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.

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

Advertisements

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.

A new economic framework

By Dr John Clements

The contemporary economic system has broken the vital relationship between Land, Food and People. There is a crucial need to renew the system that has produced this breakdown. Brexit represents a propitious historical moment to respond decisively to a range of critical issues relating to the disproportionate empowerment of corporations, landowners and shareholders—an empowerment that has come at the cost of our national health, the democratic concerns of systemic stakeholders and the legitimate expectations of land-workers, in particular.

The figure below models and critiques the current economic system, using three overlapping circles, representing Land, Food, People and the crucial overlaps between them, of production, consumption and participation.

land-food-people

Land

The vast majority of UK land is owned by a tiny minority of the UK population. Wealthy landowners include: aristocratic families, the Anglican Church, the military, the government, utility companies and financial institutions. As a result, most agricultural land forms part of large estates, inevitably effecting how it is managed. Just 2% is built upon. Put simply, land ownership is undemocratic because the general population, even rural dwellers (and particularly land workers) have practically zero influence over how UK land is utilised—such as how to appropriately respond to the housing crisis.

People

The UK population is increasingly urbanised, so that even those who live outside of towns are increasingly resourced by urban services (surgeries, hospitals, supermarkets, shops etc). It is also increasingly diseased: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer etc. Our national health system is pharmaceutical-centric, yet drugs are generally unsuited to curing chronic disease, root causes of which lie in diet, lifestyle and environmental factors, leading to lifelong prescriptions: good for pharmaceutical corporations, bad for patients.

Food

The basic problem with the food we eat is nutritional. Many people, including (actually, particularly) obese people, are undernourished. Consuming a surplus of calories, yet lacking an adequate intake of healthy nutrients. Furthermore, there is endemic, damaging confusion about the pros and cons of carbohydrate and fat. “Time-poverty” has led to a perceived need for convenience, leading to the availability, promotion and use of processed foods and subsequent deterioration in the social value of food and food preparation as an integral element of family life.

Consumption

The relationship between food and people is dominated by supermarkets. Supermarkets, like all corporations, are driven by the need to create shareholder profits. When corporations calculate their profits, they typically ignore large, un-costed ecological consequences. Despite ubiquitous TV programming, fresh food preparation is an increasingly lost art in many homes, as well as hospitals, care-homes and schools.

Production

Currently, food production is based largely on an intensive, industrialised model, which relies upon exploiting ecological resources, in unsustainable ways, such as those that lead to soil nutrient erosion, widespread use of chemical pesticides, livestock welfare issues, flora, fauna diversity loss, ecological destruction, erosion, flooding etc. These economic patterns have also contributed to a general loss of social, economic, cultural diversity in rural regions.

Participation

The link between land and people is essentially broken: a whole generation of young people lack understanding about food origins, whilst urbanised populations associate “countryside” primarily with recreational activities and believe that countryside issues should be left to farmers to resolve. As allotments have disappeared, the growing of vegetables—once a national pastime—is now considered “quaint” and irrelevant, despite our nationally importing about 40% of our food, raising important issues of “food sovereignty”.

Is systemic renewal possible?

There are reasons to be hopeful. Fresh, innovative perspectives are being informed by emerging research, highlighting formerly-overlooked issues. Useful examples include: Common Wealth, by Martin Large1, Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken2 and Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth. 3

The figure below models some primary elements that need to be addressed if the current economic system is to be renewed in favour of creating one more appropriately weighted towards the holistic needs of the general population, systemic stakeholders (everyone holding a stake in any particular system) and land-workers, in particular.

land-food-people-2

Production

By focussing economic rewards on marginal, small and family farms, it becomes possible to move steadily towards environmentally-sustainable means of production, such as organic, biodynamic and permaculture. Local food production and distribution can go hand-in-hand with allowing more people to live on the land—as envisaged by Wales’ innovative—but currently under-utilised—One Planet Policy.

Consumption

A renaissance in freshly prepared, local, organic food, based around authentic nutritional knowledge and use of local food produce, will allow the relationship between food and people to be restored. Nutritious, (chemical) pesticide-free and organic food will contribute to better health amongst populations that partake—of special relevance to schools, care-homes and hospitals.

Participation

As people become increasingly ecologically aware, the possibility exists to integrate rural and urban living more holistically than before. Innovative expression such as Food Assemblies—now over 900 existing around Europe—such as the one I am involved in pioneering in Llanelli, and Community Supported Agriculture schemes, such as Banc Organics, established in the marginal land of the Gwendraeth Valley, herald unique opportunities for participation, including volunteering, education and potentially significantly higher employment rates per hectare, compared to intensive farming.

Summary

In comparing two economic models, I’ve highlighted a series of critical issues relating to the contemporary system in relation to land, food and people.

  • The first model illustrates how the current system “distributes” wealth to shareholders and landowners. It is my contention that the current state of the UK economy and health of the population-at-large confirms that in this scenario, there are few winners and many losers.
  • The second model illustrates the potential for reimagining and “redistributing” economic empowerment to stakeholders and land-workers. A scenario, I would contend, with the potential to create many winners, few losers. Getting there will require not only innovative thinking—thankfully, there is much of it about—but more importantly, a great deal of determined, pioneering action, coupled with political liberation from the shackles of the contemporary system—if there is to be any hope of significant change.
  1. Common Wealth—For a free, equal, mutual and sustainable society, 2010, Hawthorn Press, Stroud.
  2. Blessed Unrest—How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, 2007, Penguin Group, New York.
  3. Doughnut Economics—Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, 2017, Random House, London.

John Clements is based in Llanelli and writes at https://jbclements.wordpress.com

 

Big retailer milk with a local face

By Pamela Mason

Can milk sold in a supermarket be local? The answer is both yes and no. Hardwick Farm near Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, which I visited in the spring, produces milk for Tesco. So when people in Monmouthshire buy milk from Tesco labelled with a Welsh dragon, some – an unknown, and anonymous – portion of the milk could have come from Hardwick Farm or one of the 80 other dairy farms in Monmouthshire that have a Tesco contract.

Hardwick Farm is a family-run dairy farm about a mile from Abergavenny. Farmer David Jones has 150 milking cows – so not a large herd by modern standards – that produce a total of 4000 litres of milk a day. He milks with robots which allows the cow to decide her own milking time and interval, rather than being milked as part of a group at set milking times. The milking unit consists of a milking machine, a teat position sensor, a robotic arm for automatic teat-cup application and removal, and a gate system for controlling cow traffic. The cows are milked for 10 months a year during which time they are housed in a barn where the robotic milking machine is located.  When the cow decides to enter the milking unit, a cow ID sensor reads an identification tag on the cow and passes the cow ID to the control system. The cow’s teats are automatically cleaned, the milk cup is applied to the teat which is followed by milking and finally teat spraying.

This system removes the need for manual labour in milking and the cows are milked up to four times a day. This method of milking has become increasingly popular and the price of a robotic unit is currently about £100,000. The cows at the Hardwick are fed a silage mix of 50:50 grass and maize, all of which is grown on the 500-acre farm. The ratio of feed consumed to milk produced is similar to that with a traditional milking parlour, with increased efficiency lying in the reduced labour. The only addition to the feed is a 3 per cent protein concentrate. The farm also grows wheat and rape seed for sale off the farm.

The milk is collected from the farm by the dairy processor, Muller, then taken for processing and packaging at the Muller depot in Bridgewater, Somerset, some 74 miles away. Milk prices paid to farmers have fluctuated during recent years from around 38 to 18p per litre, reflecting the investment put in to the industry when prices were high, the consequent increase in production, followed by a fall in prices. Tesco bases its payment to farmers, which is currently [April] 28.7 pence per litre, on the cost of production, which includes feed, fertiliser, fuel, veterinary costs and depreciation. Tesco updates the prices every three months and farmers submit invoices to an independent consultancy to allow an average price for milk to be calculated.

Tesco, like many milk purchasers, is starting to ask questions about antibiotic use. Antibiotic resistance is increasing and farmers have a contribution to make in tackling this issue, particularly by reducing the use of antibiotics critical in human medicine. At Hardwick Farm sand is used as bedding. Sand does not support the growth of bacteria such as E. coli and Strep uberis that cause mastitis, thus reducing the need for antibiotics.

David thinks that Brexit could provide an opportunity for dairy farmers. The UK has the second largest net dairy deficit in the world, behind China. This trade deficit is largely driven by cheese imports, which made up around half of the value of the UK’s total dairy imports in 2015. The UK also imports significant quantities of infant formula, butter, yoghurts and buttermilk while exporting milk and cream. This deficit could possibly be reduced by making available more of the British milk supply for home consumption at the expense of imports, but this is dependent to some extent on milk prices. David thinks Brexit will not cause a problem for dairy farmers in the short term. In the longer term, however, if farm payments are retained in Europe but not in Britain this would make it difficult to maintain standards of animal welfare. For now, he seems happy with his Tesco contract.

During the recent BBC TV Milk Man series of programmes, Gareth Wyn Jones also discussed Welsh dairy farmers who have contracts with Tesco http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dzwzc.

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.

 

How supermarkets can help tackle food waste

By Sarah Thomas, Public Affairs Officer, National Federation of Women’s Institutes, Cardiff

NFWI_0916_food_waste_logoFood waste is once more high on the WI agenda following the ‘Avoid food waste, address food poverty’ resolution passed at the WI’s Annual Meeting in June 2016 calling on all supermarkets to sign up to a voluntary agreement to avoid food waste.

WI members have a long and rich history of working to help everyone prevent food waste by using leftovers, and encouraging people to make the most of local and sustainable food.  Whilst progress has been made to ensure a sustainable food supply and to tackle food waste since the WI’s pioneering efforts in its early days, our members recognise that there is still much more to be done and that supermarkets have a unique position in influencing both food production and consumption.

As a nation the UK wastes more food than anywhere else in Europe, costing the average household £470 per year. Farm land roughly the size of Wales is being used to produce all the food that then goes on to be wasted in our homes, generating the equivalent carbon emissions to one in four cars on our roads. Globally, if we managed to redistribute just a quarter of the food currently wasted, there would be enough food to feed the 870 million people living in hunger. Yet, despite encompassing social, economic and environmental issues, decisive action to tackle food waste has been slow.

A new report published by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in April is calling on all supermarkets to work much harder to help consumers reduce their food waste and save money.  Wasted opportunities: How supermarkets can help tackle food waste is based on a survey of WI members across Wales, England and the Islands, 5000 of whom shared their views on food waste in the home and investigated practices on the supermarket shelves.

How often are we tempted to purchase more than we need due to multi-buy, multi-pack and other similar offers? Are supermarkets wasting good food by rejecting produce because it is not a uniform shape or size? Whilst supermarkets tell us that they are only responsible for a fraction of overall food waste, our members have found that their marketing and buying practices are having a huge influence on how we buy, consume, and ultimately waste, food.  Below is a snapshot of the findings:-

  • Members found that three-quarters of supermarkets offered multi-buy promotions and told us that they would prefer to be offered a reduction on single items;
  • Members are confused about date labelling, with only 45% correctly identifying that ‘best before’ dates are there to inform consumers about food quality;
  • Members found a huge disparity amongst ‘like for like’ branded and own-branded products when comparing ‘once opened’ instructions;
  • Members oppose supermarket grading standards that mean produce can be rejected because it does not look perfect. More than 90% of members said that they would be happy to buy blemished or misshapen fruit and veg however they found that more than two-thirds of stores didn’t offer them and, if they did, they stocked only one or two products.

Last weekend, our members took part in a Weekend of Action by visiting their local supermarkets to present the WI Food Manifesto to their local supermarket manager and press for action to be taken to address these issues.  Our Food Manifesto calls on supermarkets to adopt four commitments to help reduce food waste in the home and across the supply chain:-

  1. An end to overbuying
  2. Extending the product life of foods in the home
  3. Fully utilising the farm crop
  4. Supermarket transparency on food waste.

With their links to suppliers, consumers and farmers in the UK and around the world, supermarkets are in a powerful position to lead the fight against food waste. Food waste must be tackled. As summed up by a WI survey respondent:- “Ploughing perfectly good food back into the ground because of over-production or grading issues is criminal when people are near the breadline.”

The NFWI will be monitoring the responses of supermarkets in adopting our manifesto asks and during the coming months will be engaging members in the next stage of the Food Matters campaign which will be focusing on food poverty.

Further information about the Food Matters campaign, including the report and manifesto, is available on the WI website:- www.thewi.org.uk

Dustbin image by Speedkingz, Shutterstock.

The future of farming will depend on what the public asks for

This article by Jane Powell was first published in the Cambrian News 

When NFU Cymru Livestock Board chairman Wyn Evans was growing up, his grandparents’ upland farm near Aberystwyth was a model of self-sufficiency. They grew grain, hay and green fodder for their animals, just buying in a little extra feed for a milking herd of 20-25 cows, and sent their small flock of sheep up the hill to graze in the summer. The land supported four people working full-time on a wide variety of tasks and produced milk, beef, lamb and potatoes for local consumption.

Wyn Evans

Wyn Evans on his farm

It’s a way of farming that has vanished. Speaking at February’s Let’s Talk About Food event in Aberystwyth, Wyn described how he and his wife combined that farm with other land they bought and now keep sheep and beef cattle on 230 acres, sending lambs to the abattoir in Llanidloes and on to Sainsbury’s, while the calves go to other farmers for fattening. He employs only a little part-time labour.

“The main change has been the grip of the retailers,” he explains. “We love to do our shopping in one place, and so we go to supermarkets. But that way, beef and sheep farmers get on average less than the cost of production, and depend on subsidies.” With Brexit, Welsh farming is at a crossroads: it will either move to very large-scale farming to stay competitive, or with government support, strong domestic sales and access to the EU market, family farms might stay in business.

All this might be seen as simply a problem for farmers to sort out, but the public are involved too. The countryside, its wildlife, its soils, its amenities and of course its capacity to produce food are of concern to all of us. Now is a crucial time for food producers and the public to come together and ask what food system we want to see, and that was the bigger question at February’s event, organized by the Aberystwyth Food Forum with support from Ceredigion Council’s Cynnal y Cardi programme.

LOOKING FOR LOCAL ALTERNATIVES

The Forum was set up last year to see how everything to do with food in our area can be developed and celebrated for the good of all. Members include Aber Food Surplus, who redistribute supermarket surplus to charities, and Penglais Community Garden, and it holds regular Pay-As-You-Feel meals in cafes and community centres in town, bringing people together for discussion.

We want to ask questions about where our food comes from. The supermarkets are not the only show in town. The Treehouse buys direct from many local organic and low-input producers, selling vegetables, fruit, meat and dairy in its shop and café, and there are several excellent family butchers selling local meat. The twice-monthly farmers’ market is thriving, and many eateries boast local produce on their menus.

Perhaps Brexit is an opportunity. “I would support any outlet for agricultural produce,” said Wyn. “Let’s educate people – they don’t have to go to the supermarkets. There are other choices.”

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