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.

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Joining the dots of the Welsh food system

This article originally appeared on the Food Ethics Council website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The power of food businesses to do good

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

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

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

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

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

THE SHIFT FROM CONSUMER TO CITIZEN

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

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

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

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

 

People at a farmers market

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

This article was first published in the Cambrian News 

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

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

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

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

Looking for local alternatives

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

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

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

chefs serving soup

Bringing Aberystwyth around the table

This article originally appeared in Aberystwyth’s Ego magazine

A large glass jar is crabottles of sauerkrautmmed with chopped white cabbage, carrots and apple, mixed with some salt. As each layer goes in, it’s bashed with a wooden pestle. Finally the jar is full and the vegetables are pushed down under the brine that’s naturally formed, and set aside to pickle over the next few weeks.

We’re here to learn the art of making sauerkraut, from fermentation expert and food writer Annie Levy, who’s come over from Llanidloes for the evening. The demonstration over, we sit down to dinner. There are about 25 of us gathered in St Paul’s Methodist Centre enjoying a selection of curries and we’re part of a Pay As You Feel pop-up community café, making new friends over food and developing plans to change the food culture of Aberystwyth.

For the Aberystwyth Food Forum, food isn’t about fine dining so much as bringing a community together through food. Some of the vegetables in the meal have been supplied by AberFoodSurplus who collect waste food from local supermarkets. So far, they have set up links between Morrisons and local charities including the Wallich, the Salvation Army, and the Care Society. They have also provided food for educational events that have aimed to raise awareness about food waste, including one at the university.

The group has plans to do much more, so that all the food that supermarkets reject – perfectly good to eat, but needing to be used promptly – goes to a good home. They want to engage with more retailers and charities and have had interest from several other businesses in town. To do this, they are seeking premises to cope with the large volumes of food available, and maintain health and safety standards.

The Forum also wants to involve more people in growing food, whether in community gardens, on allotments or at home, and to work with schools, the university, local farms, cafes and others to bring people together over healthy food that invigorates the local economy and builds social links.

You can find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/aberfoodforum and on Twitter.

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.

It’s our food system which is in poverty, not individuals

According to research at Bangor University, the number of food banks in Wales increased from 16 in 1998 to 157 in July 2015, apparently as a result of welfare reform and austerity policies. For a generation accustomed to the notion that starvation is something that happens in places like Africa, it is hard to believe that people in this country are going to bed hungry, so perhaps it is not surprising that food poverty generates an emotional response and a refusal to believe it even exists.

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

Emergency food supplies (photo: Trussell Trust)

At an event I attended a while back, one woman spoke out forcefully. “People who go on about food poverty these days don’t know what they’re talking about! Real poverty was back in the 1930s, when people were really destitute. They never threw anything away then and they really knew how to cook with leftovers. Nowadays we just waste food. I’ve delivered food parcels to so-called poor people and I’ve seen their houses – they’ve got televisions and they eat takeaways. They just need to learn to cook from basics and there wouldn’t be a problem.”

There was an uneasy silence around the room. Her dismissive attitude was painful to those of us who have heard some of the stories of poverty in modern Britain, as the all-party report Feeding Britain made clear. We didn’t want to leave her assertion unchallenged, but how to respond respectfully? We didn’t find a way at the time, and we moved rather swiftly on, but I think her point deserves proper consideration.

I think she was speaking up for values and skills which have been lost. In the 1930s – or perhaps in her idealized version of it, it doesn’t matter – Britain was still a relatively traditional society with a much closer link to food production than we have today. Food took up a high proportion of people’s income, and so you didn’t waste it. You kept the bones from your chicken (which you hardly ever bought anyway, because it was so expensive) and made soup. You bought actual potatoes and boiled them, and fried them the next day.

I think she was speaking up for thrift and resourcefulness, for a world in which food is valued and shared, keeping families and communities together, and she was regretting the rise of consumerism and the fragmentation of our society that has accompanied it: the TV dinner, the ready meal, the over-packaged buy-one-get-one-free baubles that we are sold instead of nourishment.

Who could disagree with that? There is of course something wrong when people choose consumer goods over nourishing food, in the obvious sense that good nutrition will make you happier for longer than a flatscreen TV will.  And basic cookery skills could help many to improve their diets. The trouble with her remark I think was not that she was wrong in her starting point, but that she didn’t take her argument nearly far enough. She was content to pass the blame on to the nearest convenient suspect and leave it there.

Instead of shouting her down, maybe we could have honoured the values that she was speaking up for and explored them further. We could have agreed that we waste too much food nowadays, with an estimated 30-50% of all the food that is grown being thrown away – whether left in the fields, or discarded by the supermarket, or left in the backs of our fridges to go off. We could have agreed that growing your food and cooking from scratch is a great way to eat healthily and lamented that so many people have not had these experiences and have only ever known processed food.

We might also have agreed that as a society we have become ensnared in consumerism. We are likely to find our sense of belonging not in sitting round the table sharing a meal, but in having a smartphone like our friends, or the right trainers, or the right car. We have let the advertisers tell us that we need a steady supply of shiny new gadgets to make us happy, and to sell us food in the basis of its attractiveness, convenience and addictiveness, not its nutritional quality.

We could have agreed that food is in fact essential to life, and that it deserves a higher priority. We might have found more examples of this: the rushed lunch hour in schools and offices, the children who don’t know that milk comes from a cow, the scandals of horsemeat and BSE, the pesticide scares, childhood obesity, the high levels of sugar and salt in processed food, the bankrupting of dairy farmers and the fate of the battery chicken.

There wasn’t time to explore all this in the meeting but I think if we had, we would have seen that our whole society is out of alignment. We have put economic growth, status and immediate gratification ahead of feeding ourselves properly, and it is inevitably the poorest who are going to be affected most, simply because they always are. Maybe they don’t have cooking facilities at home, maybe they can’t buy fresh fruit and vegetables in the local shops, maybe they’re disabled or very old, or maybe they have such pressures on them that healthy eating, however important, falls down the list.

And then we would have got to the nub of the matter: singling out the poorest in our society for criticism of their eating habits not only misses the point but unfairly adds insult to injury, blaming the weakest and letting ourselves off the hook. Ensuring that everyone has enough to eat is one of the most basic civic duties there is, and it falls to each of us to ask ourselves what we can do to create a healthier society, where everyone has a place at the table, and food is grown in a way that doesn’t deplete our soils and warm up our climate.

I think now my answer would be: “You have raised a very important point, although I see it differently from you. There is indeed something wrong when people rely on emergency food aid. It shouldn’t happen in a rich country such as ours. And I also think that in many ways we had a better attitude to food in the 1930s, and that we have lost a lot of skills and values, and that has caused problems.

“But I don’t think people who use food banks are any different from the rest of us – most of us could do with better housekeeping and eating more healthily. Rather than blaming individuals, let’s look at the wider context and get to the roots of the problem.”

Food poverty means the poverty of our food system and we are all part of that. Are we ready to see ourselves as citizens and step up to our responsibilities?

Feeding future generations: the need for collaboration

This month, Wales sees the Well-being of Future Generations Act pass into law. That means that public bodies in Wales will be required to explain what they are doing to safeguard the wellbeing of people not yet born, and how they plan to make the world a better place for everyone.

The Act does not just describe the sort of Wales we want to see – thriving, prosperous, healthy and living within environmental limits, with strong communities, social justice and a bilingual culture – the principles that have inspired the Welsh Food Manifesto. It also provides guidance on how we get there, specifying five new ways of working for public bodies (and, let’s hope, everyone else) to follow. These are: to think long-term, to focus on prevention rather than cure, to integrate different activities and be consistent, to involve everyone in the decision that will affect them, and to collaborate with others.

Collaboration works best over a meal

Collaboration: talking over a meal usually helps (pic by Anthony Pugh)

Collaboration was one of the main topics of discussion at the Delivering for Future Generations conference on 16 March at which Sophie Howe, the recently appointed Future Generations Commissioner, took up the baton from Peter Davies who had led the process of developing the new Act and the ‘Wales We Want’ conversation which informed it. The big question was: How can businesses, the public sector and the third sector – that is, charities, the voluntary sector, campaigning groups, and the public generally – work together effectively to give us the Wales we want?

Sophie Howe was quick to celebrate the third sector, which with its inventiveness and freedom of movement can do things that government can’t, citing the example of Actif Woods Wales, who have been working with Aberystwyth MIND to take people with mental health problems out into the woods where they find a space for healing through nature, crafts and companionship. Examples like this abound, supported by a combination of public sector funding, civil society volunteering and business sponsorship.

Speaking from the public sector, Paul Matthews of Monmouthshire County Council was inspiring on the need for public servants to show leadership by moving out of their comfort zones and risking failure. The challenge of the future was not a technical one so much as a test of adaptive leadership, he said, and this was what public servants most deeply wished to offer. Businesses meanwhile, with their capacity to innovate and drive change, are encouraged to engage with the Sustainable Development Charter, where they can be acknowledged for the steps they take to improve their practices and learn from each other. As Peter Davies said, we need a business sector that supports the environment and social justice, so this is a crucial area.

So how is all this going to pan out? There were many positive examples of collaboration at the conference, but there are also all sorts of reasons why the three sectors, and the many subsectors within them, don’t always get on. Our Food Values project last year revealed some of the differences as they play out in the food system: businesses may be driven by a profit motive that sees food as a commodity, while community groups see it more as a social connector, and lament the lack of food skills in the younger generations. Government is torn between apparently competing objectives of health, economy and social justice. NGOs compete for funding with their niche approaches – should we be spending public money on food festivals, or teaching children to garden, or health education, or food poverty, or protecting wildlife?

Some groups are even in outright opposition to each other. There is not much common ground between the pro-GM and anti-GM lobbies, and there are plenty of polarized debates about farming versus wildlife, globalization versus local food, and livestock rearing versus reduced meat diets, to name just a few tricky areas. Everyone has plenty of reasons why it’s going to be difficult to change the way they work. That isn’t a reason to draw back, though. Just as the boundary between two cultures can produce a rich diversity with possibilities all of its own, as Wales demonstrates, so the faultlines between and within business, civil society and government are where different value systems rub up against each other and change happens. All three sectors are simply ideas to which all of us subscribe to a greater or lesser extent, and it is our humanity that counts in the end. Are we up to it?