What Wales could do with a Community Food Strategy

This article was originally published by the Institute of Welsh Affairs here.

As pressure to meet net zero emissions targets grows, Oxfam has warned that the drive to plant trees could lead to vast areas of land being taken out of food production, leading to hunger for the most vulnerable.

Now carbon offsetting is causing concern much closer to home. As reports emerge of corporations buying whole farms for afforestation, Ceredigion MP Ben Lake has warned that rural communities, the Welsh language and food production are being sacrificed to a ‘green-washed business-as-usual’.

Wales has its own target of net zero by 2050. Following guidance from the Climate Change Committee, it plans to move around a fifth of agricultural land from livestock rearing to carbon sequestration, supported by a change in diet away from red meat consumption.

However, even given the need for more trees, there does not need to be a simple sacrifice of food production for forestry. What is needed is a comprehensive land use policy, one that recognizes that food production, forestry and other land uses all have a place, and can even sometimes be combined, as for instance in agroforestry.

A food strategy for Wales

An effective land use policy would need to be linked to a food policy. England has come up with some pointers in its recent National Food Strategy, an independent report to which government has yet to respond. Such a food policy could help us decide what our land is for, as well as pulling together other threads, from farming and the economy to health and social inclusion.

Both the Welsh Food Manifesto and the Food Policy Alliance Cymru have been calling for just such a joined-up food policy for some time. Now, the Welsh Government has announced that it will create a Community Food Strategy during its current term.

At first glance, the reference to ‘community’ seems limiting. It makes no reference to how Wales as a whole intends to feed itself, or to the global impacts of outsourcing food production to countries with lower farming standards, or of importing livestock feed grown on land taken out of tropical rainforest.

Maybe, though, communities are a good place to start. We have many inspiring grassroots projects which are busy reconnecting people with food production. Numerically small, these projects nevertheless represent the citizen power so essential to the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

They are pioneering new ways of doing things, including community gardens, local food hubs, community meals and Community Supported Agriculture projects.

Local integration

In particular, community food projects could be an important way to integrate farming and food policy.

On the one hand, we have a forthcoming Sustainable Farming Scheme that will reward farmers for managing the land environmentally, while at the same time supporting them to develop their businesses. Food production, which is not considered to be a public good, will not be directly supported and so will depend on other policy moves.

On the other, we have an action plan for food that is mainly about developing the food and drinks industry, with an aspiration in the next version to contribute to community development.  This strategy has little to say about farming.

What community projects might do therefore is to bridge the gap between these two policies, by reaching out to local farmers and growers and connecting them with markets, tapping into growing demand for local food.

These markets include retail, the hospitality sector and public procurement; Carmarthenshire is already backing local sourcing as part of the government’s Foundational Economy programme.

The missing link here is infrastructure, including small abattoirs, processing facilities, cold storage and distribution, which will need investment. The returns are big though: the regeneration of rural economies, vibrant communities and a healthier population with cooking and gardening skills.

Alongside physical infrastructure it is also important to build democratic processes that allow citizens to contribute to local decision-making, something that is encouraged by the Well-being of Future Generations Act but difficult to attain in practice.

Here there is inspiration in the shape of Food Cardiff, Our Food Crickhowell and the Sustainable Food Places network which have shown their worth in mobilizing community responses to the pandemic.

Land use

Food security is a key concern of community food projects, and provides an impetus for local food production. But this depends on access to land. As outrage builds over the sale of the countryside to corporate interests, what can we do?

One approach might be to develop a Rural Land Use Framework, as the English food strategy recommends. The English model would assign land to one of three compartments: intensive food production, natural habitats or an agroecological combination of farming and nature.

We might not follow that model in Wales, but without any plan at all, we may default to a combination of intensive farming and rewilding which will disappoint many.

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is calling for the English land use framework to be led by local communities, and again, a Welsh Community Food Strategy could allow for that.

Another approach would be to follow Scotland’s example of the community right to buy, so that Welsh farms that came on the market could be bought by local groups, such as Community Land Trusts.

Alternatively, local authorities could step in and increase their stocks of county farms, neatly reversing the sad case of Trecadwgan, where a community group failed in their bid to buy a 14th century farm from Pembrokeshire County Council.

Wales has no equivalent of either the Scottish land reform legislation or the English Localism Act, and we will need to establish our own principles of land management.

One starting point could be to find common ground between those who want to preserve traditional family farms, with all they contribute to the local culture and language, and new entrants to farming, often from urban backgrounds. A community food strategy could help to do this.

Food democracy

There is strong public feeling about the Welsh countryside. Concerns about the sell-off of farms to corporate interests and the proliferation of intensive poultry units are rooted in a deeper concern about our national culture and the natural world.

A Community Food Strategy must give people the means to ground those concerns in practical action, and a voice into government.  The mechanisms exist: the Future Generations Act provides for communities to influence local authorities via Public Services Boards, and the Environment Act invites collaboration through the Area Statement process.

The Public Services Boards do not have the power to block the sale of farms for carbon offsetting, any more than they can stop the proliferation of intensive poultry units.

What they can do, however, is provide a space for community organizations to propose strategies for local land use which could then be picked up by national government. This would allow local and national priorities to be matched.

They could also set up mechanisms by which environmental goods such as carbon sequestration and flood prevention can be rigorously audited to allow for a blend of public and private investment, leaving farmers in control of the land. In Pembrokeshire, the BRICS project is pioneering a blended model for water quality.

It will not be easy to create these new structures for a new form of governance, but working locally does bring the energy and creativity of communities, and maybe they can do what government cannot.

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.

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.





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?

two men sorting potatoes

Food from the ground up: the potential of citizen food initiatives

Ask people what they would like to change about food, and very often they say they like to be able to buy it locally, and to know where it comes from. Relocalizing the food system is important as a contribution to food security and a vital part of building a healthy food culture. Key to this is bringing together government policy with citizen food initiatives, which is why Renew Wales organized an event in Machynlleth in October to see what community food projects have to offer.

The Welsh Government put out two food policy documents for consultation in the summer, with October closing dates, and both have a bearing on this. One was about how to support farmers after Brexit puts an end to EU farming subsidies, and the other was about the future of the food and drink industry. Both are relevant to local food.

Farming and food businesses

First, farming. Sustainable Farming and our Land proposes a single support scheme with two main aims. One is to reward farmers for delivering environmental benefits such as biodiversity, clean water, flood protection and carbon sequestration. The other is to support them to produce and market their products – including food – more effectively.

This raises questions about the relationship between farming and food production. Is growing food merely an income-generating activity for farmers, one that they might replace with glamping or forestry if the conditions are right, or is it a public service to the nation? Farmers lean towards the second aspect, as the NFU’s #proudtoproduce posters proclaim, but as they know better than anyone, they need to make money too.

Then, the consultation on the future of the food and drink sector, which was drawn up jointly by the Welsh Government and the Food and Drink Wales Industry Board. It had three aims. The first was to develop Welsh food businesses, the third was to promote Wales as a food nation, and sandwiched between those two came this one: ‘benefiting our people and society’. The idea here is that businesses who receive government support will ‘provide wider benefits through fair work, developing skills and using resources sustainably’.

Economy or people?

It was good to see this a nod to the social aspect of food, as thegovernment’s current action plan Towards Sustainable Growth has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on jobs and exports. This had been a disappointment, given that the underlying strategy document Food from Wales, Food for Wales 2010-2020 took a much broader view, as its title suggests. It attempted to integrate food business development with health, education, community development and food security.

In fact neither policy document has much to say about the value of a thriving local food economy. Instead, they bow to the political imperatives of keeping farmers in business and boosting food industry jobs and exports. Given that farming relies heavily on producing red meat for export while the biggest part of the food sector by value is drinks – notably bottled water and gin – it’s not easy to join the two up.

Nevertheless, where there is an opportunity we must take it, and so at a meeting of community food initatives organized by Renew Wales at Machynlleth, both consultations were given an airing. What could these projects contribute to food policy? Eight speakers shared insights from their projects, and a further 25 or so participants from all over Wales took part in discussions.

two men sorting potatoes
Sorting potatoes at Clynfyw Care Farm

Some of the projects that were represented are working directly on local food supply chains, such as Riverside Community Market Association, Aber Food Surplus and Mach Maethlon’s Pathways to Farming project. Others, such as Borth Family Centre, have a primary focus on people, but use food as an activity to bring them in, and also do their bit to support healthy eating and reduce food waste. Clynfyw Care Farm artfully combines food production with social care, Incredible Edible Porthmadog has a focus on public education, and the Denbigh Plum is all about our food heritage. The Machynlleth Climate Emergency Food Group is researching a food plan for the area.

What was clear is how creative such initiatives are, and how little heed they pay to the boundaries between government policy areas. They draw people together, they prototype new food products and supply chains, they perserve food skills, they enrich our lives through the arts, and they generally change the communities of which they are part. They unlock enthusiasm and dedication from both staff and volunteers, and they care for people who are left behind by austerity and a competitive, materialistic culture.

Significantly, a few farmers attended the event too. As Brexit threatens big changes to their livelihoods, they spoke about their need for closer connection with their local communities and for their work to be appreciated. For them, the opportunity to sell food locally at a good price was a much better option than dependency on subsidies.

So what is the message to the Welsh Government?

Joining up policy

First, there is a strong case for using both areas of policy to support local food systems, and the community food sector with its adaptability and drive is well placed to support that.

The farming consultation already proposes improvements to local infrastructure in some cases, but this must be stepped up as it is central to rebuilding local food economies. Cold storage, distribution hubs, food processing and packing facilities – all of which could be made available to community food initiatives as well as larger food producers – would make local trade much easier.

This could be combined with a drive on public procurement, using the purchasing power of schools and hospitals to prime the pump of local production. The case for this has been made repeatedly, and the Assembly’s Rethinking Food in Wales project recently produced a document with some clear calls for action, available here. Just this month, the Welsh Government has allocated £100,000 to Carmarthenshire Public Services Board to improve local food procurement as part of the £4.5 million Foundational Economy Challenge Fund.

Meanwhile, food businesses also have a key role to play, one which goes beyond job creation and export earnings. It is in everyone’s interests to have a vibrant food culture, with a mix of businesses from the artisan to the large-scale, and a strong story about food and place. The food industry also needs to attract young people, who care not just about pay and conditions, but also about the environmental and social performance of businesses. They want to work for companies that do good, and the food industry has great capacity for that.

Again, community projects are crucial here, connecting people and telling the story of food. Businesses could be doing more to support them, by making their facilities and expertise available, in exchange for a genuine connection with the public. The support they already give to their communities – from snacks for schools sports days, up to grants for capital improvements – could be better coordinated, too. At present it’s haphazard and sets groups up to compete when they could collaborate.

Local food strategies

A clear local food strategy which businesses, community groups, local health boards and others decided together, would be a start. Cardiff just published theirs and it includes community food growing spaces, limiting fast food outlets near schools and a revamp of Cardiff Market. Other areas of Wales could take a lead from them. Government could play a role in bringing people together, as part of its delivery of the Future Generations Act (and incidentally, the Future Generations office is collecting ideas from the public here).

Citizen food initiatives are numerically small, but they are powerful. As Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food argues in this video, they draw people together, building trust and creating spaces for new ideas to emerge. By creating alliances with politicians, local businesses and the public, they can amplify their effects, creating real force for change.

We need more of that in Wales. Community initiatives can do what government and business can’t, and they deserve to have more influence. Meanwhile, please sign the petition for more local food in Wales here: www.localfoodpetition.cymru.

field of grass with rectangular plots

Sir George Stapledon, grassland scientist and visionary for our times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unintended consequences

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

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

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

Humanness

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

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

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


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

[ii] p. 277.

[iii] p. 278

Brexit, a new start for Welsh food and farming?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Global food plans must start from the bottom up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edited on 13.4.2019 to add illustration.