Once in a lifetime: Bringing food and farming closer together in Wales

This was first published on the Food Manifesto Wales website.

Our departure from the EU provides an opportunity for citizens, groups and organisations to bring about deep change in the food and farming system in Wales, and the UK. Let’s put food at the heart of this transformation.  

When we leave the EU, the familiar system of farm subsidies will come to an end and it will be up to the governments in London and Cardiff to devise a new system of public support.

The UK government is working on an Agriculture Bill which is out for consultation until May. It is mainly concerned with England, but it does contain a section on frameworks for dealing with the devolved nations. This will determine the regulatory baselines and the power that the Welsh government will have to make its own policy.

Speaking at an NFU conference in Birmingham in February, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, set forth five principles that will guide a new Welsh land management policy.

The first four are: to keep farmers on the land, to ensure a prosperous agricultural sector, to ensure that public spending delivers public goods (meaning environmental benefits) and to make the support system accessible to all.

Bringing up the rear at number five is this:

“We must not turn our backs on food production. Where sustainable production is viable, we must help our farmers compete in a global marketplace… Food is core to Welsh farming values and is emblematic of our nation. We already have a thriving food and drink industry and this is the time to advance it.”

It is good to see the link being made between farming and the food industry. The Welsh Government’s Food and Drink Action Plan for 2014-2020, Towards Sustainable Growth, recognizes that 170,000 people are employed by the food and drink supply chain in Wales and that it is an important contributor to exports, jobs and general prosperity.

However, food is much more important than this, as the government’s own underlying Food and Drink Strategy for 2014-2020, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, makes clear. It is also about health, culture, education, food security, environmental sustainability and community development.

So let’s not talk only about jobs and exports, important though those are. Food is central to the way we hold together as a society and feed our young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable. It is the foundation on which future generations will literally grow.

As we embark on a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ to set a new course for land management and all that flows from that, it is imperative we take a broad approach, recognising the complex relationships between our food, farming, society, economy and environment.

A systems approach to food and farming

Let’s look at a few things we might want to do if we thought farming was, at least in part, about producing food for the people of Wales.

For one thing, we would align farming with public health as well as the environment, so that we grow food that meets our nutritional needs. That would mean putting more land under horticulture, in particular. This is the focus of the Peas Please campaign, which brings together government, farming, supermarkets and caterers in a concerted effort to have the UK eat more vegetables. We might also grow more grain for human consumption.

We would use the power of the public purse to support this new model of farming, getting Welsh-grown food into public sector catering, such as schools and hospitals. Professor Kevin Morgan in his 2015 Senedd paper Good Food for All enlarges on this point and calls for a programme to train procurement staff in ‘values-for-money’ purchasing which stimulates sustainable food production and underpins education and community development.

We would also want to make sure that the public, and especially young people, understand how food is produced, so that they can support nature-friendly, high welfare farming with their votes and their shopping choices.

That would mean supporting links between farms and schools, backed up with gardening and cookery to help young people make the connection between nature, food and human health.

It would also mean supporting food festivals to tell the story of farming (and fishing), as well as promoting community gardens which introduce growing skills to so many people.

All this would encourage the public to place a higher value on food generally, and to waste less of it. It would create a climate where people were willing to pay more for high quality produce, and so generate more rewards for the people who work so hard to produce it and bring it to our plates.

Finally, we would want to enshrine the inseparability of food, farming, the environment, health and culture in a new alignment of organizations and policies that ensures that we gain as much benefit as possible from joining the dots. Local groupings such as Food Cardiff are an example of what can be done; we need to work nationally as well.

It is human nature to divide into competing interest groups, or siloes that ignore each other, and so we need to make a positive effort to work for unity and understanding. We call on the Welsh Government to engage with civil society and business and unlock the power of food to bring us together into a new vision of a healthy nation.

Llun/picture: Anthony Pugh

Relocalizing the food system: could schools be the place to start?

This post was written for the Wales Food Manifesto (but I changed the title)

We often hear how young people have become disconnected from food. They don’t know where it comes from and they can’t cook a meal. Of course that matters and we need to do something about it, but if we turn the problem around and ask how young people can help shape the food system, we have a much more interesting question.

Let’s visit a classroom in rural west Wales, where a class of 13- and 14-year-olds are studying local and global food as part of their geography course. They check over the menu from a local restaurant and discuss the arguments for regional food: it’s fresh, it boosts the rural economy and creates jobs, and it saves on transport and therefore carbon emissions. But it may be expensive, and going to the supermarket is so much easier.

Also in the classroom is a dairy farmer, we’ll call him Neil, here to talk about his work and help with their discussions. The pupils have been preparing for his visit with help from their teacher, who has helped them get a picture of what farmers do and think up some questions for him. She has also had to help them over a few prejudices absorbed from the media.

Although this is a rural area, most of the pupils have no direct experience of farming, and they are curious to meet someone from such a different walk of life.  The fact that Neil is an ex-pupil of the school, and that most of them presumably consume dairy products on a daily basis, only underlines the gulf in understanding that has grown up between farmers and the public.

Neil is apprehensive. He tweets: “About to talk to a classroom of year 9 pupils… #lambtotheslaughter”. It’s a while since he was last in a classroom and he is not sure what to expect, but he is interested to take the temperature of public opinion.

Standing in the front of the curious teenagers, he talks about the family farm where he produces milk, beef and animal feed. He explains the double impact of Brexit: the loss of European subsidies, without which (unless the UK government picks up the tab) many farmers might go under, and the change to our trading relationship with the EU, which could deprive farmers of a big chunk of their market.

One pupil ventures a question: has he diversified? Yes, he has converted farm buildings into holiday cottages. He has also looked into bottling his own milk, which would mean that he could sell it for £1 a litre instead of 24p. The trouble is that he would then have the job of marketing it himself which carries a high risk. You can’t stockpile milk till the price goes up.

So he goes for the simpler option of selling his milk to a big dairy, his animals to an abattoir, and grain to an animal feed mill. His produce therefore bypasses the high-end tourist restaurant with its venison and crabs and leaves the county, along with the profits from the various supermarkets where most people do their shopping.

As the discussion continues, it becomes clear that the pupils and the farmer have made the same deal: commodity farming and supermarkets, rather than the local diversified food chain so beloved of the tourists. It falls short of the ideals we have been discussing, but it’s easy to see why.

There are powerful forces of policy, convenience and lifestyle that have taken our food systems inexorably away from labour-intensive mixed farming, small herds, specialist shops and weekly markets, to the system we know today. And Britain has since the industrial revolution had a policy of cheap food for the cities, which has made it hard for us to develop a food system that is flourishing in its own right, and means that Brexit could produce a step change in the wrong direction.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. If there were the demand and the infrastructure – and of course the willingness to pay – farmers like Neil could grow at least some food for local markets, insulating themselves from the ups and downs of global trade and becoming less reliant on subsidies.

Research suggests that this might not be an impossible dream. As Amber Wheeler found with her 2013 study Could the St. Davids peninsula feed itself? local food self-sufficiency is theoretically feasible in at least one part of rural Wales (and see Simon Fairlie’s Can Britain feed itself). We might not aspire to such hard-core self-sufficiency, but it is surely worth exploring.

To reshape our food system so that farmers were supported by local markets would take concerted action by policy makers, government, business and the public. It would require a very strong motivation to reverse decades of urbanization and globalization.

But then, isn’t that sort of collaboration exactly what the Well-being of Future Generations Act is supposed to promote? And a recent report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy on the implications of Brexit for agriculture calls for long-term collaboration between government, business and others to build the agri-food sector and increase the resilience of rural communities.

We didn’t come up with any answers in that geography lesson, but the question hung in the air. Maybe our young people can change the world, given the right opportunities. Maybe our schools can be a crucible in which new visions can develop.

Afterwards, a relieved Neil tweets again. “Really enjoyed talking to the pupils this morning. Future’s bright”. There may be challenges, but if we face them together, who knows what we might achieve. I think we all felt the excitement of new possibilities.

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“Rather than an argument, we can have a conversation”: How food draws us together in the vision for a healthy society

This article was originally published by the Common Cause Foundation 

When the idea of a food manifesto for Wales was first mooted some years ago, I was sceptical. With so many factions in the food world, it was hard to see how there could be any meaningful alliance that didn’t simply add to the confusion.

You can slice the cake many ways. One is the division between ‘big food’ – the supermarkets with their global supply chains, the agrochemical companies and others – and ‘small food’, the world of the community garden, the farmers’ market and the artisan baker. One side is apparently only concerned with profit, while the other is a niche pursuit that avoids the real challenges.

In parallel with this is the ideological conflict between ‘food security’, which usually means increasing food production using technologies such as genetic modification, and ‘food sovereignty’, which asks how power is shared in the food system and recommends reducing waste and distributing food more fairly.

Then there are the groups that simply don’t talk to each other. Economists, for instance, like to see the food industry adding value to raw materials and creating jobs, while public health officials would rather we ate less processed food, which tends to contain too much sugar and salt. Thus government policies can pull in opposite directions.

It was in an attempt to map the mental landscape of the food sector that a group of us at Aberystwyth University (later, Bangor University) led a project we called Food Values in 2015-16. We held a series of events around Wales, mostly based on shared meals, and talked to people about what food meant to them.

We did indeed find revealing differences in people’s values. But what was much more interesting, after many conversations with students, pensioners, refugees, homeless people, government officials, farmers and others, was how much people agreed on some basics.

Just about everyone expressed how much food meant to them personally, and how important it was that everyone should have good food to eat. There was concern that the modern drive for convenience is leading to a loss of social connection, which interestingly enough is echoed in the Food Standards Agency’s report Our Food Future.

It bears repeating how powerful this collective wish is. In comparison, money and technology take a back seat; it doesn’t ‘all come down to price in the end’, as we are so often told.

Seen in this way, the question is not ‘can we afford better food and social justice?’ but ‘how can we organise the economy so that it is in service to human happiness?’ This very general question is particularly powerful in the case of food, which has a way of reminding of us our dependence on each other and the physical world.

So strong is this wish for a healthy, fair food system that it isn’t necessary to iron out all the differences. You can be working for a multinational food company or a community garden and still want to see children eating more vegetables and less sugar, and old people sitting down to a meal with friends.

Rather than an argument, we can have a conversation, as we join our different perspectives and explore how to overcome challenges and bring about the happy, healthy society we would all like to see.

And so earlier this month we held a meeting to share a draft Welsh Food Manifesto based on citizenship and shared values. The enthusiasm was palpable as representatives from farming, public health, school meals catering, food waste groups, community gardeners, agricultural scientists and others came together to see what could be done.

It’s an act of faith, but it might work, because it runs with the grain of human nature and so taps into fresh energy. As a friend of mind remarked about the community meals she regularly attends: “I love coming here because I really do want to work for a better world. Some friends think I’m being unrealistic and there’s no point trying, but I feel normal here, I fit in.”

If you would like to get involved with the Manifesto and help shape the food system in Wales, you can get in touch via: hello [at] foodmanifesto.wales. 

Manifesto for food to nourish a healthy society

This article was published in the Western Mail on 13 February 2018

A report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy published last month forecasts tough times ahead for Welsh farming. It recommends, amongst other things, investment in longer-term partnerships between government, food retailers and others to grow business networks across Wales.

Meanwhile, in other circles, there is concern that the food industry is suffering from a skills shortage (and an image problem) and that it needs to do more to tackle public health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

Elsewhere again, there are social concerns. Increasing demand for food banks has led to the formation by Welsh Government of a Food Poverty Network. Children are growing up in a world where food comes from the supermarket shelf, and there is an epidemic of loneliness: people of all ages who eat alone, and not by choice.

It seems that the crisis facing farming is part of a much bigger picture of social disconnection from where our food comes from, where competing points of view struggle for air time in the rush to promote simple solutions. The pressures of Brexit only serve to intensify the discord.

But if the threat to farming subsidies and export markets provides a painful stimulus to action, it also gives us permission to think more deeply than before and question received truths. Discussions about food readily reveal ideological splits – the current debate about meat-eating being just one of them – but food by its very nature also brings people together.

While we may have very different views on what constitutes sustainable food production and makes for a nutritious diet, we can nevertheless agree on some shared values. We surely all want to see a Wales where everyone has enough to eat, food is of high quality, and we are fair in our dealings with each other.

Fortunately, we have some new structures to support a fresh approach to food. One is the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies to act in a more collaborative way with business and civil society, and thus gives NGOs a new opportunity to step up and be heard. Another is the Assembly’s Rethinking Food in Wales consultation (closed, but still in progress).

There are also many encouraging initiatives that use food to cross sectors and silos. The Nature Friendly Farming Network honours the unity of food production and care for the environment. Food Cardiff brings together the public sector, academia and community groups to tackle problems such as school holiday hunger. The UK campaign Peas Please includes supermarkets, farmers, caterers and others in a bid to increase vegetable production and consumption.

There is a bigger question here. Could it be that the future of food and farming is not simply a practical challenge, to be sorted by new partnerships, but also a means to creating a more connected society and thus tackling many of our social ills? Food creates a human connection which is ultimately closer to most people’s hearts than money. We want a thriving economy, but it should be in support of human happiness, not the other way around.

That is the thinking behind the Wales Food Manifesto. The process began in 2015, with the support of Sustainable Futures Commissioner Peter Davies and former environment minister Jane Davidson, and can be described as a conversation that is gaining momentum. The aim is to develop food policy from the bottom up, with regular blog posts on our website from individuals and organizations.

Last week the Manifesto took another step with a public meeting at the National Botanic Garden, where speakers from the RSPB, NFU, Transition Bro Gwaun, Wright’s Food Emporium, Just Food Abergavenny and Food Cardiff set out their aspirations and considered how a national food network or alliance could support them to be more effective, for the good of everyone.

Taking part in the discussions which followed were representatives from different parts of the food chain from field to fork, as well as groups with a community or health focus. Some were senior members of staff in national organizations, some were self-employed people taking a day away from their businesses, while others were volunteers making inspiring contributions to their local communities through gardening, shared meals and debates.

We need all points of view to get the full picture, and last Friday was just a beginning. We won’t agree on every detail of the perfect food system – far from it – but by coming together to learn from each other, we can find some new ways forward.

Mwy o wybodaeth:  www.maniffestobwyd.cymru – more information at www.foodmanifesto.wales

Let’s not put food and farming on the curriculum

I’ve often wished I could have a fiver for every time someone says that we need to do more to teach children where their food comes from. And I’d like another fiver, please, for every time someone concludes the conversation by saying the government should ‘put cookery/gardening/farming on the curriculum’, as if that would put everything right.

Why? Because the absence of cookery and food production from the curriculum is a symptom of a wider social problem. Our entire society has lost touch with where food comes from, and what it really costs – so why should we expect schools to be any different? This is something we all need to do together.

Requiring schools to teach gardening will not be much use when we have a generation of adults who regard the soil with suspicion and have no idea how to grow food. Cookery teachers are in short supply. And farms tend to be out of sight and out of mind. It will take much more than an edict from above to turn this problem around.

In any case, Successful Futures, the new Welsh school curriculum, won’t be like that. As Prof Graham Donaldson explained at a conference in Cardiff last month, it will not be driven by content, or even skills.

It will be about the qualities that young people must have if they are to cope in an unpredictable future. Even computer programming, or coding, the latest exciting skill to hit the classroom, may not stand the test of time. And let’s not get started on handwriting.

Instead, schools will be given more powers to decide how they achieve the four principles of Successful Futures. They are to be ready for anything, as follows:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives;
  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work;
  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world;
  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

After the constriction of the curriculum in recent years, this is a breath of fresh air, and food education delivers on all four points. But it won’t be easy. The plan relies on teachers stepping forward as leaders of culture change, when they work in a setting that is risk-averse and the school day is already crammed with duties.

School inspections are a prime source of pressure, and high expectations from government and a consumer mentality on the part of the public lie behind that. So how can we have ‘experimentation without anxiety’, as one teacher put it?

The hierarchy of the education system can be powerfully inhibiting for those who are inside it, affecting pupils and teachers alike. It is hard to see how it can change on its own. But if teachers can form alliances with outside providers who are free of those particular pressures, they might find fresh inspiration for their professional development.

This is perhaps the real significance of food education. Just as pupils who visit a farm or do some gardening enjoy release from the constraints of the classroom and learn in new ways, so teachers can benefit too. In the natural world, or even in a factory or other workplace, teachers can relate to their pupils in new ways.

Different values are engaged in these settings, where educational achievement in the narrow sense is not the primary focus and instead exploration and curiosity are encouraged. There is a natural democracy too in gardening, farming and cookery which cuts through the individualism of modern life and encourages a more collective response.

Meanwhile, if those of us who have things to offer schools can ourselves learn to work cooperatively with an eye to the bigger picture rather than our own particular enthusiasms, we might help a new model of education to emerge.

models of cooperation

The talk is of culture change. But that calls for new structures to prompt different ways of working, and there are some encouraging models we could build on. The Pembrokeshire Outdoor Schools Scheme, for instance, brings together a wide partnership to get children learning outdoors, including farm visits and school gardens.  It  actively works with teachers to develop new approaches.

The Dyfi Biosphere Education Group does a similar job in the Machynlleth area (though it is currently without funding) while at a national level, the Real World Learning Cymru partnership is another route through which the interests of food production can be supported in schools.

Then we have the Healthy Schools Schemes, Eco Schools and other agencies that give schools valuable specialist help. But perhaps the most important source of support for food education is going to have to come from outside the already over-stretched education world.

We need businesses and community volunteers to step in. The food industry could tackle its skills shortage as well as supporting education by working more closely with schools. Other businesses can sponsor activities as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility. Grandparents and retired people can be key to keeping a school garden going.

There is a crucial role here for government in convening discussions locally, and in funding training and support for such new approaches.  That will cost. But we have to make it work somehow, because there are few things more fundamental than food, and if we get that right, the benefits spread far and wide.

The new curriculum and the Well-being of Future Generations Act both provide opportunities for joined-up local action that makes a difference. Let’s make the most of them.

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Land, food and people: lessons from the Isle of Man

Originally published by Wales Food Manifesto

Bees hover over marigolds, cornflowers and yarrow in full bloom around the edges of a field of beans which stand blackened and dry, ready for harvest. Beyond, the land slopes down to the valley bottom, where small herds of South Devon cattle are grazing the species-rich wetland meadows. Hedgerows abundant with blackberries, hawthorn and guelder rose divide Guilcagh farm up into small parcels, where Jo Crellin also grows wheat for milling and hay for the horses of the nearby riding school. This is the Isle of Man, where the sunny low-lying northern tip, in the rain shadow of Snaefell, is well suited to cereal cultivation.

We’re on a walk organized by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, and the co-existence of food production and nature is certainly a strong theme of the discussion. There is also a historical dimension: archaeological evidence suggests that people were growing wheat here  almost 6000 years ago. But it’s not just about a timeless rural idyll. Back at the farm, Paul Fletcher, owner of the cows we admired earlier and the new Chair of the Island’s Agricultural Marketing Society, explains his vision for a food chain that connects people to the land not just through the food they eat, but also through knowledge and understanding.

“We want to see personal connections up and down the food chain,” Paul says. “Retailers, food businesses and farmers need to meet so that they understand each other’s work and build trust in the food system. When you buy produce from Manx farms you become part of a unity of people and nature, and we want to make that easier for people to understand.”

It’s a familiar theme: the public has become disconnected from the land, and food has become a mere commodity to be traded like any other. Telling the story of food, by making the food chain visible and personal, doesn’t just secure the livelihoods of farmers and enrich the tourist experience; it can also help to reinvigorate a sense of community, place and belonging. This is a quality which it can be difficult to articulate, let alone assign a monetary value to, but which is readily conveyed in the context of farmers markets, school visits to farms and farm walks such as this.

genuine IoM meatEvery society has its own take on the story of its homegrown food. The Isle of Man has some defining characteristics which are unique to a small self-governing island with its own quirky fauna (it lacks badgers, foxes, moles and toads, but has a population of feral wallabies), and yet are instructive to us in Wales and beyond. At 32 miles long and 14 miles wide – which is one-third the size of Ceredigion, which it resembles with its rolling hills and fishing villages, but with a slightly bigger population – it corresponds roughly to the area covered by a market town and its hinterland, which is what many of us have in mind when we talk about ‘local’ food.

At the same time it has a national government with powers that Wales is still dreaming of, and it’s outside the EU, although in practice very tied to it by trading arrangements. That means for instance that it finances its own farming subsidies out of domestic taxation, it has fixed the retail price of home-produced milk at 60p a pint and it owns all the land over 200m. Meanwhile the obstacle of the Irish Sea, which is reckoned to add 20% to the cost of goods that are ferried across, is a powerful stimulus to local food production and contributes to the island’s diversified farming system, which supports a creamery, an abattoir and a flour mill, besides supplying eggs and vegetables.

It’s also been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere region, which is simultaneously an accreditation for the Manx balance between human activity and the natural world, and a stimulus to develop new approaches to sustainable development. As such, it is part of an international partnership of reserves which includes such iconic sites as Ayers Rock and Yellowstone National Park – and in Wales, the Dyfi Biosphere centred around Machynlleth – with a remit for educational exchanges and research.

The Dyfi Biosphere, which spans three local authorities (Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Powys), is dominated by beef and sheep and has few opportunities so far for creating branded products for export, but the cultural conditions are not so different. Both Biospheres have a Celtic language and rich cultural history, both have strong farming traditions, and both have a strong sense of place and family roots. Both also benefit from a dynamic population of incomers who are attracted to the natural beauty and atmosphere of the western margins and ready to envision a bright future.

As we in Wales face the uncertainties of leaving the European Union we have an opportunity to ask ourselves what future we want for our food system, and we have much to gain by talking to others who are grappling with the same challenges. It’s a time for building new partnerships, and the Isle of Man and the network of Biosphere reserves can offer Wales a new perspective on the relationship between land and people.  It’s worth further exploration, as we transcend our local identities to find the universal values of place-based development.

Where the food industry meets the public

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridging the disconnect

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

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

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

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

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

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

chefs serving soup

Turning consumers into food citizens

This article was originally published by the Sustainable Food Trust

Some words are so powerful that we don’t even notice the effect they have, because they frame our thinking so completely. One such word is the term ‘consumer’. We are all so used to hearing about consumer choice and consumer rights, as well as being bombarded with advertising and images of wealth in the media that drive consumerism, that we accept this limited view of ourselves as merely people who buy things. Instead of being active citizens who participate in society at large, we find our value in the status that our lifestyle gives us. Of course, consumers can use their purchasing power positively for change, but it is still a narrow perception of our potential, and one which does more damage than we might think.

A 2012 study called Cuing Consumerism found that encouraging people to think of themselves as consumers rather than citizens, for instance by showing them pictures of luxury goods or merely using the word ‘consumer’, made them less likely to act in a cooperative way and even evoked feelings of depression and anxiety. The implication is that referring to the public as consumers, and filling our public spaces with advertising, may be creating a society that is unhappy and ill-equipped to collaborate on the challenges which it faces.

It also follows that if we could be freed from this narrow conception of who we are, and become ‘people’ or ‘citizens’ instead, we might reform how we see ourselves and unlock fresh energy and vision. The New Citizenship Project is a social innovation company set up in 2014 to catalyse this process and build a more participatory world. It recently partnered with the Food Ethics Council and other organizations including the RSPB, the Coop and the Food Standards Agency to explore how the story of the self-interested, passive consumer shows up in the UK food system, and what a shift into active citizenship might mean.

The Food Citizenship report documents many encouraging examples of this approach in the food system. While the power of the consumer is limited to making choices about what to buy, a citizen will feel more responsibility for how food is produced, not merely reading the label but enquiring more deeply into the food chain. Open Farm Sunday, for instance, allows the public to meet and engage with farmers face to face, going a step beyond merely exhorting them to blindly back British farming, while food hubs such as the Food Assembly allow people to shape their local food system in partnership with producers. The People’s Food Policy, for England, takes this approach to its logical conclusion, giving the public a role normally reserved for government.

As we switch our mindset from consumer to citizen, we unlock big changes. The report describes how the language of serving, policing, informing and competing gives way to a new vocabulary: facilitating, enabling, engaging and collaborating. Customers become partners and NGOs don’t lobby so much as build movements. Vexing questions are reframed: instead of asking how food can be made affordable for all – pushing prices down and devaluing it – we ask why so many people are hungry and demoralised, making it difficult for them to be proactive citizens who help shape the food system. Recognizing that basic inequality, we can tackle it at its root.

The shift into food citizenship is well illustrated by the public response to food waste. From the point of view of the consumer, there is hardly a problem at all, although government programmes may encourage us to change our habits. Meanwhile, for business and government, it’s an unintended consequence of an otherwise very effective food supply chain, a loose end that needs to be tied up, most contentiously by using it to solve another modern scandal, food poverty.

But the citizen in us feels outrage, strong enough to wake us up from the trance of consumerism. Food waste, we realize as we contemplate mountains of rotting produce, is not just profits thrown away. It is an insult to the workers who grew it, the people who could have eaten it, the animals that died to produce it and the wildlife that its cultivation displaced. It is a symbol of the way that we have put profits before people, and a negation of our humanity. In response, community groups have sprung up with their own solutions, making a stand for values of care and justice.

One such project is the Brixton Community Fridge, which allows businesses and households alike to pass surplus food to a good home. Others, such as the Transition Bro Gwaun food surplus café in FishguardAber Food Surplus in Aberystwyth and a global network of Real Junk Food cafes, make creative use of surplus food – mostly perishable items that need to be eaten promptly – to power community development, not merely passing it on to local charities but also using it for community meals and cafes that draw people together for discussion and friendship.

They may measure their results in terms of tonnes of food saved from landfill, or carbon dioxide emissions averted, but their real significance is arguably the way that that they transform our relationship to food. The vegetables, fruit and bread that they collect are no longer consumer items, with all the associations of choice and profit that implies, but nor are they waste, and so we come to them with fresh eyes. For a moment, as a crate of carrots is handed over from the supermarket or as bowls of soup are ladled out at the community meal, we see food as the gift that it always was, and ourselves as human beings, equal in our dignity and vulnerability. Then a new conversation starts.

Sat around the table, breaking bread with our neighbours in traditional fashion, we ask the questions that are the business of the citizen. Does everyone have enough to eat? Are we producing healthy food? Are we caring for the soil and our wildlife, and are we rewarding our farmers, processors and cooks fairly? Are we bringing up the next generation with the skills and awareness they will need to feed themselves properly? We consider what sort of food system we want to see in our town, and ask ourselves how we might help that to happen. People volunteer for the community garden, organise seed swaps and discover a new interest in local politics.

Because the shift from consumer to citizen, although it starts with a stirring in our deeper selves that is about values and feelings, can in the right circumstances lead on to action. Through taking part in surplus food projects we discover our own agency. Something that had been a very general concept – a better world for all, a stronger local community – becomes grounded in the particular: I peeled those carrots for these people, you delivered those grapes to that hostel, she enjoyed the fruit crumble we made, we raised this much money for a homelessness charity. Such things are good and we can do them.

In this way, community food projects radicalize their participants. It isn’t easy; the people who lead them are well aware of the ambiguities of their work, as they patch up the holes in a leaky food system and bump up against the failures of social care, often for little or no pay and with a precarious hold on their premises, supply chains and staff. But there is a determination that arises from the vision of a better future.

As Heather McClure, a recent graduate of Aberystwyth University and a director of Aber Food Surplus says, “We’re not here to help supermarkets with their public image, or to solve the problem of food poverty. Our work might seem to fit that story, but to me, food waste distribution is a lens through which to look at our food system. It’s our entry point, and we want to make big changes.” The food citizen has their work cut out.

scallop fishing boat

Scallop fishing in Cardigan Bay: sustainable or not?

This article was first published on Food Manifesto Wales

It’s easy when talking about Welsh food and food security to forget that a significant part of what we produce comes not from the land, but from the sea that surrounds it. The Welsh fishing industry is small in scale, with little more than 400 vessels, most of them under 10m long. Combined with some marine aquaculture, the first sale value is £29m annually. But fishing in Wales has a historic, cultural and social significance, and in rural coastal villages where there are few jobs to retain young people, every small business counts.

Making sure that Welsh fisheries have a sustainable future is the work of the Welsh Fishermen’s Association (WFA). Although it is now funded by the Welsh Government, the WFA began as a voluntary organisation bringing together five regional fishermen’s associations who wanted to bring their traditional livelihood into alignment with the modern world of quotas and EU regulations. Its growth has been a personal quest for chief executive Jim Evans, a second-generation fisherman based at Aberporth near Cardigan, and his wife Carol.

The WFA works with Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales and fisheries scientists, combining the fishermen’s practical experience with modern scientific methods in order to shape fishing policy with an eye to the long-term future, as well as day to day profitability. One of their main objectives at present centres on the king scallop fishery in Cardigan Bay (so called to distinguish them from the smaller queen scallops which are caught around the Isle of Man) for which, in due course, the WFA hopes to obtain Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification.

If the latest government proposals for the management of the fishery come into force, then according to a recent pre-assessment report by consultants MRAG, Welsh scallops should meet the requirements for the MSC label. This is accepted as the gold standard for sustainable fisheries and already held by scallops from the Isle of Man and Shetland. The label, the WFA hopes, could mean interest from supermarkets, investment in processing facilities and a secure market for a healthy product that contributes to the economic and social wellbeing of coastal villages.

“At present, Welsh scallops are taken to Cornwall, Ireland and northwest England for processing and export,” says Jim. “We want to keep that added value in Wales, and we also want people to value Welsh seafood as a healthy part of our diet, and of our culture. We care about our coastal communities and our traditional way of life, and that’s why we have tried so hard to ensure a sustainable outcome.”

There is a problem, though. The scallops in Cardigan Bay, although sometimes gathered by divers, are usually harvested by towing a rigid structure with a chainmail collection bag along the seabed, a process known as dredging. This has attracted strong criticism from environmental groups concerned about damage to the seafloor ecosystem. The controversy centres around the EU-designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC) near Newquay, where seabed features such as reefs and sandbanks, as well as a population of bottlenose dolphins, earned it protected status in the early 2000s.

Concerns were first raised in 2008, when growth in the local scallop population together with scallop fishery closures elsewhere in the UK led to a spike in fishing activity in Cardigan Bay, attracting boats from far afield. In response, environmental groups alerted the European Commission and the Welsh Government temporarily closed most of the SAC to scallop dredging. Now only one small part is open, from November to April each year, subject to annual assessment.

After that experience, the WFA convened the first meeting of the Scallop Strategy Group made up of Welsh Government, Natural Resources Wales, Bangor University scientists, the seafood authority Seafish and fishermen. Its task was to collaborate on extensive new research into the fishery, including seabed mapping, studies of the impact of different fishing intensities and trials of technology to monitor the use of dredging gear.

This led in 2016 to proposed new management measures that are now being considered by a new government-led group. This includes environmental organizations and will in due course form an advisory board to monitor a future fishery. The new Measures will involve limiting both the annual catch and the amount of seabed disturbance, as well as monitoring fishing activity and avoiding certain areas altogether, and it is this which will be the route to the MSC label.

The controversy that was sparked in 2008 has not gone away, however. Environmental groups (who were not included in the Scallop Strategy Group because NRW was present as statutory conservation advisor), would still like to see a complete ban on dredging in the SAC. They argue that the Bangor study did not take into account damage that had already been done by fishing, and that a fairer approach would have been to use a pristine area of seabed as a reference point. They also point out the value to tourism of the dolphins, and fear that they may be affected by the dredging.

The debate about the scallops of Cardigan Bay raises many questions, and one of the most important has to do with the decision-making process itself. In a world where nearly every aspect of human life has some impact on the natural world, people will always disagree about where the limits are to be set, and compromise is inevitable. How do we do that in a way that hears everyone’s concerns, honours the complexity of the situation and allows a shared understanding to emerge? Wales has the Well-being of Future Generations Act which places a requirement on government to collaborate with business and civil society on these important matters, but we are only just beginning to find out what this means in practice.

Jim is clear on the WFA’s position. “We have always maintained that decisions about the scallop and any other fishery in Wales must be evidence-based. We understood the risk of participating in the Bangor study, because there was no guarantee of payment for the month-long experimental fishery and we had to cover vessel costs from the scallops we harvested, and of course we knew that the scientific evidence could have concluded that scallop dredging wouldn’t work in Cardigan Bay. We continued with the research because we are passionate about maintaining our fishing communities and the mixed fisheries on which they depend.  I am delighted that seven years work has resulted in early indications that we are on course to meet MSC certification requirements.

“Unless we all agree to abide by the evidence and the democratic and regulatory processes, how can we have a proper debate? It becomes a battle of opinions and that is no way to decide our futures.”