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.

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.

Cleaning nitrates out of our rivers is everybody’s business

Welsh Rural Affairs Minister Lesley Griffiths has claimed that poor farming practices are leaving many water courses “devoid of fish”, and that she will be introducing tougher regulations in 2020. These will mean penalties for farmers who do not comply. But some people are arguing that this is the wrong approach, and we should be looking at local cooperation rather than top-down regulation. To understand this, it’s important to understand the bigger picture.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is as much a part of modern life as the car and the television, just much less visible. Chemical companies have been producing nitrates since the Second World War, when the factories that had been making explosives were turned to peacetime uses, and it’s now a cornerstone of modern farming. Applied judiciously, it speeds up plant growth and allows farmers to make the most of a short growing season.

But it comes at a cost. For one thing the manufacturing process requires a lot of oil, as nitrogen and hydrogen have to be combined at high temperatures and pressure. And because nitrates are highly soluble, they are easily washed into rivers where they cause aquatic plants to grow too fast, upsetting the ecological balance and damaging both wildlife and fisheries. This is a particular problem in Pembrokeshire, where concerns about nitrate pollution in the river Cleddau and Milford Haven have already led to calls to declare the area a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) under EU law.

This would mean that farmers would be obliged to cut their fertilizer use, and also face restrictions on how they can spread nitrogen-rich slurry, or manure, on the land. They would for instance have to store it if the land is waterlogged, waiting for dry conditions so that it is absorbed into the soil rather than running off into rivers. Financial margins in farming are tight, and farmers say that cutting production or investing in bigger slurry tanks would put some of them out of business.

Also, it isn’t just cows that produce manure. Humans do too, and sewage plants are responsible for a fair proportion of both nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Cleddau. The river catchment is now ‘full’ of nutrients, making further economic development unacceptable. Clearly, nutrient pollution needs to be reduced, but this is a problem caused by human activity in general, and it doesn’t seem fair to hold farmers solely responsible. Could there be a better solution?

At Pelcomb Farm near Haverfordwest, farmer Mike Smith and soil expert Jon Williamsspread soil analysis reports out on the kitchen table. Jon points out the 2013 analysis for one particular field, which shows an imbalance between magnesium and calcium. Magnesium is important, he explains, because it is an essential part of the chlorophyll molecule. Without enough magnesium, crops cannot photosynthesize efficiently, however much nitrogen they are fed.

Magnesium also however has the effect of binding soil clay particles very tightly, and needs to be counterbalanced by calcium, which produces a looser soil structure, good for aeration and drainage. By 2017, applications of magnesium have brought the soil back into balance and increased the efficiency of nitrogen use.

By this and other adjustments, such as avoiding compaction with heavy machinery, Mike has been able to reduce his use of nitrogen fertilizer on his intensive dairy farm to a third of what it was, saving money and protecting the quality of the river water. He also keeps a careful eye on his slurry.

“For a farmer, slurry is a valuable resource, full of nutrients. We don’t want to lose it to our rivers! So we do a soil analysis before we plant, say, a cereal crop, and we analyse the slurry as well. That way, we can apply the right amount to the land and cut down on artificial fertilizer too.”

Rather than the NVZ, Mike wants to see a voluntary scheme, where farmers are accredited in rather the same way that a beach gets a Blue Flag for its water quality.

The First Milk dairy cooperative of which Mike is a member has already shown how farmers can work together to clean up their act. In 2005, Welsh Water served notice that they would no longer treat the effluent from First Milk’s Haverfordwest cheese factory at their sewage plant, because they needed the capacity for new housing development.

After prolonged negotiations between First Milk and Natural Resources Wales, an agreement was reached in 2011 whereby treated effluent from the cheese factory could be discharged directly into the Cleddau, providing that the member farmers offset these nutrients by changes to farming practices further upstream.

Building on this success, there is a new initiative to introduce a nutrient trading scheme which would allow farmers to be rewarded for better management of nitrates. Any new housing development, hotel or factory will put extra pressure on the Cleddau catchment, and so needs to come with a plan to ensure that there is no net increase in pollution.

The EU funded project BRICs, or Building Resistance into Catchments, is working on a trading scheme that would allow farmers to sell credits to developers, thus spreading the cost more fairly. It would also introduce a culture where farmers are seen as business leaders, rather than offenders to be policed.

BRICs is necessarily a partnership project. It works with a wide range of organizations, including land managers, industry, conservation organizations, the farming unions, Welsh Water, ADAS, farming cooperatives, local authorities and Natural Resources Wales.

There’s a lot at stake. Not only is it important to open up new capacity for industrial and housing development in the area, but good farming practice is of vital importance in itself, and farmers need to be properly supported to do this.

Out in the field at Pelcomb, Jon gets his spade out and digs a hole. The turf comes out easily, and the soil underneath is dark, sweet-smelling, loose and crumbly, with a few stones, worms and a healthy mesh of grass roots. “This is how it should be,” he says. “Soil is a living thing, full of bacteria, fungi and worms, and it wants to be in balance”.

He explains how natural processes in the soil produce 80% of the nitrogen a crop needs, and artificial fertilizer often does more harm than good. Organic farmers avoid it altogether, relying on crop rotations and careful manure management to do the job.

“Welsh soils contain plenty of organic matter because they’ve been under grass and livestock for so long. If we can manage our soils and manures properly, we can cut our dependence on synthetic nitrogen, build soil fertility and go a long way towards reducing the carbon footprint of Welsh agriculture,” he says.

The Pembrokeshire experiment will see if a fairer system of sharing the costs of good soil management – and therefore of food production – can help build a culture of cooperation and trust that will benefit the natural world on which everything depends.

Previously published on Food Manifesto Wales (with a different title and intro)

Welsh farming and food policy after Brexit – what is food really for?

Ths has also been published on Food Manifesto Wales

It’s an interesting time for Welsh food policy, with two major consultations running at once. One, Brexit and our Land, is about support for farming in Wales after we leave the EU next year, to be phased in from 2020-2025. The other is to develop a new action plan for the future of the food and drink industry when the current plan expires at the end of 2019.

Taken together, and in the context of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, these consultations allow for a significant change to our food system in Wales, opening up a space for fresh thinking. But they require us to think deeply about where we are now, and ask some fundamental questions about where we want to go.

Let’s start with Brexit and our Land. The idea, here, is that there will be two sources of funding for farmers. One will be for delivering public goods, defined in this context as products of farming for which there is no market value, such as biodiversity, soil health and clean water.

The other will be used to help farmers to become more economically resilient, for instance by providing training and opportunities for collaboration and marketing. This will include food production, but it could also provide for diversification into areas such as tourism and large-scale renewable energy.

Some welcome the fact that environmental protection is enshrined in a principle of ‘public goods for public money’, free of any compromise with economic activity, in which the environment tends to come off worse. Others regret the divorce between food production and care for the environment, seeing them as interrelated aspects of human existence. Treating them separately could – at worst – have unintended consequences, and at best mean lost opportunities.

Those who would like to see food production integrated with environmental protection point to organic farming and other agroecological systems as tried and tested examples of a joined-up approach. They call for mechanisms such as true-cost accounting, which aims to level the economic playing field for sustainable, environmentally-friendly farmers.

Meanwhile, payment for ecosystem services (PES) is another model that is being tested. A good example of this is the Pumlumon project where farmers are looking for ways to be rewarded for storing carbon in the peat bogs, absorbing rainfall to prevent flooding downstream, reconnecting habitats and providing community benefits.

If as seems likely, the proposal in Brexit and Our Land for a dual system of support prevails, important questions remain about food. The consultation document states as one of its guiding principles that ‘Food production is vital for our nation and food remains an important product from our land.’

But what sort of food, and for whom? Are we talking about growing food for domestic markets, making us a little less vulnerable to upsets in the global trading system – a field of potatoes for the local school perhaps, or some serious leek production? Or are we talking about lamb for the Middle East and cheese for China? And how will we decide?

A similar question arises in the case of the food and drink industry. The title of the current strategy, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, suggests that feeding the people of our country is at least as important as generating exports and jobs. The accompanying action plan Towards Sustainable Growth, however, is baldly subtitled “How we plan to increase sales in the food and drink sector by 30% by the year 2020.” Produced a few years later, after the recession had begun to bite, it speaks of different concerns.

Times have changed again, and there seems to be a desire now to integrate a thriving food industry with a healthy population. The Government has, for instance, supported conferences to explore how the food industry can promote healthy eating, and how it can help young people develop skills and find satisfying careers.

But many gaps remain between what the food industry delivers and what a healthy food system requires. And again, there are questions: should the food industry aim to feed Wales, or should it focus on exports and jobs? To what extent do we want to make food local, with shorter supply chains and richer interactions between businesses and the public? And especially, how can we promote food that is produced in a way that is environmentally sound?

The Welsh Government does, of course, examine the links between its various policies and is required to check them against the Well-being of Future Generations Act. But a group of civil servants under a changing collection of political leaders can only do so much. It is up to all of us as citizens and voters to breathe life into policy and vision a better future. So what is to be done?

We need to have a national conversation about food, one that takes in the whole picture. That should be based on a clear agreement that food is for nourishing people, that it must be produced in a way that doesn’t deplete our natural resources, and that it is shared out fairly. This is about the shared values of citizenship.

Making money is important, of course, but it must be in service to those more fundamental aims. Given the seductive power of money, and in particular, the way that almost any policy argument can be shut down by a reference to public spending cuts, it is important to have those objectives firmly in mind.

Connected to this, we must look more closely at the question of public goods. Clearly, food is not a public good to the extent that it is a commodity to be traded. But it is surely good for the public to have a diversity of farmers, growers and other businesses producing nourishing and tasty food. It is good to have businesses that keep traditional food skills alive, and create satisfying and fairly paid livelihoods, investing in their workers. It is good to have settings where local producers, businesses and the public can meet each other and together build a food culture.

It is also good for local communities to be self-determining, to make their own decisions about the food that is served in public institutions, for instance, and to shape the food system in their area. This is perhaps where the Public Services Boards (PSBs) come in. These are statutory bodies set up under the terms of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and based in a local authority.

The function of a PSB is “to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in its area by strengthening joint working across all public services in Wales”. Governance of the food system is not in their remit, as such; but given the central role of food in bringing together so many aspects of health and happiness, it is a role they may grow into.

The subject of governance brings us back to Brexit. There is an important caveat to the discussions on support for farming, which has to do with devolution. Up till now, funding for the Rural Development Programme has come directly from Brussels to Wales. But in future, London will be controlling the budgets, and it is far from certain that we in Wales will enjoy the same freedoms as before, let along the same resources.

The Wales Food Manifesto has been set up as a citizen initiative to ask big questions about food in Wales and look for new ways forward. Please get in touch if you would like to be part of this conversation.

scallop fishing boat

Scallop fishing in Cardigan Bay: sustainable or not?

This article was first published on Food Manifesto Wales

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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