field of grass with rectangular plots

Sir George Stapledon, grassland scientist and visionary for our times

This year is the centenary of the establishment of the Welsh Plant Breeding Station in Aberystwyth in 1919, and so a good time to remember its first Director, the agricultural pioneer Sir George Stapledon. His name and legend linger on at the university and his contribution to grassland science is recognized internationally, but the deeper significance of his work is almost forgotten now. It might seem strange that the biography of a grassland scientist should be entitled Prophet of the New Age, but that is a measure of the significance he attached to farming. He was interested above all in humanity and nationhood, and beyond his decisive contributions to grassland farming around the world and to the UK’s food supply during World War Two, he raised questions about the land, science and food production which still resonate today.

Sir George Stapledon in 1946 (© National Portrait Gallery, London under Creative Commons licence)

Sir Reginald George Stapledon FRS was an upper-class Englishman who studied science at Cambridge. He then joined the family business of shipping on the Suez Canal, but soon gave that up and returned to Cambridge, this time to study agriculture, followed by two years teaching at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester. In 1912 he became Agricultural Botany Adviser at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. By this time he had developed a conviction that farming was crucial to civilization and that Britain had lost its way, creating by its Victorian laissez faire economics “a huge urban population balanced on a derelict and disheartened countryside”.[i] He was determined to put things right.

His first task at the University was to carry out a survey of farms in what is now Ceredigion. That period, spent mostly outdoors and talking to farmers, inspired not only his vision for farming but a lifetime of reflection on ‘human ecology’, or the relationship between people and the land. At the time, farmers were rearing animals on permanent pasture which was neglected and unproductive, and relying on imported concentrates to fatten them for market. If they did occasionally plough the pasture up and grow a cereal crop, usually oats, they would reseed afterwards with the cheapest mix of grass seed they could find, and given the lack of regulation of the seed industry at the time, the result was still more poor quality pasture.

He next conducted a painstaking study of the seeds industry, analysing the weed impurities and germination of 900 seed samples, and his report on the ‘seeds scandal’ had an instant effect. The stage was set for a new approach to grassland. It was his view that grass should be treated as a crop like any other, to be improved by breeding and resown frequently as ‘leys’, or temporary pasture. Suitable mixtures of grasses and herbs would enrich the soil and produce good forage for animals. This was important not just for national food security but also for cultural reasons; he admired farmers, especially hill farmers, and wanted to see them stay on the land.

The Welsh Plant Breeding Station therefore set about breeding grasses, clovers and oats for the benefit of Welsh farms, developing new breeding methods and testing the new varieties on working farms; during 1929-1933 alone, 848 acres on 231 different farms in Wales were sown to crop trials. The success of this approach transformed hill and upland farming and was copied in many other countries, especially New Zealand. This scientific approach to the improvement of grassland is still central to the work of IBERS, the University institute into which the WPBS eventually morphed.

But Stapledon looked far beyond the trial plot and the laboratory. True to his view that human well-being and the land were tied up with each other, he put great care into building his team at the Plant Breeding Station; in his view good working relationships were just as important as technical knowledge. He had little time for ‘equal opportunities’; when asked to apply for the post of director he refused and insisted on being offered it instead. He then set about recruiting farmers’ sons for his staff, believing that they would have the necessary care and understanding for the work, and indeed many of them went on to develop successful careers of their own. He never learned Welsh, having decided that to do so would be pretentious, but he valued the bilingualism of his researchers and inspired a remarkable team spirit in the Station, where his staff idolized him. He remained Director until 1942, after which he moved on to other posts in England. He was knighted and made an FRS in 1939, and died in 1960.

Stapledon’s legacy has been wide reaching – and mixed. On the one hand he opened up a new area of agricultural research which according to Aberystwyth historian Richard Moore-Colyer was ‘largely responsible for the retention of the social, cultural and economic infrastructure of the hills and uplands of today’s Britain’. His campaign to increase domestic food production before the Second World War freed up shipping to fight the war rather than transport food, and is credited with a decisive role in British victories. On the other, however, he paved the way for a bias towards food production at the expense of wildlife, exemplified by the bright green ryegrass monocultures so conspicuous against the muted colours of the hills, and documented to shocking effect in the latest State of Nature report. His ‘plough-up’ campaign against permanent pasture also jars on modern ears.

Unintended consequences

It is a mark of his greatness however that he foresaw that his work would have unintended consequences. His fundamental concern was that his scientific successes would contribute towards human arrogance in our technological control over nature and reinforce a materialistic view of life quite opposed to the rural virtues that he so admired in upland farmers; how this would actually play out, he could not foresee. As he put it to a meeting of the British Grassland Society in 1956:

“Man in putting all his money on narrow specialization and on the newly dawned age of technology has backed a wild horse which given his head is bound to get out of control. No, what man should have done, is to have backed learning and scholarship in the true meaning of those great words and then soon he would have realized that the most devastating of all the contraries is knowledge : ignorance…”[ii]

With the benefit of hindsight we can see how true this is, not just in terms of the lost biodiversity of our countryside but also in such other mixed blessings as the internal combustion engine, the nuclear reactor and the invention of plastic. Our food production methods are all of a piece with this technological revolution which has put human convenience first, and is only now facing a time to reckoning. At which point, it is worth turning to Stapledon again, for having identified the root of the problem – human conceit – he worked hard to find the solution.

Humanness

This he considered lay in what he called humanness, or ‘the creation of the whole human being through his social and personal relations, and of course in his relationship to Nature and the soil.’[iii] He considered that it would be the work of the 21st century to balance the material with the spiritual, drawing on the resources of creative power in our unconscious, in the same way that farming unlocks reserves of fertility held in the soil, and this was the New Age he looked forward to.

His visionary emphasis on the land as a basis for human society has inspired many thinkers, notably in the organic movement (although Stapledon himself was not a member, and was happy to use artificial fertilizer), and it still poses important questions for us today. How self-sufficient should we attempt to be? How do we create better links between town and country (he was an early proponent of national parks)? How do we make life in the countryside as intellectually rewarding as city life? What is the role of science?

We would do well to return to his works, now out of print but lurking in library stores, and enquire again into the relationship between people and nature. Stapledon does not have ready answers to modern questions like rewilding, Brexit and climate change, but he does suggest where, and how, we might look.


[i] Quoted in Waller, R. (1962) Prophet of the New Age. The Life and Thought of Sir George Stapledon FRS. Faber and Faber, London, p. 79.

[ii] p. 277.

[iii] p. 278

Brexit, a new start for Welsh food and farming?

Brexit poses particular risks for Wales’s export-dependent farmers and food producers – the loss of subsidies, the loss of markets, and the loss of cash and autonomy if Cardiff has to deal with London rather than Brussels. But like any unexpected, and for some unwelcome, change it is also an opportunity. If nothing else, it has meant permission to question some received thinking and imagine a different future, and indeed there are plenty of reasons for optimism alongside the anxiety.FRC cover

In a new paper commissioned by City University’s Food Research Collaboration for their Food Brexit Policy Briefings series, Corinne Castle and I explore some of these. As we are both active in food projects ourselves, Corinne until recently working on food waste for Transition Bro Gwaun, it was inspiring to stand back and see what else is going on in Wales.

We found two sets of reasons for thinking that Wales could do things better. One was the forward-thinking legislation that we have. The Well-being of Future Generations Act for instance requires public bodies to consider the long-term consequences of their decisions, and provides for local well-being plans. These are administered by Public Services Boards located in each local authority, and these could well take on a role developing local policy for food (the role of local authorities is discussed in another FRC Brexit briefing). Another is the Environment Act, which requires Natural Resources Wales to create area statements which will link to these well-being plans. Taken together, they are a means of building local self-determination rooted in a sense of place.

Meanwhile, the One Planet Development legislation allows low-impact development in the countryside where applicants can demonstrate that they are able to meet a high proportion of their food and fuel needs directly from their plots. A high-profile example of this is Lammas Ecovillage in Pembrokeshire, a collection of zero-carbon dwellings, with each household making their living from their land.

The other reason for optimism is the vigour and diversity of grassroots action. Many imaginative projects are drawing on a combination of Welsh tradition and international networks to come up with new models of food supply. These range from agroforestry and a grain revival to Community Supported Agriculture, horticulture, microdairies, community gardens and place-based approaches like Food Cardiff and Mach Maethlon. Many of these are featured on the Food Manifesto Wales website.

Although in the paper we highlighted the experimental and the alternative, for obvious reasons, there is plenty of innovation going on in more conventional areas too. Dairy farmers in Pembrokeshire are pioneering a precision farming method of reducing nitrate pollution, the recent Farming Connect conference included some excellent examples of agroecology in grasslands and the Welsh Government this year negotiated Protected Designation of Origin status for the Denbigh Plum.

We finished up with a list of recommendations, to do with empowering farmers, developing markets for local produce (notably public procurement), valuing food culture, engaging the public and above all talking about food as the source of life that it is, not just a commodity. This is familiar enough, but it bears repeating. And finally, we called for a national food network that would bring together sectors such as food production, health, social justice and the environment, as well as north and south, urban and rural.

This is the thinking behind the Wales Food Manifesto, and if Brexit can give it another nudge towards becoming a reality, so much the better.

Please download our briefing, Brexit and Wales: A fresh approach to food and farming? from https://foodresearch.org.uk/publications/wales/

Global food plans must start from the bottom up

Last month, Norwegian think tank EAT and British medical journal The Lancet produced a joint document setting out their ideas for a new global diet. Written by 37 scientists from around the world and led by Harvard University with funding from the Wellcome Institute, the message was that we must drastically cut our meat consumption – especially red meat – in favour of a more plant-based diet. This, they say, is for both environmental and health reasons: livestock farming makes a disproportionate contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, causing climate change, and animal products, especially saturated fats, are bad for our health.

The reaction to it has been mixed (see this handy summary from the FRCN). Many groups campaigning for a better food system, such as Sustain, the Food and Climate Research Network and the Food Ethics Council, have been broadly supportive of it, though not without caveats. Others such as the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, NFU Cymru and the Sustainable Food Trust have been more critical, championing the role of red meat and questioning the environmental impacts of plant proteins and oils. But by the very fact of their responding, they have all implicitly accepted that a global approach to food is necessary.

What is particularly interesting though has been the reaction from groups and individuals who see nothing good in the report and don’t mind saying so. Many of them object to the dethroning of meat as the mainstay of a healthy diet, while others simply don’t like being told what to do. The comments on Twitter were revealing: ‘the most corrupt and disgusting attempt to control agriculture there has ever been’, said one; ‘the billionaire elitists can #EATLancet themselves. I’ll stick to eating real food,’ was another, while another denounced the ‘global elites who jet around the world telling us simpletons how we need to live and what we need to eat!!’

Some of the backlash to EAT-Lancet was decidedly uncivil, not to say unkind, and it is easy to dismiss it on those grounds. But such strength of feeling deserves a closer look, not just because it might help us understand why meat-eating is so entrenched, but also because it is part of a bigger question. How can the human race learn to act together on global challenges, whether it’s climate change, bioengineering or the rise of artificial intelligence?

Global action is something new for humanity, and it requires a new way of looking at the world. It means looking beyond our usual concerns for ourselves, our families and our nations, and feeling some kinship with people who are very different from us. And our concern has to extend beyond people to the animals, plants and microbes with whom we share the planet. We need to recognize our part in an interconnected world, and that means a change in the values that guide our lives, one that sees that our flourishing is intertwined with that of the greater whole.

The Common Cause Foundation describes this as a shift from values of self-enhancement to self-transcendence, or universalism, and it is working to place ‘values that prioritise community, environment and equality’ at the heart of public life. This is vital work, given a political climate which is much more about money, competitiveness and achievement, and it has many implications for education, businesses and government. It means seeing food less as a commodity and more as something that connects people with each other and the natural world.

However, as the Common Cause work acknowledges, humans cannot exist in a continuous state of planetary consciousness. We also have bodies to feed, livelihoods to earn, families to support and communities to belong to. We are members of nations too, and that gives us responsibilities, as we find out when elections and referendums come round. All of these engage different values in us, ones to do with survival, belonging and identity.

According to The World Values Survey, which tracks human values over time, whole countries can be classified according to the values which predominate in them. On their values map they identify an axis along which we move from concerns about survival to self-expression, by which they mean openness, trust, tolerance and participation – the basis for a global world view.

Distribution of values in different countries in 2010-2014, from the World Values Survey (http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp) 

While Protestant Europe and the English-speaking world score high for self-expression and so presumably global awareness, large swathes of the world’s population including Russia, eastern Europe, Africa and the Islamic world are all more focused on their own survival. There is of course variation within countries, too. This may show up as arguments over the balance between national interests and globalism – an aspect of the Brexit debate – or as polarized arguments about food.

This raises an important question: how can the values of universalism be reconciled with those of nationalism and localism? This is a particular challenge to those who, like the authors of the EAT-Lancet report, propose global campaigns for change. How universal can they be, if a large proportion of the world’s population rejects the very idea of nations working together, or assigns it low importance? Does this not leave would-be global legislators either as totalitarian overlords, or as merely another food tribe, albeit one with loftier aspirations than most?

What is needed is a way of reconciling two necessities: global cooperation to tackle global challenges, and smaller groupings, whether that be nations or sectors or other alliances, in order to provide the sense of meaningful belonging which is so vital to us all. Both sets of values must be honoured, and brought into relationship with each other. And surely the onus is on the global legislators to accommodate the subgroups of the food system, since they are the ones who claim to have the overview which serves everyone’s interests.

That means showing more humility than the EAT-Lancet Commission has so far displayed. Leaders need to earn the trust of those who they hope will follow them, or else they become dictators – a charge that the law-takers of this new global word order have been only too quick to make. Anyone who wants to create a new paradigm for food must listen more and decree less; grandiose references to the ‘Great Food Transformation’ or ‘a food system reboot for the Anthropocene’ are not the way to reach out to sceptics.

But more fundamentally, there will almost certainly be important lessons to learn from the EAT-Lancet refuseniks. There is more than one narrative here. Just because we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it doesn’t follow that basing our diets on carbon footprint calculations will allow us to move in a straight line down the graph to salvation. Maybe we need to build more human cohesion first; maybe things will have to get worse before they can get better. And the story will play out in the practical details of what is actually happening on (and below) the ground.

Food is part of a large interlocking system of transport, jobs, settlement patterns, soils, water and lifestyles, and that is hard to fix it at a merely technical level. It needs another approach, based on understanding how food connects people and studying the role it plays in different societies. Why exactly do people eat the diets they do, often in the face of evidence that they are unhealthy for people and planet? Given the recommendations of the report, we need especially to ask what we can learn from our long tradition of beef and sheep farming in the UK.

Humans belong in social groups, and connection with others is fundamental to our well-being. Some people like to pioneer change, while others prefer to maintain the status quo, and we need both types with their special gifts (and of course most of us are a bit of both). In a world where innovation is glorified, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of tradition as well, not so much in the spirit of striking a balance as of recognizing that we can’t have one without the other.

EAT-Lancet has crystallized a set of pioneering views that is well worth listening to. But their global overview must connect with the concerns of the grassroots. They open the door to that when they note the need to ‘match food production with land capability’, accepting for instance that some land is best kept under grass for the sake of soil structure and biodiversity. This is why Beef + Lamb New Zealand, somewhat surprisingly, welcomed the report as an opportunity. Let us build on that and take the enquiry a stage deeper.

Edited on 13.4.2019 to add illustration.

Cleaning nitrates out of our rivers is everybody’s business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nourishing the struggle, from protest camp to retreat centre

Climate breakdown, plastics in the sea and the impacts of austerity are all prompting  people to take radical action. It’s exciting to be part of a new future, whether that’s setting up social enterprises, joining protests or working with the casualties of public spending cuts. But it isn’t easy, and alongside the inspiring success stories there are many people who are burnt out and disillusioned.

How can we nourish the inner life that is so often depleted by fighting the system? That is the inspiration behind a new retreat centre in mid Wales. Just over a year ago, Ru Raynor was cooking meals for 30 on a Rayburn at Grow Heathrow, the protest camp which has occupied the site of the proposed third runway since 2010. Now she is cooking instead for people who need a break from busy lives and who are alive to the value of contemplation as a counterbalance to activism.

Noddfa Dawel, or Tranquil Retreat, is only a few miles from Aberystwyth

noddfa dawel

but sits in a secluded valley where sheep and red kites far outnumber people. The building, a modern prefab which formerly housed a therapeutic centre for people recovering from drug and alcohol dependency, has a quiet welcoming presence.

It’s a place of simplicity, with no television, no WiFi and no work to be done beyond a little washing up.

“Boredom and downtime are absolutely encouraged,” runs the countercultural message on the website. Art materials, musical instruments and books are readily available and there are wonderful walks to be had, from the stream on the valley bottom through woods to the open vistas of the hillside up above.  But the stillness of the place was my strongest impression.

woman with hens

Ru at Grow Heathrow

It is a world away from Grow Heathrow, but it is very much born out of Ru’s three years at the squat, which formed in the aftermath of the first Climate Camp held at Heathrow in 2007. Although Grow Heathrow is a protest against airport expansion, it also stands for something very positive: the use of high-quality agricultural land to feed people. There is a strong market gardening tradition around the local village of Sipson, the ‘pantry of London’, which once had orchards, a jam factory and greenhouses.

“Local residents support the camp because they don’t want to lose their homes, and they value the area’s market gardening history,” Ru explains. “So we picked up on that and food became central to what we did.”

At the camp, she learned how to grow food in raised beds, polytunnels and glasshouses. Much of what they ate though came from London, where residents would salvage waste food from dumpsters. She remembers containers full of not-quite-perfect tropical fruit at the Western International Market, and the bounty to be had outside Whole Foods in Kensington.

Being off-grid, with solar and wind power, Grow Heathrow is an experiment in a different way of living. “We would have to chop wood for the Rayburn before we could cook dinner, and we had to be creative and make use of whatever food we happened to have. It was a challenge, but it was fun. Before, a salad to me would have meant some iceberg lettuce and half a tomato, but at Grow Heathrow we would make great bowls of homegrown leaves, with marigold petals and borage flowers, a real celebration.”

Food is important at Noddfa Dawel too. Ru grows salads and vegetables in the garden and in a neighbour’s polytunnel, supplemented with a wholefood order. The menu is vegan and gluten-free. “That’s a diet that most people can eat, and it’s important to me that guests can relax and enjoy their food. I don’t want anyone to feel like they are an exception or have to justify a special diet,” she says. Meals at Noddfa Dawel are abundant and varied, and Ru is adept too at weaving leftovers into the next meal. What doesn’t get eaten by guests goes into the compost or is fed to the neighbour’s chickens.

Ru is clear that the environmental movement needs some TLC. Grow Heathrow is a busy place, being a meeting place for activists and a base for environmental action, which has its plus and minus points. “It’s exciting to live like that, changing the world through collective action, but it’s challenging too. You get conflicts when people are living together so closely, and not under the most comfortable conditions. Now I want to provide some respite for people who are working on the frontline of social change.”

You don’t have to be an environmental activist to stay at Noddfa Dawel. Past guests have also included writers and artists looking for a quiet place to work, and a social worker, and Ru would like to hire the centre out as a venue for group activities too. But its inspiration is in the value of silence, space and quiet companionship as a way to come up with a positive response to the urgent demands of a crazy world. Who doesn’t need space sometimes “to reconnect with nature and the self”?

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

Ths has also been published on Food Manifesto Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overshoot: why food security must start with human dignity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soup and success: how food gives young people skills for the future

It’s mid-morning at the Llandrindod Pupil Referral Unit. A sleepy-faced teenager shuffles through the main classroom, calling over her shoulder that she’s “off to water the plants”. We follow her outside, where a trough of parsley, basil, coriander and oregano stands against a sunny wall, together with neatly aligned pots of strawberries and some pea plants that are bearing their first pods. She picks one and tastes it.

“Every day they go out there, they water those plants, they care for them,” says Linda Gutierrez, one of the teachers at the Unit. She explains that the produce finds its way into the meals that staff and students share at the centre, but it’s clear that the benefits of gardening and cooking go far beyond producing a few herbs. It is about nurturing young people who are falling through the cracks and drawing them back into shared activity with others.

ladling soup

Food is an important part of life at the PRU, which takes young people who are not able to study in mainstream education because of emotional and behavioural problems. “Some of these children have never sat at a table to eat properly – they don’t have that interaction with their family,” says Linda, who works hard to improve their social skills. “They’re not very good at joining in, so we eat together, we cook together, so they’re getting that social interaction. You learn a lot about a person by having those sitting-down chats over a meal, and they learn a lot about you.”

Linda’s affection for her charges, and her pride in them, shines through as she shares stories of their quirks and breakthroughs. Life at the PRU however is not just about providing a substitute family life for vulnerable young people. Like anybody else, they need an education and preparation for employment. The staff therefore build on the role that food already plays in the Unit and teach a Food Technology GCSE. They also have their learners take part in a Welsh Baccalaureate Enterprise and Employability Challenge, which involves developing and marketing a food product suitable for sale in a farm shop.

Linda explains the process. Working as a team – numbers fluctuate at the PRU, but for this challenge there were just three of them – they visited Penpont farm shop, Llandrindod Market and other places to research ingredients and choose recipes. They came up with Flash Soups – ‘a flash of energy’ – and designed a logo, packaging, a sell-by date, allergen information and an (imaginary) social media campaign. They held taste tests, tweaked the recipes and the shared the final results at a Young Carers’ social evening.

She shows me the videos they made as part of their Welsh Baccalaureate accreditation. One girl reflects on the tasting sessions, explaining with teenage clarity her rejection of all blended soups and weighing up the relationship between appearance and taste. Another has a more commercial eye, and is interested in how the team worked together: “The one thing that stood out doing this project was that if people were absent from a meeting we had to delay making important decisions…The business world is not as easy as I thought”.

As an add-on to the soup challenge, Linda arranged for them to take an online Food Hygiene certificate. This gave them extra confidence – it’s a qualification that not many teenagers have – and it even enabled some of them to find part-time work in local cafes. And of course, they learned a lot about nutrition and how to cook healthy food for themselves, the life skills which Linda and her team instill “by stealth”.

The plan is now to build on the challenge for next year by growing their own vegetables at their other site in Brecon. Through a skype link we talk to her colleague Terry Holmes, who takes us on a virtual tour of the new garden. Raised beds are planted with tomatoes, savoy cabbages, courgettes, snap peas, carrots, beetroot, radish, red onions and chives, and there’s a compost heap waiting for the peelings. The plants are still small and full of promise in the freshness of mid-June.

Here we meet a third student who has been working on a planting plan. He speaks in monosyllables but it’s clear how much he cares about the garden; he’s been googling to find out what’s in season and has his eye on some giant pumpkin seed, which Linda promises to help him find.

courgetteThe PRU’s food activities also give it links with the wider community. Staff and pupils have visited various gardens in the Social Farms and Gardens network, including Ashfield Community Enterprise near Llandrindod, to learn new skills. Linda has also signed the garden up for the RHS school gardening scheme, which provides information sheets, teaching ideas and advice.

As she says, “That’s what’s so nice about working in a PRU. We can be really creative, because school doesn’t work for these children. We still have to educate them, but we can find other ways to get their interest”.

Terry sums it up, referring to the youngster we just met: “We said to him only this morning, ‘How does it feel when you’ve grown something from a seed?’ And he said, ‘it’s a nice feeling, to nurture something and keep watering it every day, to see something grow’ – and you can’t believe how much the courgettes have grown!”. The same could be said for the young people themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Local food: reinventing the village shop

First published on Food Manifesto Wales

At the chill cabinet of a small shop in mid Wales, a customer reaches for a bottle of wine then does a double take. “Wine from Wales?” she exclaims, reading the label that announces it is from a vineyard near Aberaeron. “Is it OK to take to a party?” She puts it back.

cletwr cafe staffShe might have picked up many other items of locally produced food at the Cletwr Shop, which is a social enterprise on the busy A487 between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth. They sell vegetables from local smallholdings, seasonal surpluses from people’s gardens and their own jams and chutneys made on the premises, besides the usual branded products. There’s even a choice of Welsh gins: Da Mhile from the Teifi Valley, or one from the Dyfi Distillery near Corris.

But Cletwr is not just a delicatessen for the tourist trail. Here you will also find baked beans, white sliced bread and ready meals, because for many people this is their local shop, and that’s what they expect to find. The vegan cheese substitutes in the fridge rub shoulders with their dairy counterparts, and if you’re looking for a toothbrush you can choose between the wooden eco version or the usual plastic.

“We want this to be a shop for everybody, so we cater for all tastes,” explains Nigel Callaghan, Chair of Cwmni Cymunedol Cletwr, the community business which opened its doors in 2013, a couple of years after the original family-owned garage and village shop closed. “At the same time, we’re working as part of a wide group of retailers, producers and suppliers in the Dyfi Biosphere (and beyond) to promote local produce, and through that to develop and strengthen the local economy.”

The shop, which recently moved to purpose-built new premises thanks to grants from the Big Lottery, Welsh Government, the EU and others, does much more than sell food. There’s a busy café and a programme of events, from Welsh classes and ‘knit and natter’ to talks from the RSPB and sessions on local history. They host a fuel syndicate and they organize volunteer litter-picking sessions.

It’s run by a mixture of 18 paid staff (mostly part-time) and around 50 volunteers, and it’s constantly responding to new opportunities. A charging point for electric cars is to be installed soon, they’re planting a garden in the grounds, they’re about to join a toilet-twinning scheme – sponsoring a toilet in a developing country – and they’re looking into further services that they could deliver to the local community.

What Nigel is perhaps proudest of, though, is the opportunities the business provides for young people. “We invite school pupils to volunteer here for a while, and then we employ them. We put about £15k a year into the local economy that way. And we teach them the soft skills of employability, things like turning up to work on time and taking responsibility.”

Cletwr is introducing a new generation of youngsters to volunteering. “We have a lively group of volunteers here, young and old working together,” says Nigel. “Our board has renewed itself completely over the last three or four years as new people have been attracted to it, so we think we have got a good model that will last.”

It’s one of a number of community projects that have sprung up in Wales in recent years. Others are Siop y Parc, a community-owned shop in Blaenplwyf, Ceredigion and Llety Arall, a social enterprise that is building holiday accommodation in Caernarfon.

“We’ve seen the benefits that this shop has brought to the local community,” says Nigel. “We’d encourage others to do the same. All you need is a few keen people and you can bring a community back to life. There’s help and advice available – we talked to the Plunkett Foundation, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and others – and the rewards are huge.”