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.
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