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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was originally published by the Common Cause Foundation 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manifesto for food to nourish a healthy society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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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.