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.

On food businesses, innovation and values

When you have finished making crisps out of a batch of potatoes in your factory, what do you do with the leftover peelings? You could feed them to pigs, which certainly turns a waste product into a resource, but how much more exciting to mash them up, extract the soluble fibre and use that to give texture to your muffins, enabling you to reduce their fat content. Healthy food and profits, all in one, brought to you by the Irish firm CyberColloids.

microscope and peppersThen there’s fructo-oligosaccharides, or FOS, which despite the offputting name occurs naturally in many vegetables, including leeks and Jerusalem artichokes. It’s a sugar polymer which is mildly sweet but indigestible to humans, therefore serving as both a sugar substitute and a dietary fibre, while also feeding certain beneficial bacteria in the gut such as Bifidobacterium. You can use it to make such things as high-fibre, low-sugar chocolate sauce, and even mix it with water and vitamins to make a palatable drink that helps towards your Five a Day. You can buy it from the Chinese firm Quantum Hi-Tech.

These were just two examples of food wizardry on show at last November’s Food and Drink Business Europe New Product Development and Innovation Summit in Birmingham, where stakeholders in the food and beverage manufacturing industry met to hear about such topics as reducing sugar in processed foods, identifying gaps in the chocolate biscuit market, and trends in loose leaf tea. Running alongside it was a Quality and Safety Summit where we learnt about things like the need to check your turmeric for contamination with lead chromate, and how best to train staff to follow hygiene procedures. With much mention of regulatory frameworks, horizon scanning and of course innovation, the impression was of an industry that is pulling out all the stops to get us the tastiest and healthiest diet possible.

It is always good to hear from people who are enthusiastic about what they do. These were scientists, engineers and managers who have found a way to put their gifts to work in service to something bigger than themselves, and their delight in their own mastery was infectious. It is a reminder of what the human brain can achieve in the right circumstances – in a team, with a lab, a factory, a market and finance. It demonstrates the power of business to innovate and bring about change, running ahead of government and shaping our day to day lives with its convenient supply of necessities and luxuries alike, raising our standard of living to heights our ancestors could not have imagined.

And yet, questions arise. What problem are these highly processed, highly packaged treats really solving – the need of the public for healthy food, or the need of the company to devise new products and make an income? Replacing sugar with healthy sweeteners, for instance, does nothing to cure us of our sweet tooth or help us resist all the other sugary temptations that will still come along. High fibre vitamin drinks may have their applications but why not eat an apple and drink a glass of water? The fact is that the food industry has supported and driven changes in our eating habits that haven’t always been good and the problems are piling up, from tooth decay and diabetes to food waste and excess packaging.

How can we  channel all that creative energy towards solving some of the urgent problems of the day – obesity, diet-related illness and the ills of agriculture – in a way that really gets to the root of the matter, rather than tinkering with the details? That is where values come in, as the guiding principles which shape our activity, the compass by which we set our intentions. Innovation by itself is not enough; as George Orwell put it, ‘Put a pacifist to work in a bomb-factory and in two months he will be devising a new type of bomb.’  There needs to be a moral compass and accountability.

It’s time to bring the innovative power of business into alignment with genuine human needs so that it helps to create a healthier society for everyone. That was the theme of my workshop in the afternoon, encouragingly entitled ‘Food Values: business and well-being go together’. Of course, there are plenty of examples of corporate food messing up. But it isn’t inevitable, and it’s time to start telling the story of how industry can help the world, and how money is only a means to an end. We need to talk about how people in business are doing good things, because they are the right thing to do. It’s not a simple story though, and I’ll say more about that next time.

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.

Supermarkets and the fabric of society

At the Welsh Government’s recent Food for the Future conference in Llandudno, the corporate sector was well represented, and rightly so, given the proportion of our food that reaches our plates via the superhighway that is the global food industry. So also was the health sector, there to express concerns about rocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. There was much talk therefore of the relationship between the food industry and the public, and I was struck by a remark made by Tim Rycroft of the Food and Drink Federation, the industry body which represents the UK food and drink sector, with members all the way from Tregroes Waffles to Tate and Lyle.

carrots poster

‘Our values make us different’ – but how different?

Food, he said, is part of the cultural fabric of our society, and this is particularly true in Wales, where people have a particularly soft spot for food produced in the part of the world they call home. That is certainly true. It’s what connects us as families and communities: just think of Sunday lunch, picnics at the beach, allotments, cafes and the workplace canteen. And the opposite of that: TV dinners, children who don’t know where milk comes from, adults who can’t boil an egg, junk food and worst of all, no food at all. Food connects us and expresses who we are as a society, and it links us to the natural world too.

So what is the supermarkets’ response to that? Both Tim Rycroft and Nick Canning of the supermarket chain Iceland had much to say about the quality and freshness of their food, the information that they give their customers about what’s in it, and the steps that the industry is taking to move away from special offers that steer us towards buying more than we need, or making unhealthy choices. They are taking confectionery away from the tills, reducing salt content, producing low-fat ready meals and labelling their products to tell us what’s in them. Many of them are also (though they didn’t say this, because the focusof the conference was on the health of the Welsh population above all) sourcing some of their produce ethically through various certification schemes such as Fairtrade, Freedom Foods and organic.

All this is good, and there is no doubt that corporate food is aware of its social responsibilities and taking some steps in the right direction. Still, I felt there was something missing, and I think the problem lay in the rhetoric of ‘the consumer’, and the uneasy relationship between the profit motive and the aim of feeding a healthy population. When the consumer – and in the mass, a local community – is the source of a supermarket’s profits, how much more lucrative to sell them what they want, rather than what’s good for them. In the strange world of the supermarket, where the lights are bright and the choice is vast, it’s easy to do that. Those flapjacks might be clearly labelled as being 30% sugar and 20% fat, but who cares, when they look so alluring?

I think if the food industry is really to serve the society of which it is part, it needs to engage with its ‘cultural fabric’ in a more genuine way, building it up rather than mining it. We all need to stand up as citizens, not producers and consumers, and see how supermarkets can be more a part of their local communities, rather than outposts of their head offices. There are plenty of examples of good practice already: supermarkets have been sponsoring school gardens, donating surplus food to charity, linking schools with farms, promoting local produce, funding community groups to grow food in their carparks, and hosting farmers markets.

What if instead of doing these things in a piecemeal way, with an eye to PR, supermarkets really committed to the job of rebuilding local food networks, and thereby strengthening local communities, and we held them to it? Let’s stop talking about us and them, and join together to transform our food system into one that really embodies our values of care, fairness and balance with nature, not just for ourselves now, but for future generations.

Filling the streets with food

Outside the library in Machynlleth is a set of raised beds with herbs and salads growing in them, plus hazel arches which in summer bear beans and squashes. In the carpark of the nearby Coop supermarket, there are redcurrant bushes, rhubarb and more herbs. Round the back of the Plas, there are picnic tables with apple trees growing up through holes in the middle and troughs planted up with thyme and rosemary.

woman with herb planter

Katie Hastings of Edible Mach, with the herb bed outside the Coop

This is all thanks to a project called Edible Mach, which engages teams of volunteers to maintain eleven plots around the town, growing food for the public to pick and adding an unexpected twist to public spaces – flowerbeds with a difference. It’s inspired by the original Incredible Edible project in Todmorden, the Yorkshire town celebrated for its dedication to public vegetable growing, where the police station is famous for the sweetcorn in its front yard and the concept of ‘vegetable tourism’ was born.

We were there for a course on how to ‘Fill the streets with food’, which included a guided tour of the Machynlleth project and tips on how to get started. Growing vegetables in public spaces is sometimes known as ‘guerrilla gardening’ but it’s better done with the full consent of the local authorities, who see much to gain from the unlikely vegetable beds: less litter, more neighbourliness, local colour. Councils are often willing to make land available, and local businesses to sponsor materials and plants. Volunteers are of course vital to the enterprise, and in turn gain from the social interaction and sense of contribution, while paid staff are invaluable in holding a project together and looking for new opportunities.

People had come from all over mid Wales to find out more, and there were enthusiastic discussions about what we could do in our home towns: a raised bed here, an apple tree there. The big question though seemed to be: where do the volunteers come from and what keeps them going? Who are these people who are happy to give up their free time to grow food that for the most part they won’t even get to eat? Will the initial enthusiasm last?

This led on to a discussion about selfish and compassionate values, and tied in nicely with research from the Common Cause Foundation which says in essence that people are more altruistic than they are given credit for. Most of us have a strong allegiance to values such as kindness and justice, and really want other people to be happy, even if we are fickle and easily panicked into looking after Number One. However, we tend to think that it’s just us that wants to contribute to a better world, and that everyone else is driven by the profit motive. We always put money into honesty boxes, but we are pretty sure most other people don’t. And so we go along with the general assumption that other people are selfish and have to be bribed and coerced into doing the right thing, and because that is a soul-destroying way to relate to each other, we give up.

edible mach libraryInterestingly that gap between holding compassionate values ourselves, but thinking that other people don’t, is particularly marked in Wales and leads to a general pessimism about our neighbours which holds us back from positive action. If we only realized how much other people care, we might not feel so much embarrassment about asking them to contribute to community projects, and we might create a positive spiral of good actions, building higher and higher levels of trust and cohesion.

Growing vegetables in public spaces is powerful because it makes altruism visible, in exactly the same way that giant advertising hoardings promote the profit motive. Visitors to the library at Machynlleth see that their fellow citizens have gone to the trouble of creating a pleasant experience for them, providing both beauty and food, and that challenges their assumptions about selfishness. It creates trust and shows that people are valued as humans and citizens for once, not for their spending power and their achievements. It reminds us that we are all equal in our need to eat, and that providing food for each other is one of the most basic human obligations. And that is maybe why people want to help keep the vegetable beds attractive and productive.

Schoolchildren, organic artichokes and soup

March 2015

Our Food Values project has been an opportunity to look in depth at how we get organic food messages across, and to find out what really resonates with people who, unlike us, don’t talk about it all day. What do they really care about? How can organic food meet those needs, and how do we communicate that?

In February we worked with two communities, one in Cardiff’s inner city districts of Adamsdown and Splott, and one in rural Gwynedd, around Penrhyndeudraeth. As you might expect, there were some striking differences in the sort of conversations that come up in those two areas, but there were many common experiences too, and the general theme of food as a means of building or maintaining community came across as a strong concern in both of them, whether we were talking Sudanese soup recipes, lobscows or school meals.

Both events involved the local primary schools. It’s interesting how a primary school draws a community together and becomes the focus of change and of hope for the future. This is where the next generation is being formed – so what do they think?

Cardiff soup twoIn Moorland School, Splott, I visited the school’s Eco Committee who were busy making soup to be served to the public the following day. A key ingredient was organic artichokes, sourced from Riverside Market Garden in the Vale of Glamorgan, and they excited a lot of comment, particularly for being hard to peel.

The next day I interviewed a group of 10-year-olds to find out what they thought was important when choosing foods. It was clear that the children had got the message about healthy eating, as most of them put that near the top. As one said, “If you are not really healthy you grow up really weak and tired and doing nothing, you have a really bad life”. But they had other concerns too, especially for fair trade and wildlife.

As another one put it: “We can’t only think about us. We need to think about other people as well or it won’t be fair because we’ve already got all the food and enough money to live,” and she went on to express a concern for wildlife and the need to be kind to animals.soup on the table

I think it’s fair to say that organic food was not something that they knew much about. It was clear though that they knew that some foods were better for them than others, and that they cared about doing good in the world and had some idea of what difference their food choices would make. It was encouraging to hear how seriously they were discussing their food, and with a hatching project and maybe a farm visit to come, they will be well on the way to being well informed food citizens.

After school, we met again outside St German’s Church in Adamsdown and local volunteers served the soup the children had made, alongside contributions from the church itself and a nearby synagogue. It was a cold day but the children were happy to sit outside, sharing soup with their parents and other visitors and drawing pictures. Among that cosmopolitan group, which included recent and not so recent immigrants from several continents, homeless people, long-term Cardiff residents and professional groups, the primary school and their soup, with its organic artichokes, were very much at home.