require us to think deeply about where we are now, and ask some fundamental questions about where we want to go.

Let’s start with Brexit and our Land. The idea, here, is that there will be two sources of funding for farmers. One will be for delivering public goods, defined in this context as products of farming for which there is no market value, such as biodiversity, soil health and clean water.

The other will be used to help farmers to become more economically resilient, for instance by providing training and opportunities for collaboration and marketing. This will include food production, but it could also provide for diversification into areas such as tourism and large-scale renewable energy.

Some welcome the fact that environmental protection is enshrined in a principle of ‘public goods for public money’, free of any compromise with economic activity, in which the environment tends to come off worse. Others regret the divorce between food production and care for the environment, seeing them as interrelated aspects of human existence. Treating them separately could – at worst – have unintended consequences, and at best mean lost opportunities.

Those who would like to see food production integrated with environmental protection point to organic farming and other agroecological systems as tried and tested examples of a joined-up approach. They call for mechanisms such as true-cost accounting, which aims to level the economic playing field for sustainable, environmentally-friendly farmers.

Meanwhile, payment for ecosystem services (PES) is another model that is being tested. A good example of this is the Pumlumon project where farmers are looking for ways to be rewarded for storing carbon in the peat bogs, absorbing rainfall to prevent flooding downstream, reconnecting habitats and providing community benefits.

If as seems likely, the proposal in Brexit and Our Land for a dual system of support prevails, important questions remain about food. The consultation document states as one of its guiding principles that ‘Food production is vital for our nation and food remains an important product from our land.’

But what sort of food, and for whom? Are we talking about growing food for domestic markets, making us a little less vulnerable to upsets in the global trading system – a field of potatoes for the local school perhaps, or some serious leek production? Or are we talking about lamb for the Middle East and cheese for China? And how will we decide?

A similar question arises in the case of the food and drink industry. The title of the current strategy, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, suggests that feeding the people of our country is at least as important as generating exports and jobs. The accompanying action plan Towards Sustainable Growth, however, is baldly subtitled “How we plan to increase sales in the food and drink sector by 30% by the year 2020.” Produced a few years later, after the recession had begun to bite, it speaks of different concerns.

Times have changed again, and there seems to be a desire now to integrate a thriving food industry with a healthy population. The Government has, for instance, supported conferences to explore how the food industry can promote healthy eating, and how it can help young people develop skills and find satisfying careers.

But many gaps remain between what the food industry delivers and what a healthy food system requires. And again, there are questions: should the food industry aim to feed Wales, or should it focus on exports and jobs? To what extent do we want to make food local, with shorter supply chains and richer interactions between businesses and the public? And especially, how can we promote food that is produced in a way that is environmentally sound?

The Welsh Government does, of course, examine the links between its various policies and is required to check them against the Well-being of Future Generations Act. But a group of civil servants under a changing collection of political leaders can only do so much. It is up to all of us as citizens and voters to breathe life into policy and vision a better future. So what is to be done?

We need to have a national conversation about food, one that takes in the whole picture. That should be based on a clear agreement that food is for nourishing people, that it must be produced in a way that doesn’t deplete our natural resources, and that it is shared out fairly. This is about the shared values of citizenship.

Making money is important, of course, but it must be in service to those more fundamental aims. Given the seductive power of money, and in particular, the way that almost any policy argument can be shut down by a reference to public spending cuts, it is important to have those objectives firmly in mind.

Connected to this, we must look more closely at the question of public goods. Clearly, food is not a public good to the extent that it is a commodity to be traded. But it is surely good for the public to have a diversity of farmers, growers and other businesses producing nourishing and tasty food. It is good to have businesses that keep traditional food skills alive, and create satisfying and fairly paid livelihoods, investing in their workers. It is good to have settings where local producers, businesses and the public can meet each other and together build a food culture.

It is also good for local communities to be self-determining, to make their own decisions about the food that is served in public institutions, for instance, and to shape the food system in their area. This is perhaps where the Public Services Boards (PSBs) come in. These are statutory bodies set up under the terms of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and based in a local authority.

The function of a PSB is “to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in its area by strengthening joint working across all public services in Wales”. Governance of the food system is not in their remit, as such; but given the central role of food in bringing together so many aspects of health and happiness, it is a role they may grow into.

The subject of governance brings us back to Brexit. There is an important caveat to the discussions on support for farming, which has to do with devolution. Up till now, funding for the Rural Development Programme has come directly from Brussels to Wales. But in future, London will be controlling the budgets, and it is far from certain that we in Wales will enjoy the same freedoms as before, let along the same resources.

The Wales Food Manifesto has been set up as a citizen initiative to ask big questions about food in Wales and look for new ways forward. Please get in touch if you would like to be part of this conversation.

Overshoot: 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.

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

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.

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.”

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.

The future of farm subsidies: what really matters to farmers?

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

As Britain prepares to leave the EU, farmers are understandably concerned about the future of agricultural support, and the big decisions that need to be made. The payments that currently come from the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy – without which many farms, especially small ones, would be unable to carry on – will then end, and UK national governments will have to decide whether, and how, to continue them. This means a new rationale – how much and in what ways should taxpayers support agriculture and the countryside in the future?

This most contentious of policy areas, farm subsidies – tarnished by past associations with butter mountains and barley barons, set-aside, ripped-up hedgerows, and then reinstated hedgerows, and the current problems of plunging biodiversity and increasing food insecurity – is open for discussion like never before. So often we see a power struggle conducted in an atmosphere of fear and blame, where positions become increasingly polarised. But maybe now is a good time to try another approach. Behind the rhetoric, what is it that really matters to farmers?

This past summer, as part of a wider project to investigate the values that shape our food system, I was part of a team led by Bangor University that interviewed half a dozen farmers at the Royal Welsh Show. The result, while hardly constituting the last word on farmer attitudes, nevertheless revealed some core sentiments that provide a new starting point for discussion.

It was clear, for a start, that being a food producer was a very important part of how farmers saw themselves. “Farmers don’t feel appreciated by general society,” one of them said. “People take food for granted and seem to think we’re just subsidy junkies.” Another one added, “If we could have a fair price for our produce, we wouldn’t need government handouts.” Some remembered the lesson of World War II when the UK’s dependence on food imports became a threat to national security, and farmers were called upon to join in the national effort to increase food production.

Producing food, however, appeared to mean much more than having a commodity for sale. It was about contributing to society by feeding people. It was also about supporting rural communities by generating employment for contractors, abattoirs and the like, and spending their money in local towns on market day – or at least, that’s how it used to be. They also talked about skills, taking pride in traditional craftsmanship and being ready to learn new things. And it was about keeping the land in good heart, conscious of inheriting it from previous generations and passing it on to the next.

Behind all that lay a sense that in farming, we face one of the mysteries of life: how food is conjured from the soil, in an alliance with the natural world – with all its challenges of weather, pests and diseases – to support the human race in its most basic need. Farmers are at a crucial intersection between human demand and the integrity of the biosphere on which we are absolutely dependent.

“I’d love to have one of those people from government spend a few weeks in the countryside seeing what farmers do,” one of them said, and it wasn’t with any sense of vindictiveness. He was trying to convey that farming is not reducible to its economic outputs alone, but is rather a complete way of life. Food production, nature conservation, and a beautiful countryside that sustains a thriving rural economy are part of a whole, which has great meaning and is for many farmers their life’s work.

That is perhaps the sentiment that lay behind the negative response from the farming unions to a proposal from the National Trust last summer, which suggested that public payments to farmers should be entirely linked to their stewardship of wildlife, soil and water. The problem with this way of thinking is that it breaks the fundamental unity between food production and nature. While it treats environmental benefits as a public good to be funded by the taxpayer, food production becomes a private business decision to be weighed up on the basis of its profitability alone. Whether a farmer uses their best land to raise lambs for the export market, to grow potatoes for the local town or to host holiday-makers in luxury yurts, by this logic, is entirely up to them.

Of course, good environmental practice is essential, and we depend on the biodiversity which farming can maintain, from soil bacteria to birds of prey, from wildflower meadows to oak woodlands. There is no doubt that any support for farming must make conservation an essential requirement. But it is so much more than that. To state the obvious, we cannot live without food. Attempting to separate out food production from wildlife conservation using that most powerful tool of social engineering – money – sets the champions of food production against the supporters of conservation in an entirely unhelpful battle, which neither side can or should win.

What if we moved beyond a trade-off between wildlife and food production, and looked at the whole system? What if we decided food production was too important to be left to the market and invested in growing more food in the UK, perhaps bringing it back to the 87% self-sufficiency it reached at its post-war peak?

What if public understanding of the countryside was also seen as vital? What if we recognised the role of farming in preserving some of our deepest cultural roots – here in Wales for instance keeping Welsh, one of Europe’s oldest languages, in current use along with a rich tradition of skills and customs? Indigenous livestock breeds, traditional crops such as black oats, mixed farming, the transhumance system of ‘hafod a hendre’, water-powered milling, the informal exchange of labour and community solidarity – all these are, or were, part of the life of the countryside and enabled a better relationship between food production and the biosphere. They represent a technology of survival that may not quite be ready for relegation to the museum. Even now when farming has been driven by economic and social forces into an activity that is often environmentally destructive, much wisdom remains and we need that continuity with a past that was as low-carbon as we need our future to be.

It is heartening that nature conservation organisations are increasingly taking their message beyond the easy and photogenic appeal to save butterflies, birds and wildflowers, and are talking about farming itself. The National Trust and the RSPB, for example, are both talking about the food they serve at their visitor centres, drawing attention to local produce farmed in nature-friendly ways, increasingly with the Food for Life Catering Mark accreditation. They are pressing home the message that wildlife depends on good farming practices, and on the public paying a bit more.

The creation of a healthy food system fit for future generations needs the wisdom of everyone, and is not helped by confrontation across tribal lines. We are all on the same side here. Farmers deserve a proper hearing, not because they are any more important than anyone else, but because they stand at the start of the food chain, and that gives them a perspective that others miss. As one of our interviewees said, “If we are to succeed together in the countryside we all need to understand each other better – town and country”. It has never been so important to listen to each other.

You can view the video and find out more about our Food Values project here.

When farmers meet the public

For anyone with a tender conscience, deciding what to eat is a daily dilemma. Fairtrade bananas or local apples? Local red meat or imported soya? What about organic and how bad is a ready meal? A conference on ‘What Shall We Eat?’ organized by Powys Transition and Low Carbon Communities this October was always going to be lively, and one of the best things about it was a chance to hear from two farmers.farmer-and-public

The first was Patrick Holden who has farmed organically near Lampeter for over 40 years, admittedly part-time, alongside stints as Director of the Soil Association and now Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust. His dairy farm was one of the first to be organically certified in Wales, and it produces Hafod cheese from cows fed on pasture as well as homegrown barley and oats, with a sideline in carrots, all grown with minimal external inputs. Holden has made a career out of pondering the future of farming and he put forward a vision which runs roughly like this.

Soil fertility is best maintained by mixed farming – more arable crops and horticulture in Wales and more livestock in East Anglia – and crop rotation, where fertility is alternately built up with grass and clover, and extracted by cereals and vegetables. That means that about half a farm will be under grass at any one time, and in order to make the best use of that pasture and cycle nutrients efficiently, you need sheep and cows. Human diets, meanwhile, should be aligned with the farming systems around them, which in the UK would mean eating more red meat, for which there is some support from nutritionists.

The other farmer was Mark Williams, FUW county chairman for Montgomeryshire, who produces beef and sheep from the upland farm where he lives with his young family. Unlike Holden, who came to Wales in search of a new way of living on the land, he grew up on a Welsh hill farm and followed a direct route into the industry, adopting the standard practices of conventional farming. Fields are cleared with the broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate, and grass is given a boost with synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. He takes advantage of the knowledge exchange opportunities provided by Farming Connect and is enthusiastic about technical advances such as the improved ryegrasses bred at IBERS and the use of drones to monitor crops and livestock.

So, two rather different perspectives on farming, and I think it is safe to say that the audience, most of them inspired by the idea of Transition, that is, a move towards a society that is less dependent on fossil fuels and makes better use of human knowledge and cooperation, were more receptive to Holden’s views. They were unhappy about the use of glyphosate, now suspected of carcinogenic properties, and more generally what many saw as an uncritical acceptance of the agricultural establishment with its links to big business. The panel debate at the end of the day received many questions along the lines of “how can we get conventional farmers to see the light?”

It is easy to focus on the differences between these two ways of talking about farming, picking over the pros and cons, and deciding which we want to support. No doubt some of those present found it a straightforward choice and went home satisfied. I think though that many enjoyed the rare chance of a conversation across the ideological divide, responding positively to one conventional farmer’s willingness to face an audience whose starting point was that there is a problem with modern farming, and to do so with good grace, meeting some provocative questions (notably on badgers and TB) with a genuine attempt at explanation based on personal experience. There was an aliveness to the discussion which seemed to touch many of the delegates and lead them to reflect more deeply on their own principles.

Rather than dwell on the differences between the two approaches, then – and of course there are farmers who wouldn’t agree with either of them – let’s look at what they had in common. Both are committed to farming livestock in a climate where red meat is under attack from many quarters: its carbon footprint, its links with heart disease and a moral objection to killing animals reflected in the growing trend towards vegetarianism and veganism. Williams may have rejected organic farming on the grounds that it could not feed the world and led to expensive food, but he spoke up for crop rotation and the need to cut down on synthetic fertilizer. He took nature conservation as a given, had reservations about corporate control of GM crops and was concerned about animal welfare standards.

Ultimately, both were standing for the importance of food production in a world of cheap food. Patrick Holden made this explicit with his observation that his vision of a localized food system based on mixed farming and minimal inputs cannot happen unless the public is willing to change its diet and pay more for food. Mark Williams had less to say about the role of public education, but his very presence in the room was testament to how important he presumably feels it to be. Both of them know that general ignorance of how food is produced leads to trouble for farmers, whether it’s unwillingness to support higher standards of animal welfare or a rejection of the local farming system altogether.

This is surely what really matters: that farmers and the public engage with each other, not just to talk about farming methods but also to find common ground through shared values. Once that basic relationship between the producers and the eaters of food is established, and it calls for openness, empathy and respect on both sides, then there is a chance that food production, land use and nutrition will naturally come into alignment.

The Food Values video on what farmers care about is  available here.