This post was written for the Wales Food Manifesto (but I changed the title)
We often hear how young people have become disconnected from food. They don’t know where it comes from and they can’t cook a meal. Of course that matters and we need to do something about it, but if we turn the problem around and ask how young people can help shape the food system, we have a much more interesting question.
Let’s visit a classroom in rural west Wales, where a class of 13- and 14-year-olds are studying local and global food as part of their geography course. They check over the menu from a local restaurant and discuss the arguments for regional food: it’s fresh, it boosts the rural economy and creates jobs, and it saves on transport and therefore carbon emissions. But it may be expensive, and going to the supermarket is so much easier.
Also in the classroom is a dairy farmer, we’ll call him Neil, here to talk about his work and help with their discussions. The pupils have been preparing for his visit with help from their teacher, who has helped them get a picture of what farmers do and think up some questions for him. She has also had to help them over a few prejudices absorbed from the media.
Although this is a rural area, most of the pupils have no direct experience of farming, and they are curious to meet someone from such a different walk of life. The fact that Neil is an ex-pupil of the school, and that most of them presumably consume dairy products on a daily basis, only underlines the gulf in understanding that has grown up between farmers and the public.
Neil is apprehensive. He tweets: “About to talk to a classroom of year 9 pupils… #lambtotheslaughter”. It’s a while since he was last in a classroom and he is not sure what to expect, but he is interested to take the temperature of public opinion.
Standing in the front of the curious teenagers, he talks about the family farm where he produces milk, beef and animal feed. He explains the double impact of Brexit: the loss of European subsidies, without which (unless the UK government picks up the tab) many farmers might go under, and the change to our trading relationship with the EU, which could deprive farmers of a big chunk of their market.
One pupil ventures a question: has he diversified? Yes, he has converted farm buildings into holiday cottages. He has also looked into bottling his own milk, which would mean that he could sell it for £1 a litre instead of 24p. The trouble is that he would then have the job of marketing it himself which carries a high risk. You can’t stockpile milk till the price goes up.
So he goes for the simpler option of selling his milk to a big dairy, his animals to an abattoir, and grain to an animal feed mill. His produce therefore bypasses the high-end tourist restaurant with its venison and crabs and leaves the county, along with the profits from the various supermarkets where most people do their shopping.
As the discussion continues, it becomes clear that the pupils and the farmer have made the same deal: commodity farming and supermarkets, rather than the local diversified food chain so beloved of the tourists. It falls short of the ideals we have been discussing, but it’s easy to see why.
There are powerful forces of policy, convenience and lifestyle that have taken our food systems inexorably away from labour-intensive mixed farming, small herds, specialist shops and weekly markets, to the system we know today. And Britain has since the industrial revolution had a policy of cheap food for the cities, which has made it hard for us to develop a food system that is flourishing in its own right, and means that Brexit could produce a step change in the wrong direction.
Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. If there were the demand and the infrastructure – and of course the willingness to pay – farmers like Neil could grow at least some food for local markets, insulating themselves from the ups and downs of global trade and becoming less reliant on subsidies.
Research suggests that this might not be an impossible dream. As Amber Wheeler found with her 2013 study Could the St. Davids peninsula feed itself? local food self-sufficiency is theoretically feasible in at least one part of rural Wales (and see Simon Fairlie’s Can Britain feed itself). We might not aspire to such hard-core self-sufficiency, but it is surely worth exploring.
To reshape our food system so that farmers were supported by local markets would take concerted action by policy makers, government, business and the public. It would require a very strong motivation to reverse decades of urbanization and globalization.
But then, isn’t that sort of collaboration exactly what the Well-being of Future Generations Act is supposed to promote? And a recent report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy on the implications of Brexit for agriculture calls for long-term collaboration between government, business and others to build the agri-food sector and increase the resilience of rural communities.
We didn’t come up with any answers in that geography lesson, but the question hung in the air. Maybe our young people can change the world, given the right opportunities. Maybe our schools can be a crucible in which new visions can develop.
Afterwards, a relieved Neil tweets again. “Really enjoyed talking to the pupils this morning. Future’s bright”. There may be challenges, but if we face them together, who knows what we might achieve. I think we all felt the excitement of new possibilities.