small group sitting in a circle under a tree

A people-led renaissance needs people-centred spaces

This piece was written for Colin Tudge’s Great Re-think, which is intended to “develop the ideas needed to rescue humanity and our fellow creatures from what is now the brink of total disaster. Colin and his wife Ruth West set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference 15 years ago.

Discussions of food and farming in progressive circles usually call for an ‘agroecological transition’. But we all know that human society in the industrialised west is heading in a different direction, locked into increasing consumption that is destroying the ecosystem that supports us. We need a radical fresh start, and that is the appeal of grassroots action, bottom-up development or, in Colin Tudge’s phrase, a ‘people-led renaissance’. 

How do we do that? I think a key step is the provision of new spaces for public discussion. The word ‘space’ is doing a lot of work here, however. We need not just physical and virtual spaces for people to meet, but also spaciousness that can allow new thinking to arise, and it is above all the quality of the space that makes the difference. This doesn’t just happen by itself; it needs to be shaped by clear intentions, in line with our values.

It’s worth asking what those values are. Instead of novelty, for instance, I think it is time to value commitment. Instead of fame and success, let’s focus on service and wisdom. Rather than building and defending an attractive self-image, we need to cultivate the willingness to face our faults and learn from mistakes. The word ‘humility’ comes from the same root as ‘humus’ and it is just as important for our flourishing. These values of course are at odds with the society around us, but they are timeless as well.

I have been attending progressive gatherings on food and farming on and off for over thirty years: Permaculture convergences from the 1990s, Soil Association conferences in the 2000s, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) from the 2010s and more recently the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference (WRFFC) of which I am a founding organiser. These events have all marked out a space which is markedly different from the mainstream, building a vision of human community in the context of a healthy biosphere, and powerfully embodying the intention to renew our society from the soil upwards. They are invaluable.

But as the forces of business as usual intensify around us, so we must continue to differentiate our spaces from the wider culture. We do not want to be another consumer choice among many, even if we could be the most popular choice, because we stand for something deeper than that. We are trying to create a new society, after all, and each event is an opportunity to give people an experience of a new way of being. When we see how our individual aspirations mesh with the flourishing of the collective, we are simultaneous humbled and uplifted, and we leave with a new sense of direction. But we should not take this transformation for granted. Here are some thoughts on how to do it better.

Get clear on our intentions. The quality of any social space is determined by the intention at its centre. Is it to showcase a new way of doing things, making a splash in the media and changing the wider narrative? Is it to build a community of like-minded people, nurturing its members? Is it to spark debate between opposing views, and so go deeper into inquiry? All these are good things to do, but we are probably going to have to choose one of them. Unless we revisit the question regularly and get clear on why we are gathering, we will default to simply repeating a winning formula, and we will be back to the pursuit of sales and numbers, just like everybody else.

Put people before organisations. While some delegates at ORFC and WRFFC will be paying their own way, many are paid for by the organisations they represent. This brings in a transactional element: an organisation which sends a delegate may expect to get something out of it, and this colours their presence, with a knock-on effect on the whole event. A large organisation that can afford to publicise its own sessions, for instance, will attract delegates at the expense of smaller ones, and any type of organisation will tend to look after its own interests, skimming off the energy of the grassroots. We need to counter this tendency by drawing attention to it, and cultivating its opposite, which means that organisations (and individuals, come to that) make a special effort to hold back on their own agendas. My pet idea is a new convention that for every self-promoting social media post an organisation puts out, they should create at least three – or why not ten? – celebrating the achievements of others.

Honour service and experience. Equality suggests a flat structure, where everyone’s voice is heard. But the words of a farmer who has been growing food agroecologically for thirty years will naturally carry more weight than those of an office worker whose main experience of farming comes from social media. Similarly, someone who has volunteered for years behind the scenes on a community project will see things that the newcomer misses. We must learn to listen for wisdom and authority.  

Create paths for people to follow. A conference can have a big effect on its participants, shaping whole careers and projects. At the end of this year’s ORFC a woman told me that the previous year’s event had been so exciting that she almost needed medical attention. But we could do much more with this transformative power. We want to draw people along a path from customers to participants to leaders. This means getting to know them personally, over the long haul, and understanding the challenges that we all face, particularly the cycle of burnout and renewal.

Be more self-aware. All organisations and events have their blind spots and contradictions. Fortunately, it is not necessary to be perfect. What matters is that we see ourselves as we are, and are open to feedback. Whose voices are privileged, and why? Who sits hesitantly at the margins? Who doesn’t come at all, because they can’t afford it, or for fear they will not be welcome? Who is putting in long hours of unpaid work, and who is paid well for less? How well is the event fulfilling its aims?

Talk more openly. We want spaces where people can speak freely, and where ideologies take a back seat to civility and enquiry. Social media is having a polarising effect on public discourse, as the algorithms herd us into more extreme views, and we need to open up the centre ground. We need to practise deep listening and cultivate curiosity about views that are different from our own. That is much more important than the holding of correct opinions.

Put community building ahead of networking. The gaps between sessions are some of the best bits of a good conference. To meet old friends and make new ones, discovering shared intentions and bringing companionship to otherwise solitary struggles, is a joyful thing. It is also very likely to lead to new partnerships and the spreading of new ideas. But working the room, assessing people in terms of their usefulness to our projects, and checking out the competition – no. We want community, not a marketplace.

It can be very hard to stop and ask these questions. The pressure to keep doing more of the same is so great, and especially now that the economic climate drives organisations to compete and to fear for their future. But that’s all the more reason to create spaces which put humanity first, cultivating hope and solidarity and building a new vision. We must trust that that is what people are really looking for, in their hearts. From that place, we will be able to connect with others who are trapped in the vice of business of usual, and spread new hope. 

Image: Small group meeting at a Permaculture convergence in Wales, Jane Powell.

Attending the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference is a political act

As the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference fast approaches, on 1-2 November, it’s strange to think that this is our fifth one. Each one has been so different that it’s hard to see them as a series. Following the model of the Eisteddfod (but minus the Pavilion!), we move around Wales and reflect the character of a different locality, combining it with the latest twists in the national policy scene.

This year we’re at Coleg Cambria Llysfasi, the agricultural college near Ruthin, Denbighshire. Northeast Wales may not get much national airtime, but it has a thriving food culture. Pioneering agroecological farmers, community groups, producer groups and food businesses abound, and are populating the programme, just out.

And after two days of intense conference activity – including a dinner with entertainment on the Wednesday night – there will be field trips to local farms and food projects on the Friday, following last year’s popular innovation. Meanwhile, catering by Coleg Cambria’s Yale Restaurant, featuring a mix of local and organic ingredients, will provide an inspiring example of how food culture can stimulate agroecological production.

Local and national

The purpose of the event is to bring Welsh food activity together, so that everyone involved in food – which is all of us, ultimately – can see the bigger picture of which we are all part. There is certainly plenty happening in Wales.

Opening the event will be Sarah Dickins, familiar to many as the BBC’s former economics correspondent, and who is also an organic farmer in Monmouthshire and member of the Wales Carbon Net Zero 2035 group. Closing it will be Tim Lang, with a powerful message about how Wales must adjust to the global challenge of food security.

In between, we will hear from the new local food partnerships that are springing up across north Wales, consider the potential of repurposing county farms, examine what the Sustainable Farming Scheme means for the relationship between food production and nature, looking at the true cost of food production and how it is to be paid for, and asking how we can square healthy affordable food with good livelihoods for producers.

As well as policy, there will be plenty of discussion of the practicalities of food production, including beekeeping, perennial green manures, profitable business models for small-scale growing, hydroponics, sharing growing skills in the community, medicinal plants and homeopathy for livestock health, and heritage apple orchards. There will also be interactive networking sessions, and permission to sit in the cafe or go for a walk if you need some space to think.

Food citizens

Inevitably the conference will involve much technical discussion between public and voluntary sector staff, but at the heart of the conference is the food citizen. That means that whatever hat we wear, whatever tribe we belong to, we show up as people who belong to families and communities, appreciate the place of the human family in the natural world, and are prepared to take responsibility for this.

That is why we are delighted that while we are hosted by Llysfasi, we are also being welcomed by local groups such as Ruthin Friends of the Earth and Denbigh Community Food, who are helping variously with facilitation, stewarding and publicity, and by Denbighshire County Council’s Clwydian Range and Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Real change must come from the grassroots, so that we take people with us. But citizen action needs to mesh with public services, and so this year we are inviting ‘keynote listeners’ from Welsh Government and the Future Generations Office to attend the event and feed back their impressions in the final session.

As the new Future Generations Commission Derek Walker has chosen food as one of the focus areas for his seven-year term, this gives us a special opportunity. How exactly do ordinary citizens, concerned perhaps about river pollution, animal welfare, the rise of food banks and disappearing farm birds, influence public policy? How do we amplify their voices, while also bringing in the rigour of scientific knowledge and ensuring fairness for competing demands?

A political act

Attending the conference, then, is not just an entertaining couple of days out. It is a political act, where we come to learn, make new connections and above all show our faith in a better way of doing things. It is a positive choice for the future and a step into leadership.

We have had to put our prices up this year (although please note that the booking fee has gone). That’s partly inflation, and partly because last year we had extra sponsorship which meant we could keep prices down. As ever, we are very grateful to this year’s sponsors whose generosity makes the event possible, along with our volunteers, chairs and speakers. We hope that you will support us again and join the movement for good food in Wales.

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Celebrating the fourth Wales Real Food and Farming Conference

This article was originally published on the Food Citizenship blog

What fun we had, meeting in person at the fourth Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Lampeter late last year, where we were welcomed into the new Canolfan Tir Glas.  No longer taking for granted the wonder of being able to gather at a particular place and time, with all the random interactions that happen as you scramble for a cup of coffee or navigate an unfamiliar campus, I marvelled at how a conference can be so much more than a choreographed exchange of news and ideas.  

Looking at the photographs afterwards and seeing white-haired elders, twenty-somethings in dungarees, farmers in fleeces, salaried professionals with their pop-ups and Powerpoints, and many more, the sense is of a family gathering – a big one, with 300 people over two days of talks and discussion, plus a third day of field trips. Our registration desk doubled up as a home base for newcomers while our dinner, with poetry from Sam Robinson and music from Owen Shiers and Camilla Saunders, was a celebration of friendships going back variously decades or a day.  

Although it’s common to disparage a gathering of like-minded people as an echo chamber, I think it is no bad thing to call our tribe together.

It’s an opportunity to synchronize our intentions for a better society mediated by food and farming, and celebrate what we have achieved.

Together we puzzled over how everything fits together: getting good quality local food into school meals, bringing up children to better understand food, helping people to access land, marrying up food production with care for nature, building an inclusive food culture, reducing carbon emissions, growing the food economy, trading fairly with the rest of the world. Our 35 sessions covered these topics and more. 

Radio Four Food Programme presenter Sheila Dillon kicked us off with an overview of the challenges facing the food movement, and a theme soon emerged of how change happens. Wales is becoming well-known for its pioneering Well-being of Future Generations legislation, but not many people know how it works. A session organised by the Food Policy Alliance Cymru gave us a look at the machinery by which popular sentiment can be refined and translated into action – and it is frustratingly slow.  

“I feel like an imposter here, with so many experts,” confided one delegate, a retired person representing a small campaigning group. But in fact, she was one of the large pool of concerned citizens who are our best hope. Policymakers cannot do much on their own, and I think an important purpose of the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference is to amplify the voices of the thinking public, connecting them with the experts who can share knowledge and shaping programmes of action that are fair and realistic. 

The local food partnerships that are springing up across Wales (Food Cardiff and Food Vale were both represented) as well as other place-based partnerships like the Dyfi Biosphere, Canolfan Tir Glas and PLANED provide spaces for such conversations to happen, and so do people’s assemblies and various co-design projects such as Tir Canol in mid Wales. With mounting anxiety about the obvious unsustainability of our current way of life, we need outlets for constructive action, and participatory democracy is a practice whose time has come. 

It was encouraging that Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales sent several delegates and contributed to the sessions at the Conference. They were there to listen as much as to speak, responding for instance to a few challenging questions that came up in discussion. One anonymous delegate, on their evaluation form, coined the term ‘keynote listener’ for this role and suggested that they have a slot at the end to respond to everything they had heard, which is an excellent idea. 

The third day of the event was given over to field trips – a vineyard, several farms, the Lampeter university campus with its collection of centuries-old volumes on horticulture – and the discussions sparked during the first two days continued in smaller groups. It was clear from talking to these enthusiasts how much the conference had achieved in terms of establishing a place for conversation and commitment and shining a light on the burgeoning goodwill. 

Spaces like this, where people can connect across divides of age and sector and begin to enact a better way of being together, are rare. And it is just as true to say they are everywhere, once we know what we are looking for. It’s just that with our busy lives we tend to forget.

We need events like this to build our confidence in our collective ability to create a better future together – and remind us that underneath all the conflicts, that is what we most deeply want to do.  

See also: From a ‘call to arms’ to carrot crushing: a review of WRFFC22, for a farmer’s perspective.

Main image: Clic Productions. Recordings of some conference sessions are available here.

three women at a table in the street

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

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

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

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

People’s assemblies

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

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

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

Culture change

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

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

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

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

Co-design and co-production

Farmers at a Tir Canol co-design meeting

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

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

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

The Well-being Economy Alliance Cymru (WEAll Cymru) is organizing a Zoom discussion on Revitalising Democracy on Thursday 10 November 2022 at 7pm. The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November 2022 in Lampeter will feature many examples of citizen action, including a session organized by Sustainable Food Knighton who are planning a demonstration at the Senedd in February 2023.

Both images courtesy of Tir Canol

gorse flowers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Channelling the enthusiasm of the food citizen

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

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

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

Place-based decision-making

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

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

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

Future Generations Act

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

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

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

Citizenship and solidarity

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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?

Homegrown food makes a comeback as the pandemic changes everything

As supermarket shelves empty and local communities rediscover the value of self-reliance, the coronovirus pandemic has brought with it a surge in demand for homegrown food. The food chains we had taken for granted for so long now look less reliable under strain, and as we rush to grow our own and stocks of seeds and compost dwindle, we are having to think our food supply afresh.

Everyone is affected. West Wales-based market gardeners Alicia Miller and Nathan Richards knew something had changed when their phone “began to ring and ring and ring with people wanting to join our box scheme”, leading to a doubling of their numbers in one week, while national box schemes Riverfood and Abel & Cole are closed to new orders. “We need to invest in edible horticulture and grow far, far more than we do,” says Alicia, pointing out that only 56% of UK vegetables are grown here.

In Machynlleth meanwhile, the overlap of a new coronavirus support group with an existing food growing project, Mach Maethlon (Edible Mach), has led to an explosion of community activity. Organizer Katie Hastings describes how she was inundated with offers and requests – “people of Machynlleth were incredibly concerned about their food supply” – and within days, thanks to Zoom videoconferencing, they had a plan. Individuals and groups are now tackling the challenge on all fronts: finding land, providing online support to farmers who want to grow field scale crops, setting up a volunteer Land Army, making up seed and information packs for home growers, and coordinating cropping plans, distribution and resources.

This activity hasn’t come out of nowhere. Mach Maethlon has been growing vegetables in the area for eight years, with a box scheme, edible food beds around the town and a training programme for new growers, Pathways to Farming (shared with Cultivate in Newtown). They have built up knowledge, credibility and a strong network. As Katie says of the current push, “It’s all the things that we always thought needed to happen, but there wasn’t the energy to do them – and then suddenly in response to the crisis, all these people were like, ‘well I’m not working any more, I’ll do that right now!’ ” Their new website, Planna Fwyd/Plant Food, went live this week.

Machynlleth was one of the first towns to declare a climate emergency last year, and they are used to pulling together. Another high-powered town at the other end of Powys that is accelerating its food production plans is Crickhowell, home of the Our Food project. Coordinator Duncan Fisher explains how they are now planning to fund a new agroecological farming project in the area. “We are calling for Welsh Government and other big funders to create a fund to support new agroecological production,” says Duncan. “We are backing this up with action by creating a £30k fund with our own money. The first project is a polytunnel for Langtons farm.”

David Langton, who with his partner Katherine Robinson set up a project last year to supply microgreens to local restaurants, is starting a year-round box scheme at their new 3.5 acre farm. Construction begins soon on up to 200 vegetable beds, each 15 m long and run using the no-dig system. “We are applying for organic certification,” says David, “but more than that, we are committed to regenerative farming, which builds topsoil at the same time as producing food. Later we plan to introduce poultry which will help this along, as well as giving us eggs and meat.”

Our Food has support from Monmouthshire County Council, who are mapping local food production as part of the Monmouthshire Food Resilience project. Individual gardeners are a part of this, too. “The hobby grower is a vital part of the local food supply,” says Garden Organic trustee and local resident Adam Alexander, “so we are engaging gardeners and allotmenters through plant and seed exchanges, as well as providing guidance to those with no experience of growing their own veg.”  

Meanwhile community gardens across Wales are facing the challenge of keeping communities gardening while maintaining social distance. Some are reinventing themselves as hubs that can organize seed swaps and provide planting material for new gardeners. Others are planning to make video tutorials. From Porthmadog to Pembroke Dock to Edible Cardiff, new ways of tapping into public demand for support with gardening are springing up.

It isn’t just that more homegrown food is likely to become a practical necessity as  supply chains are weakened by Covid-19. Connecting with other people, and with the natural world, is as vital to our health in the long term as avoiding the virus is in the short term. Growing vegetables at home, at school and in the community brings people together. Buying from local farms helps regenerate rural economies and connects town and countryside. As we reel from the impacts of a global pandemic, we are finding new significance in the places where we live.

We can all do something to boost homegrown food. Find your local community garden, sign the Landworkers Alliance petition to protect local food supplies, write to your Assembly Member and MP and ask what they are doing about food security, set up a virtual farmers market in your area with the Open Farm Network, watch how-to videos at Huw’s Nursery, and put some seeds in the soil. It’s time to start preparing the ground for a new harvest.

Jane Powell is a volunteer coordinator of the Food Manifesto and the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. She is an independent education consultant and writes at

Featured image: tomato seedlings, by Jane Powell.