three women at a table in the street

Closing the democracy gap in Wales, bottom up and top down

Much is made of the democracy gap, which means the failure of government to deliver what the public really wants. It can be read either as the reluctance of apathetic citizens to engage with the political process – at a minimum, by voting – or as a story of political elites which are increasingly detached from society, cynically exploiting popular sentiment for their election but not troubling themselves with the details. Or a bit of both, of course.

At the closing celebration in September of Renew Wales, a project that for ten years provided action planning and peer mentoring for community groups to respond to climate change, the democracy gap was a leading topic of discussion. Councillors and activists alike reflected on the difficulty of driving the change they wanted to see at local level, and identified several causes – bureaucratic inertia, the political climate set by London and Cardiff, and public apathy among them.

Set against that, we have the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which does provide a model of how government, business and civil society can work together, even if change is slow to materialize. And several people shared their experiences with People’s Assemblies, which have been springing up around Wales in recent years and which give ordinary people a chance to air their concerns.

People’s assemblies

An online event in Aberystwyth this year, for instance, brought together 40 or so people to discuss food in the area. It was a self-selected group, mainly community food activists and a few farmers, and hardly representative of the town and its hinterland, given that the supermarkets and cafes were not there. Nevertheless, there was enough difference of opinion to make it lively and instructive. A strong contingent spoke up for local food: short supply chains, buying food from people you know, growing more vegetables around the town and so forth. But this cosy consensus was challenged by some of the farmers.

“We need to question what we mean by local food,” said one (in Welsh). “Most people in the UK live in urban areas, they can’t grow their own food and they don’t have access to land or free time to do it. Is it right for us, in a nice rural area, to define local as Ceredigion or mid Wales?” From his point of view, urban Wales, England and the EU are the traditional markets, and also the responsibility, of Ceredigion farmers. It didn’t make sense to throw away a finely honed farming system in favour of much less reliable horticulture and arable crops, simply to satisfy the notions of idealists.

Is he right? That isn’t the point here. What matters is that people get to share their perspectives in an atmosphere of active listening, where the principle is that we want to hear from everybody, not to win arguments. This allows complexity to emerge and builds trust. For the local food contingent, it was an opportunity to sharpen up their ideas – what support might they be able to give farmers to diversify, if that’s what they really want? Meanwhile the farmers were, I think, gratified by the interest that people showed in food production, and glad of the opportunity to explain what they do and why.

Culture change

Change is also coming from the top. The Well-being of Future Generations Act makes it mandatory for public bodies to consult and collaborate with the public, and the Welsh Government has accordingly developed a programme of cultural change which aims among other things to level power differentials and encourage creativity, concentrating particularly on how meetings are conducted. Silent pauses for reflection, talking in rounds so that everyone gets heard, and even meeting outdoors are all encouraged. Although the Act is only binding on public sector staff, any civil society group wanting to change its working methods is invited to join in, for instance joining a ‘community of practice’ or simply trying out tips for better meetings.

Clearly we need a wave of change across Wales if we are to realize the potential of the Future Generations Act, and the recent proliferation of People’s Assemblies is an encouraging sign. Around the same time as the Aberystwyth event, Swansea held a similar one to develop a plan for its Bwyd Abertawe initiative, now funded by the Sustainable Food Places project. Later, an in-person People’s Assembly in Denbigh in June gave a boost to an emerging food partnership which was still buzzing at last month’s Denbigh Plum Festival.

All of these Assemblies drew on a growing pool of trained facilitators and a method of working which began in the Extinction Rebellion movement and then flourished on Zoom during lockdown. They also drew on the networking capacity developed by Renew Wales with its Food from the Ground Up events, the government’s culture change programme, and others.

Now, Vicky Moller of Grwp Resilience and Dawn Lyle of 4theRegion are creating a new organization to support deliberative and participatory democracy in Wales, training facilitators and sharing best practice. As Dawn says, “If we want the Welsh Government, and other public bodies, to involve more people in decision making and embrace the principles of participatory, deliberative democracy, then we urgently need to develop the resources and the expertise to do it well, here in Wales.”

Co-design and co-production

Farmers at a Tir Canol co-design meeting

There are many other strands to this citizen movement. In Gwynedd, the Lottery-funded Gwyrdd Ni project has been pioneering community assemblies to develop a shared approach to climate change. In mid Wales, the former Summit to Sea project – now Tir Canol – used a co-design approach over two years, running workshops and consultations with farmers, environmental groups and rural businesses in order to produce a ‘blueprint‘ for the area. It has now severed its ties with the original funder and partners are using the blueprint to seek funding for a range of projects to restore both human and natural wealth.

Another example of co-design comes from the Valleys, where the people of Treherbert came together to make a plan for the woodland around their town, documented in this film. Inspiration also comes from the Co-Production network which promotes citizen involvement with public services, and will be part of the as yet unnamed project that picks up the work of Renew Wales next year.

It’s easy to spot the weaknesses in government, whether at UK, Wales or local level. That presents us with a choice: we can give up and retreat into our private worlds, or we can seize the opportunity to create something new. In Wales, the government is inviting us, however imperfectly, to step up and join in. Let us all ask what we can do for our communities, and get involved.

The Well-being Economy Alliance Cymru (WEAll Cymru) is organizing a Zoom discussion on Revitalising Democracy on Thursday 10 November at 7pm. The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November in Lampeter will feature many examples of citizen action, including a session organized by Sustainable Food Knighton who are planning a march to the Senedd next year.

Both images courtesy of Tir Canol

gorse flowers

Lampeter Resilience Hub, a community group that is changing university thinking

The area around Lampeter has long been a magnet for creative incomers. Most well known perhaps are the organic farming pioneers of the 1970s, but the rolling hills and valleys abound with many other artisan enterprises and imaginative environmental projects. These co-exist with a native, strongly Welsh-speaking community with whom they share many values to do with community, traditional knowledge and connection to the land. Now these values are starting to permeate the University itself, and it all began with a letter.

Speaking at the launch of the Wales Centre for Resilience and Harmony at the Lampeter campus of the University of Wales Trinity St David (UWTSD) last November, Provost Gwilym Dyfri Jones told the story like this:

“Some three years ago, the University received a letter from the Lampeter Permaculture Group offering a number of suggestions for development here in Lampeter. Those suggestions centred on how concerns for a sustainable future, especially in local food production, together with the great beauty of the landscape, attract people to this area.”

The University responded positively. A series of presentations and meetings followed and as a result a group of people drawn from Lampeter Permaculture Group formed Hwb Ymaddasu Llambed, or Lampeter Resilience Hub, which is working with the university to embed systems thinking in the curriculum. Andrea Sanders, one of the founders of the Hub and a former teacher who was at the time a graduate student at the Centre for Alternative Technology, explains the rationale.

“We had the networks, they had the facilities,” she explains, “and so we saw an opportunity for the university. There’s a huge skills shortage in horticulture, renewable energy, green building and community development generally, especially at undergraduate and further education levels, and we knew we could help. We wrote to everyone we could think of, even Prince Charles.”

The group is at pains to emphasize its origins in collective action, drawing on the contributions of many in the Permaculture Group, which for the past 20 years has been connecting smallholders and gardeners in practical work on each other’s land. The Hub has begun by preparing modular courses to get things moving. “It’s about teaching the staff, as much as the students,” says Andrea, “introducing systems thinking and breaking down silos, moving away from conventional thinking.”

Their first module, Resilient by Design, will be part of the Continuous Professional Development programme which is being offered to staff across the institution. It sets the foundation for other modules, which will include food, horticulture, regenerative farming (in association with agricultural college Gelli Aur, which is a member of the UWTSD partnership), green building with architecture students, sustainable business skills, and aspects of inner and social resilience.

Angie Polkey, founder member of the Permaculture Group and now a Director of Lampeter Resilience Hub, explains how permaculture can be thought of as a way of designing human systems according to natural principles. “It’s about nurturing relationships that work, and minimal intervention for maximum effect,” she says, “and it’s about cyclical, rather than linear, processes. It’s also about allowing new perspectives to emerge, which is what an ecological system naturally does. When you understand that and work with it, life gets a lot easier.”

Angie, who is also an external tutor at Aberystwyth University, understands the challenges that a partnership across the academic and the community sector brings up. “There is potentially a cultural clash here, because we do have very different ways of working. But ultimately it’s about personal connection. I don’t know a single person at the university who doesn’t resonate with what we’re talking about, and wants to see the same changes, but they are sometimes held back by structures and procedures, while we have freedom to experiment.”

It has been important to attend to the imbalance of power between the university and a small, new community group. With help from Renew Wales, the Hub incorporated as a community interest company last year, and the University is drawing up a Memorandum of Understanding with the Hub that will cover things such as intellectual property. “We weave and flow around university processes, but It’s important to maintain our autonomy too. We are an outsider body with an outsider viewpoint, and we don’t want to lose that,” says Angie.

It’s just as important to them that things are seen to change visibly on the ground. As Hub member and former smallholder Louise Nadim explains: “We walked the whole campus and drew up an interactive map showing the potential for food growing, enhancing biodiversity etc. Estates Management have been incredibly supportive and this winter we will see new fruit tree plantings as well as more places where students can grow their own food”.

This is an ideal complement to another Lampeter initiative, Incredible Edible Llambed, which Hub member Julia Lim is also part of: “We know how difficult it is for people to afford healthy food – growing more on the campus and teaching these skills is part of building future resilience in our local area,” she says.

Lampeter Resilience Hub also came up with the concept of the new Wales Centre for Resilience and Harmony, whose values and environmentally sensitive ways of working will in turn underpin an ambitious new project, Canolfan Tir Glas. Headed by restaurateur and broadcaster Simon Wright, this new Centre will draw together the Town Council, Ceredigion County Council, the local business community and others to reinvigorate Lampeter, which has suffered from falling student numbers in recent years. Food and farming – natural strengths of the area – will be the basis of the new centre’s work, which will include a new Academy of Contemporary Food Wales and a food village.

Lampeter Resilience Hub therefore now finds itself part of a web of formal and informal partnerships which is a focus for new vision. By helping to shape the work that is at the core of the university’s purpose – its teaching activity, the knowledge and skills it transmits to civil society, and especially young people – it is in a position to shape the future in subtle but significant ways.

‘It’s not all down to us,” says Andrea, pointing out that former Environment Minister Jane Davidson did much to set the scene by embedding education for sustainability across the undergraduate curriculum during her time in Lampeter, while the Provost has led a visionary approach to UWTSD plans, “but I think we got people thinking in a different way. We helped a university to change direction.”

Julia Lim of Lampeter Resilience Hub will be talking about their work in a session on systems thinking at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November in Lampeter.

cheeses on a shelf

Why Welsh food history matters

This article was originally published on the Food Manifesto website.

Welsh Food Stories, by Carwyn Graves. University of Wales Press, 2022.

The unassuming title of this book suggests an anecdotal tour of the Welsh food scene, a blend, perhaps, of nostalgia and foodie adventures, entertaining but hardly serious. Indeed, there is plenty to enjoy as food historian and linguist Carwyn Graves visits farms and food businesses from saltmarsh lamb on the Gower to sea salt in Anglesey, and from cider orchards in the southeast to cheesemaking in the west. But do note: this is a scholarly book with a serious message.

A series of interviews with farmers, growers and food processors gives a vivid snapshot of the way that traditions going back many centuries are expressed in the present day. Each is the jumping off point from which Graves painstakingly unearths a complex history and even a pre-history. Here are the Welsh armies feasting on mead in the 7th century poem Y Gododdin, the Romans importing white-fleeced sheep to add to the dark-fleeced flocks that were already here, the colourful culture of the Drovers, the intrepid nineteenth-century travel writer George Borrow rhapsodizing about mutton in a Llangollen inn, the rise and fall of Caerphilly cheese, and an army of women, (presumably), proficient in turning oatmeal, water, salt and dripping into oatcakes on a bakestone, producing ‘wafer-thin rounds as large as a dinner plate with fine even edges’.

Harvesting cockles

For those of us who think it is enough to know about Welsh cakes, laverbread, Caerphilly cheese and cawl, Graves provides a bracing corrective. Welsh food is a serious thing. It is not just a peasant cuisine, the making-do of an impoverished and marginalised people, to be forgotten in the face of technological advances and changes in nutritional fashion. We have our hundreds of apple varieties, our distinctive cheeses that are the product of our acid soils and native breeds, our nurserymen and country estates, and our knowledge of the wild foods to be had from the sea and the hedgerow. This is vital knowledge for the future.

In nine chapters, Graves covers topics such as bread, butter, salt and seafoods. Each is full of fascinating facts that certainly changed my understanding of farming history. Red meat, for instance, is not just one thing, whatever the impression given by Hybu Cig Cymru. Cattle were to early Welsh society what bank accounts are now, and so it was not surprising that beef became a commodity out of the reach of most people when the drovers began to herd their cattle down to London in the Middle Ages, responding to (and helping to create) the English demand for roast beef. Sheep, meanwhile, stayed at home, although their wool travelled, and so mutton became a mainstay of the rural economy. It was only in the 20th century that a global export trade for lamb developed, where prices justified the early slaughter of animals for the sake of their tender meat. As a result, mutton ‘became ever more associated with the older generations, poverty and poor taste’ – an example of how fashions in food shape entire economies.

Some foods have all but disappeared. A nineteenth century boom in the oyster trade around Swansea led to a collapse in the price and the exhaustion of the beds, although there are hopes of a modern revival involving artificial reefs. Cockles have fared better, but they are hardly the staple they were, and the economics of the traditional methods of gathering them by hand, don’t work out. Perhaps changing tastes come into it as well – the shellfish of Cardigan Bay may be celebrated in France and Spain, but there is little demand for crabs and scallops at home, and young people are not queuing up to join the industry.

Other traditional foods are enjoying a modest success. Here are stories of cider makers in south Wales reviving an ancient craft, of Hen Gymro wheat being grown again in Ceredigion (thanks in part to the foresight of Aberystwyth agriculturist Sir George Stapledon and the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg), of new cheeses blending cow’s and sheep’s milk, of growing demand for Welsh sea salt. Meanwhile, cawl adapts to new ingredients, vegetables are grown organically and profitably in rural Ceredigion, and bakers are finding new interest in sourdough loaves made with local grain.

Why does all this matter? The power of the book lies in its use of present-day stories as a pivot between a rich and neglected tradition on the one hand, and an uncertain future on the other. Implied, rather than spelt out, is the question of what diet would best meet the various requirements of healthy nutrition, environmental sustainability, affordability and cultural expectations. Thanks to Graves’ scholarly research we have a much clearer picture not only of what our ancestors produced and ate, but why they did so, and how it brought them not just sustenance but pleasure and meaning.

The challenges we face now are nowhere more poignantly illustrated than by the author’s sad tale of growing leeks. Thanks to the ravages of the leek moth, a recent Asian import, he can no longer grow the national vegetable in his garden at home, and other pests like the allium leaf miner also threaten the crop’s future. How can we imagine cooking and gardening without this familiar standby? But we might have to, and meanwhile climate change allows new crops to grow. It is the principle of growing vegetables, and the recipes that enshrine them, that really matter and that will carry us through.

For the past few centuries, Welsh identity has centred on language and religion, with little thought of such basic concerns as how we feed ourselves. But times change, and now it is food, Graves suggests, that can help to unite us, especially as we begin to welcome refugees from war, drought and flooding. And of course, food is not just a marker of social connection, inviting us to adapt our traditions to new ingredients and tastes. It is also a marker of our relationship with the natural world – or lack of it – and so a powerful way to save our civilization. It deserves our full attention.

Read this book (I wish it had an index!) and be grateful for the past generations who gave us such a rich food culture, and resolve to pass the best of it on to the people who will come after us. For ‘to base the food economy on the foods of a faceless global village and a soulless global market, would be to do not just Wales but the entire world a disservice.’

Carwyn Graves will be talking about the history and future of Welsh food at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November 2022, in Lampeter.

Main picture: Caerphilly cheese, courtesy of Carwyn Graves. Cockling picture, from the National Library of Wales.

Channelling the enthusiasm of the food citizen

This article was originally published by the Food Ethics Council’s Food Citizenship project

As the English National Food Strategy stimulates fresh thinking across the UK, Wales is digesting the implications for its own position. Although there have been many food strategies and action plans since devolution, they have all been partial, leaving vital policy areas unconnected. Farming for instance is about meat and dairy, the food industry celebrates high-value items like gin and ready meals, while the health message is to eat more vegetables.

What we do have, though, is a promise by the new Labour government in Wales to develop a Community Food Strategy during its term in office. Although it is not clear how this will work at a national level – how much of our own food should we try to grow, what are our global impacts? – there is a lot to be said for this approach.

Place-based decision-making

Importantly, working locally brings things down to earth, literally. When ideals like sustainability, resilience and social cohesion interact with the history and current reality of actual places, the difficulties show up and a dialogue can begin. Where do we want to be, and how can we get there?

Then we ask questions like is the food bank able to meet demand, which shops are selling locally grown food, what cooking and gardening skills are our young people learning, and how do we coordinate community meals so that we don’t double up? We see the contradictions as our children eat chicken from Thailand in the school canteen while our farmers cannot make a living from producing food, leisure centres sell unhealthy snacks and supermarket abundance ends up in anaerobic digestion or is offloaded onto food banks.

Another reason to focus on place-based action is the sheer energy of the community food scene. Across the UK, grassroots projects are organizing gardening sessions, distributing supermarket surplus food, cooking community meals, linking with farms to buy local produce and much more. As a result, staff and volunteers discover that they have more agency than they realized and develop an appetite for deeper change. This is the shift from consumer to citizen.

Future Generations Act

In Wales the Well-being of Future Generations Act of 2015 provides a channel for this civic enthusiasm. The Act requires local and national government, and other public services, to involve their stakeholders in decision-making and collaborate with them on long-term change. In theory therefore a community food strategy becomes a national food strategy, crowd-sourced in the 22 local authority areas.

In practice, such change is difficult and the old ways of working will be with us for a while. Nevertheless it is an inspiring story, with some good examples. Food Cardiff has been around for a while, and a regional conference in southwest Wales recently brought a wide range of stakeholders together to share their visions for change (and so did Aberystwyth). These initiatives reach out into the countryside, where there is concern about the proliferation of intensive poultry units in Powys and the sale of whole farms for carbon offsetting in Carmarthenshire.

Talking is of course not enough; we also need infrastructure. This means kitchens, access to land, distribution hubs, cold storage, processing facilities, training and much more, allowing more people to join in the effort. There is a case for food businesses to share some of their facilities and expertise in order to build a food culture that would benefit them as well, encouraging shorter supply chains and regenerating rural areas.

Citizenship and solidarity

Such a bottom-up approach faces formidable obstacles. Some are psychological. Most of us are so used to our comfortable lifestyles that it is hard to contemplate the realities on which they are built – the low-paid farmworkers, the overworked truck-drivers, the decimated wildlife, the loss of traditional skills and of course the fossil fuel that holds it all together.

Just as unsettling is the fragility of our just-in-time global food chains, something that is becoming increasingly obvious. Our instinct for self-preservation makes us look away although for many people, even in the UK, hunger is already here.

And it isn’t just about material comforts. We also lack the solidarity that would enable to us to take charge of our futures. Rather than extend ourselves to work with others who see things differently, we prefer to stick with what we know.

Community food projects can be the antidote to social fragmentation. But they have their own difficulties, including conflicts over resources, unequal partnerships, burnt-out volunteers and strict hierarchies. We need new ways of working, from community to government, and more spaces – virtual and real – which are dedicated to the common good.

The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference to be held online on 24-26 November 2021 will be looking at the Community Food Strategy and asking how citizens can shape it. Please come along!

What Wales could do with a Community Food Strategy

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 consumption.

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 for Wales

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 social inclusion.

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 Agriculture projects.

Local integration

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 gardening skills.

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.

Land use

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 Land Trusts.

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.

Food democracy

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.

What fasting and solitude can teach us about food and society

It’s around an hour after dawn on a still morning in June, and four of us are standing in silence on a hillside in mid Wales. The sun is yet to emerge from behind the mountain that rises up in front of us, while at its feet a jumble of trees, streams and meadows is already touched with the colours of day. In a moment we will walk half a mile or so to places that we have already chosen – the edge of a meadow in my case, near a stream concealed by oak, ash and hazel – and stay there for four days and nights. Our packs contain warm clothing, waterproofs, tents and tarpaulins, but no food. We will drink only water, and we will see nobody else. It will be just us, the earth beneath us, the sky above, wildlife and weather.

It feels like a strange thing to do. But fasting, sometimes out in nature, is an ancient tradition. Jesus fasted in the wilderness before he began his teaching mission, the Buddha fasted under a tree until he attained Enlightenment and it is an established practice in many religions. Going without food intentionally is also a powerful way to exert political pressure, as Gandhi and the Suffragettes demonstrated with their hunger strikes, and ‘intermittent fasting’ is now a health phenomenon supposed to help with weight loss and mental function. Now I am about to try it for myself, as part of an organized event.

Vision fast

The modern movement of nature-based fasting, or the ‘solo quest’, draws on many traditions and began some 50 years ago in California with Steven Foster and Meredith Little of the School of Lost Borders. They started by taking teenagers, many of whom were in trouble with the law, out into the desert for a few days of solitary fasting. This turned out to be the rite of passage that many of them had been unconsciously  looking for, and the idea caught on.

Now Fern Smith and Phil Ralph of the arts collective Emergence run regular vision fasts and other nature-based rites of passage from their home near Machynlleth. Following protocols developed by the School of Lost Borders they prime participants with individual exercises ahead of the 9-day event, which begins with three days of group preparation. There they cover the practical aspects and help us hone a personal intention. What life transition are we marking, what question are we holding? After this, we transfer to the land and select our solo spots, using a combination of random discovery and intuition. A few final preparations, and we are severed from our old lives and enter the threshold period of the ceremony.

Threshold

tarpaulin hung from trees by stream

The UK has little true wilderness, but the uncultivated corners of a Welsh hill farm feel remote enough to me. I am only a ten-minute walk away from basecamp, where Fern and Phil keep watch with supplies of dry clothing and emergency food, but I barely consider it. Cut off from technology – I have even handed my watch in – I am content to stay in a small area which nevertheless contains a world of interest. I watch insects on the ground and cloud formations in the sky, walk barefoot beneath mighty oaks, listen to birds, fight off midges and feel the sun’s heat come and go.

As the fast takes hold and I become weaker, the distinction between the ever-changing outer world and the equally fluid inner life I have brought with me starts to break down. In the land rising up ahead of me I see my courage and ambition, while the stream deep in the ravine behind me is the mysterious current of my unconscious. I can spend an hour on knees and elbows watching the grass stalks I trampled earlier ease back to a half-upright position, and see in that the way my life constantly renews itself. Like a sort of all-encompassing three-dimensional television, the land and sky show me who I am.

Out of a series of small incidents and insights, a story emerges. It is a tale of soft civilized me and wild impersonal nature, and how we turned out to be related all along, and where we might go next. It is a tender thing, half-formed and ambiguous. When the fourth night is over, and we have been welcomed back with food – the much-anticipated breakfast, meeting a shrunken stomach – we share our stories with each other. Our guides mirror back to us the mythic depths of our journeys, skillfully pointing out wisdom and strength where we might have seen weakness or failure, and affirming the discoveries we have made. We have been through an initiation ceremony in which we died to what we were and have been reborn.

Return

The next day, we return home to our usual lives, changed. The fast reverberates powerfully inside me and I am grateful for the instruction to keep the inner story of it to myself for a year, when we are invited to revisit our spots for a further 24 hours of fasting. But the outer story can be told, and already I have a few answers to the question I began with. What, indeed, can a nature fast tell us about food and society?

For one thing, it has shown me our kinship with nature. I already knew that the health of our food system depends on the fertility of our soils, the cleanness of our air and water, and the well-being of all the other species of life that we share the planet with, but now I feel it, too. Fern, who has a background in theatre before turning towards environmental leadership, sees this as central to her work: “The land needs us, just as we need the land. We need to be better custodians of the land, and a nature fast gives people that motivation.”

Another finding, which was no surprise, was the delight of sharing a meal. Food never tasted so good, and human connection was never so vital as it was after that nature fast. Taken as a whole, the ceremony was paradoxically a celebration of food and community, and nothing to do with deprivation. But it took a period of abstinence for me really to appreciate food for the precious gift that it is, as a source of pleasure, health and connection. It is also humbling to reflect that hunger for many people, even in this country, is a damaging reality.

Rites of passage

The fast also had me reflect on the course of a human life, and how rites of passage draw us into that mystery. Pushed out of my comfort zone by quite some way, I found strengths I had not known I had, and a deeper sense of what my life is about. Adolescents in traditional societies will undergo an initiation in which they face an ordeal and are welcomed back as adults, but our society has largely lost that. As a result we seem sometimes to be stuck in childhood, the consumer society gratifying our every whim and shielding us from the realities of where our food, water and clean air come from. We need to wake up to our adult responsibilities.

We also neglect another transition in the life cycle, that from conventional adulthood to the wisdom of the elders. We have more senior citizens than ever, but we see old age as a problem to be managed. We talk about the pensions crisis, and the social care crisis, and we fear the physical and mental incapacity that come with ageing. We do not look at later life in all its fullness, with its gifts and responsibilities, maybe for fear of seeing the death that it implies.

But death is essential to the rebirth that renews human society, and without it nothing else makes sense. This renewal is the deeper purpose of the vision fast. It grew out of the civil rights and environmental movements of the 1950s and 1960s with Foster’s insight that political action was not enough:

“True revolution would never come about until the children remembered the way to get to adulthood – and the adults to true elderhood – and the elders to honorable death.”

We need this insight now more than ever. Environmental campaigning and political action can only take us so far, when our underlying consciousness is stuck in an old way of being. It is time for a new relationship between the generations, and with the natural world. As Fern says, “We are initiating elders so that they can be in service to their communities and to the natural world.” It is as simple and as powerful as that.

Emergence will run their next vision fast in June 2022: see their calendar of events. For nature fasts in north Wales, see www.ancienthealingways.co.uk.

Why effective regulation is so important along the food chain

This article was first published on the Food Manifesto website

Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced it would make the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ). This is a European mechanism that requires farmers to follow stringent rules to reduce nitrate pollution. It was greeted with fury by the farming unions, who had favoured a voluntary approach. At the root of this is the view that nitrate pollution, as a by-product of food production, is the responsibility of wider society. It should therefore be managed by negotiation, as has been proposed in Pembrokeshire, not by draconian measures imposed from above. Additionally, regulations that are not widely supported tend to be less effective, which might be why a 2009 study found that many NVZs in England showed no significant benefits even after 15 years. 

What this controversy proves, negatively, is how important it is to have good regulation. We all want clean rivers and waterways, and farmers need clear rules about what they can and cannot do, so that the playing field is level and the quality of their goods is recognised. But regulation must be fair if it is to be effective, and it must be supported by a network of trust and communication as well as credible enforcement. This applies all along the food chain, from environmental protection to nutrition, food safety and trade.

So how is Wales doing? A recent report from Unchecked UK, Safeguarding standards in Wales: Why Wales should lead the way commends the Welsh Government for its generally positive approach, and for the notable Well-being of Future Generations Act, and contrasts it favourably with the policy of deregulation that it sees in Westminster. Unfortunately, though, the UK Government’s austerity policy has weakened the regulatory agencies in Wales, and most of the report is a chronicle of the damage that has been done.

First on the list is environmental protection. Their research shows that the main environmental regulator, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), has lost 35% of its funding from 2013 to 2020, while prosecutions of environmental offences fell by 61% in the period from 2014-20. This is cause for concern. But what the report does not cover is the positive ways in which NRW could uphold standards, for instance by working alongside farmers and businesses to help them to do better, and by maintaining conversations with countryside groups and organisations.

This is important because the Well-being of Future Generations Act, as part of its Five Ways of Working, requires public bodies to focus on prevention rather than the cure, and to be collaborative and to involve their stakeholders – with the punishment of offenders as a backstop. Consultation takes up staff time. But NRW, the report says, has 53 fewer staff than it had six years ago and so it is likely that this function has also been weakened. Meanwhile, local authority spending on environmental services fell by 13% during 2009-20, adding to the problem.

The section on food and public health also makes for a depressing read. Wales has brought in some ground-breaking legislation, including its food hygiene rating system, nutritional standards for school meals and a national strategy on tackling obesity, as well as the Well-being of Future Generations Act. But because of cuts to local authority funding, the number of people working in councils across Wales fell by 37,000 between 2009 and 2018.

“This has had far-reaching effects on local authorities’ ability to carry out their duties,” the report notes. “As a result, frontline staff tend to work reactively rather than proactively, at which point the damage – be it fraud, health and safety violations, or food safety breaches – has often been done.”

When councils lose staff, they also lose expertise. It isn’t just that local health and safety inspections in Wales fell by 45% during 2015-20 – a whole culture of cooperation and local knowledge has been weakened. Again, the principles of collaboration and involvement that are so key to the Future Generations Act are threatened, as the public realm is hollowed out. Opportunities for local food democracy will be lost.

Wales does not act in isolation, of course. It has been subject to regulation by both the EU and the UK government, and both of those relationships have changed since Brexit. The Welsh government has pledged to retain EU standards of environmental protection, using the Well-being of Future Generations and Environment Acts. However, it will no longer be able to call on the European Court of Justice to hold public bodies to account, and we have already seen how NRW has been weakened by staff cuts. Meanwhile the UK government’s Internal Market Act, intended to secure frictionless trade within the UK, threatens the rights of devolved administrations to set their own (higher) standards and has caused alarm in Wales

Unchecked UK has conducted a survey which finds support across all political persuasions for strong regulation in Wales. Over two-thirds of people in Wales, for instance, would like to see legally binding targets for wildlife restoration. There is also strong support for maintaining quality and sustainability standards for food, and fair workplace practices. Their campaign video calls on the Welsh public to keep up the pressure on our politicians, and “protect the things that make Wales the country we all love.”

Good enforcement of regulations is certainly essential, and government has a vital role to play. But equally, we need public understanding and support to build consensus around the regulations that are put in place. That requires joined up thinking. The consumers who want higher food standards are also the taxpayers who support farmers, who in turn have a huge influence on wildlife and water quality. They are also the citizens who have been empowered to create a better world for future generations. We need to bring all that together.

It is telling that the report commends the forthcoming Agriculture Bill for strengthening food safety and environmental and animal welfare standards. What the Bill fails to do however is to consider the contribution that farming makes to food production itself, because that is held to be a market good, not a public one. But a thriving local food economy, to which farming is central, is about much more than food security or the viability of farms. It is about the sense of place that creates social as well as economic bonds, and this is ultimately the basis of regulation in its truest sense – a set of agreements arising from a shared intention. Regulation must be bottom-up as well as top-down.

© Jane Powell and Food Manifesto Wales 2021. This article may be freely shared with acknowledgement.

Collaboration and competition in the food movement – making sense of both

The response of community food groups to the pandemic was impressive. People came together in new ways to grow and distribute food, to organize online, and to start new projects that will help us to ‘build back better’ when lockdown ends. Chester University’s Food in the Time of Lockdown gives a picture of this, and the Wales Audit Office has also been reviewing the community response. Through collaboration we create wholes that are more than the sum of their parts, and this is one of life’s joys.

But while we celebrate co-operation, we may be less willing to look at the darker side of the food movement. Turf wars, small projects being upstaged by bigger shinier ones, partnerships breaking down acrimoniously, empire-building, personality clashes – it’s all there. Of course, we should not overstate the problem. Most organizations bend over backwards not to offend the sensitivities of others and to look for positive solutions. Nevertheless the fallout can be so painful for the individuals concerned, and such a block to deeper change, that it is worth looking more closely at what is euphemistically known as ‘politics’.

Part of the problem is the split personality of NGOs. On the one hand they are supposed to be entirely altruistic, working for the good of all, while on the other, they are competing for limited funding, publicity, membership and political influence. The Common Cause Foundation has done great work in championing the altruistic values of community and equality that drive the community sector, but we need to remember that the ‘selfish’ needs for security, status and material support are just as much a part of being human.

When community organizations pretend that we are above such petty concerns – as our publicity campaigns require us to – what happens is that our undeniable requirement for support is driven underground. In psychological terms, it becomes part of the shadow of the food movement. It shows up as unhealthy power dynamics, ruthless competition and volunteer burnout. It would be better to take a more realistic view of the tension between serving the collective and maintaining our own well-being. Repeating the mantra ‘collaboration not competition’ doesn’t really do it.

Spaces for collaboration

How then might we design the voluntary sector so that it takes better account of these realities? One way might be to make a clear distinction between areas where we collaborate and compete. A good example comes from the food industry. This is seen as being entirely competitive, but the concept of pre-competitive space describes areas in which businesses can in fact usefully work together. For instance, they might come together to organize farm certification over a given region, or to share data on food production or the labour market through a trusted broker. Meanwhile, they continue to fight over market share in the usual way – the best of both worlds.

The food movement similarly needs to protect its pre-competitive or non-competitive space, where we take off our organizational hats and come together to face common challenges. This already happens often enough at conferences and meetings, when self-promotion and networking give way to a shared search for meaning. But we need to build on that, and create many more spaces where we place public good firmly above organizational interests. An ideal way to do that is to hold more meetings around meals, where the symbolism of sharing food reminds us of our interdependence. Even better, let’s get out of our offices and meet outdoors.

This needs to happen both nationally and locally. Local food partnerships for instance, by bringing organizations, volunteers and local authorities together, can create a space which supports collaboration, as Food Cardiff demonstrated in the first lockdown. That principle could be extended. Imagine if supermarket awards like Tesco’s Bags of Help were distributed to community projects not on the basis of a popularity contest, but following guidance from an elected local board that knew all the parties and could see where the greatest strategic gain was to be had. And what if we used shared meals, public procurement and so on to strengthen the public realm so that such a board had real power, and was trusted as an honest broker? The benefits would go far beyond food.

Managing competition

Meanwhile we need to look more closely at how resources are allocated in the voluntary sector, which is what fuels anxiety and competition. It is the great strength of the community food sector that people working on the ground can come up with new ideas and put them into action fast, running prototypes for wider society to adopt, as Olivier de Schutter argues. They need a funding structure that is similarly fast-moving and open to new entrants. Competitive bidding does have the virtue of selecting the better organized groups and the brightest ideas, delivering value for money.

In other areas however, maybe competition isn’t such a good idea. When a community project has proved its worth to the point that other projects as well as individuals have come to depend on it, it needs more than short-term funding. Such projects have the potential to bring about deep change in their communities, and that requires a longer commitment. Here stability is as important as innovation, and a competitive framework becomes an obstacle to building expertise and trust in community networks.*

A better system for allocating resources, understood and respected by all, would do a lot to lessen the competitive aspect, support collaboration and deliver better results.

Changing the culture

There are many other reasons why collaboration can be difficult, including the discomfort of working across sectors (food producers and caterers, to take one example, work under very different pressures). But there is nothing that could not be solved if there were a space for people to come together and work out what they need to do. The People’s Assemblies that sprang up during lockdown are a good example of what a respectful debate looks like. Meanwhile, the Summit to Sea project in mid Wales is practising co-design. These approaches need more support and testing.

Government has a key role. The Future Generations Act is famous for its Five Ways of Working, which include collaboration, and national government has backed that up with support for changing the culture of public services, at Academi Wales. They suggest using circles for meetings for instance, to make sure that everyone’s voices are heard, or gathering in inspiring places that bring out the best in people. There is even advice on what to do if meetings become too enjoyable. Academia also provides an important space for reflective practice that supports the food movement.  

Above all, we need systems that are built around human needs, however messy they may be. The unseemly struggles in the food movement have a parallel from music. The Welsh expression cythraul y canu, literally the devil of the singing, refers to the jealousies that so often lurk among the angelic harmonies. Who gets to sing the solo? Who has the sweetest voice? The stakes are high, and one person’s success is often another’s disappointment. But naming a difficulty takes out some of the sting, and in a choir, every voice counts. It’s time we made peace with cythraul y cydweithio, the devil of collaboration.

*See the Community Foundation Wales’ report ‘Loud and Clear‘ which calls for long-term core funding for community projects.

Have you been affected by the issues in this article? Come to a coaching circle and find peer support to explore challenges in your work.

© Jane Powell 2021. This article may be freely shared with acknowledgement.

school cook serving meal

From community gardens to public procurement, homegrown food provides value

The west Wales market town of Llandysul has lost a lot in the last ten years or so. The mart has gone, and so have all the banks and the Post Office. The new bypass means fewer people stop there, and the main schools are now out of town too. Meanwhile, the introduction of parking charges by the county council diverts shoppers away from the family shops on the high street, towards the new supermarket with its free parking.

But all is not lost. The town has a strong community, and many groups – covering interests such as youth, elderly people, the arts and the Welsh language – have come together to set up a community garden on the outskirts of town. Yr Ardd, as it is known, will be about bringing people together, beginning with gardening but including cookery classes, arts and creative activities, and education.

“We want to see enterprises running at the garden, growing food and running courses. Ultimately we want to be self-sufficient, we don’t want to be dependent on grants,” says founder-member Andrea Sanders, who is inspired by the work of Mach Maethlon, the Machynlleth project that has engaged the public through edible gardens, gardening courses and cookery sessions, as well as finding a market for local produce. During lockdown, it gave rise to a local growing initiative that saw a ‘land army’ growing food on nearby farms.

Tom (centre) at a farmers’ market at the old primary school in Llandysul

Tom Cowcher, who has an organic farm near Llandysul and is also a town councillor, is optimistic about the town’s future too, seeing a new interest in local food and the countryside. Llandysul is part of the Welsh Government’s Transforming Towns initiative and he thinks they could soon have market stalls selling local produce once again.

”I do envisage a green revolution in local supply. The tide is about to turn in rural Wales, there’s a tremendous opportunity coming,” he says, noting the demand for the small proportion of his own meat that he is able to sell locally through catering for events. However, there is an urgent need for more small abattoirs to service meat supply chains, and he is concerned that the public does not appreciate the environmental and nutritional qualities of red meat reared in Wales. More attention should perhaps be paid to the impacts of agrochemicals on crops.

Local food growing meets an important social need for connection, which is an important driver for Yr Ardd. They can engage people in rewarding volunteer work, build community, improve nutrition and share food skills. They can also reach into the countryside, for instance buying direct from farmers. But as Katie Hastings of Mach Maethlon notes, it can be difficult to marry up the social and commercial aspects.

Katie in the potato field

“Mach Maethlon set up as a group of people who wanted to be able to make a livelihood growing vegetables,” she says, “but it quickly became apparent that that is nigh-on impossible. So then we moved into community activity and that’s been brilliant, but I’d love to see more veg being produced and sold into the local economy.” Low prices, difficulties accessing land and lack of investment in infrastructure are just a few of the problems they face.

There are some encouraging signs. Welsh Government has expressed strong support for community growing, as Lucie Taylor of the Community Land Advisory Service points out, and a recent change in government regulations gives more freedom to community gardens to develop their sites. In the countryside, One Planet Development has brought new possibilities. The government could do more to developing infrastructure by bringing together its support for farming on the one hand, and the food industry on the other – and community groups could be the catalyst for that.

And of course the Well-Being of Future Generations Act requires local authorities and other public bodies to work with businesses and community groups to create better futures locally – and what better way to do this than through food democracy. Local marketing initiatives such as food hubs,  many of them powered by the Open Food Network, can help to create a vibrant food culture that naturally draws people in and empowers them to become change agents. Meanwhile organizations such as Slow Food Cymru Wales and the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference make this movement visible, while the Food Policy Alliance Cymru is lobbying government.

But all this ‘food from the ground up’ needs to be met with national support if it is to transform Wales. It is government that can properly assess the value of a good food system to human health, the environment, the economy and well-being, not just now but in the future, and direct public finance towards this vital goal. This is where public procurement – the purchase of food for schools, hospitals, day centres and so on – comes in. It can create stronger demand for Welsh produce and overcome the challenges of distribution, as well as raising the profile of local food and shifting public perceptions.

Carmarthenshire County Council is running just such a project, with support from Welsh Government under the Foundational Economy programme, and taking inspiration from the English South West Food Hub and a Copenhagen food project. The challenge is to quantify the benefits of local procurement, making the case for greater investment in good food, and to see how supply and demand can be matched in the area.

“I consider myself a food activist,” says Alex Cook, who owns his own food business and is a supply adviser to the project.  ”The us-and-them mentality needs to change and we need to work together, from the community level to large businesses. It has to be collaboration not competition.”

The lessons from the Carmarthenshire project, which is led by its Public Services Board (PSB) – the mechanism by which the Future Generations Act stimulates place-based collaboration – will serve as a template for the rest of Wales. As local capacity builds on the one hand, thanks to projects like Mach Maethlon and Yr Ardd, as well as Our Food Crickhowell, Food Cardiff and others linked to the Sustainable Food Places project, so at the same time other PSBs will be able to follow Carmarthenshire’s lead.

Getting food right is much more than a lifestyle choice about how we eat or where we shop. It is about health, and the quality of the food we grow, down to its nutritional composition and the trace elements it contains. It is about how Wales trades across the globe. And it has to do with how farmers use their land here in Wales, whether for mixed farming that feeds local communities, or the specialized commodity farming encouraged by the CAP.

Brexit has changed the rules for procurement and farm support, Covid has shaken up our assumptions about how things are done, and climate change is forcing us to make deep changes. We have an opportunity to do things differently, if we are prepared to seize it.

© Jane Powell 2021. This article is based on Food from the Ground Up #3, an event organized by Renew Wales on 17th February 2021. View recording.

man in field

Thomas Odhiambo, push-pull and an African approach to science and farming

In 1967, a young Kenyan scientist called Thomas Odhiambo wrote a paper for the journal Science [1] in which he set out his hopes for East Africa as it moved out of the colonial era. With a doctorate from Cambridge University in the reproductive physiology of the desert locust, he saw science as key to that. And no wonder: it was a time when science seemed invincible, in agriculture as in every other area of life. Grain yields were increasing rapidly in Mexico, Pakistan and India due to a combination of new crop varieties, pesticides and fertilizers, the original Green Revolution. Hunger would be defeated by technology, and anyone who suggested otherwise was standing in the way of progress.

Odhiambo however saw things differently. Science for him was not a neutral modernizing tool, to be valued simply for its technological gains. It was not enough for him that Africans should pick up a scientific training and become competent surgeons, for instance; he wanted them to have full mastery of the subject and to integrate it with their cultural frameworks on their own terms. What really mattered was human knowledge.

A different world view

It was in his view vital to understand the African mind. The West and the East had developed knowledge systems which relied on a distinction between subjective and objective reality, allowing one to produce science, while the other developed mysticism. The African, however, had ‘concentrated his intellectual powers in devising a vastly intricate and communalistic social system.’ He does not explain further, but the African concept of ubuntu, which sees society as the source of humanity, comes to mind. Proverbs like ‘if you want to travel fast, go alone. If you want to travel far, go together,’ and ‘I am because we are’ indicate a mindset very different from the individualistic West.

This meant that Africa needed new institutions that would integrate the scientific method with indigenous cultural frameworks. The result was the foundation in 1970 of ICIPE, the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, of which he was the first director. Based in Nairobi, it recently celebrated its Golden Jubilee and its website announces that it now works in 41 countries, published 143 articles in 2019 and has so far trained 1058 postgraduate students. So what came of the meeting between Western science and African communalism?

Things did not go quite to plan. ICIPE never became the university that Odhiambo wanted it to be, and as a result of conflicts with the governing body he was even removed as Director in 1994. As his Guardian obituary notes, this ‘was a massive blow; his reputation had been built in the cause of self-reliance for Africa, yet his fate was being decided by foreign governments and donor agencies.’ Nevertheless, the work he began at ICIPE lives on, and is worth a closer look.

One of ICIPE’s flagship projects, a method of crop protection known as push-pull, shows what can happen when science is put in service to traditional practice, as he recommended. The story begins around 1993, when staff at ICIPE turned their attention to a destructive caterpillar, the maize stem-borer. Rejecting the use of pesticides, which farmers in any case could not afford, Odhiambo encouraged his staff to observe the life cycle of the insect and look for a biological method of controlling it. The result was the discovery that some plants, grown alongside the maize, are able to produce volatile chemicals that will ‘push’ the moth out of the crop and ‘pull’ it to the margins.

The push-pull method

In the classic form of push-pull, maize alternates with rows of a legume called Desmodium, and the plot is surrounded by a strip of Napier grass. The Desmodium repels the stem-borer and additionally suppresses a parasitic weed called striga, besides fixing nitrogen. The Napier grass attracts the stem-borer but also attracts its natural predators and secretes a glue that traps the caterpillars. Free of striga and the stem-borer, maize yields double or triple. Meanwhile both the legume and the grass are cut regularly, producing an abundance of protein-rich forage which is fed to cows, goats, poultry or pigs.

Maize, desmodium and grass
Maize and desmodium (rear), grass (foreground)

There are many other benefits. Being perennials, these forage crops help to hold soil in place and protect the crop against wind and flooding. Each time they are cut, their roots die back and add organic matter in the soil, just as happens when sheep and cows graze pasture. Soil fertility therefore increases, moisture retention improves, and the family enjoys a good supply of nutrient-dense milk and meat. Women in particular benefit because they no longer have to spend long hours weeding the striga and collecting forage from the bush. Instead, many run small businesses selling their surplus produce, and are able to pay school fees.

Once a farmer has invested labour in establishing a push-pull plot – and so far nearly a quarter of a million in East Africa and elsewhere have done so – it needs little maintenance. The method is also adaptable. A variant has been developed that is more tolerant of drought, using different species of grass and legume, and it has been shown to work with other cereal crops and pests, notably the fall armyworm. With support from partner organizations and government extension services, it has spread widely in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa, including Ethiopia and Rwanda

Science meets practice

Science was key to this story. A partnership between ICIPE and Rothamsted Research in the UK meant that researchers could identify the volatile chemicals that directed the moths’ flight and attracted their natural enemies. This allowed them to screen large numbers of companion plants to identify the most effective varieties. This in turn was possible because of funding from the Gatsby Foundation which allowed the researchers the scope to follow their own interests, so that what was ‘little more than a promising idea in the minds of an informal global network of chemical ecologists’ became a practical reality. [2]

Just as important though was the knowledge that was embedded in African farming practice. Push-pull developed from the interaction of modern science with traditional methods, notably mixed cropping, and in a context of collaboration and trust. As the project proceeded, farmers have been drawn in as experimenters, trainers and popularizers of push-pull, with demonstration plots and field schools. They have even become co-researchers and owners of the method, testing and adapting it to new settings. This has been possible because the technology was designed to fit with, and so empower, existing practice.

Push-pull works on many levels. It is a model for controlling pests without using pesticides, and has for instance inspired scientists at Rothamsted to experiment with companion cropping to control the pollen beetle that is a serious pest of oilseed rape. But it is much more than that. It is a mixed farming approach which balances food production with nutrition, builds soil fertility and maintains biodiversity, all while supporting the prosperity and self-reliance of farmers. This is in stark contrast to the UK, where farmers face uncertainty over subsidies and global trade, are dependent on fossil fuels, synthetic fertilizers and expensive machinery, and all too often vilified for the damage that farming has done – on behalf of us all – to biodiversity and soil health. So what are the lessons for us?

Lessons for the UK

We won’t get very far with maize, Napier grass and Desmodium in the UK, but many of the elements of push-pull can be discerned here, ripe for amplification. These include companion planting for pest control, the use of perennial intercrops (for instance, undersowing wheat with clover, as well as agroforestry), mixed farming (the integration of livestock and arable crops, now increasingly rare), and on-farm research, or ‘field labs’ in which farmers are investigators, not merely the consumers of technology. We also have a strong movement of small-scale farmers, growers and food activists, exemplified by the Permaculture Association, the Land Workers’ Alliance, and the Oxford Real Farming Conference. What might we achieve if we directed agricultural research towards this network of practice?

This brings us back to the relationship between science and society, which was Odhiambo’s concern. The science behind push-pull is orthodox enough: mass spectrometry and field trials, not Kirlian photography. What is significant is the context in which it is used. It is as if the head-based knowledge of science has been sensitively joined to the embodied wisdom of generations of farmers, transcending the artificial distinction between tradition and innovation. Science is thus employed at a human scale.

Odhiambo wanted to improve the lives of his fellow Africans, but his global connections allowed him to conduct an experiment with much wider significance. As Hans Herren, director of ICIPE from 1994 to 2005, said of push-pull: “there was an opportunity here in Africa to implement knowledge on biological control…in a very sustainable way when nobody talked about sustainability”. [3]

Now that we really are talking about sustainability, it’s time to learn from this visionary project.


[1] Odhiambo, T.R. Science, New Series, Vol. 158, No. 3803 (Nov. 17, 1967), pp. 876-881. Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science. Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1722664.

[2] Gatsby Charitable Foundation (2005) The quiet revolution: push–pull technology and the African farmer. Gatsby Occasional Paper, London, pp. 23-24. https://infonet-biovision.org/sites/default/files/613.gatsby_occasional_paper.pdf

[3] Holdrege, C. (2012) Context-sensitive action: The development of push-pull Farming in Africa. http://natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic27/pushpull.pdf

Images courtesy of Rothamsted Research.