What fasting and solitude can teach us about food and society

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

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

Vision fast

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

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


tarpaulin hung from trees by stream

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

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

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


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

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

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

Rites of passage

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why effective regulation is so important along the food chain

This article was first published on the Food Manifesto website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spaces for collaboration

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

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

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

Managing competition

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

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

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

Changing the culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

school cook serving meal

From community gardens to public procurement, homegrown food provides value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katie in the potato field

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

man in field

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

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

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

A different world view

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

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

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

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

The push-pull method

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

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

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

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

Science meets practice

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

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

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

Lessons for the UK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images courtesy of Rothamsted Research.

Food systems, social fields and the power of coming together

It is commonplace now to talk about the ‘food system’. By this we mean the vast network of people, organizations and relationships that grow, process and transport our food, from farm to plate (or failing that, to an anaerobic digester). Systems thinking is in vogue, as we move away from the reductionist model that sees food in simple terms of crop yield, price and calories, and embrace a wider reality, from soil bacteria to food poverty and human rights. But what does it mean exactly?

The work of the late Donella Meadows, US environmental scientist and lead author of The Limits to Growth, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand systems thinking. She writes about stocks and flows, leverage points and feedback loops, and paints a picture of overflowing bathtubs and submerged icebergs that brings the topic fascinatingly to life. Systems are everywhere, once you start looking for them.

She also makes the crucial point that although systems thinking is about being ‘holistic’, nevertheless any system is defined by its limits, which means that something will always be left out. A system is after all an idea that we impose on reality; it cannot actually be that reality, or there will be no distance between it and us, no objective distance that allows us to talk about it. Staying silent in the face of reality is of course a very good thing which we should do more often, but it is not systems thinking.

Where then do we draw the limits of a food system? That all depends. A recent report from the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford, Mapping the Food System, defines it in terms of enterprises, jobs, production, sales and the general mechanics of getting food from farm to plate. These are important things to know about, so this document will be very useful. However this view says little about, say, human health. What use is a food system if it doesn’t nourish our bodies?

Different views

In other contexts, therefore, we might define the food system differently. For the organic movement food is the link between human health and a thriving ecosystem – there is a clue in the name of the Soil Association, and a recent seminar from Whole Health Agriculture explains this thinking very well. Still others wish to emphasize social justice and so look at food poverty, trade and working conditions, drawing their limits around those points. They may look wider and include environmental considerations, or they may not.

Sometimes the limits are drawn very tightly. This is often dismissed as reductionism, but there can be good reasons for it. The power of modern science lies in the way that it can isolate the tiniest element – the proteins that surround a coronavirus for instance – and extract from that an understanding that makes a whole world-changing technology work. Reductionist experimentation has produced many good things, in food and farming as in everything else.

The only problem, and it is a big one, comes when we think that because we have understood the small details – isolated the fungus that is destroying a crop for instance, or seen how nitrogen fertilizer makes plants grow faster – we have learnt all we need to know, and can now go forth and change the world. That is why the application of modern science to agriculture has had so many negative effects, from algal blooms in rivers to soil erosion and pesticide poisonings. We have mistaken the reductionist model for the greater reality.

Systems thinking reminds us to recognize our limitations and look more widely before we intervene. But it is not foolproof, because of the way it inevitably leaves something out. We will always draw the line around our own limited field of vision, excluding the unknown unknowns as well as the known ones. We have blind spots and biases that will always get in the way.

One of these blind spots is the way that we tend to see the food system in mechanistic terms, leaving out human (and non-human) experience. Too often, food is reduced to quantities, nutrients, supply chains and prices – things that can be measured – and we lose sight of the way that it is actually experienced. The taste of an apple, the feelings of a cow for its calf and the togetherness of a shared meal, for instance, are just as real as anything else. Our food systems have an interior, which includes the realm of meaning and values. This is key to understanding why we eat and farm the way we do, but it sits largely in our blind spot.

Donella Meadows was well aware of these pitfalls of course, of course, and one of the recommended resources on her legacy website is Theory U , which was developed by the German-American thinker Otto Scharmer. Theory U is a group work methodology that helps us to see these blind spots and allow new understanding to emerge. This is essential if we are to break out of the standard thinking which is ‘creating results that nobody wants’ – ecosystem collapse, social divisions and a crisis in mental health, in particular – and let something new come forth.

A crucial concept in Theory U is the ‘social field’. To illustrate this, Scharmer tells a story of his childhood on a biodynamic farm in Germany. His father would take the family on regular walks across the fields, pausing every now and then to pick up a clod of soil and inspect it. He explained to his children how soil health depends on the millions of microorganisms that live in it, and is of central importance to the farm. For Scharmer, the social field – invisible, and yet deeply sensed – is to human society what the soil is to crops and animals. We need to attend to the human, and non-human, interconnections that create our experience of life.

Shared values

Some years ago, the Food Values project we ran from Aberystwyth University (later Bangor) held a series of conversations over shared meals in order to understand people’s experience of food. It was an investigation of the social field, although we didn’t call it that. Perhaps because of the very fact that we were sharing a meal, we found a high degree of care for the health of our society as a whole. The top concern was that everyone should have good food to eat; price was barely mentioned.

The social psychology on which that project was based is useful because it produces the sort of peer-reviewed evidence that is widely accepted in a modern secular society. But the mysteries of the social field have traditionally been expressed in religious language. As the Sufi mystic Rumi put it, “You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.”

Similarly, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed the concept of ‘interbeing’ to express the way that the relationships between people (and all other beings) are as real as the people themselves. Focus on the individuals alone, and you miss something vital.  The Bible puts it more personally: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

How are we to till our social fields? The first step is to notice that they exist. The way into this is to connect with our own experience, perhaps by meditation but equally by going for a walk, baking bread or washing the dishes – anything that takes us out of our heads. From there we can start to become aware of the collective reality of the groups we are in, through dialogue, which Scharmer wonderfully defines not as people exchanging ideas – we know how badly that can go – but as ‘the capacity of a system to see itself.’

This is perhaps the true purpose of events such as the People’s Assemblies that were held across Wales last year, as well as the recent Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. By bringing together people who would not normally meet, and inviting them to share their views on food and farming, such events make the social field tangible, and that is transformative. With collective self-knowledge comes power.

Scharmer has a great deal to say about all this. But the social field is just another name for community, something that the pandemic has made very tangible. Food is a natural expression of this. Eating together has not been possible recently, but we are still able to swap recipes, exchange seeds and plants, and gather online. When we do these things we animate the ‘food system’ with a shared humanity that is the essential starting point for change.

Would you like to experience a coaching circle based on the work of the Presencing Institute? Read this.

How effective are national food strategies? The example of the UK

This article was first published by the Sustainable Food Trust

National crises, like COVID-19 and Brexit, help to fix our minds on the fundamentals of existence, and encourage us to ask the big questions, like how a nation feeds itself. Given the way that food connects every element of our society and our economy, as well as linking us with the natural world, it has the power to bring us together into a collective effort that allows us to face other challenges that have been there all along: climate change, for instance, poverty and isolation. It is, however, a fearsome challenge, requiring national and local government, farmers, food businesses and the public all to change their ways in a coordinated fashion.

Policy happens at many levels. Locally, the civic response to lockdown demonstrated the public enthusiasm for being part of a community that looks after its members and has a connection to the geography it inhabits. There was a surge of enthusiasm for growing food at home and in community gardens, buying from farmers and small shops, and creating new short supply chains. From there the next logical step is to build partnerships with local authorities, translating citizen power into political action.

National government, however, is another story. Vested interests, the short-term thinking produced by the electoral cycle and the tendency of policy to fragment into silos, so that health, farming, the food industry and the environment pull in different directions, all mean that the top-down approach is rather limited in what it can achieve. Here it can be helpful to compare the approaches of different nations, and the UK provides an interesting case study in its devolved countries: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Although the UK government decides the terms of trade with other countries, and until now the EU has had strong control over farming support payments, many aspects of food production and consumption have for the past two decades been devolved to the respective administrations, leaving England to work separately from them. Each government has, consequently, come up with a different approach.

England’s current National Food Strategy is billed as the ‘first major review of our food system in 75 years’. It was commissioned in 2016 and is led by Henry Dimbleby, restaurateur and author of England’s 2013 School Food Plan, supported by Defra. The new strategy has a very wide remit, covering the actions of all government bodies with respect to the whole food chain, from production to marketing, processing, sale and consumption. This summer, it published Part One of the Strategy, which covers the response to COVID-19, the challenges of Brexit and the growing threat of climate change.

It identified two main themes. One is the importance of responding to child poverty. ‘A Government that is serious about “levelling up” must ensure that all children get the nutrition they need,’ says the report, pointing out the dangers of both obesity and diabetes, which tend to fall on the poorest families. Nevertheless, this high aspiration has not been easy to achieve in practice, as became clear  earlier this year when it took a campaigning footballer, Marcus Rashford, to push the government into a u-turn over free school meals vouchers in the summer holidays. This argument has reappeared for the autumn half term.

The other theme is the ‘freedom to uphold our own values and principles within the global marketplace,’ which Dimbleby holds to be compatible with setting high food standards and protecting the environment. This too came into question when Parliament decided not to require imported food to meet domestic legal standards from 1st  January 2021, much to the disappointment of the farming unions and food campaigners.

England also has a strong civil society movement which parallels government activity, including such initiatives as the People’s Food Policy, which aims to integrate ‘the compartmentalised policy realms of food production, health, labour rights, land use and planning, trade, the environment, democratic participation and community wellbeing’. Led by the Land Workers’ Alliance, the Permaculture Association, Global Justice Now and backed by 100 organizations, it takes a radical approach foregrounding food sovereignty and agroecology and remains an aspiration.

Scotland has achieved a closer integration between civil society and government, expressed by the 2014 Good Food Nation policy, which has a mixture of legislation and non-legislative actions. According to the Government website, the aim is that by 2025 Scotland will be ‘a Good Food Nation, where people from every walk of life take pride and pleasure in, and benefit from, the food they produce, buy, cook, serve, and eat each day.’ Much of the drive from this has come from the Scottish Food Coalition which has from the outset insisted on a whole-system approach based on food justice, engaging over 800 people in ‘Kitchen Table Talks’, which were held in homes, town halls, community gardens and other public places all over Scotland in 2018.

Based on this public mandate, Nourish Scotland and the Scottish Food Coalition are now campaigning for a Good Food Nation Bill that will embed this joined up approach deeper in government. They want to build the right to food into Scottish law, establish an independent food commission, produce regular food plans, hold public bodies to account and set targets covering areas such as obesity, greenhouse gas emissions and wages in the food industry. The pandemic has delayed its progress but they are confident of success in the 2021/22 session.

Wales has had a number of food strategies, although none with quite the whole-system approach that is developing in Scotland. The 2010 strategy Food for Wales, Food from Wales was broadly based and considered health, social issues and the environment, but the accompanying action plan that followed in 2014, Towards Sustainable Growth, was heavily biased toward the food industry. Focussing on the need to support exports and jobs, it had little to say about food poverty or the environment. Health and child poverty come under separate portfolios.

Like Scotland and England, Wales has a civil society movement which is calling for wider changes in food and farming, but it is less strongly organized. The Welsh Food Manifesto identifies ten principles that would allow different sectors to come together on the basis of shared values, while an alliance of NGOs led by the WWF recently commissioned the report A Welsh Food System Fit for Future Generations, and they are now calling for a Food System Commission. Many other networks use food as a rallying point, and an informal coalition is gradually emerging.

Wales does however have a legislative vehicle for uniting civil society and government actions, in the shape of the Well-being of Future Generations Act. This visionary legislation, passed in 2015, requires government bodies, including local authorities, to collaborate with all its stakeholders – community groups, businesses and individuals – in order to plan for the long-term future. It is ambitious, requiring a set of ‘new ways of working’ that challenge long-established habits. There are some hopeful signs, such as the recent collaboration between food service firm Castell Howell and Ceredigion County Council, as well as a public procurement initiative in Carmarthenshire.

Northern Ireland has similarities with Wales, in that Government policy separates its Growing for Growth agri-food policy from its Fitter Future for All health strategy and its plans for farming support, while its civil society has more ambitious ideas. The suspension of Government for the three years to January 2020, leaving the civil service to engage with the public, has of course presented an additional problem. However, as Belfast academic Dr Viviane Gravey notes, a fresh view of the way forward comes from the RSA’s Food Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) Northern Ireland report, which offers a visionary plan based on building trust across sectors.

The FFCC, which produced reports covering the whole of the UK, is now an independent organisation and offers hope of a new approach, although the fundamental challenge remains the same. Changing our food system is a huge task that requires everyone to work together. There is no one way of doing things. The examples above suggest the importance of a national strategy, one that is based on good food for all, or the right to food; strong government support at both national and local levels; and an organised civil society movement, one that has genuine grassroots support. There is no one way of achieving this, but much to learn from seeing how the devolved nations of the UK (as well as nations beyond the UK) can respond differently to a common challenge.

Trafodwn: a new way to talk about food and farming

One evening in late June, two months into lockdown, 156 people logged on to Zoom to talk about food and farming in Ceredigion. It was no ordinary discussion. After hearing from a range of farmers, community organizers and environmentalists, they had spent time in small groups sharing their personal responses to the crisis that is Covid, Brexit, climate change, globalization and much else. Guided by a facilitator, they listened carefully to each other, looking for common ground and tentatively suggesting solutions.

Ben Lake MP addresses the Ceredigion People’s Assembly on Food and Farming

At the end of the two-hour meeting, when the note-takers had reported back, it was clear that the event had achieved a remarkable level of shared inspiration. There was a strong call for the relocalizing of food, self-determination for communities and support for young people to enter the food and farming sector, among other things. It had demonstrated the hunger that there is for change in the county, and the richness of knowledge and expertise present.

As one retired farmer put it: “It was quite amazing to have such a breadth of participation…to have a platform where parties involved in farming, land management, horticulture, nature reserves all on large and small scales being represented was so very worthwhile.” Another commented that he had no idea so many people cared about farming. For many, it was an emotional experience to find such warmth and compassion between hitherto opposing sectors.

The event itself came out of a somewhat unlikely collaboration between the Cardigan branch of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) and local Member of Senedd and former agriculture minister Elin Jones, with support from the farming unions and environmental groups. Ben Lake MP also spoke. As Vicky Moller, one of the organizers, said: “Elin Jones’ decision to co-host with the local Extinction Rebellion branch was in the spirit of the event. Everyone feared hostility or ding dong argument. It didn’t happen.”

People’s Assemblies

This was many people’s first experience of a People’s Assembly, one of a series of five that have so far been organized in west and mid Wales since Covid. The first was held in Pembrokeshire in late April, and it came about from work that organizers Vicky Moller and Anna Monro had been doing to support community groups during lockdown. “At our meetings people discussed the future, and it was clear that they did not want to return to the old normal,” says Vicky. “The leading area where they wanted to see change was food and farming, and so we decided to look at that in detail.”

The format of the People’s Assembly is widely used in XR, which is perhaps best known for its high-profile protests in London, Cardiff and other cities last year. “They are a taster of a growing global alternative to our adversarial model of democracy – where rival parties slug it out and we choose between them every few years, often motivated by fear of those we oppose,” says Vicky. “It’s officially known as deliberative democracy, and in Wales we are calling it ‘trafodwn’, which means ‘let’s discuss’.”

Central to all Assemblies is the work of the facilitators, who are trained in the three pillars of the method: radical inclusion (hearing all voices), active listening (dropping your own agenda to give your full attention to the speaker); and trusting the process (allowing the wisdom of the hive to generate new thinking).

“Thankfully, there is a growing number of trained facilitators available,” says Angie Polkey, one of the organizers of the Ceredigion event and herself a trainer. “We are all helping to satisfy people’s thirst to have they say, be heard and, most vitally, be part of the change that many of us know is needed for a more sustainable and just world.”

Angie explains how important it is that the Assemblies have an impact. One of the five events stimulated local action groups to form, but as she says, “the significance of the others lies as much in the inspiration they created, which will shape future relationships, as well as the feedback that has been shared with elected representatives and local Council.” It is a fundamental tenet that the participants know why the Assembly has been called and what will happen to the findings, because otherwise “people will feel disillusioned and that their time has been for nothing”.

Deliberative democracy for Wales

The People’s Assemblies described here were citizen-led and unfunded, but the principle is also used when Citizens’ Assemblies are commissioned by governments who want to make difficult ethical decisions with public buy-in, such as the abortion laws in Ireland. They use an approach similar to the recruitment of jurors to ensure that the groups are representative, and they typically run over several days or weeks with professional facilitation. A recent OECD study reviewed about 300 government-commissioned events on five continents, and a good practice guide is also available.

Wales held its first Citizens’ Assembly at Newtown in July 2019, to discuss how citizens could engage with the National Assembly for Wales (now the Senedd), and since then there have been calls for Wales to make more use of them in the recovery from Covid. The ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act already sets out a process whereby public bodies are required to collaborate with the public in creating an ecologically sustainable Wales, but it is not enough on its own, as David Thorpe explains in a recent blog for the One Planet Centre.

He calls for Citizens’ Assemblies to work with the Public Services Boards of every local authority, and for the Boards to be held accountable to them. That would raise awareness of the Act and tap into the energy and expertise of community groups, which has been so much in evidence during the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre made a similar point in the Western Mail recently:

“We have a chance to reverse normal political relationships, for the public to be in the driving seat via something like a more expansive citizens’ assembly…If a consensus was reached, we could then hand over our blueprint to the parties and test their genuine appetite for change.”

“Trafodwn is a good term for this newer version of deliberative democracy,” says Vicky. “It is organised from the ground up, with both sides of the divide wanting to meet and sort things out. Something is stirring.”

For a full account of the five Assemblies, including the main conclusions from the Ceredigion event, click here.

This article was first published on the Food Manifesto Wales website.

The impact of Covid on the Welsh food industry: a view from Castell Howell

Castell Howell has come a long way since its beginnings on a Carmarthenshire farm in the 1970s, and is now one of Wales’ biggest independent wholesalers, with depots in Merthyr, Blaenau, Chirk and Avonmouth as well as its headquarters in Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire. But when Covid struck, the foodservice business lost 60% of its business almost overnight. Their main customers are catering outlets such as universities, sports stadia, venues and school kitchens, and is not clear when many of these will start serving food again. The company has had to put 400 staff on furlough and doesn’t see sales returning to normal until 2021 or even 2022.

“It’s been challenging, disastrous,” says Ed Morgan, their Corporate Social Responsibility and Training Manager, “but that is shared by our customers, who are in a precarious position, and our suppliers. We’re not alone.”

The company has had to adapt fast and find new markets.  One step has been to open its wholesale business to the public, using ‘click and collect’ to maintain social distancing, and changing its purchasing to source food in smaller quantities for the retail market. They have also been supplying food banks and free school meals schemes.

A significant boost to their business has come from local authorities looking for ingredients for their emergency food boxes. At first the Welsh Government was supplying these directly, but Ceredigion County Council negotiated a cash payment instead and chose to give their business to Castell Howell as a local supplier. Other councils followed suit.

Ed sees this political decision as a significant step forward. “I’d like to think there’s more of an awareness across local authorities about where food comes from,” he says, referring to the way that staff have been taken away from their regular duties in order to meet the councils’ obligation to feed vulnerable members of society, by packing and distributing the food boxes. “Instead of being involved in transport or town planning, they’ve been hands on with food”. He hopes that food procurement will now receive a cross-departmental focus, reflecting its significance for the local economy and communities.

Public procurement – buying food for care homes, the NHS, school meals and so on – is one of the constants that Castell Howell sees as crucial to its future. “We have a team of three dedicated to this market, but recently they’ve been introduced to different suppliers and different ways of doing things and we’d like to maintain the momentum. And push it upstream of the Welsh supply chain,” he adds, citing the government’s support for the foundational economy, including a public procurement project in Carmarthenshire.

Castell Howell depends of course on a strong supply base. As Ed Morgan lists some of the products they source from Welsh companies – roast chicken, bottled water, desserts – it’s clear we aren’t talking farm to fork, although Daioni’s UHT milk is a recent success story. Even the iconic Welsh cake is made from global ingredients. This may disappoint those who would like to see Wales growing more of its own food, and particularly vegetables, but nevertheless, there are important benefits from having a strong food industry. “There are opportunities to add value here in Wales and that in itself brings economic and social benefits,” he explains. “If big factories close that can rip the heart out of a community.”

He points to the crucial role of Welsh food policy in creating the conditions for food businesses to benefit the people of Wales. Having taken part in the government’s consultation on sustainable brand values, he thinks that companies should be encouraged to do better. “I do feel environmental impacts need to be pretty much at the top of the list,” he says, suggesting that businesses might be incentivized to measure their carbon footprints and say how they intend to reduce them, and be audited on their green credentials. Good employee care and social benefits to local communities are also important, he thinks.

The government can do much to help food businesses by supporting public procurement, and this is one way that environmental criteria can be imposed. But there is a balance to be struck. “If it’s too stringent, it frightens companies off. They’ll say they’re better off supplying the pub down the road, or Tesco’s or Morrisons.” This is especially true as long as the margins on public sector food are tight, compared with the tourist trade. Understanding the environmental impacts of food can also be complicated and controversial, which is another reason for a pragmatic approach.

Another cause of hope that he sees is the Well-being of Future Generations Act, although it “probably needs to accelerate slightly”. Linking as it does economic prosperity with environmental sustainability and community cohesion, as well as promoting collaboration between government, business and communities, the Act is a foundation for a better Wales. Food is an obvious way of joining up all the dots and drawing people into its vision – an opportunity, therefore, for food businesses to build on recent public concern about food supplies.

“When Covid started, food and health care shot to prominence. Now we want to harness this. Where can we take this economic benefit of dealing with Welsh manufacturers and Welsh suppliers?”

This article was first published on the Wales Food Manifesto website.

farmers market stall

The vital role local authorities could have in shaping food systems

First published by the Sustainable Food Trust, 4 May 2020

In a world where most of us buy our food from big food retailers with global supply chains, and governments set the policy framework, it might not seem that local authorities have much of a role to play in our food system. However, they still have control of the ‘old infrastructure’ of markets, food safety inspections and roads, and they have much responsibility for food and food production, including school meals, meals on wheels and the provision of allotments. They are also the voice of local food, reporting back to national government, and they have a role in maintaining public trust.

Local government is therefore well placed to take a lead on local food security. That was the argument put forward by Tim Lang and others in a paper on why local authorities should prepare food plans for Brexit, recommending the creation of Food Resilience Teams that would conduct audits and make risk assessments, consulting with appropriate food-related professional bodies as well as local interests. Written in 2018, when concern was growing about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on food supply chains, it now reads as a dress rehearsal for the actual calamity that is COVID-19.

The rush on seeds, compost and local veg box delivery schemes that followed lockdown was a sign of public anxiety about the reliability of their food supply. For some, the threat was more psychological than real, as supermarket supplies are now returning to normal, but it does raise real questions about our dependency on imports. Meanwhile, for others, the loss of paid work and the requirement for some to self-isolate has meant problems with shopping or paying for food.

farmers market stall
Building food culture: Ceredigion County Council’s annual Sea to Shore event in Aberystwyth

Local authorities are at the forefront of responding to these concerns. In rural mid-Wales for instance, staff at Ceredigion County Council are making 1700 telephone calls every week to people judged to be at special risk and redeploying staff to cover essential functions. They are also working with the county’s food banks to monitor hardship and find long-term solutions to poverty – demand for emergency food parcels in Aberystwyth, the biggest town in the county, has gone up by 50% since the lockdown began – and the Council are in negotiations to provide more community spaces in which to grow food. The twice-monthly farmers’ market in Aberystwyth has been reinvented with Council support as an online hub, with collection at fixed time slots and with social distancing ensured. Meanwhile, an enthusiastic response by local volunteers means that most people not already monitored by the Council’s Social Services Department are being supported by neighbours and community groups.

In some cities, more formal partnerships are proving their worth. The Sustainable Food Places project (formerly Sustainable Food Cities) has been supporting food partnerships between local authorities, other public bodies and community groups since 2013. Building on the pioneering work of earlier food councils the project takes a ‘holistic, place-based and systems approach’ to local food, and their how-to guides emphasize the need for painstaking work to build trust and identify policy areas where community groups can make a real contribution.

There are pitfalls on both sides. Community groups can be quick to notice when they are being used to plug the gaps that austerity has left in the statutory services of government, while local authority staff may be nervous about political bias or fail to appreciate the many benefits that food can have in joining up policy areas.

This work is paying off in the present emergency. Food Cardiff, for instance, which has over 30 members including public bodies, businesses and charities, was able to set up a COVID-19 Food Response Group very early on. So far, the focus has been on emergency food distribution, although they have also worked with the Council to keep the allotments open. They plan soon to support growing food at home, working, for instance, with Edible Cardiff to distribute starter kits for growing salads and herbs with the food parcels.

Food Cardiff coordinator Pearl Costello describes how this group has weekly meetings to keep everyone up to date and avoid duplication. She also explains how important the Food Cardiff partnership was in brokering relationships between the Council and local volunteers. ‘It’s not just going to the Council and saying “can you do this?”, it’s saying “we’re here as a resource”…one of the things I didn’t want it to be is quite top-down, and thankfully it’s not that. It’s about collaborating and channelling resources to where they are needed.’ Food Cardiff have issued a briefing paper for other local authorities which also recommends support for growing fresh fruit and vegetables.

It’s a similar story In London, where the Greenwich Cooperative Development Agency is working in partnership with the Royal Borough of Greenwich and Charlton Athletic Community Trust to produce 200 food boxes every week. These meet the Eatwell nutritional guidelines and include fresh produce, catering variously for vegetarians, meat eaters and those without cooking facilities. Their approach is laid out in a briefing on food for vulnerable people in lockdown produced jointly with Sustain, and again, it builds on existing relationships. A recent briefing from the FAO also points out the crucial role of local government in responding to COVID-19.

How far, though, can these partnerships go? It is significant that the list of partners in Food Cardiff includes housing associations, universities, the health board, a food bank and a community market – but no supermarkets. The big retailers do contribute to their local communities, especially in supplying surplus food and with cash sponsorship, but it is an unequal relationship which is governed as much by expediency and conditions set by Head Office than a real care for the needs of a community. Their supply chain logistics do not favour local food production, either.

Another area that is perhaps not properly included in local authority food plans is farming. Some councils do see the potential of sourcing school meal ingredients from local farms and food businesses, and the Preston model of community wealth building is well known. But when Pembrokeshire County Council put 14th century Trecadwgan Farm on the market last year, it disregarded the offer from a local group to buy it as a community farm and sold it to the highest bidder instead, on the grounds of ‘severe financial pressures’.

How could local authorities raise their game and start to shift the balance towards more local food resilience? There are a few pointers towards a more radical approach. One is the way that many have declared climate emergencies and begun to work with citizen groups to find new ways forward. Another is a Welsh initiative, the Well-being of Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies to work in a new collaborative way with community groups and businesses. This sets the scene for a social, economic, environmental and cultural transformation towards low-carbon prosperity and local resilience. Jane Davidson, one of the architects of the Act and author of a forthcoming history of it, thinks that food resilience could be a fundamental area for change.

‘COVID-19 has demanded new ways of getting food to consumers,’ she says. ‘One of the benefits has been the way in which local growers and producers have imaginatively responded to community food needs. When the immediate crisis finishes, local authorities should look to see if they could use the Well-being of Future Generations Act to require supermarkets to use more locally sourced products and thus build resilience for COVID, Brexit and climate change.’

Perhaps the disruption caused by the pandemic will allow government and citizens together to make a step change in our food?