This article was originally published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs here.
As pressure to meet net zero emissions targets grows, Oxfam has warned that the drive to plant trees
could lead to vast areas of land being taken out of food production, leading to
hunger for the most vulnerable.
Now carbon offsetting is causing concern much closer to
home. As reports emerge of corporations
buying whole farms for afforestation, Ceredigion MP Ben Lake has
warned that rural communities, the Welsh language and food production are being
sacrificed to a ‘green-washed business-as-usual’.
Wales has its own target of net zero by 2050. Following guidance from the Climate Change Committee, it
plans to move around a fifth of agricultural land from livestock rearing to
carbon sequestration, supported by a change in diet away from red meat
However, even given the need for more trees, there does
not need to be a simple sacrifice of food production for forestry. What is
needed is a comprehensive land use policy, one that recognizes that food
production, forestry and other land uses all have a place, and can even sometimes
be combined, as for instance in agroforestry.
A food strategy
An effective land use policy would need to be linked to
a food policy. England has come up with some pointers in its recent National
Food Strategy, an independent report to which government has yet to
respond. Such a food policy could help us decide what our land is for, as well
as pulling together other threads, from farming and the economy to health and
Both the Welsh Food
Manifesto and the Food
Policy Alliance Cymru have been calling for just such a joined-up
food policy for some time. Now, the Welsh Government has announced that it will
create a Community Food Strategy during its current term.
At first glance, the reference to ‘community’ seems
limiting. It makes no reference to how Wales as a whole intends to feed itself,
or to the global impacts of outsourcing food production to countries with lower
farming standards, or of importing livestock feed grown on land taken
out of tropical rainforest.
Maybe, though, communities are a good place to start. We have many inspiring grassroots projects which are busy reconnecting people with food production. Numerically small, these projects nevertheless represent the citizen power so essential to the Well-being of Future Generations Act.
They are pioneering new ways of doing things, including
community gardens, local food hubs, community meals and Community Supported
In particular, community food projects could be an
important way to integrate farming and food policy.
On the one hand, we have a forthcoming Sustainable Farming Scheme that will reward
farmers for managing the land environmentally, while at the same time
supporting them to develop their businesses. Food production, which is not
considered to be a public good, will not be directly supported and so will depend
on other policy moves.
On the other, we have an action plan for food that is mainly about
developing the food and drinks industry, with an aspiration in the next version
to contribute to community development.
This strategy has little to say about farming.
What community projects might do therefore is to bridge the gap between these two policies, by
reaching out to local farmers and growers and connecting them with markets,
tapping into growing demand for local food.
These markets include retail, the hospitality sector and
public procurement; Carmarthenshire is already backing local sourcing
as part of the government’s Foundational Economy programme.
The missing link here is infrastructure, including
small abattoirs, processing facilities, cold storage and distribution, which
will need investment. The returns are big though: the regeneration of rural
economies, vibrant communities and a healthier population with cooking and
Alongside physical infrastructure it is also important
to build democratic processes that allow citizens
to contribute to local decision-making, something that is encouraged by the
Well-being of Future Generations Act but difficult to attain in practice.
Here there is inspiration in the shape of Food Cardiff, Our Food Crickhowell and the Sustainable Food
Places network which have shown their worth in mobilizing community responses
to the pandemic.
Food security is a key concern of community food
projects, and provides an impetus for local food production. But this depends
on access to land. As outrage builds over the sale of the countryside to
corporate interests, what can we do?
One approach might be to develop a Rural Land Use
Framework, as the English food strategy recommends. The English model would
assign land to one of three compartments: intensive food production, natural
habitats or an agroecological combination of farming and nature.
We might not follow that model in Wales, but without
any plan at all, we may default to a combination of intensive farming and
rewilding which will disappoint many.
The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is calling
for the English land use framework to be led by local communities,
and again, a Welsh Community Food Strategy could allow for that.
Another approach would be to follow Scotland’s example
of the community right to buy, so that Welsh farms
that came on the market could be bought by local groups, such as Community
Alternatively, local authorities could step in and
increase their stocks of county farms, neatly reversing the sad case of Trecadwgan, where a community
group failed in their bid to buy a 14th century farm from
Pembrokeshire County Council.
Wales has no equivalent of either the Scottish land
reform legislation or the English Localism Act, and we will need to establish
our own principles of land management.
One starting point could be to find common ground
between those who want to preserve traditional family farms, with all they
contribute to the local culture and language, and new entrants to farming,
often from urban backgrounds. A community food strategy could help to do this.
There is strong public feeling about the Welsh
countryside. Concerns about the sell-off of farms to corporate interests and
the proliferation of intensive poultry units are rooted in a deeper concern
about our national culture and the natural world.
A Community Food Strategy must give people the means to
ground those concerns in practical action, and a voice into government. The mechanisms exist: the Future Generations
Act provides for communities to influence local authorities via Public Services
Boards, and the Environment Act invites collaboration through the Area Statement process.
The Public Services Boards do not have the power to
block the sale of farms for carbon offsetting, any more than they can stop the
proliferation of intensive poultry units.
What they can do, however, is provide a space for
community organizations to propose strategies for local land use which could
then be picked up by national government. This would allow local and national
priorities to be matched.
They could also set up mechanisms by which
environmental goods such as carbon sequestration and flood prevention can be
rigorously audited to allow for a blend of public and private investment,
leaving farmers in control of the land. In Pembrokeshire, the BRICS project is pioneering a blended model
for water quality.
It will not be easy to create these new structures for
a new form of governance, but working locally does bring the energy and
creativity of communities, and maybe they can do what government cannot.