Food poverty is escalating in Wales – what should we do about it?

By Pat Caplan

In the last few decades, Welsh food has changed out of all recognition, with highly successful branding of Welsh products being synonymous with quality. Examples include beef, lamb, fish, chocolate, wine, beer and honey but there are many more. Along with this has gone the revival of traditional foods such as laverbread, bara brith, and Welsh cakes, and many areas of Wales now have their own annual food festivals. All of this is good for tourism and exports.

Furthermore the Welsh government has been interested in a sustainable food strategy for Wales since 2010 and the growth of organic farms and smallholdings in Wales has been encouraged. Unfortunately, all of these welcome trends do not help with escalating food poverty.

The high rates of poverty in Wales can be seen from numerous reports issued during the past few years and published by the Welsh Government, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, WISERD (Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods); campaigning organisations like Oxfam Cymru, the Welsh Food Poverty Network, and Food Poverty Alliance Wales as well as national papers such as the Guardian and local papers including the Pembrokeshire Herald and the South Wales Evening Post.

Basically food poverty is caused by low income: high rates of unemployment, very low pay and benefit cuts. In households with low income, food may not be prioritised as highly as rent, council tax and other bills, since failure to pay these can have grave consequences. Food is seen as an elastic part of the budget, with parents reporting that they skip meals so that children can eat and that they have to buy the cheapest food available, which is not necessarily the healthiest.

But poverty is also caused by the high costs of housing, transport and food. In some areas locals, tourists and second home owners are in competition for accommodation, while poor public transport creates pressure to own a car, with its attendant costs. Furthermore, much of Wales exists in a ‘food desert’, particularly in the rural areas where it is difficult for many people to access shops, especially the supermarkets which usually carry a wider range of fresh foods. Small local shops are often very expensive and what fresh food they carry may not be very fresh because of the low turnover and the need to transport it over long distances. All of these tendencies are likely to be exacerbated by Brexit.

Poverty in general usually leads to food poverty which is also a public health issue. There have been reports of high rates of malnutrition and morbidity, and a decline in longevity. As  noted by Health in Wales, ‘Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is a leading cause of death in the United Kingdom, and particularly in Wales, where the death rate is greater than in the majority of the countries in Western Europe’.

Furthermore it is the poorest people who are most likely to suffer from obesity with levels higher across all ages in the more deprived areas (Welsh Health Survey 2013). The BBC recently reported that obesity is now overtaking smoking as the biggest risk to health in Wales and attributed this to the widespread availability of cheap junk food.

The case of Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire is where my research on food poverty has focused over the last few years. The Bevan Foundation noted in 2018 that ‘Pembrokeshire has one of the highest risks of poverty among people of working age in the UK, resulting from a mix of low wages and high housing costs’.

Pembrokeshire has a high number of incomers who are either permanent or temporary residents. There are retirees who can afford high housing costs, wealthier second home owners, and a big demand for holiday rentals. All of these push up the costs of accommodation, especially in tourist ‘hotspots’ such as Newport where houses have become unaffordable for local people.

There is a large amount of ‘hidden poverty’, especially in rural areas, but it also exists in the small towns, including those in the south where former industries have disappeared. There is a high rate of unemployment in the county, while those who are in work often have to accept low wages (sometimes below the Minimum Wage), seasonal employment (especially in areas of tourism), and precarity (e.g. zero-hours contracts).

The roll-out of Universal Credit in Pembrokeshire has further exacerbated poverty because of the long period between the ending of old benefits and the start of new ones, as well as the continuing of the punitive sanctions regime and the cuts in benefits more generally.

But there is another dimension to food poverty in rural areas and small towns and that is the reluctance to disclose it. As I have heard many times ‘You don’t want to be seen as poor’, which is considered stigmatising.

Food aid

For several years Wales has had an unusually high prevalence of food banks and the number of both Trussell Trust and independent food banks has increased since that time. In Pembrokeshire for example, Trussell now has four food banks as does Patch, an independent charity. Both are run largely by volunteers and receive their supplies from donors.

Wales is part of the globalised food marketing system, with supermarkets like Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Coop, Aldi and Lidl in the towns. Most of these cooperate with food banks to allow in-store collections of long-life food donated by customers. More recently, supermarkets have also been providing their surplus fresh food to charities, in some cases via the Food Cloud facilitated by the organisation Fareshare, in other cases with bilateral or unofficial arrangements between food outlet and food banks. The Food Cloud has meant that more fresh produce is available to food banks, but supplies are inevitably uncertain.

How then is it possible to bring good quality fresh food to people who need it but cannot afford it, without having recourse to food banks which risks the clients suffering from the associated stigma? One promising development is Community Fridges, open to all. At present in Pembrokeshire for example, these exist in Narberth, Fishguard and Haverfordwest.

Another is the setting up of regular community meals, available to everyone, not just the food poor.  These emulate some of the policies being adopted in Scotland which emphasise the links between food and community thereby ensuring both sociality and dignity. But more such initiatives are needed.

Pat Caplan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Further information on her research and writing is available on her webpage https://www.gold.ac.uk/anthropology/staff/pat-caplan/ and she blogs on http://sites.gold.ac.uk/food-poverty/.

Thanks:  I am grateful to the clients and volunteers of the food aid organisations which facilitated my research. Image: Pat Caplan.

Brexit – the starting point for a fresh approach to food and farming in Wales

FRCBrexit could be the starting point for a fresh approach to food and farming in Wales, setting the standard for the United Kingdom; argues a new briefing from the Food Research Collaboration1.

Much has been made of the risks Brexit poses to Welsh food producers, especially its upland lamb and beef farmers. However, the briefing argues that Wales has a forward-looking government with several innovative pieces of legislation that could support a transition to fairer and more environmentally sustainable farming and food production, if political authority and public support can be mobilised to link them together.

The briefing, written by Jane Powell and Corinne Castle of the Wales Food Manifesto, sets out the steps needed to achieve an integrated food and farming policy for Wales post-Brexit. They emphasize two key factors that enable Wales to take these steps: vibrant networks of grassroots organisations building innovative local food enterprises and the radical pieces of legislation introduced by the Welsh government that could be used to engineer a new food economy.

Corinne Castle said:

‘Brexit gives Wales an opportunity to make a step-change into a new approach to food and farming, but it will only happen if there is a wholesale realignment of all those involved with the food system, and a willingness to see ourselves differently. Old oppositions, say between food production and wildlife, or between supermarkets and community initiatives, will have to transform. Above all, we will need to bring back more trust and respect to the vital business of feeding a nation.’

The authors recommend that the public funding that replaces the Common Agricultural Policy, must be for farming that integrates food production with care for the environment. Subsidy should be based on what farmers do, not how much land they manage, with support for new entrants.

Jane Powell commented:

‘It’s time for a fresh approach to food and farming in Wales. Grassroots initiatives in both rural areas and cities are pioneering new ways of producing and distributing food, government is changing the way it works, and global challenges are more acute than ever. We need to seize the moment and set a new course for food, one that works for everyone. A new national civil society network would be a vital first step to draw people together.’

For the full list of recommendations read the briefing: https://foodresearch.org.uk/download/14226/

Read the Executive summary: https://foodresearch.org.uk/download/14227/

1, The Food Research Collaboration (FRC) brings together academics and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to improve food policy in the United Kingdom. As an initiative of the Centre for Food Policy, at City, University of London, we support the Centre’s mission of advancing integrated and inclusive food policy. This briefing paper is part of the FRC Food Brexit Briefing series, with the full series available here: https://foodresearch.org.uk/food-brexit-briefings/

How community fridges cut food waste

By Corinne Castle

Pembrokeshire led the way in reducing food waste and making use of surplus food with the first surplus food cafe in Wales in 2013. It is now home to two community fridges, in Fishguard and Goodwick (another first for Wales!) and Narberth – both part of Hubbub’s Community Fridge Network. The idea is spreading with more community fridges to open in Pembrokeshire and visits from interested groups from across Wales looking to set up more.

If you’ve not heard of community fridges, essentially, they operate as a free or ‘pay-as-you-feel’ shop, abiding by the same environmental health standards for food safety as other food businesses. Often set up by community groups, they are housed in publicly accessible spaces. Combined with storage for ambient food, they are stocked with surplus food from supermarkets, local shops and other food businesses as well as donations from local people. Everyone is welcome to take food, the focus being on sharing good food and ensuring it is eaten – they are not food banks.

comm fridge

Fishguard and Goodwick community fridge. Image: Karel Mujica

The Fishguard and Goodwick community fridge opened in November 2017, following on from Transition Cafe, to make good use of surplus food. The purpose of Transition Bro Gwaun (TBG), who set up both initiatives in Fishguard, is to deliver innovative local solutions that address global environmental challenges. In the first 10 months their community fridge has processed over 5 tonnes of food, equivalent to 1 kg per person, in this small coastal community. Drawing on figures from WRAP, in this UK Government report, this equates to 20 tonnes of CO2 being avoided by reducing food waste.

Food waste and surplus food have become newsworthy topics in recent years with many mainstream media reports suggesting supermarkets are the main culprit. However, looking at data available from WRAP and the FAO the truth may be a little less palatable, with two-thirds of UK food waste coming from our homes.

Across the UK, WRAP estimate we throw away 7 million tonnes of food from households every year, or approximately 110 kg per person, equivalent to 440 kg of CO2. Similar figures are cited by the FAO for other Western European countries and the USA. From my personal experience working on TBG’s surplus food projects very few people admit to wasting food and usually think it is someone else’s problem..!

Current Love Food, Hate Waste campaigns are based on evidence that targeting groups of people is more effective than a blanket message. For example #MakeToastNotWaste and #GiveACluck are aimed at young people via social media. This is not to say that this age-group wastes more, rather that there are many reasons we all waste food and that life-stage and lifestyle play a part.

Drawdown identify reducing food waste to be one of the most effective ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally, especially as food which ends up in landfill breaks down anaerobically, producing methane. Considering the resources used to grow, feed, water, harvest, produce and transport food and then subsequently disposing of it into landfill, food waste is accountable for roughly 8% of global emissions.

Wales is recognised in WRAP’s current UK household food waste report as leading the way in reducing household food waste, with effective Welsh Government policies to divert household food waste from landfill. In Wales all local authorities collect household food waste and process it for anaerobic digestion. However, just over half still ends up in landfill – equating to 34.6 kg per person per year in Wales. By way of comparison, in England around half of local authorities collect household food waste, but 90% still goes to landfill or is incinerated.

More positively, WRAP found that the quantity of food waste from homes went down in Wales by 12% between 2009 to 2015. We have the knowledge and experience in Wales to reduce food waste, with support from progressive Welsh Government policies. What we need are the resources to continue to reduce food waste throughout the food system. This is a trend that we must maintain!

Corinne Castle is Project Development Manager at Transition Bro Gwaun and blogs at https://pembrokeshirecook.com/

Both mages: Karel Mujica

Nose to tail eating – more nutrients, less waste

by Eilish Blade

Eilish Blade

Eating less meat is a core principle of a sustainable diet, but we tend to forget about offal, the meat that comes from an animal’s organs which is rich in nutrients. As an MSc student in Nutritional Therapy, I’m interested in health outcomes and the nutrient density of food Could. “nose to tail” eating be the next step?

Eating nose to tail requires a shift in mindset and dietary patterns. Offal from intensively reared animals is not a healthy option given the levels of antibiotic usage, over-feeding, excess omega 6 from grain feeding which causes inflammation and the high production of stress hormones. Sourcing offal from grass-fed and ideally, organic animals, means forming direct relationships with our local butchers to understand where animals are raised, how they are fed and where they are slaughtered?

I am coming at this from the point of research, but also because I want to make this part of my weekly diet for myself and my family. Luckily, in Cardiff I have Riverside Community Market which stocks a range of offal and bones on request, and a fantastic family-run butchers in Canton, Oriel Jones, whose premium free range meats are supplied by both their farm in Carmarthenshire and other ethically approved farming partners. Oriel Jones’ proprietor and front of house is Shaun, who is a passionate advocate for animal welfare, the environment and creating a nutritious product.

Nose to tail eating has become one of our hot topics to discuss and it’s heartening to hear that their own faggots and liver pate may soon be available, along with liver, heart, kidney, oxtail and marrow bones. In turn, I love to share my knowledge from a nutritional approach: how the Inuits prevented scurvy by eating the adrenal glands of an animal, which have a high vitamin C content, or what makes liver the most nutrient-dense food.

There is nothing new of course about eating the whole animal and historically many different cultures integrated it into their diet. Wales has a legacy of nose to tail eating, with recipes which have their roots in working communities and post-war austerity. While finances were largely driving resourcefulness in the kitchen, research from the mid-1930s by Dr Weston A Price had already identified the health benefits from consuming the whole animal. His studies identified traditional cultures untouched by modern refined foods, eating whole plant foods and the whole animal, which had no signs of chronic disease or tooth decay. His analysis showed that traditional diets were significantly higher than modern diets in the fat-soluble vitamins A and D, which are found primarily in animal sources and especially organ meat.

Modern society is characterised by the double burden of too many macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and protein) and not enough micronutrients (vitamins and minerals). This means “empty calories” which contribute to obesity and a plethora of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, CVD, cancer and osteoporosis. We should certainly eat more whole plant foods and reduce or eliminate processed and refined foods, but it’s important to consider offal. Organ meat, cartilage and bones bring a much improved synergy of amino acids plus a wider vitamin and mineral profile to a meal. Small amounts of both muscle meat and offal, rather than an emphasis of one to the exclusion of the other, gives a good nutritional balance according to epidemiological studies of traditional diets.

We are not accustomed to the sight of organ meats and other forms of offal. The Eatwell Plate highlights lean meats like beef, turkey and chicken as healthy options which provide protein and certain micronutrients, while lowering saturated fats. An optimum amount of meat is defined as 70g per day but if the focus shifted to include offal there would be a net increase in overall nutrient density. The easiest place to start would be liver, which for a percentage of the population may be an important source of vitamin A.

Liver has an incredible range of nutrients such as the B vitamins, specifically B12 and folate, iron, zinc, copper, choline, selenium, and polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA and arachidonic acid. It is a rich source of vitamin A in the form of retinol and has some vitamin D, the actual levels depending on how the animal is raised. Retinol is necessary for healthy vision, fertility, immune health, thyroid function and childhood mortality, and more recent studies show protection against type 2 diabetes and regulation of blood glucose.

Retinol is the animal source of vitamin A. The precursor of vitamin A is also available through fruit and vegetables in the form of carotenoids, with the most abundant being beta-carotene. This must be converted to the active form, retinol, in a process which is controlled by a series of enzymes. And herein lies a problem, because recent studies have identified mutations in the family of BC01 genes which control these enzymes. These genetic impairments are estimated to affect 45% of the population, making it difficult for them to convert beta-carotene to retinol. This may be one reason why certain individuals thrive on a vegan or vegetarian diet and others simply don’t.

If two portions a week of meat were replaced with 50-100g of liver, it would supply the RDA for vitamin A, and many other nutrients. This is dependent on age, sex and individual requirements like pregnancy and breast feeding. Therefore, it demonstrates how we can consider liver within the parameters of a sustainable diet which sits comfortably within dietary guidelines.

Liver can be part of a model for sustainable eating in Wales through simple meals like liver and mash, or faggots and onion gravy. It can also be incorporated into family meals like shepherd’s pie and Bolognese sauce. I’ve found I can add approximately 200g of lamb’s liver to either recipe without my children detecting it.

Eating nose to tail is also good for reducing food waste. Here in Cardiff, thanks to the work of Lia Moutselou and Rebecca Clark, the Wasteless Supper pop-up restaurant has collaborated with local businesses to showcase sustainable eating practices such as nose-to-tail eating. Trotters, tails and tongues are still a rare sight in most high street restaurants and this is part of the challenge, along with the need for new culinary skills. Slow cooking is one of the best ways to make the most of cheap cuts and offal. One of my successes to date has been slow cooked, curried sheep’s heart but like all new ventures there have been a few failures along the way.

Nose to tail eating needs more study. It’s an area where research is lacking as most dietary models have not included offal, being largely based on muscle meat. This is something we really need to acknowledge in the backlash against meat. Offal is an important part of a sustainable diet.

Eilish Blade is a qualified Naturopath and practitioner in various types of bodywork based in Cardiff. Currently she is studying a MSc in Nutritional Therapy at Worcester university. She also has a BA in Green Studies with a background in both horticulture and permaculture.

Local food: reinventing the village shop

By Jane Powell

At the chill cabinet of a small shop in mid Wales, a customer reaches for a bottle of wine then does a double take. “Wine from Wales?” she exclaims, reading the label that announces it is from a vineyard near Aberaeron. “Is it OK to take to a party?” She puts it back.

cletwr cafe staffShe might have picked up many other items of locally produced food at the Cletwr Shop, which is a social enterprise on the busy A487 between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth. They sell vegetables from local smallholdings, seasonal surpluses from people’s gardens and their own jams and chutneys made on the premises, besides the usual branded products. There’s even a choice of Welsh gins: Da Mhile from the Teifi Valley, or one from the Dyfi Distillery near Corris.

But Cletwr is not just a delicatessen for the tourist trail. Here you will also find baked beans, white sliced bread and ready meals, because for many people this is their local shop, and that’s what they expect to find. The vegan cheese substitutes in the fridge rub shoulders with their dairy counterparts, and if you’re looking for a toothbrush you can choose between the wooden eco version or the usual plastic.

“We want this to be a shop for everybody, so we cater for all tastes,” explains Nigel Callaghan, Chair of Cwmni Cymunedol Cletwr, the community business which opened its doors in 2013, a couple of years after the original family-owned garage and village shop closed. “At the same time, we’re working as part of a wide group of retailers, producers and suppliers in the Dyfi Biosphere (and beyond) to promote local produce, and through that to develop and strengthen the local economy.”

The shop, which recently moved to purpose-built new premises thanks to grants from the Big Lottery, Welsh Government, the EU and others, does much more than sell food. There’s a busy café and a programme of events, from Welsh classes and ‘knit and natter’ to talks from the RSPB and sessions on local history. They host a fuel syndicate and they organize volunteer litter-picking sessions.

It’s run by a mixture of 18 paid staff (mostly part-time) and around 50 volunteers, and it’s constantly responding to new opportunities. A charging point for electric cars is to be installed soon, they’re planting a garden in the grounds, they’re about to join a toilet-twinning scheme – sponsoring a toilet in a developing country – and they’re looking into further services that they could deliver to the local community.

What Nigel is perhaps proudest of, though, is the opportunities the business provides for young people. “We invite school pupils to volunteer here for a while, and then we employ them. We put about £15k a year into the local economy that way. And we teach them the soft skills of employability, things like turning up to work on time and taking responsibility.”

Cletwr is introducing a new generation of youngsters to volunteering. “We have a lively group of volunteers here, young and old working together,” says Nigel. “Our board has renewed itself completely over the last three or four years as new people have been attracted to it, so we think we have got a good model that will last.”

It’s one of a number of community projects that have sprung up in Wales in recent years. Others are Siop y Parc, a community-owned shop in Blaenplwyf, Ceredigion and Llety Arall, a social enterprise that is building holiday accommodation in Caernarfon.

“We’ve seen the benefits that this shop has brought to the local community,” says Nigel. “We’d encourage others to do the same. All you need is a few keen people and you can bring a community back to life. There’s help and advice available – we talked to the Plunkett Foundation, the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and others – and the rewards are huge.”

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.

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

Photos by Ant Jarrett

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.