Land, food and people: lessons from the Isle of Man

By Jane Powell

Bees hover over marigolds, cornflowers and yarrow in full bloom around the edges of a field of beans which stand blackened and dry, ready for harvest. Beyond, the land slopes down to the valley bottom, where small herds of South Devon cattle are grazing the species-rich wetland meadows. Hedgerows abundant with blackberries, hawthorn and guelder rose divide Guilcagh farm up into small parcels, where Jo Crellin also grows wheat for milling and hay for the horses of the nearby riding school. This is the Isle of Man, where the sunny low-lying northern tip, in the rain shadow of Snaefell, is well suited to cereal cultivation.

We’re on a walk organized by the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, and the co-existence of food production and nature is certainly a strong theme of the discussion. There is also a historical dimension: archaeological evidence suggests that people were growing wheat here  almost 6000 years ago. But it’s not just about a timeless rural idyll. Back at the farm, Paul Fletcher, owner of the cows we admired earlier and the new Chair of the Island’s Agricultural Marketing Society, explains his vision for a food chain that connects people to the land not just through the food they eat, but also through knowledge and understanding.

“We want to see personal connections up and down the food chain,” Paul says. “Retailers, food businesses and farmers need to meet so that they understand each other’s work and build trust in the food system. When you buy produce from Manx farms you become part of a unity of people and nature, and we want to make that easier for people to understand.”

It’s a familiar theme: the public has become disconnected from the land, and food has become a mere commodity to be traded like any other. Telling the story of food, by making the food chain visible and personal, doesn’t just secure the livelihoods of farmers and enrich the tourist experience; it can also help to reinvigorate a sense of community, place and belonging. This is a quality which it can be difficult to articulate, let alone assign a monetary value to, but which is readily conveyed in the context of farmers markets, school visits to farms and farm walks such as this.

genuine IoM meatEvery society has its own take on the story of its homegrown food. The Isle of Man has some defining characteristics which are unique to a small self-governing island with its own quirky fauna (it lacks badgers, foxes, moles and toads, but has a population of feral wallabies), and yet are instructive to us in Wales and beyond. At 32 miles long and 14 miles wide – which is one-third the size of Ceredigion, which it resembles with its rolling hills and fishing villages, but with a slightly bigger population – it corresponds roughly to the area covered by a market town and its hinterland, which is what many of us have in mind when we talk about ‘local’ food.

At the same time it has a national government with powers that Wales is still dreaming of, and it’s outside the EU, although in practice very tied to it by trading arrangements. That means for instance that it finances its own farming subsidies out of domestic taxation, it has fixed the retail price of home-produced milk at 60p a pint and it owns all the land over 200m. Meanwhile the obstacle of the Irish Sea, which is reckoned to add 20% to the cost of goods that are ferried across, is a powerful stimulus to local food production and contributes to the island’s diversified farming system, which supports a creamery, an abattoir and a flour mill, besides supplying eggs and vegetables.

It’s also been designated a UNESCO World Biosphere region, which is simultaneously an accreditation for the Manx balance between human activity and the natural world, and a stimulus to develop new approaches to sustainable development. As such, it is part of an international partnership of reserves which includes such iconic sites as Ayers Rock and Yellowstone National Park – and in Wales, the Dyfi Biosphere centred around Machynlleth – with a remit for educational exchanges and research.

The Dyfi Biosphere, which spans three local authorities (Ceredigion, Gwynedd and Powys), is dominated by beef and sheep and has few opportunities so far for creating branded products for export, but the cultural conditions are not so different. Both Biospheres have a Celtic language and rich cultural history, both have strong farming traditions, and both have a strong sense of place and family roots. Both also benefit from a dynamic population of incomers who are attracted to the natural beauty and atmosphere of the western margins and ready to envision a bright future.

As we in Wales face the uncertainties of leaving the European Union we have an opportunity to ask ourselves what future we want for our food system, and we have much to gain by talking to others who are grappling with the same challenges. It’s a time for building new partnerships, and the Isle of Man and the network of Biosphere reserves can offer Wales a new perspective on the relationship between land and people.  It’s worth further exploration, as we transcend our local identities to find the universal values of place-based development.

Jane Powell is a freelance educator and writer active in local food matters in Aberystwyth.   She writes here and on her own site, www.foodsociety.wales

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Scallop fishing in Cardigan Bay: sustainable or not?

By Jane Powell

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.”

Jane Powell is a freelance educator and writer active in local food matters in Aberystwyth.   She writes here and on her own site, www.foodsociety.wales

Food Network Wales – working for a better food system

school kitchen counter

By Pamela Mason

Working for a better food system in Wales is something that few would argue with. We know the issues linked with food, from obesity to climate change, from poor remuneration for farmers to the demand for food banks. Many people and organisations across Wales including civil society groups, the private and public sectors and Welsh government are working on these things. Yet, despite Wales being a small country where people make good connections with one another, many people whose work is linked to food work don’t always know what others are doing. When that happens, we miss the opportunity to gain from each other’s knowledge and experience, and progress towards the better food system we all want to see is very slow.

With this in mind, during the past 12 months or so, a small group of us who live in Wales and are strongly engaged with food in academia, business, civil society, the public sector or as health professionals, have come together to discuss how we can help to make the food connections across Wales work better. To that end, we have developed the concept for a new network, Food Network Wales, in which we hope to work together with as many people and organisations as possible. We have produced a consultation document which summarises our thinking to date and how we, by joining together with what we hope will be a wide variety of civil society groups, farming and food businesses, academics, health professionals and public sector bodies, hope we can create a space for networking, thinking, knowledge exchange and research towards this better food system we want.

The problems linked with food are well known. In Wales almost a quarter of adults are obese and less than a third are eating their five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Climate change, associated with a greater risk of flooding, is already having an impact on food production. Poverty has increased in Wales during recent years making it difficult for people on low incomes to access a good healthy diet. Food bank use has increased. Small family farms, which make such a vital contribution to Welsh culture and Welsh language, as well as being producers of some of Wales’ best food, continue to decrease in number. Brexit could have a devastating effect on family farms and severely affect food resilience and food poverty.

The Well-Being of Future Generations Act creates a huge opportunity to focus on the improvement of the food system from increasing the availability of healthy, affordable food for all the people of Wales, reducing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss to supporting farmers in the strengthening of shorter supply chains and improving social cohesion around community food initiatives. The Act offers a particular opportunity to help children and young people learn more about food, how to grow it and how to cook it.

Food Network Wales wants to get people together who are concerned about the food system and want to work to improve things. We see Food Network Wales as being a dynamic, progressive organisation acting a hub for engagement and debate across a broad range of stakeholders in food and farming. We think that strengthening short supply chains and getting more local food on to the public plate will be key interests for many who join this network. We also think this new organisation will play an active role in raising awareness around food, sharing information with a wide range of people and collaborating on research. We are also developing a Food Manifesto for Wales, which we hope will be recognised by the general public and adopted by Welsh governmental and non-governmental organisations, businesses and health professionals.

We aim to provide an ‘umbrella’ under which everyone with an interest in the food system in Wales – farmers, growers, processors, retailers and consumers, as well as academics and healthcare professionals – can gather for the benefit of all. We hope you will share our vision, not to mention excitement, for the potential that Food Network Wales offers to make for a better food system in Wales today, tomorrow and for future generations of Wales. Let’s do this together.

You can download a short introduction here in Welsh and English. We’d love to hear your views and you can do this by responding to our on-line survey:

Cwblhewch yr arolwn yn y Gymraeg

Complete the survey in English

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire. 

Cutout hen and wellies

Teaching children where their food comes from

By Jane Powell

“What’s good about being a farmer?” Potato grower Walter Simon is taking questions from a class of seven-year-olds at Narberth Primary School in Pembrokeshire, and this question comes up five or six times. Each child gets a fresh answer: Because I love being outside. Because growing potatoes is an exciting challenge. Because every day is different. Because I am my own boss. Because I’m producing food which people need, so I’m doing something useful and that feels good.

Without thinking about it, he is giving the children a lesson in values. For him, a good job doesn’t mean high pay, long holidays or prestige, nor is it about comfort and security. He shares his sense of enjoyment, adventure and the satisfaction of serving others and belonging to your local community, and the children are enthralled. They are meeting someone whose job it is to grow their food, and they are waking up to an important fact of life – our dependence on a complex food supply chain which starts with farmers and other primary producers, and eventually reaches their plates. They begin to see their own place in the world, and it inspires a certain wonder and respect, from which curiosity flows, and a desire to learn more.

This is why the charity Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) and community development organization Planed, in partnership with a range of farming and education partners including the NFU, the Healthy Schools Scheme and the National Park, are running a pilot project to reconnect Pembrokeshire children with the food chain. Children are engaging in an enquiry into the local food system, starting with food mapping workshops in the classroom and then taking them out into their local community to  survey food shops, interview shopkeepers and visit farms. They are also looking backwards and learning about a time when people didn’t get their food from large supermarkets, farms were mixed and people ate seasonally. That leads to a discussion about what the food chain of the future might look like – small-scale local production, large-scale intensive farms, or a mixture? What would they choose?

The potential of food education is huge. Farm visits, gardening, cookery, community meals, egg-hatching projects and so on give children an instant and powerful connection with the world outside the classroom and help them move outside the confines of a modern lifestyle which cuts them off from the natural world. Alongside all the science and geography that they learn in the context of exploring the food chain, they gain practical skills which bring confidence and self-respect, and which will serve them well in later life. They also meet people they otherwise wouldn’t, whether it’s a local retired person who comes in to help out with the garden or a business owner who has come to trade at a schoolyard farmers’ market.

The fundamental importance of food to our lives is hard to overstate, and yet all too often education about food and farming falls to the bottom of the list. When there is literacy and numeracy to fit into the school day besides all the usual demands of the academic curriculum, plus the Eisteddfod and a dozen other excitements on offer, it can be hard to persuade a school to cram yet another activity to into a crowded schedule. One way to do this is to show how so many curriculum requirements can be taught through food and farming, from art and global citizenship to geography and business. Another is to show the benefits of the outdoor classroom in engaging learners who might struggle in conventional settings, whether because they find it hard to sit still in a classroom, or because the natural environment opens up more sensory channels for learning.

It’s time for a more strategic approach. In England, the well regarded Food for Life scheme draws together home cooking in the kitchen, gardening, farm visits and community links into a single programme which runs across the whole school under the guidance of the school cook and the head teacher. It has been shown to  deliver many benefits, including increasing vegetable consumption for parents as well as children,  boosting the local economy through purchasing policies and starting to close the attainment gap for disadvantaged children. Originally Lottery-funded, the programme is now being commissioned by local authorities and even individual schools.

Could Wales do something like this? The Food and Fun programme developed by Food Cardiff and now extended to the rest of the country, where free school meals are provided over the summer holidays and linked to food education and physical activities, shows that there is a will to invest in children’s food. But it needs to go further, permeating the curriculum and the term-time ethos, and really engaging the younger generation in creating a better food system for the future, in partnership with their communities and business. It’s a particularly good time to do this now, as Wales is embarking on a major reform to the school curriculum, and has the new collaborative ethos of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.

Our Food Values project showed how deeply felt is the public concern for ‘teaching children where their food comes from’ and passing on the values and skills that will ensure a fair and healthy society. Food is ultimately not a commodity but an essential of life, connecting us to each other and the natural world. Let’s give children a thorough grounding in the interdependence of humans and nature, starting with the meals they eat three times a day.

What farmers really care about

By the Food Values team

Farmers occupy a very special place in the food system. As the people who grow crops and raise animals, generating most of the raw materials for our food supply chains, they are at the point where different interests come together and so often find themselves the focus of controversy. Should we eat less meat to save the climate, or are sheep and cows the best way to use the grass that grows in Wales? Should we do more to preserve biodiversity or have we gone too far in that direction? How far should we support food production with public money? These important debates can all too often become polarized and focus on what divides us, rather than what brings us together. So we made a video…

We wanted to see how an exploration of shared values could create connection across some of the apparent divides in the food system, and so the Food Values project headed to the Royal Welsh Show this summer to talk to farmers and land managers and start a conversation. It’s easy for discussions about farming to get side-tracked into complaints about the system – the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, the powerlessness of the producer in the face of market forces, public indifference to where their food comes from – but we wanted to get beyond those concerns.

We wanted to explore instead the core values that farmers bring to their work, so we engaged them in conversation about their lives and let them speak for themselves. The half-dozen people that we spoke to on a sweltering afternoon amid the crowds of the Royal Welsh were hardly a big enough sample to draw firm conclusions but they did represent a cross-section of farming – young and old, Welsh and incomer, full time and part time, male and female – and a few themes emerged which resonated with wider research we have conducted.

Perhaps the main message was how they saw themselves as producers of food. They spoke of the contribution that they are able to make to rural communities, with whom they are in a “symbiotic relationship”, not just by supplying food but also supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and generally maintaining the fabric of the countryside. They took a pride in their skills and mentioned the satisfaction that came from managing resources well, reducing external inputs and employing local people. There are fewer people working the countryside than there were, and there has been a cultural impoverishment as a result, but farmers know that food production will always be important and so they are ready to look to the future and adapt.

Another theme was the sense they had of obligation towards the land that had come into their care.  “We try not to mess it up for the next generation,” as one of them put it, a way of thinking that naturally encompasses an ethos of conservation and care for wildlife, and comes with a sense of history and a familiarity with the pendulum swings of agricultural policy. There was pride too in educating urban people about food production and the countryside, through schemes such as Open Farm Sunday.

What happens next? We made this video not to be the final word on what farmers care about, but to start a discussion which might lead to deeper understanding of what it is to work the land. We hope it will encourage other farmers to reflect on what really matters to them, and that this might start a wider conversation which will lead to constructive change. Brexit brings with it an opportunity to re-think our food system from the bottom up, and it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.

You can find out more  about Food Values on foodvaluesblog.wordpress.com.

Reducing food waste

truck dumping foodWhen an estimated one-third of the food produced on farms around the world never reaches the table, and people are going to bed hungry even in the UK, something must be wrong. How come our food supply chains are so leaky and what are we going to do about it? In a globalized economy, some of the explanation is well out of the reach of local communities, but the loss from supermarkets and households is something we can all get to grips with.

At the WRAP Cymru/FareShare Surplus Food Summit last week, an invited audience got to work on the question: How to redistribute supermarket food surplus to best effect, not simply diverting it from landfill to stomachs, but also getting the best social and environmental benefits in the process?

During the course of the morning, some fascinating facts emerged. Food banks often have a waiting list of volunteers keen to help. Whether supermarkets are willing to give their food waste to community groups depends on the attitude of the manager, their head office, and even just the staff who happen to be on duty on a given day. Only 2% of the 10 million tonnes of food thrown away in the UK each year is from retailers; much more, 70%, is from households, as we buy too much and leave things at the back of the fridge.

The sheer complexity of the problem was evident. This is a challenge to be tackled on many levels, not least IT, as the FareShare FoodCloud partnership with Tesco shows. Environmental health regulations, storage facilities, transport and training come into it too. The task of sorting out working relationships between supermarkets, community groups, local government and volunteers is probably the biggest though, and it is one in which values have a part to play.

How is the enthusiasm of many supermarket store managers and individual staff to be translated into company policy, to be reinforced by training and facilities? What motivates volunteers to help out, and how can they be made more effective? How can we remove the stigma of surplus food being for poor people and see it simply as food, for which we all have a responsibility and which we can all enjoy? How to fit food redistribution into the bigger picture of fair food for all, linking it for instance to the local food movement?

These are all questions we will be asking in our next Food Values event, in Aberystwyth. We’ll be working with an existing student initiative that links supermarkets to charities and asking how we could take it to the next level. What might that look like – a food waste café, vans, a website, a warehouse perhaps – and who could help it happen? It will mean forging new partnerships between people with very different interests, and these will be much more effective if people think in terms of the greater good, as well as what’s in it for them. It will mean people coming together on a human level, because they are members of the communities in which they live, and coming up with something new.

To do that we’ll be hearing from the inspirational food waste café at Fishguard, which saves an estimated 21 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually by diverting food from landfill, and is an important social hub. We’ll also hear from some of the supermarkets and charities already working with surplus food in Aberystwyth, and by sharing the stories of individuals involved, we’ll find out what’s important to them and see where there is common ground.

The result will be much more than an action plan for food waste redistribution in Aberystwyth. It will include an insight into what makes a community tick, and how to bring together business, community and government in order to serve their local area. It will, we hope, be another example of the way in which food, touching as it does so many aspects of our lives, is also a powerful force for individual, social and environmental transformation.