Local cooperation may be more effective than penalties in tackling nitrate pollution in Pembrokeshire

By Jane Powell

One of the interesting angles to come out of the Brexit debate is the need for local cooperation. The balance between economic activity and care for the environment on which it depends is a difficult one to maintain, and top-down regulation is not enough on its own. But what does that look like? A new project in Pembrokeshire is trialling a partnership model to manage fertilizer pollution, and offers an intriguing new possibility.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is as much a part of modern life as the car and the television, just much less visible. Chemical companies have been producing nitrates since the Second World War, when the factories that had been making explosives were turned to peacetime uses, and it’s now a cornerstone of modern farming. Applied judiciously, it speeds up plant growth and allows farmers to make the most of a short growing season.

But it comes at a cost. For one thing the manufacturing process requires a lot of oil, as nitrogen and hydrogen have to be combined at high temperatures and pressure. And because nitrates are highly soluble, they are easily washed into rivers where they cause aquatic plants to grow too fast, upsetting the ecological balance and damaging both wildlife and fisheries. This is a particular problem in Pembrokeshire, where concerns about nitrate pollution in the river Cleddau and Milford Haven have led to calls to declare the area a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) under EU law.

This would mean that farmers would be obliged to cut their fertilizer use, and also face restrictions on how they can spread nitrogen-rich slurry, or manure, on the land. They would for instance have to store it if the land is waterlogged, waiting for dry conditions so that it is absorbed into the soil rather than running off into rivers. Financial margins in farming are tight, and farmers say that cutting production or investing in bigger slurry tanks would put some of them out of business.

Also, it isn’t just cows that produce manure. Humans do too, and sewage plants are responsible for a fair proportion of both nitrogen and phosphorus pollution in the Cleddau. The river catchment is now ‘full’ of nutrients, making further economic development unacceptable.  Clearly, nutrient pollution needs to be reduced, but this is a problem caused by human activity in general, and it doesn’t seem fair to hold farmers solely responsible. Could there be a better solution?

At Pelcomb Farm near Haverfordwest, farmer Mike Smith and soil expert Jon Williams spread soil analysis reports out on the kitchen table. Jon points out the 2013 analysis for one particular field, which shows an imbalance between magnesium and calcium. Magnesium is important, he explains, because it is an essential part of the chlorophyll molecule. Without enough magnesium, crops cannot photosynthesize efficiently, however much nitrogen they are fed.

Magnesium also however has the effect of binding soil clay particles very tightly, and needs to be counterbalanced by calcium, which produces a looser soil structure, good for aeration and drainage. By 2017, applications of magnesium have brought the soil back into balance and increased the efficiency of nitrogen use.

By this and other adjustments, such as avoiding compaction with heavy machinery, Mike has been able to reduce his use of nitrogen fertilizer on his intensive dairy farm to a third of what it was, saving money and protecting the quality of the river water. He also keeps a careful eye on his slurry.

“For a farmer, slurry is a valuable resource, full of nutrients. We don’t want to lose it to our rivers! So we do a soil analysis before we plant, say, a cereal crop, and we analyse the slurry as well. That way, we can apply the right amount to the land and cut down on artificial fertilizer too.”

Rather than the NVZ, Mike wants to see a voluntary scheme, where farmers are accredited in rather the same way that a beach gets a Blue Flag for its water quality.

The First Milk dairy cooperative of which Mike is a member has already shown how farmers can work together to clean up their act. In 2005, Welsh Water served notice that they would no longer treat the effluent from First Milk’s Haverfordwest cheese factory at their sewage plant, because they needed the capacity for new housing development.

After prolonged negotiations between First Milk and Natural Resources Wales, an agreement was reached in 2011 whereby treated effluent from the cheese factory could be discharged directly into the Cleddau, providing that the member farmers offset these nutrients by changes to farming practices further upstream.

Building on this success, there is a new initiative to introduce a nutrient trading scheme which would allow farmers to be rewarded for better management of nitrates. Any new housing development, hotel or factory will put extra pressure on the Cleddau catchment, and so needs to come with a plan to ensure that there is no net increase in pollution.

The EU funded project BRICs, or Building Resistance into Catchments, is working on a trading scheme that would allow farmers to sell credits to developers, thus spreading the cost more fairly. It would also introduce a culture where farmers are seen as business leaders, rather than offenders to be policed.

BRICs is necessarily a partnership project. It works with a wide range of organizations, including land managers, industry, conservation organizations, the farming unions, Welsh Water, farming cooperatives, local authorities and Natural Resources Wales.

There’s a lot at stake. Not only is it important to open up new capacity for industrial and housing development in the area, but good farming practice is of vital importance in itself, and farmers need to be properly supported to do this.

Out in the field at Pelcomb, Jon gets his spade out and digs a hole. The turf comes out easily, and the soil underneath is dark, sweet-smelling, loose and crumbly, with a few stones, worms and a healthy mesh of grass roots. “This is how it should be,” he says. “Soil is a living thing, full of bacteria, fungi and worms, and it wants to be in balance”.

He explains how natural processes in the soil produce 80% of the nitrogen a crop needs, and artificial fertilizer often does more harm than good. Organic farmers avoid it altogether, relying on crop rotations and careful manure management to do the job.

“Welsh soils contain plenty of organic matter because they’ve been under grass and livestock for so long. If we can manage our soils and manures properly, we can cut our dependence on synthetic nitrogen, build soil fertility and go a long way towards reducing the carbon footprint of Welsh agriculture,” he says.

The Pembrokeshire experiment will see if a fairer system of sharing the costs of good soil management – and therefore of food production – can help build a culture of cooperation and trust that will benefit the natural world on which everything depends.

Jane Powell is the Wales coordinator of LEAF Education and is working on a case study of nitrate trading for use in secondary schools.

Image: algae covering the mudflats at Garron Pill on the eastern Cleddau, by Sue Burton.

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We must empower rural communities to integrate food production and the environment

By Richard Kipling

This summer, drought severely affected Welsh farming. When the grass doesn’t grow, farmers are forced to buy in expensive feed, and to use up supplies put aside for the winter months. Animals need more water just as it is least available and wildfires are a constant risk. The full impacts of the drought are described in a recent report by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB). Our reliance on the environment for our food could not be more starkly highlighted.

Evidence is growing that global warming is, and will continue to, increase the severity and frequency of events such as droughts and flooding. Recent research suggests change might be more rapid than expected, as greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions push us towards environmental tipping points. Up to now, for livestock farmers, climate change has been something that they can help tackle by cutting emissions from farms. Extreme events like those of this summer demonstrate that it is also a growing threat to their livelihoods. Reducing GHG emissions and ensuring farming systems are resilient to climatic extremes becomes a focus for urgent change.

With growing climatic volatility and threats to ecosystem services and natural resources,  change is needed. Through the Environment Act Wales, The Well-being of Future Generations Act and the Cymru Wales Brand, Welsh Government have demonstrated commitment to reducing GHG emissions, and to developing policies based on sustainability and resilience, specifically associating food production with the unique Welsh landscape and culture. In this context, the current ‘Brexit and Our Land’ consultation document  incorporates many positive elements. But it could go further.

Firstly, it must be recognised that the old opposition between maximising production and protecting the environment is false. Increasing production at the expense of resilience does not sacrifice fluffy idylls of nature to meet the practical need for food and the economic needs of farmers. Instead, taking more today comes at the expense of our ability to feed ourselves and make profits in the longer term.

Support for farm economic resilience and for the delivery of public goods needs to be integrated, because in the long-term the first is not possible without the second.

Agricultural production is dependent on healthy soils, good water and nutrient management, and biodiversity. Practices like improving soil management, adding hedgerows and trees to agricultural landscapes and nurturing mixed-species grasslands rather than turning to monocultures reduce the impact of extreme conditions on production, increase the long-term resilience of agricultural systems, reduce GHG emissions, and sequester more carbon. Farmer-led projects like Pontbren show that such approaches can work in Wales. So why isn’t everyone adopting these practices?

Many barriers hinder the implementation of climate-friendly or ‘public good’ farming.  Recent work in the Climate Smart Agriculture Wales project asked stakeholders about the challenges to change. Some are practical: many climate-friendly approaches bring long-term rewards but require short-term investment of money and time. These issues exist alongside knowledge limitations – how much farmers know about available options, how to implement them and what the risks and benefits are. Sometimes, the impacts of change are not fully understood or quantified by researchers.

Farmers also have their own interests to consider – like supporting family, surviving short-term economic challenges, reducing the burden of the business as they get older, and maintaining traditional practices. They manage complex systems, deal with multiple targets and regulations, and process and evaluate information and advice that might not always be independently given. This can be hugely challenging. It can make it hard to follow their own interests effectively, and reduce their ability to consider long-term strategies and problems amid the deluge of immediate challenges.

Considering solutions to these challenges, brings us to the second point that Welsh agricultural policy needs to incorporate. Top-down regulations are often appropriate tools for change, and payments are vital in providing the economic security farmers need to safeguard long-term productivity and ecosystem services. But we need to understand when they are effective and when they are not.

Truly sustainable change can only occur when rural communities, farmers, policymakers and other stakeholders are empowered to act together at the local level to develop shared goals and shared solutions to the challenges we face. This means bottom-up solutions giving ownership of change to all groups involved in the countryside. This type of power can be framed by top-down rules and incentives at some level; it’s not a case of ‘either-or’.

Outcome-driven payment schemes are a good example of this kind of rebalancing. Take the Burren Programme in Ireland, through which farmers agree to the goals they’ll deliver to secure funding. It’s up to them how to achieve those goals, and they receive local support to help them find the best strategies. Positively, this type of approach is included in ‘Brexit and our Land’. We need to go further, empowering farmers – working with other stakeholders – to both determine and drive change. But will farmers be interested in thinking about anything other than profit?

Recently, I heard a farm advisor speak about his experiences implementing climate-friendly practices in agriculture in Uruguay. Using videos and in workshops with different stakeholders, he shows farmers the impacts of climate change and poor agricultural practice on other groups in society. He finds they respond positively and make changes. Farmers need to make money, but that doesn’t mean they’re not open to change, once they realise their own role in the problems facing others, and in the solutions to them. When we add the growing impact of climate change on farm businesses, demonstrated by this summer’s drought, we find there are strong motivations to work differently, beyond the basic need to make a profit.

Richard Kipling is an inter-disciplinary researcher at Aberystwyth University, with experience in a range of fields including ecology, livestock agriculture, conservation, politics and economics. For the last five years, his research has focussed on issues relating to climate change and farming in Welsh and European contexts.

Image: Richard Kipling

Welsh farming and food policy after Brexit – what is food really for?

By Jane Powell

It’s an interesting time for Welsh food policy, with two major consultations running at once. One, Brexit and our Land, is about support for farming in Wales after we leave the EU next year, to be phased in from 2020-2025. The other is to develop a new action plan for the future of the food and drink industry when the current plan expires at the end of 2019.

Taken together, and in the context of the Well-being of Future Generations Act, these consultations allow for a significant change to our food system in Wales, opening up a space for fresh thinking. But they require us to think deeply about where we are now, and ask some fundamental questions about where we want to go.

Let’s start with Brexit and our Land. The idea, here, is that there will be two sources of funding for farmers. One will be for delivering public goods, defined in this context as products of farming for which there is no market value, such as biodiversity, soil health and clean water.

The other will be used to help farmers to become more economically resilient, for instance by providing training and opportunities for collaboration and marketing. This will include food production, but it could also provide for diversification into areas such as tourism and large-scale renewable energy.

Some welcome the fact that environmental protection is enshrined in a principle of ‘public goods for public money’, free of any compromise with economic activity, in which the environment tends to come off worse. Others regret the divorce between food production and care for the environment, seeing them as interrelated aspects of human existence. Treating them separately could – at worst – have unintended consequences, and at best mean lost opportunities.

Those who would like to see food production integrated with environmental protection point to organic farming and other agroecological systems as tried and tested examples of a joined-up approach. They call for mechanisms such as true-cost accounting, which aims to level the economic playing field for sustainable, environmentally-friendly farmers.

Meanwhile, payment for ecosystem services (PES) is another model that is being tested. A good example of this is the Pumlumon project where farmers are looking for ways to be rewarded for storing carbon in the peat bogs, absorbing rainfall to prevent flooding downstream, reconnecting habitats and providing community benefits.

If as seems likely, the proposal in Brexit and Our Land for a dual system of support prevails, important questions remain about food. The consultation document states as one of its guiding principles that ‘Food production is vital for our nation and food remains an important product from our land.’

But what sort of food, and for whom? Are we talking about growing food for domestic markets, making us a little less vulnerable to upsets in the global trading system – a field of potatoes for the local school perhaps, or some serious leek production? Or are we talking about lamb for the Middle East and cheese for China? And how will we decide?

A similar question arises in the case of the food and drink industry. The title of the current strategy, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, suggests that feeding the people of our country is at least as important as generating exports and jobs. The accompanying action plan Towards Sustainable Growth, however, is baldly subtitled “How we plan to increase sales in the food and drink sector by 30% by the year 2020.” Produced a few years later, after the recession had begun to bite, it speaks of different concerns.

Times have changed again, and there seems to be a desire now to integrate a thriving food industry with a healthy population. The Government has, for instance, supported conferences to explore how the food industry can promote healthy eating, and how it can help young people develop skills and find satisfying careers.

But many gaps remain between what the food industry delivers and what a healthy food system requires. And again, there are questions: should the food industry aim to feed Wales, or should it focus on exports and jobs? To what extent do we want to make food local, with shorter supply chains and richer interactions between businesses and the public? And especially, how can we promote food that is produced in a way that is environmentally sound?

The Welsh Government does, of course, examine the links between its various policies and is required to check them against the Well-being of Future Generations Act. But a group of civil servants under a changing collection of political leaders can only do so much. It is up to all of us as citizens and voters to breathe life into policy and vision a better future. So what is to be done?

We need to have a national conversation about food, one that takes in the whole picture. That should be based on a clear agreement that food is for nourishing people, that it must be produced in a way that doesn’t deplete our natural resources, and that it is shared out fairly. This is about the shared values of citizenship.

Making money is important, of course, but it must be in service to those more fundamental aims. Given the seductive power of money, and in particular, the way that almost any policy argument can be shut down by a reference to public spending cuts, it is important to have those objectives firmly in mind.

Connected to this, we must look more closely at the question of public goods. Clearly, food is not a public good to the extent that it is a commodity to be traded. But it is surely good for the public to have a diversity of farmers, growers and other businesses producing nourishing and tasty food. It is good to have businesses that keep traditional food skills alive, and create satisfying and fairly paid livelihoods, investing in their workers. It is good to have settings where local producers, businesses and the public can meet each other and together build a food culture.

It is good also for local communities to be self-determining, to make their own decisions about the food that is served in public institutions, for instance, and to shape the food system in their area. This is perhaps where the Public Services Boards (PSBs) come in. These are statutory bodies set up under the terms of the Well-being of Future Generations Act and based in a local authority.

The function of a PSB is “to improve the economic, social, environmental and cultural well-being in its area by strengthening joint working across all public services in Wales”. Governance of the food system is not in their remit, as such; but given the central role of food in bringing together so many aspects of health and happiness, it is a role they may grow into.

The subject of governance brings us back to Brexit. There is an important caveat to the discussions on support for farming, which has to do with devolution. Up till now, funding for the Rural Development Programme has come directly from Brussels to Wales. But in future, London will be controlling the budgets, and it is far from certain that we in Wales will enjoy the same freedoms as before, let along the same resources.

The Wales Food Manifesto has been set up as a citizen initiative to ask big questions about food in Wales and look for new ways forward. Please get in touch if you would like to be part of this conversation.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and writer, and a volunteer with the Wales Food Manifesto. These are her own views.

 

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

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