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.  

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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

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