By Sam Packer
Farmers know a thing or two about the weather, and it’s clear that the winds are changing fast. A bodged Brexit has put farming on the ropes: Welsh lamb, dependent on the EU export market, looks particularly at risk; devolved administrations have been excluded and sidelined through Westminster’s flagrant use of Henry VIII powers; trade-deals pose enormous threats to the sector, with a flood of bargain basement food likely to undercut domestic producers.
Brexit is, nevertheless, somewhat of a smoke-screen to the more fundamental challenges we face to global planetary health, manifesting in the interrelated crises of diet-related ill health, climate change, antimicrobial resistance and biodiversity collapse. In these turbulent times the status quo of food and farming needs a rethink, and fast.
The way we farm is connected to the way we eat; ask anyone to look at the land and reflect – is that where my meal was made? The answer is, most likely not: your protein was grown in the Amazon, your oils in Malaysia, your fruit Spain, your wheat Ukraine. Gazing on a landscape of livestock, many – one third of the UK population is estimated to be flexitarian – are well placed to ask the question, is this land feeding me?
Disconnected from the means of production, we are mindlessly fuelling these crises, for example, deforestation for palm oil – a major ingredient in ultra-processed (junk) foods – contributes to our obesity crisis.
Even in Wales, the disconnect is damaging; despite 80% of Welsh land being under agricultural management, many children barely visit a farm. Bringing people closer to their food production has multiple wins – education, health, community cohesion – and putting farmers in the seat of power to make that change must be a priority for future farm policy. Farms such as COCA (Caerhys Organic Community Agriculture) in Pembrokeshire should be front of mind as part of this social food revolution – pioneers such as Gerald Miles should be given a national platform.
The Well-being of Future Generations Act demands that law, policy and public money are developed and used in the interest of those that follow. It is an extraordinary opportunity to drive the food and farming system towards one that considers public health, climate resilience and nature – but until now we have largely overlooked the vehicles that will take the food system there.
Plaid Cymru have had a go, hitting the headlines in 2018 for proposing a bold vision for Wales to be 30% organic by 2030. This may seem a tall order, but Austria has achieved 22% of farmed area under organic already, and across Europe organic land area increased 18% between 2012 and 2016. The biggest driver of this change is market demand, which is outstripping production considerably; in the same period the EU organic market grew 45% to €30bn, while in the UK it is a fast-growing £2bn food market and we’ve barely scratched the surface.
Without policymakers responding to these challenges, they risk leaving the Welsh food and farming sector behind. There must be support for adaptation and innovation across the sector, and crucially, this will need to privilege systems that enhance ecological resilience. Thriving diverse landscapes, full of life, full of food are a cornerstone to thriving rural communities.
Here’s some ideas to kick-start the food transition to ‘Well-being Wales’:
- Fruit and veg first: A Wales empty (less than 0.2% of land) of fruit and veg production is a weaker, unhealthier place. High quality fruit and veg must land on the public plate – and domestic producers with support can fill the void. Wales must make good food the easy choice for schools, hospitals and care settings.
- Biodiversity, in-the-field: Out of sight our soils are losing life, compacted, eroded. Wildlife lives on scraps at the edges of monocultures, our road-verges and back-gardens often support more diversity than our fields. Wales must commit to in-field biodiversity where farmers can be simultaneously profitable and work with nature.
- Farming in 3D: Trees and farming are a fabulous partnership, Wales should commit to agroforestry full-pelt – 25% of Welsh farms integrating trees and agriculture by 2025 would not only bring well-needed business diversity (timber, fruits, nuts) it would go a significant way to meeting Government ambitions for tree planting.
- Quick gains with proven systems: organic farming may not be the silver bullet for sustainable food systems, but it is market-ready, verifiable and exportable; it might be as close as we’ve got. Committing to a widescale and rapid transition to agroecological systems – such as organic – should be front page of a future Welsh food and farming strategy.
Welsh citizens must harness this unique moment to make food and farming fit for future generations – tell your politicians, listen to your local farmers and land managers, and imagine what ‘Well-being Wales’ means for food and land.
Sam Packer is farming and land use policy officer at the Soil Association, where his work focuses on horticulture, agroforestry and climate change. Prior to this role he has been a grower/ teacher for mid-Wales community food project Mach Maethlon, contributed to the Food Values Wales project, and worked at Coed Cadw, Woodland Trust Wales. He can be contacted on email@example.com or @samtpacker on Twitter.
Image: Creative Commons