Defining the boundaries

By Dr Jane Ricketts Heinmountains of Cynidr Consulting, Powys: Rural research, specialising in society, agriculture, the environment and (of course) food.

A Food Manifesto for Wales has the potential to address some particularly complicated, ambitious, important and, quite frankly, difficult issues.  At least, it could do – and probably will have to, if it is to achieve meaningful change.

Following the interesting and valuable discussions at the “Food, Values, Fairness” workshop in Cardiff in June, I would like to highlight three related subjects, all linked to how we define the boundaries of ‘food’.

  1. We need to include more farmers in the conversation. Many (perhaps most) farmers are not particularly ‘growing food’, they are ‘producing commodities’ and, entirely reasonably, are more concerned about global market prices for their ‘products’ than local values – even if they are sympathetic to many of the aims that workshop participants discussed.  I feel that many of the debates around ‘local’ and quality food started too far along the food chain – with the community or individual rather than when the seed reaches the ground or while the animals are grazing (or even before this, but taking on the agricultural inputs industry may be a step too far at this stage).  Starting with the consumer is understandable as, generally, we can only take action where we are – and few of us are farmers, but we are all eaters!  However, farmers are key people if this is to be an all-encompassing food manifesto.  This would mean engaging with (or challenging or changing perhaps) the attitudes of a range of well-funded organisations, including agro-chemical companies, the main farming unions, the mainstream farming press, corporate retailers, government (at a variety of different scales), the training establishments and most of the farmers themselves who get their information from these bodies.
  2. We need to talk to the trainers. The need for training was often mentioned, but mainstream agricultural and horticultural methods appear to take precedence in many of the existing training opportunities.  ‘Alternative’ modules and courses could be presented alongside more mainstream topics, and given equality in their promotion.  Examples of such topics occur throughout the food system, including production methods such as organic, permaculture, no-till agriculture and even ‘natural’ beekeeping techniques, along with innovative business and marketing models, such as Community Supported Agriculture, co-operatives and micro-businesses, before we get to the diversity of consumer projects.
  3. How about taking on the ‘bottom line’? Perhaps most importantly – and certainly the most problematic – is that we are where we are because the economy rules.  Dismantling the supply chain and disengaging food networks from the mainstream economy, then building a new system is something that a lot of small, diverse organisations seem to be working on with some local success.  Doing this on a much bigger scale and in different parts of the food system would be incredibly difficult, but could offer fantastic opportunities.  This does assume that this is what is wanted, of course – it may be that being ‘alternative’ in some way is actually desirable and useful.

Difficult?  Naïve?  Completely unworkable?  Well, so are many other issues.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start working on them, though.  Food is so much more than the edible stuff on our plates, and the system that puts it there is massive and complex.  This is going to be a really big conversation – and it’s far too important to let everyone else decide the outcomes.

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