Once in a lifetime: bringing food and farming closer together in Wales

By Jane Powell

Our departure from the EU provides an opportunity for citizens, groups and organisations to bring about deep change in the food and farming system in Wales, and the UK. Let’s put food at the heart of this transformation.  

When we leave the EU, the familiar system of farm subsidies will come to an end and it will be up to the governments in London and Cardiff to devise a new system of public support.

The UK government is working on an Agriculture Bill which is out for consultation until May. It is mainly concerned with England, but it does contain a section on frameworks for dealing with the devolved nations. This will determine the regulatory baselines and the power that the Welsh government will have to make its own policy.

Speaking at an NFU conference in Birmingham in February, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, set forth five principles that will guide a new Welsh land management policy.

The first four are: to keep farmers on the land, to ensure a prosperous agricultural sector, to ensure that public spending delivers public goods (meaning environmental benefits) and to make the support system accessible to all.

Bringing up the rear at number five is this:

“We must not turn our backs on food production. Where sustainable production is viable, we must help our farmers compete in a global marketplace… Food is core to Welsh farming values and is emblematic of our nation. We already have a thriving food and drink industry and this is the time to advance it.”

It is good to see the link being made between farming and the food industry. The Welsh Government’s Food and Drink Action Plan for 2014-2020, Towards Sustainable Growth, recognizes that 170,000 people are employed by the food and drink supply chain in Wales and that it is an important contributor to exports, jobs and general prosperity.

However, food is much more important than this, as the government’s own underlying Food and Drink Strategy for 2014-2020, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, makes clear. It is also about health, culture, education, food security, environmental sustainability and community development.

So let’s not talk only about jobs and exports, important though those are. Food is central to the way we hold together as a society and feed our young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable. It is the foundation on which future generations will literally grow.

As we embark on a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ to set a new course for land management and all that flows from that, it is imperative we take a broad approach, recognising the complex relationships between our food, farming, society, economy and environment.

A systems approach to food and farming

Let’s look at a few things we might want to do if we thought farming was, at least in part, about producing food for the people of Wales.

For one thing, we would align farming with public health as well as the environment, so that we grow food that meets our nutritional needs. That would mean putting more land under horticulture, in particular. This is the focus of the Peas Please campaign, which brings together government, farming, supermarkets and caterers in a concerted effort to have the UK eat more vegetables. We might also grow more grain for human consumption.

We would use the power of the public purse to support this new model of farming, getting Welsh-grown food into public sector catering, such as schools and hospitals. Professor Kevin Morgan in his 2015 Senedd paper Good Food for All enlarges on this point and calls for a programme to train procurement staff in ‘values-for-money’ purchasing which stimulates sustainable food production and underpins education and community development.

We would also want to make sure that the public, and especially young people, understand how food is produced, so that they can support nature-friendly, high welfare farming with their votes and their shopping choices.

That would mean supporting links between farms and schools, backed up with gardening and cookery to help young people make the connection between nature, food and human health.

It would also mean supporting food festivals to tell the story of farming (and fishing), as well as promoting community gardens which introduce growing skills to so many people.

All this would encourage the public to place a higher value on food generally, and to waste less of it. It would create a climate where people were willing to pay more for high quality produce, and so generate more rewards for the people who work so hard to produce it and bring it to our plates.

Finally, we would want to enshrine the inseparability of food, farming, the environment, health and culture in a new alignment of organizations and policies that ensures that we gain as much benefit as possible from joining the dots. Local groupings such as Food Cardiff are an example of what can be done; we need to work nationally as well.

It is human nature to divide into competing interest groups, or siloes that ignore each other, and so we need to make a positive effort to work for unity and understanding. We call on the Welsh Government to engage with civil society and business and unlock the power of food to bring us together into a new vision of a healthy nation.

View the second draft of the Wales Food Manifesto and send us your comments: Food Manifesto Wales Second Draft Apr 2018. And sign up to our newsletter.

Download the report of our public meeting: Food Network Wales 9 Feb 2018 report

Jane Powell is an independent education consultant who is working as a volunteer with the Food Manifesto Wales. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales

Llun/picture: Anthony Pugh

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Growing plant protein in Wales: the opportunities for pulses

By Louise Davies

Louise photo

Thinking back a couple of years, before working at The Vegan Society, I can’t imagine getting excited at the prospect of someone growing chickpeas in Wales. To be honest, I’m not sure I even knew the difference between a pea, a bean and a pulse. But times have changed, and a few months ago I was genuinely messaging colleagues with the hot news that I’d discovered a chickpea grower in Wales.

We all know that vegans love hummus, but my excitement extended beyond the thought of a creamy dip.

At The Vegan Society, we’ve been working on a project called Grow Green. It makes the case for a transition away from animal farming and towards plant protein agriculture for the benefit of the environment, our health and animals. The humble bean (or chickpea) could play a large part in a sustainable food and farming system – being nutritious, healthy, sustainable and affordable. And it’s not just vegans making this case. Our latest report was written by respected think tank, the New Economics Foundation.

Since the report launch last year we’ve been talking to parliamentarians and policy makers about our recommendations, which include a new-entrant scheme for growers, public procurement policies which insist on British grown pulses, and a tax or subsidy cut to take into account the externalities of animal farming.

Some challenging ideas there, I know, but perhaps more so in Wales (and Scotland) where the terrain is less amenable to plant protein agriculture. Of course, the vegan priority is an end to animal farming and there are many diversification or exit options for farmers that don’t include growing. But vegans would like to see the food on our plates being grown in Britain too, so it’s important that we explore what is possible across the UK. So now you might be getting an idea of why the possibility of growing chickpeas here in Wales got me so excited!

soya beans David Burridge

Soya beans – David Burridge

David Burridge has a walled garden between Builth Wells and Rhayader, certainly not somewhere you would naturally associate with growing pulses. But David is determined to prove that we could be braver in our thinking around growing, and has grown everything from wasabi to okra. As well as chickpeas, he has grown several other pulses successfully. They all store very well for the winter, so will add variety to this otherwise quite barren time of the year.  His vision for our hillsides includes terracing, where rather than grazing sheep, we could create flat areas where vegetables and grains could be grown. David has only scratched the surface of the growing potential here and wants field scale trials to inform on viability.

Other proponents of vegan organic farming tell me that this sort of land could be used for seed potatoes, hemp fibre, energy crops or agroforestry which could include productive trees like walnuts or hazelnuts.

We would like to see more research and development into plant protein agriculture, and also other types of vegan growing, to see what is possible and where. It’s not just vegans who eat vegan food, and this is shown by the exponential growth of plant-based foods in the UK. Here in Wales we could be capitalising on the innovations in plant milk. We’re currently growing thousands of tonnes of oats that are being fed to animals. We could be growing oats to make Welsh oat milk – great for our health and the economy, and so much more efficient. Currently for every 100 calories we feed to animals we get just 12 back by consuming their flesh and milk.

We know that some ancient grassland has huge biodiversity benefits, and a sensible way of retaining this is to have animals grazing on it. We would like to see free-living animals on the land (e.g. deer), or animals freed from farming living out their lives naturally. That said, much of our grassland is not ancient, and would hold much larger environmental benefits if converted to forest.

We certainly don’t claim to have all the answers and some genuinely sustainable solutions present dilemmas for green vegans. However, the inherent environmental damage of animal farming (grass-fed or not) needs to be addressed urgently.

Let’s take some inspiration from David and his chickpeas, and work towards a robust Welsh food and farming system centred around healthy plant foods.

Fancy branching out with your own planting? David recommends Jungle Seeds, Chiltern Seeds or Seeds from Italy

Louise Davies is Head of Campaigns, Policy and Research at The Vegan Society, and is particularly interested in the environmental benefits of plant-based eating. She lives near Hay-on-Wye and previously worked for the Wales Green Party.

Can our young people shape the food system for the better? Let’s take more farmers into the classroom

By Jane Powell

We often hear how young people have become disconnected from food. They don’t know where it comes from and they can’t cook a meal. Of course that matters and we need to do something about it, but if we turn the problem around and ask how young people can help shape the food system, we have a much more interesting question.

Let’s visit a classroom in rural west Wales, where a class of 13- and 14-year-olds are studying local and global food as part of their geography course. They check over the menu from a local restaurant and discuss the arguments for regional food: it’s fresh, it boosts the rural economy and creates jobs, and it saves on transport and therefore carbon emissions. But it may be expensive, and going to the supermarket is so much easier.

Also in the classroom is a dairy farmer, we’ll call him Neil, here to talk about his work and help with their discussions. The pupils have been preparing for his visit with help from their teacher, who has helped them get a picture of what farmers do and think up some questions for him. She has also had to help them over a few prejudices absorbed from the media.

Although this is a rural area, most of the pupils have no direct experience of farming, and they are curious to meet someone from such a different walk of life.  The fact that Neil is an ex-pupil of the school, and that most of them presumably consume dairy products on a daily basis, only underlines the gulf in understanding that has grown up between farmers and the public.

Neil is apprehensive. He tweets: “About to talk to a classroom of year 9 pupils… #lambtotheslaughter”. It’s a while since he was last in a classroom and he is not sure what to expect, but he is interested to take the temperature of public opinion.

Standing in the front of the curious teenagers, he talks about the family farm where he produces milk, beef and animal feed. He explains the double impact of Brexit: the loss of European subsidies, without which (unless the UK government picks up the tab) many farmers might go under, and the change to our trading relationship with the EU, which could deprive farmers of a big chunk of their market.

One pupil ventures a question: has he diversified? Yes, he has converted farm buildings into holiday cottages. He has also looked into bottling his own milk, which would mean that he could sell it for £1 a litre instead of 24p. The trouble is that he would then have the job of marketing it himself which carries a high risk. You can’t stockpile milk till the price goes up.

So he goes for the simpler option of selling his milk to a big dairy, his animals to an abattoir, and grain to an animal feed mill. His produce therefore bypasses the high-end tourist restaurant with its venison and crabs and leaves the county, along with the profits from the various supermarkets where most people do their shopping.

As the discussion continues, it becomes clear that the pupils and the farmer have made the same deal: commodity farming and supermarkets, rather than the local diversified food chain so beloved of the tourists. It falls short of the ideals we have been discussing, but it’s easy to see why.

There are powerful forces of policy, convenience and lifestyle that have taken our food systems inexorably away from labour-intensive mixed farming, small herds, specialist shops and weekly markets, to the system we know today. And Britain has since the industrial revolution had a policy of cheap food for the cities, which has made it hard for us to develop a food system that is flourishing in its own right, and means that Brexit could produce a step change in the wrong direction.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. If there were the demand and the infrastructure – and of course the willingness to pay – farmers like Neil could grow at least some food for local markets, insulating themselves from the ups and downs of global trade and becoming less reliant on subsidies.

Research suggests that this might not be an impossible dream. As Amber Wheeler found with her 2013 study Could the St. Davids peninsula feed itself? local food self-sufficiency is theoretically feasible in at least one part of rural Wales (and see Simon Fairlie’s Can Britain feed itself). We might not aspire to such hard-core self-sufficiency, but it is surely worth exploring.

To reshape our food system so that farmers were supported by local markets would take concerted action by policy makers, government, business and the public. It would require a very strong motivation to reverse decades of urbanization and globalization.

But then, isn’t that sort of collaboration exactly what the Well-being of Future Generations Act is supposed to promote? And a recent report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy on the implications of Brexit for agriculture calls for long-term collaboration between government, business and others to build the agri-food sector and increase the resilience of rural communities.

We didn’t come up with any answers in that geography lesson, but the question hung in the air. Maybe our young people can change the world, given the right opportunities. Maybe our schools can be a crucible in which new visions can develop.

Afterwards, a relieved Neil tweets again. “Really enjoyed talking to the pupils this morning. Future’s bright”. There may be challenges, but if we face them together, who knows what we might achieve. I think we all felt the excitement of new possibilities.

Jane Powell is Wales Education Coordinator for FACE,  which works with schools to help children and young people understand the connection between farming and their daily lives. Last year FACE became part of LEAF. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.  

Food production depends on nature, so let’s protect it

By Natasha Yorke-Edgell, Campaigns Officer at RSPB Cymru 

Let’s make food in a way that is as good for the planet as it is for us. It sounds like common sense, but we are still not doing it. Whenever I ask myself why, it always comes back to three things:

  1. These days it’s difficult to know exactly where our food comes from and the impacts it has on the environment, largely because our shopping experience separates us from where our food comes from and how it is produced.
  2. Because of this lack of transparency, people don’t make the link to the damage that food production can cause and the policies which influence food and farming.
  3. Even when the link becomes clear, the food supply chain can seem so complex that as individuals we can feel outside of the system and powerless to do anything about it.

These three combine to create a rift between the food we eat and the impact it has; they take away the story behind our food’s journey in the world, and they reinforce the idea that people are powerless consumers, rather than influential citizens. So how do we bring back our value for and understanding of our food to improve our lives? What’s more, how do we make sure that this conversation doesn’t miss out a vital element – the nature that we, and our food, depend on? One of the starting points might be to simply start telling the story about how these things are all connected.

Every stage in the journey of a piece of food has an impact on how good it is for our health, how good it is for the environment, and how much the planet can provide for us. For example, right at the beginning is the space needed to produce the food: an increase in demand may result in more land being used and this may result in a loss of wildlife habitat. (Particularly for meat production, which demands much more land, water and feed than growing vegetables.) The first step towards a more nature friendly food system must be to reduce our ‘food footprint’. The simplest ways to do this are to eliminate all waste and move to a ‘less but better’ meat approach, as we know that this substantially reduces the climate change impact of diets.

Equally important is that we manage our productive land in as nature friendly a way as possible. For example we rely on pollinators like bees, butterflies and flies to help grow much of our food, and we need earthworms, small insects and bacteria to help nourish our soils. These organisms also form the basis of the food chain that a host of other animals depend on. This is why it is important to avoid the use of chemicals, which can harm pollinators, and to sustainably manage our soils so that they remain healthy and productive for the long term.

Unsustainable farming (largely due to the outdated Common Agricultural Policy – or CAP) is one of the biggest drivers of environmental degradation; since 1970, farmland wildlife has declined by 52% and 12% of farmland species are now threatened by extinction in Great Britain (State of Nature 2016, p.16). This environmental degradation has huge implications for our future. Our Wellbeing of Future Generations Act (2015) recognises this and includes an important goal – to build a ‘resilient’ Wales. This is defined as: a nation which maintains and enhances a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example, climate change) (See Wellbeing of Future Generations Act: The Essentials, p6)

However, the State of Natural Resources Report (SoNNaR) revealed that none of Wales’ ecosystems are resilient (this means they can’t withstand or adapt to change). So we have a lot of work to do to bring our ecosystems back to a place where they can sustain us in the long term. We need to develop productive farming systems which work with nature, embracing complexity to ensure resilience and providing a variety of sustainable and healthy food.

How do we create such large-scale change in Wales to meet the needs of future generations? Over 80% of Wales is farmed, so if all our farmers produced food in a way that restored nature, we would be on our way to reversing the SoNNaR statistic – we could make almost all of our ecosystems resilient. To make this vision a reality, the Wales Environment Link network (of over 28 environmental NGOs) are asking the Welsh Government for a ‘Sustainable Land Management‘ policy to replace the CAP, which could deliver the systemic change in our food and farming system. It becomes clearer and clearer, that food is at the heart of saving nature, but more than that, it is a cross-cutting issue that could be the key to delivering our sustainable development legislation, impacting our social, economic and environmental wellbeing.

For all of these reasons, changing our food and farming system has become a priority area of work for the RSPB. In Wales, we provide conservation advice to upland farmers, including the Migneint (from Ffynnon Eidda to Y Gylchedd) in Snowdonia National Park, helping them to manage the important habitats on their farms for wildlife whilst still producing food. We also work with farmers across Wales, from Betwys-yn-Rhos to Abergavenny, to better integrate food production and conservation by working together on land management projects and influencing policy. We farm sustainably for nature on our RSPB reserves, in particular Lake Vyrnwy and Ramsey Island, where we combine farming with conservation practices to bring back nature to its full glory. As a result, we’re quite good at talking about the way food production can save nature, but we’re only just starting to look at the role food itself has to play in that mission, which is why we’re talking to Food Network Wales to explore what nature-friendly food is, how we start talking about it, and how we collaborate with others to promote the possibilities of a new nature-friendly food system.

If you would like to find out more about nature-friendly farming in the UK, have a look at the Nature-Friendly Farming Network, or if you would like to know more about farming and wildlife in Wales contact RSPB Cymru.

Natasha Yorke-Edgell is the Political Campaigns Officer at RSPB Cymru responsible for building public support for nature-friendly food and farming in Wales, to influence post-Brexit land use and food policy. Her background is in communications and environmental campaigning.

Picture: Lake Vyrnwy, by Eleanor Bentall

Silvopasture – the best of both

By Alex Heffron

Alex Heffron and cowThere is a debate going on that says we should be afforesting the uplands of Wales, in order to give nature a better chance, sequester carbon and improve drainage downstream, amongst other benefits. I’m in favour of all those reasons, but I don’t think we need to choose from a false dichotomy of trees or livestock; we can have both.

Silvopasture, the grazing of livestock amongst trees, provides many of the benefits of both. Hedgerows and shelterbelts are one thing, and very good at that, but there is also the planting of around 1000 trees per hectare, in strips at roughly 10-25m spacings – either following the contour, keyline, or going in N-S or E-W rows. This allows for easier establishment and management and thanks to the ease and cost of electric fencing we can avoid the need for expensive stock fencing. This can also be combined with arable systems as some farmers have already done in the east of England.

In the early years the grass will need to be either mulched, or kept short via mowing, but eventually, after 5 years or so, the livestock themselves will graze the grass beneath the trees. This isn’t the only approach that can be taken – there are other patterns that can be utilised, but this, from our analysis has the most potential and is the easiest to establish and manage. But some of that will depend on the specific context of the farm and the grazing systems in place. All tree-planting – from hedgerows and shelterbelts, to strips and plantation plantings – should be considered. Each farm should choose the approach that best suits them.

Some farmers might be concerned that they will lose much-needed grass, but the loss in grass is not substantial, and on the contrary the trees should improve grass growth (better soil, drainage, aeration, and shelter from wind) and improve livestock health and performance (trees are mineral-rich and provide much needed shelter from wind and rain). Plus trees can make a substantial portion of a ruminant’s diet; this report from the Forestry Commission suggests around 12.5% of dry matter intake for cows, and around 15% for sheep. It’s still early days, with different pioneering farms trying different approaches, as there are many that can be taken, but it seems obvious already that it will become a win-win-win, for farmer, animal and nature. Can we afford not to do it?

Not only do you get the environmental benefit of the trees but there is also an economic benefit. The trees can be managed, for example, using a sustainable coppicing method to produce firewood, woodchip (think bedding and compost) and also managed for fruit, nuts and no doubt other products too such as timber. And of course we still get the economic, ecological and community benefits that are already derived from livestock.

With a little government funding farmers could be encouraged to take up this practice, and help to bring more trees back to not just the Welsh uplands, but the Welsh countryside in general. But we don’t need to wait for government funding because Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales), already provide grants of at least 60%for tree planting.

It is with Coed Cadw we will be placing an application for tens of thousands of trees to be planted across our farm over the next 5 years or so. It’s a big experiment, and I’m sure we’ll make mistakes, that hopefully others after us will learn from, but I’ve no doubt whatsoever about the beneficial role they can play in improving our farm from an economic and ecological perspective. Upland farming is not the most profitable form of farming so the extra money provided by this system is sure to be welcome.

It will take some new skills being learnt, or re-learnt, but that’s something farmers have continually had to do anyway as part of a job that in many ways has never changed, and in many other ways is continually changing. Hopefully, talk of the government subsidy to farms that plant trees, sequester carbon, improve water storing, and provide habitat will come to fruition, making silvopasture a no-brainer for farmers on many levels. But even without that subsidy, it makes sense, and for it to be sustainable I think it needs to show it can more than pay its way, otherwise a change of government policy could see the uprooting of the trees planted, which would reverse the benefits. It needs to be maintained long-term. “Pears for your heirs,” as one friend told me recently.

Given the intensity of the debate around ruminants and greenhouse gas emissions, this is one way that farmers can help to nullify that, as several studies show that it’s possible to sequester more carbon than is emitted via silvopasture systems. I think it’s a system where Wales can lead the way, and show to other countries what’s possible. We have plenty of scope to put this method of farming to use and it lends itself well to our landscape. I don’t think it’s a cure-all for all of the environmental challenges we face but along with a return to native, diverse pastures, and an improvement in grazing management, can be a significant step towards a more sustainable and ecologically-sound way of farming.

To find out more about the planting of trees in the uplands of Wales, it’s worth reading this report about the Pontbren Project, a pioneering project led by several farms working together. They experienced economic benefits to their businesses, as well of course, as the environmental benefits.
If you’re interested in discussing this more then comment below and we can chat further about it.

Alex, along with his wife Sam, started Mountain Hall Farm in the Preseli hills of Pembrokeshire 18 months ago without any previous farming experience. Since then they have been milking cows and letting their animals rule the roost. They run a micro-dairy selling 100% pasture-fed raw Jersey milk and beef directly to their local community. By using the principles of permaculture, holistic management and regenerative agriculture, Alex and Sam hope to build a farm which brings people together through good food with respect for their animals and nature. @AlexHeffron88

Picture: Nigel Pugh

Farming for biodiversity at the Botanic Garden – what local and national collaboration can achieve

By Bruce Langridge, National Botanic Garden of Wales

It’s surprising how quick you can make a difference.

I’ve been working at the National Botanic Garden of Wales since 2003 and have keenly observed some dramatic changes to meadows that we’ve been managing for hay. Formerly dull swathes of grass-dominated pasture now bloom with colourful waves of fascinating flowers that were once common in our countryside but which have declined dramatically since the intensification of agriculture.

How did we do this? Simples. We cut the meadow in the late summer, don’t add any fertiliser and occasionally graze a few cattle in the winter. We’ve not introduced any wildflower seeds or plugs, we’ve just let nature do what nature does.Yellow Rattle, Trawscoed North plants 19 June 2013 056

It’s a vital role of a national botanic garden like ours to conserve, educate and inspire. With over 300 acres of agricultural grassland to manage on our Waun Las National Nature Reserve, it’s vital that we can show our visitors how farming can work with, rather than against nature. With around 60 Welsh Black cattle and a new flock of local-breed Balwen sheep, we produce beef and lamb that we sell to our Garden members and supporters.

I’m no farmer myself. I’m the Garden’s Head of Interpretation but I used to be a field botanist in the 1980s and a natural history museum curator in the 1990s. As a very young charitable institution when I joined in 2003, the Garden was flexible enough to harness its staff’s knowledge and passions, even when they didn’t strictly adhere to job descriptions. That’s how I got to know this wonderful farmland. And luckily I’ve worked successively with two farmers, Tim Bevan and Huw Jones, who know their balers from their billhooks.

Our Head of Science, Dr. Natasha De Vere is also a national expert on rhos pastures, a hugely declined Welsh farming habitat which survives in fragments on the NNR – we’re working to join up these wet meadow gems. Wales is also blessed with plenty of people who have been happy to advise us whether it be the Freshwater Habitat Trust on our lakes and dipping ponds, PONT (Pori, Natur a Threftadaeth) on organically managing rush – we don’t use chemicals – and Plantlife Cymru on how to short-cut the creation of new species-rich meadows using our own green hay. I suspect most Welsh mycologists have helped us to record our internationally important waxcap fungi pastures whilst all manner of pollinator-friendly people have helped us become leading research institute with a specialism in DNA barcoding. Our half a million honeybees have been so well observed now that we’ve a pretty good idea of where and what they forage. This means we have a more tolerant view on what we now know is one of the honey bees’ favourite food source – the bramble. This is handy as we’ve recently discovered we’ve got dormice, a fact that requires us not to hack back bramble without looking for small mammals first.

Sharing these experiences with other small-scale farmers, such as those on the recently formed Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, is what helps me to find my job so rewarding. Inspired by the incredible efforts of the Monmouthshire Meadows Group, this new group is made up of people who want to farm with, rather than against, nature. Just by meeting with others, sharing experience and knowledge, then later tools and grazing livestock, these farmers are helping to either conserve or create new pockets of biodiversity which are so needed across our biodiversity-depleted countryside. Wouldn’t it be great to see this model of small scale co-operation working across all the counties of Wales?

I’m now all set for a new aspect to food production. The Garden has recently been tasked to run a five-year project called Growing the Future – this follows on from a pilot project run between 2012-15. This pan-Wales European funded project is aimed at raising interest and participation in horticulture. So if you want upskill your green fingers, keep an eye out for a whole range of upcoming hands-on, and online, courses which will be advertised via the Garden’s website botanicgarden.wales or garddfotaneg.cymru.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the events this will allow us to run. We’ll be expanding our Wales Wildflower Day to a weekend event, creating a brand new Wales Bee Weekend, creating a secular harvest festival in autumn featuring food grown in our Double Walled Garden, expanding our Apple Weekend and raising awareness of fungi in gardens as part of our UK Fungus Day event.

These events, and stands at various shows, give us the chance to meet and talk to new people, especially those who want to learn, just like I do.

Bruce Langridge is Head of Interpretation at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire.

Mae tim y Maniffesto Bwyd yn cynnal cyfarfod yn yr Ardd ar 9fed Chwefror er mwyn cychwyn rhwydwaith fwyd i Gymru. Cysylltwch â helo@maniffestobwyd.cymru i wybod mwy.

The Food Manifesto team are holding a meeting at the Garden on 9 February to build a food network for Wales. Please contact hello@foodmanifesto.wales to find out more.

 

How paying subsidies to farmers saves us money in the end

By Megan Perry, Sustainable Food Trust

When Britain leaves the EU, farmers will no longer receive direct payments from Brussels, and the UK governments will have to make their own policy on subsidies. Some people will see this as an opportunity to reduce costs, but the Sustainable Food Trust’s new report The Hidden Cost of UK Food suggests that cutting subsidies might be a false economy.

The report shows that agricultural subsidies make up a comparatively small proportion of the total costs of UK food – just 2.5p for every pound spent on what we eat. That’s because there are huge hidden costs in the food system, such as the health care bill caused by poor diets, and the environmental impacts of intensive farming. Farm subsidies, meanwhile, will be pivotal in shifting our food system towards more sustainable practices, saving us money in the long run.

The report highlights the damage that our current food system causes, and the huge economic cost of this to society. Food appears to be cheaper than ever in the UK, yet the price we pay at the checkout is masking a hidden cost. In reality we are paying for our food twice – for every £1 we spend on food in the shops, we pay another £1 in other ways.

One example is healthcare. With a whole range of negative impacts, from pesticide poisoning to antimicrobial resistance, food-related healthcare costs account for an extra 50p of every £1 spent on food. Broken down, we can see the severe impact of poor diet, as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer rates continue to rise. Cardiovascular disease is particularly significant, forming 9.2% of NHS costs, at £2.5 billion per annum. Obesity costs around £3.95 billion, while treatment of malnutrition in the UK costs £7.3 billion annually.

How is our food system helping to create this problem? The rise of supermarkets and promotion of processed food is one aspect that has led to decreasing nutrition in our diets. As retailers compete to cut costs and lower prices, we’ve seen food increasingly packed full of cheap, processed ingredients that are also addictive, such as sugar. Another aspect with serious and far-reaching repercussions is the loss of diversity in the foods produced, particularly the narrowing of the range of crops grown, and the loss of crop varieties.

Many diets now rely on a small number of staple crops, such as wheat, maize and soyabeans, while the diversity of food produced in general has seen significant decline. In Wales, for example, the amount of land producing vegetables has declined by half in the last 40 years. This not only impacts our health, but threatens future food security and reduces habitats for wildlife.

Aside from diet, our food system directly impacts our health through production practices, and the costs of these can be huge. Antimicrobial resistance, for example, is a problem created in part by the overuse of antibiotics in livestock production, which is now having a catastrophic impact on our ability to treat even some minor infections. It is estimated that the economic cost of antimicrobial resistance in the UK is £10 billion per year, and around £2.34 billion of this is likely attributable to livestock production.

There are also, of course, health costs associated with exposure to pesticides, particularly to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), and these can amount to £12 billion per year. Many of us unwittingly come into contact with pesticides via residues in food and water, or we may be exposed to them directly in our environment. In fact, one study found that almost 5% of all fruit and vegetable samples tested contained one or more pesticide residues above the legal limit, while a quarter of all surface water reservoirs used for drinking water in the UK are at risk of exceeding EU pesticide limits, according to the report.

Environmental pollution and degradation associated with food production also generates major economic costs that many of us may be unaware of. In fact, environmental impacts account for an extra 36p for every £1 we spend on food. Agriculture-related greenhouse gas emissions cost society £10.35 billion per year in the UK, while costs from nitrogen pollution are estimated to be £11.88 billion, or about £185 per person per year.

Soil degradation is another major issue. Over 99% of human food calories come directly or indirectly from plants grown in soil. Food security for the global population depends on maintaining soil health to ensure its long-term productivity. Soil contains 25% of global biodiversity, and over 98% of the genetic diversity in terrestrial ecosystems, and provides habitats for insects, invertebrates, microorganisms and small mammals. Soil also stores approximately 2,500 billion metric tonnes of carbon, essential for soil fertility, water retention and plant health. However, most croplands have already lost 40–60% of their organic carbon to the atmosphere. Globally, more than half of all soils are now classified as degraded or severely degraded. In the UK, the economic cost of the loss of soil carbon is estimated to be £3.21 billion per year.

These are just a few examples of the most significant costs generated by the negative impacts of food production in the UK. There are numerous others, including water pollution, food importation and biodiversity loss. The food system is not serving its people or the environment. There is currently little financial incentive for food producers or businesses to do the right thing. They do not have to pay for the damage they inflict and they are not rewarded financially for the care and conscience they give to the countryside.

This urgently needs to change, and with Brexit on the horizon we must ensure that future food and farming policy internalises the hidden costs back into the food system, creating the right incentives for sustainable progress. The continuation of subsidies is essential to  reward farmers for positive practices which protect the environment and support human health.

There is clearly a lot of uncertainty around the future of food policy in Wales, as indeed there is across the rest of the UK, but Brexit provides an opportunity for Wales to lead the way, and outline a genuinely sustainable future for food and farming.

Megan Perry studied International Politics and then gained a Masters degree in Food and Water Security at Aberystwyth University. She now works full time as Policy and Communications Officer for the Sustainable Food Trust. She lives on a small farm in Somerset where her family rears Black Welsh Mountain sheep.

Picture: Gary Naylor