Why food security must start with human dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the food industry meets the public

Last year at a Welsh Government conference, a speaker from the corporate sector remarked on how central the food industry is to our lives, because ‘food is the cultural fabric of society’. My ears pricked up because this echoed so strongly the findings of our Food Values project, which showed how food touches us emotionally, as a symbol of connection and belonging. Food is so much more than a commodity to be bought as cheaply as possible, even though often we behave as if it were.

Later at that same conference a speaker from the Food Standards Agency presented similar findings from their report Our Food Future. The public, they found, however much they might appreciate the convenience of the modern food system, regret the loss of social connection that it has brought. They miss the cooking and eating together that used to be so much a part of our lives, and they feel alienated from the food chain, no longer knowing quite where their food comes from.

Meanwhile, if people have mixed feelings about the benefits the modern food system has given them, then the food industry too suffers from a lack of engagement by wider society.  According to the Welsh Government’s food and drink action plan Towards Sustainable Growth, businesses find it difficult to attract staff, and there are skills gaps in all parts of the sector. This holds back growth and has led to a reliance on migrant labour, which is a particular worry as Brexit approaches. The fact that even universities and colleges struggle to fill places on food courses suggests that the industry has a problem, as expressed in the National Centre for Universities and Business report Leading Food 4.0.

How then might we build a better relationship between the agri-food industry and the wider society of which it is a part? Clearly, they need each other. Food businesses depend on customers and employees, and the public needs healthy food. Too often though the relationship between the two founders, because it is based on a limited understanding of how people think and act. We talk about the public as consumers who merely buy things, and we see business as being all about money, but these are over-simplifications. A deeper appreciation of human values and behaviour might yield new approaches.

Consumers and businesses certainly do exchange goods and money, but this does not define the people who manufacture our breakfast cereals, manage our supermarkets, pack our fish or serve us tea and a sandwich at lunchtime. They have families and live in communities, just like everyone else. Regardless of our job descriptions, we all want to be part of a society where everyone has enough to eat, where food is healthy and wholesome, and where the next generation grows up able to cook proper meals.

As for the public, we want there to be enough high-quality jobs to go around, we need to know that our food supply is secure and we are capable of appreciating the complexity of the modern food system even if we don’t want to take in all the detail. It doesn’t, actually, “all come down to price” – not if you ask the question in the right way, away from the bargain counter.

Bridging the disconnect

So how can we tackle the disconnect between the food industry and its customers? A good place to start might be the relationship between supermarkets and the public. I was reminded of the ‘fabric of society’ when I visited one of our local supermarkets recently to discuss support for our community garden. I met a member of staff responsible for community links and she explained how we could apply for quite generous funding through a scheme administered by a third-party charity. Our project would be compared with several others, and the outcome would be decided on a vote by the store’s customers. It is a start – a supermarket consulting its customers about how it can support community projects – but it is an arm’s length approach which falls short of genuine engagement.

On another occasion, I saw the awkwardness of this relationship from the other side of the fence. A colleague and I were visiting the smaller supermarkets in town to invite  them to an event on food waste. None came in the end, mostly because they were too busy, but one manager did seem genuinely interested. She told us how she liked to support local activities, supplying school sports events with snacks for instance, and took satisfaction from the end-of-day discounts at her store which benefited people struggling to make ends meet. She obviously saw herself as a part of her local town and was proud of what she did, but regretted that her work had to be invisible because head office did not allow her to give interviews, and anything outside the control of their corporate PR executives would be regarded with suspicion.

This suggests a major, missed opportunity. What if supermarket staff were encouraged by their head offices to take a few risks and engage with community groups and local government to help shape and learn from the local food system? That would be very much in the spirit of the Well-being of Future Generations Act that Welsh Government has made a high priority. And what if the public broke out of the consumer mindset and emerged as active citizens, ready to speak up for the things they really care about: health, friendship and thriving communities, not just convenience and affordability?

A recent report on Food Citizenship indicates some of the potential that could be unlocked if businesses invited the public to participate more fully in the food chain. The Coop, one of the participants in the report, has an inclusive business model, being formally owned by its customers. They are looking at making this more visible in their stores, and it will be interesting to see how far they take it.  Other businesses are using the B Corp certification model to develop their social and environmental performance.

There are other links to be made too. A school visit to a farm or a food business can open young people’s eyes to the technical challenges and job satisfaction brought by a career in food, whether in an artisan workshop or a huge production line. Food festivals are an opportunity for food manufacturers to meet the public, engage them in tastings and explain their values. These initiatives all serve to bring food businesses and their customers closer together, with benefits for recruitment and understanding. They also oblige businesses to be more accountable, which might not be comfortable but is the other side of that valuable coin called loyalty, an increasingly important quality that forward-thinking companies honour through their commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility.

There is much more we could do in Wales. As a nation we are an ideal size for low-risk experiments and new approaches to food values. We are a nation of innovators and ready to embrace change. We are limited only by the stories we tell ourselves, especially the one which says that business is just about money, and that money is all that matters. It will mean some radical changes in how we work, but let’s build new partnerships between business and society. Let’s go beyond PR and advertising, to transform the food system from within.

Organic farming: values that won’t go out of fashion

Organic sales from Welsh farms are up, according to the Organic Centre Wales 2016 producer survey report published last month, even though the area of land certified as organic has fallen. This piece of good news reflects a 7% increase in UK retail market sales of organic food in 2016, according to the Soil Association’s Organic Market Report, which puts growth down to continuing enthusiasm for healthy lifestyles, ‘free from’ eating and knowing where food comes from.

But are consumer trends really a sound basis for a food production system that is all about the long-term care of soil and nature? Given the interdependence of food producers and the people they feed, it is vital to bring the two into the closest possible shared understanding of what it is all about. That means looking at our values, which was the topic of the Food Values project that we ran at Organic Centre Wales in 2015 in partnership with geographer Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, now at Bangor University.

Part of our role at OCW was to build the organic market, working in partnership with farmers and businesses to develop and share messages which went out on leaflets, on social media, and even the backs of Cardiff buses. We put a lot of thought into this, working out what people were looking for, and how to give them reliable information that would help them choose. One thing we knew was that food scares like mad cow disease or the horsemeat scandal are good for organic sales, and we tended to take that as a starting point, even if it did feel opportunistic.

People obviously don’t like the idea that their food might be contaminated, and even without a major scandal like BSE, there is the ever-present problem of pesticides. The obvious tactic is to say that “organic food is free of pesticides” – except that it’s not true. Pesticide residues are everywhere on the planet by now, and more to the point, organic producers do use a few pesticides under certain conditions, just not very much.

This introduces an unwelcome shade of grey into the message. But it gets worse. Saying that organic food is relatively free from pesticide residues carries the implicit message that non-organic food might poison you, and quite apart from the negative advertising which so irritates conventional farmers, research from social psychology suggests that playing on people’s fear in this way might in the long term actually be detrimental to sales.

The thinking, summarized by Common Cause, an organization whose aim is to strengthen compassionate values in society, goes like this. We all hold a mixture of values, ranging from what might be described as the self-centred ones of security, status, wealth and power, to the altruistic ones of social justice, unity with nature and equality. However, we are social creatures who change our allegiances constantly according to what we are talking about or where we are, seesawing between these two tendencies with little awareness of how easily we change our minds.

Primed to think about our health, for instance, we temporarily forget about social justice and the environment. Telling people that organic food is safe, therefore, while it may help sales in the short term, also makes us that bit more selfish. We start to turn organic food into a mere consumer item, and a luxury one at that. This is not what the organic movement was supposed to be about. Lady Eve Balfour, when she wrote The Living Soil in the 1940s, was talking about a healthy society, based on healthy crops and livestock, reared from healthy soil. She was not thinking of a niche product for ABC1s living in the southeast.

The key shift might be to stop talking about consumers, and start seeing the public as citizens who want to make the right choices for future generations, because actually that is what makes us happier in the end. This is the argument behind the New Citizenship Project’s recent report on Food Citizenship. If we talk to people as if they cared about the animal welfare, the environment and the health of humanity in general, then they will tend to respond in kind, welcoming the opportunity to step out of their passive role and make a real contribution.

Instead of customers they will then become participants and even partners in the organic movement, as Community Supported Agriculture schemes have long demonstrated. This is an opportunity for the organic sector to shake off the elitist image it has acquired in the UK and to position itself as part of a progressive alliance for social change. Sustainable food production is a natural companion for global justice, equality and human rights, and the shared values behind these campaigns means that they reinforce each other’s messages.

How to talk about organic food

As a step in that direction, we produced a guide in 2015 called Communicating organic food values, a guide for producers, which is available on the OCW website. It explores the values that producers hold – for instance, benevolence, self-direction, achievement, security, tradition, recipra ploughed field on an organic farmocity, pleasure and broad-mindedness – and asks what these mean in the context of their work. Our message was that producers should sift out for themselves which are most important to them. They should then speak out confidently for what they believe in, facing honestly the tension between the idealism that has driven the organic movement and the need for businesses to make a profit.

Organic producers need not be at the mercy of food fashions powered by consumer anxiety, and maybe they shouldn’t exploit them either. They can instead help to shape the food system by engaging with their customers as fellow citizens, making it clear what they stand for: a farming system that builds the soil rather than depleting it, that coexists with nature, that provides meaningful work and is the basis for a fair and healthy society.

The OCW survey, which was commissioned by the Organic Research Centre, found strong interest from farmers in converting to organic production. With dwindling government support for organic farmers via the Glastir Organic scheme, and with no staff at OCW, the organic sector in Wales might appear to be at a low ebb. But the values that it stands for will not go out of fashion and that’s something that farmers, growers and the public can all get behind, organic or not.

Picture: organic farm on Anglesey by Rosie Boden

Business and well-being go together: a look at corporate food values

This post originally appeared on the Food Grads website

Food businesses like to talk about their values. Many of them have obviously worked hard to identify the fundamental principles that underlie what they do, and to communicate this to their staff, customers and trading partners. And the clear message is always reassuring: we do the right thing at Megafood PLC because we really care, and so you can relax. We are good guys.

It’s great that any business examines its values. But it’s worth taking a closer look, because values are not always what they seem. A  body of social psychology research compiled by Common Cause has found a complex picture. One of their findings is that we all hold a wide range of values, many of which appear to contradict each other, such as power versus equality, or ambition versus humility.

This means that we are constantly balancing one against another – but it’s more like children on a seesaw than an acrobat on a tightrope. Sometimes we behave selfishly and sometimes we are generous. One minute we want to belong and the next we want to stand out from the crowd. Out shopping, we are seduced by novelty and back home we cherish tradition. It’s a story of polar opposites.

There are laboratory experiments to demonstrate how readily we change sides. Engage people in conversations about achievement and success, and they are less willing to do someone a favour. Talk to them about kindness and generosity, and they temporarily forget their concerns about getting ahead. And there are real life experiments too. Live in a country where health care is free at the point of delivery, and you get citizens who value interdependence and a sense of belonging. Weaken the welfare state and values of self-reliance and individualism start to flourish. Values are in endless flux, both shaping and responding to the world in which we find ourselves.

What does this have to do with food businesses? Unfortunately, many of them miss this dynamic quality and put out messages which are oversimplified or even contradictory. Take UK supermarket Sainsbury’s, for instance. They say: “Our values underpin our strategy – they make good business sense and give us real competitive advantage.”

A supermarket poster about values

Supermarkets: do they live up to their values?

Now, there is a real power in that statement. The way that food businesses talk about their values, backed up by heart-warming promotional videos, does indeed make them more attractive. But does it really make sense to say “our desire to be nice to everybody is going to knock the opposition out of business”? And what if sticking to your values means losing money, as it sometimes must?

The fact is that businesses do need to turn a profit, and so the corporate sector isn’t purely altruistic. None of us is – we all practise a healthy selfishness. So it is not a criticism of food businesses to point out the limits of their generosity. The problem is rather that they gloss over this when they claim that to be ethical and profitable are somehow the same thing. They may go together, and they may not. That is why it is so important to hold businesses accountable, and see how they put their values into practice.

Telling a bigger story about our values

The answer is to tell a bigger, richer story about the world. We need to honour the tension between making a profit and doing good, rather than pretending they are the same thing. It’s not that self-centred values are ‘bad’, and altruistic ones are ‘good’. It isn’t a choice between economic realism and fluffy idealism, either. It’s about holding both sides of the story, seeing how our way of flipping between them is a limitation of our minds rather than a fact about reality.

Ethical business means treating money wisely, using it to do good. It means thinking about money, but seeing beyond it. It’s challenging, because money has a way of taking us to places we do not want to go. We all live with that – individuals , businesses, community groups chasing funding, and governments. Whatever PR departments may say, there are no easy answers. There are only people who are willing to hold that tension, take risks and turn their minds towards the common good. Those people are to be found in government, in community groups, in schools and hospitals – and in food businesses. Business and well-being go together, because we need them to. It’s our only hope.

Teaching children where their food comes from and why it really matters

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

A class of seven-year-olds are making maps to show where their food comes from. Choosing suitable symbols, they mark their homes, the school dining room, the local cafes, chip shops and the supermarkets where their parents shop. The weave of their daily lives is revealed: the Saturday shop at Tesco followed by football practice, Sunday lunch at the pub, the family meal in the evening or maybe chips on the way home from school. Then they go a bit further up the food chain: where do these shops and cafes get their food from? It’s time for a discussion about farms and whether you can grow oranges in the UK.

The children soon realize how much they don’t know. They plan an enquiry into the matter, using the internet and interviews. A farmer comes in to answer their questions, and it’s then that the magic happens. Children are enthralled to find out that it might actually be someone’s job to grow potatoes, milk cows and drive tractors. They lap up not just the fascinating details – like the existence of machines for scratching the backs of cows and how the potato farmer buys his potatoes back from the supermarket in the spring because he doesn’t have cold storage on the farm and his own potatoes have started to sprout by the end of the winter – but also the generalities of what it feels like on the inside of farming. “What’s good about being a farmer?” “If you hadn’t decided to be a farmer, what job would you have chosen?” they ask more than once. He talks about being in the fresh air, caring for animals, sharpening his skills and deriving satisfaction from producing food that people need.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. This matters, because children are growing up in a world that endlessly gives them the message that happiness comes from earning lots of money, having the latest gadgets and wearing the right brands of clothes. The education system, meanwhile, is increasingly based on the notion that academic achievement is all that really matters, leading to an emphasis on the things that can be measured – numeracy rather than creativity, literacy rather than self-expression. Qualities like kindness and courage, literally, don’t count. This can create a dichotomy between success, status, money and security on the one hand, and generosity, community and connection with nature on the other, and it is worth a closer look at what is going on.

Research from social psychology collated by the Common Cause project, which aims to make compassionate values central to public life, reveals a complex picture. It shows that we all hold a broad range of values, many of them apparently contradictory, but all corresponding to a genuine need. Thus, success is an important value (if you doubt that, consider failure), but so is humility, in the sense of appreciating our dependence on others. Our brains however find it hard to hold both these values at once, and so we seesaw between them, depending on where we are and what we are doing. In the garden, cutting lettuce for dinner, it is easy to feel close to nature, but in the bright lights of the supermarket we easily forget that and look for a tasty bargain. Similarly, talking about money makes us selfish, while the story of a refugee child drowning can inspire an upsurge of generosity.

What does this mean for education? A fascinating experiment carried out at Cardiff University shows how excessive enthusiasm for academic success might have unintended consequences. The experimenters asked one group of people to sort through cards bearing words like ‘capable’ and ‘successful’, so that they were tuned into their desire for achievement, while another group sorted words associated with altruism, like ‘forgiveness’ and ‘helpful’. They were then given a puzzle to solve, and asked to help the experimenter with a task. The result was that the group that had been primed for achievement did better at solving the puzzle than the other group, but they also turned out to be less likely to help the experimenter. Could it be that pushing young people to pass exams will make them selfish?

Fortunately, good teachers – left to themselves – know how to guide children towards a more rounded view of life, helping them to widen their circle of concern from themselves and their friends to humanity in general and to nature and the planet. They see how the security of belonging to a family or nation can nurture their curiosity and give them the confidence to explore new worlds, coming up with fresh solutions to the challenges that humanity faces. They know that success is a wonderful thing, but it needs to be contextualised. Achievement should help children to develop self-respect and confidence, and to share their gifts with others; it should not be about becoming ever richer and more powerful at the expense of the planet. And that is where food education comes in – as an antidote to consumerism, targets and competition.

There is something inherently democratic about food. We are all equal in our need for it. Sitting around the table for a meal reminds us that we all deserve to eat, and that we have an obligation to ensure that others can too. Studying the food chain cuts through the notion that we are self-made individuals, and reminds us of our interdependence. Not only do we rely on a vast worldwide network of farmers, growers, supermarket shelf-stackers, cooks, bakers, abattoirs, vets, food scientists and lorry drivers to feed us three times a day, but we are all ultimately dependent on healthy soils, rainfall, sunshine, bees, worms and the rest of the biosphere to keep us alive. We cannot separate ourselves from this.

On a farm visit, children encounter the natural world, appreciating the compromise between human needs, animal welfare and wildlife. When they make the connection between farm animals and the food chain, or see the uncultivated margin around a cereal field where wildflowers and insects flourish, or learn how drought and flooding can destroy crops, they see the tough decisions that need to be made if we are to feed ourselves. Back in school, following crops such as broad beans and potatoes from seed to plate, they gain skills and confidence as they learn to partner with the rhythms of the seasons. The enthusiasm and earnestness with which some children will plant, weed and dig in the school garden suggests they are gaining something more necessary to them than exam results. Maybe it is because they sense their need for a deeper connection with nature, which according to the RSPB report Every Child in Nature is an important support for health, well-being and personal and social skills.

The school curriculum is notorious for its pendulum swings, from a prescriptive top-down approach to local autonomy, from narrow academic goals to a child-centred focus. Schools may yet be freed from the assumption that they exist to produce a skilled workforce that attracts inward investment, and instead be encouraged to embrace a wider more holistic vision of the education they provide. In Wales, a new curriculum arriving from 2018 balances academic achievement with ethical citizenship, creative expression and confidence, and offers hope of a fresh start in our schools. Until that time, food education should be embraced not just because of the contribution it can make to attainment but also for its moral basis. It’s time to give children a proper grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

Teaching children where their food comes from – A Pembrokeshire view

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization PLANED, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

This article originally appeared on the Food Manifesto Wales website.