Cleaning nitrates out of our rivers is everybody’s business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ths has also been published on Food Manifesto Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

scallop fishing boat

Scallop fishing in Cardigan Bay: sustainable or not?

This article was first published on Food Manifesto Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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