Trafodwn: a new way to talk about food and farming

By Jane Powell

One evening in late June, two months into lockdown, 156 people logged on to Zoom to talk about food and farming in Ceredigion. It was no ordinary discussion. After hearing from a range of farmers, community organizers and environmentalists, they had spent time in small groups sharing their personal responses to the crisis that is Covid, Brexit, climate change, globalization and much else. Guided by a facilitator, they listened carefully to each other, looking for common ground and tentatively suggesting solutions.

Ben Lake MP addresses the Ceredigion People’s Assembly on Food and Farming

At the end of the two-hour meeting, when the note-takers had reported back, it was clear that the event had achieved a remarkable level of shared inspiration. There was a strong call for the relocalizing of food, self-determination for communities and support for young people to enter the food and farming sector, among other things. It had demonstrated the hunger that there is for change in the county, and the richness of knowledge and expertise present.

As one retired farmer put it: “It was quite amazing to have such a breadth of participation…to have a platform where parties involved in farming, land management, horticulture, nature reserves all on large and small scales being represented was so very worthwhile.” Another commented that he had no idea so many people cared about farming. For many, it was an emotional experience to find such warmth and compassion between hitherto opposing sectors.

The event itself came out of a somewhat unlikely collaboration between the Cardigan branch of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) and local Member of Senedd and former agriculture minister Elin Jones, with support from the farming unions and environmental groups. Ben Lake MP also spoke. As Vicky Moller, one of the organizers, said: “Elin Jones’ decision to co-host with the local Extinction Rebellion branch was in the spirit of the event. Everyone feared hostility or ding dong argument. It didn’t happen.”

People’s Assemblies

This was many people’s first experience of a People’s Assembly, one of a series of five that have so far been organized in west and mid Wales since Covid. The first was held in Pembrokeshire in late April, and it came about from work that organizers Vicky Moller and Anna Monro had been doing to support community groups during lockdown. “At our meetings people discussed the future, and it was clear that they did not want to return to the old normal,” says Vicky. “The leading area where they wanted to see change was food and farming, and so we decided to look at that in detail.”

The format of the People’s Assembly is widely used in XR, which is perhaps best known for its high-profile protests in London, Cardiff and other cities last year. “They are a taster of a growing global alternative to our adversarial model of democracy – where rival parties slug it out and we choose between them every few years, often motivated by fear of those we oppose,” says Vicky. “It’s officially known as deliberative democracy, and in Wales we are calling it ‘trafodwn’, which means ‘let’s discuss’.”

Central to all Assemblies is the work of the facilitators, who are trained in the three pillars of the method: radical inclusion (hearing all voices), active listening (dropping your own agenda to give your full attention to the speaker); and trusting the process (allowing the wisdom of the hive to generate new thinking).

“Thankfully, there is a growing number of trained facilitators available,” says Angie Polkey, one of the organizers of the Ceredigion event and herself a trainer. “We are all helping to satisfy people’s thirst to have they say, be heard and, most vitally, be part of the change that many of us know is needed for a more sustainable and just world.”

Angie explains how important it is that the Assemblies have an impact. One of the five events stimulated local action groups to form, but as she says, “the significance of the others lies as much in the inspiration they created, which will shape future relationships, as well as the feedback that has been shared with elected representatives and local Council.” It is a fundamental tenet that the participants know why the Assembly has been called and what will happen to the findings, because otherwise “people will feel disillusioned and that their time has been for nothing”.

Deliberative democracy for Wales

The People’s Assemblies described here were citizen-led and unfunded, but the principle is also used when Citizens’ Assemblies are commissioned by governments who want to make difficult ethical decisions with public buy-in, such as the abortion laws in Ireland. They use an approach similar to the recruitment of jurors to ensure that the groups are representative, and they typically run over several days or weeks with professional facilitation. A recent OECD study reviewed about 300 government-commissioned events on five continents, and a good practice guide is also available.

Wales held its first Citizens’ Assembly at Newtown in July 2019, to discuss how citizens could engage with the National Assembly for Wales (now the Senedd), and since then there have been calls for Wales to make more use of them in the recovery from Covid. The ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act already sets out a process whereby public bodies are required to collaborate with the public in creating an ecologically sustainable Wales, but it is not enough on its own, as David Thorpe explains in a recent blog for the One Planet Centre.

He calls for Citizens’ Assemblies to work with the Public Services Boards of every local authority, and for the Boards to be held accountable to them. That would raise awareness of the Act and tap into the energy and expertise of community groups, which has been so much in evidence during the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre made a similar point in the Western Mail recently:

“We have a chance to reverse normal political relationships, for the public to be in the driving seat via something like a more expansive citizens’ assembly…If a consensus was reached, we could then hand over our blueprint to the parties and test their genuine appetite for change.”

“Trafodwn is a good term for this newer version of deliberative democracy,” says Vicky. “It is organised from the ground up, with both sides of the divide wanting to meet and sort things out. Something is stirring.”

Watch an interview with Vicky Moller, explaining ‘Trafodwn’ and the Aberystwyth event (12 mins)

For a full account of the five Assemblies, including the main conclusions from the Ceredigion event, click here.

Jane Powell is a volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto and took part in the Ceredigion Assembly. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

How local authorities and community groups can re-set the food system

By Jane Powell

There has rarely been a more potent time to talk about change in the food system. The pandemic has brought unprecedented interest in local food suppliers and homegrown food and sparked a surge in community activity. But while for some, cooking and gardening have been new-found pleasures, there are others who are unable to go out to the shops or cannot afford to buy food. According to a YouGov poll of Welsh adults in early April conducted by the Food Foundation and shared by Food Sense Wales here, an estimated 13% were not getting enough to eat in lockdown, many of them skipping meals. All this shows the need, and also the potential, for change. Could it be time for food democracy, joining citizen action with government policy?

For many years now, community food projects of all types – gardens, surplus food distribution projects, food banks, healthy eating programmes, food cooperatives and hubs – have been quietly trying out new ways of engaging the public with good food. They may lack influence with national government, but they do have a chance with local authorities, who have statutory roles involving food, such as environmental health, trading standards and the provision of allotments. Councils are close enough to their local communities to develop the personal relationships and practical collaborations that build trust. Crucially, they also work with food businesses, buying ingredients for school meals and other council facilities. Some even own farmland.

The response to Covid-19 has put the spotlight on local food relationships and gives some pointers towards what might come next. In Ceredigion for instance, Council staff are keeping in touch with 2,500 of the county’s most vulnerable people, phoning those considered most at risk weekly and supplying 900 of them with boxes of food. Initially these came from Welsh Government, but Ceredigion led the way in negotiating a cash payment instead, and is using it to buy more locally produced foods from Castell Howell as well as fresh produce from Jones and Davies in Llandysul. They plan to re-double their efforts to support local suppliers when the crisis is over. ‘Much of the pressure for this is coming from local dairy and meat farmers,’ explains Cllr Alun Williams, ‘but it is heartening to see across-the-board consensus about this. We have an opportunity to re-set the food system.’

In Cardiff meanwhile, a Covid-19 Food Response Group was set up early on. It began with emergency food distribution but recently supported Edible Cardiff to distribute nearly 14,000 plants, seeds and growing kits to households in the city (pictured above). Food Cardiff coordinator Pearl Costello describes how important it was to nurture good relationships between the Council and local volunteers. ‘It’s not just going to the Council and saying “can you do this?”, it’s saying “we’re here as a resource”…one of the things I didn’t want it to be is quite top-down, and thankfully it’s not that. It’s about collaborating and channelling resources to where they are needed.’ Food Cardiff have issued a briefing paper for other local authorities based on their experience.

Free school meals are another way that local authorities help families most in need. Some authorities have been issuing supermarket vouchers during lockdown, but in Cardiff cash payments are given so that parents can buy the food they want. In Caerphilly meanwhile, the catering service is working with Castell Howell and other suppliers, as well as a team of volunteers, to supply five frozen meals a week, not just in term time but through the Easter holidays as well. They are also supplying bread and milk.

A great advantage of local government is the flexibility. Responses can be adapted to local conditions and draw on the knowledge that is held in communities, and people can work together in ways that suit them. In Cardiff for instance, the council is part of a formal food network. Food Cardiff is a partnership of over 30 members including public bodies, businesses and charities which since 2013 has been part of the Sustainable Food Places project (formerly Sustainable Food Cities), with a full-time coordinator.

In rural Ceredigion meanwhile, where no such partnership exists yet, a creative network of mutual aid has emerged by other means, with home deliveries of food and medicines by volunteers. New supply chains are springing up: a vegetarian baker in Cardigan has teamed up with a local butcher to get their bread out, pubs are doing meals on wheels, and community growing projects are producing supplies for home vegetable growing.

At the same time, a patchwork of local responses has much to gain from being part of a bigger story, finding common cause and identifying guiding principles that can be pushed upwards into national government. The Well-being of Future Generations Act provides an important opportunity, with its call for a social and economic transformation towards low-carbon prosperity and local resilience. Covid-19 is a foretaste of the deep change that will involve, and food is an obvious rallying point.

Meanwhile, there are some tough challenges to solve. One is the big retailers, who are the main suppliers of our food but conspicuously absent from, say, the Food Cardiff partnership. They do of course contribute to their local communities, especially in supplying surplus food and with cash sponsorship, but it is an unequal relationship which is governed as much by expediency and the edicts of Head Office as by a real care for the needs of a community. Their supply chain logistics do not favour local food production, either.

Another area that is perhaps not properly included in local authority food activity is farming. Some do source catering ingredients from local suppliers, and politicians have called repeatedly for more use of public procurement to regenerate the local economy, while a new project to stimulate the ‘foundational economy’ of which food is a part is due to start in Carmarthenshire soon. But it is not a consistent approach. Pembrokeshire County Council for instance cited ‘severe financial pressures’ as a reason for rejecting an offer from a local group who wanted to set up a community farm. Meanwhile, as Ceredigion County Council considers an application for a controversial intensive poultry unit, it must decide on the basis of planning considerations only. There will be no discussion of the type of farming that would best serve the area.

How can we develop local food democracy, allowing the public to channel their ideas into local and national government and ensuring a food system that reflects what people really care about? There are some exciting initiatives on offer at the moment: People’s Assemblies, the expansion of the Sustainable Food Places project in Wales, the Our Food initiative in Crickhowell, and countless small-scale interactions. This is what the Well-being of Future Generations Act was made for, with its new ways of working between community groups, councils and businesses. As Jane Davidson, one of its architects, says:

‘A food system that looks after future generations will support local communities, create innovative low carbon jobs, tackle climate change, enhance biodiversity, address inequality and proudly celebrate the Wales brand to the world. It can do this through thinking long term, preventatively and by encouraging innovative, collaborative opportunities between public services and food businesses, small and large. COVID has highlighted the risk of not having a food system, so now let’s take the opportunity to build one fit for our age – for Wales, by Wales.’

Now is our moment, and we must seize it.

Image: Food Cardiff. Almost 14,000 plants, seeds and growing kits have been distributed to families in the city, by 70 volunteers across 60 projects.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

Building democratic food systems following COVID-19

By Ludivine Petetin

Amidst the grimness of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to see the opportunities arising from it. However, all over the UK and Wales there are pockets of hope and good practice that indicate how food systems could become more resilient. This blog post is based on an open access journal article that I wrote in April 2020 entitled ‘The COVID-19 Crisis: An Opportunity to Integrate Food Democracy into Post-Pandemic Food Systems’.

1. Interconnected food supply chains

The disruption within food systems and the lack of certain foods on the shelves is highlighting the interconnectedness of our food supply chains. Looking outside the UK, some countries have put in place measures to restrict the export of staple foods. They have done this for two main reasons: to guarantee their stability and avoid civil unrest, and to ensure their own food security. However, such export restrictions will have consequences for the world market in terms of food availability and price volatility, and ultimately could lead to international food shortages and a possible worldwide food crisis – affecting the most vulnerable.

Within the UK, disruptions to the ‘just-in-time’ methods of the food supply chain have indicated how closely linked all actors are: the farmer grows cereals, the miller grinds the grain, another company packages the flour, different people again take care of logistics and transport, including delivery drivers, and (often) the supermarket sells the flour – and this is not an exhaustive list. Indeed, flour is a good example of a staple food that is elusive on the food shelves – indicating how intricated but fragile the food supply chain really is.

Under the circumstances, there is a risk of a return to less environmentally friendly practices. Calls to intensify food production in response to shortages could threaten the move towards further sustainable agriculture. However, and more positively, this crisis should be seen as an opportunity to use more sustainable techniques, such as agroecology and agroforestry, and to redesign food systems post-pandemic by building a new model of multilevel food governance based on food democracy.

2. More democratic food systems

In Wales, we have seen how some local farmers, suppliers and shops have been particularly resilient in supplying the local population. In and around Cardiff, butchers like Oriel Jones and Martin Player have modified their businesses to increase their online presence and add home deliveries – indicating the ability to quickly diversify. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable box schemes, such as the Welsh Food Box Company and Paul’s Organic Vegetables, have responded to the increased local demand. It is to be applauded that the local population can count on its local shops and growers and it is to be hoped that this momentum for local, sustainable and healthy food will remain post lockdown.

My article suggests four characteristics for a ‘food democracy’ model to build upon to increase the reliability, locality and resilience of food systems post-pandemic (combined with longer, sustainable food supply chains). Some of these new approaches are already emerging  during COVID-19, whilst others still require improvement:

  1. True information, genuine choice and alternative products being offered to consumers: this is demonstrated by the increased interest from citizens in where their food comes from (i.e. food provenance) as well as how it was produced, with a shift in consumption pattern towards local fruit and vegetable box schemes, local butchers and bakeries.
  2. Upstream engagement and a bottom-up approach in the decision-making process: this starts with local authorities being more involved in supporting local food production, and feeding into the future agri-food policy still under formulation by Welsh Government. They should act upwards, and Welsh Government should be ready to listen to them.
  3. Good health, food safety, sustainable agriculture and environmental protection, improvement of the rights of farmers and agricultural workers and their opportunities: strengthening and shortening food supply chains, leading to fewer food miles, less packaging and processing; also active participation by the public, for instance in harvesting fruits and vegetables.
  4. Restoration of faith and trust in the food system, its institutions and in farmers: this includes a stronger and fairer role for the farmer; transparent food supply chains with fair dealing; a local population interested in supporting local producers either by buying their products or becoming an agricultural worker; and stronger links between supermarkets and local producers.

3. Multilevel food systems

The COVID-19 crisis shows how food supply chains and agri-food policies functions on many levels, from the local to the international. Political decisions on agri-food made at one level impact on all the others. What is needed is increased coordination between the different levels of governments and governance within Wales and beyond. This should lead to agri-food policies that are joined up and support primary producers and local shops.

The ‘Sustainable Farming and our Land’ document published in 2019 is no longer sufficient to solve the issues faced by the sector post COVID-19. The pandemic makes it clear that agriculture and food policies can no longer be kept apart. They need bringing together, as the new President of the EU Commission is aiming to do with its new Farm to Fork Strategy, part of the European Green Deal. A holistic, forward-looking approach towards agri-food systems built on a multilevel agri-food governance is the way forward for all level of governments – from local authorities, to Welsh Government and beyond.

Dr Ludivine Petetin is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Politics and the Wales Governance Centre of Cardiff University. Her expertise lies in agri-food issues and international trade as well as the challenges that Brexit and COVID-19 pose to these areas.

Working co-operatively for sustainable and just food systems

By Poppy Nicol and Alice Taherzadeh

Getting a veg box can be great way to get fresh, locally produced organic food. There’s also a high chance that you will be supporting a co-operative business or co-operative ways of working. Many local and sustainable food businesses are based on principles of co-operation rather than the culture of competition that we see in much of the food system.

Take Cae Tan for example. They are a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project which distribute a weekly bag of vegetables every week to their members around Gower, Swansea via their veg hub. Being a member of the scheme, though, doesn’t just mean you get a weekly supply of fresh food. It is also about meeting people. There are opportunities to volunteer and an annual Harvest Supper where members can get to know each other and celebrate the harvest. As the head gardener of another CSA, Banc Organics in the Gwendraeth Valley explains, CSAs are all about cooperative principles, that is:

“owning our means of production and the workers having a stake in things, having democratic control over things and basing them on things other than the market.”

Co-operative ways of working in the food system

In our new report Working Co-operatively for Sustainable and Just Food Systems in Wales we investigate the scope for co-ops in Wales to help us move to food systems which are based on both sustainability and food justice. The work was commissioned by the Wales Co-operative Party and members of the Co-operative Group in the National Assembly for Wales because they believe that sustainability and food justice should, and can, go hand in hand.

We spoke to twelve people from projects all over Wales, including the Wales Co-operative Centre, fruit and veg CSAs, a bakers’ co-operative, dairy co-operatives and a red meat co-operative. We were inspired by their commitment to co-operative principles, particularly within the sustainable food movement, and their desire to promote social change and food justice through their projects.

We also found out that there used to be far more co-operatives across Wales which enabled small producers and business to work together to share resources and bring local food to people’s plates.

Opportunities for working co-operatively

Currently there are very few co-operatives in the Welsh food sector. However, there is great potential to encourage many more with the right support and infrastructure. We found that when businesses and individuals act together through co-operative ways of working, they have more collective bargaining power, better access to resources and potentially more resilience in the face of change. The co-operative values of equity, equality, solidarity, self-help, self-responsibility and democracy are also more likely to promote food justice as they place people at the centre of the food system.

The challenges facing co-operative ways of working

But we also discovered that cooperative projects face a lot of difficulties.

  • Education, training and advice: Currently, there isn’t enough support for co-operatives working within the Welsh food system. The opportunities for training in sustainable food production are also lacking or more difficult to access because of short-term funding. There is further identified need for improving public information on the co-operative economy.
  • Infrastructure for local food economies: In all sectors producers often have to transport food costly distances (often to England) to get it processed or to get it to retailers as there isn’t the infrastructure to support local food networks here in Wales.
  • The real cost of food: The challenge of competing in a food system dominated by industrial production of cheap food. In this system the real cost of food is not recognised and food is produced at the expense of future generations being able to feed themselves and fair livelihoods for those working in the food system.

What can we do?

There is a lot of potential for Wales to make the big policy changes needed to achieve a food system which is both sustainable and just. Based on what we found in the research we think there are four key areas to strengthen the role of co-operation in our food system:

  1. More co-ops! Support community-led food co-operatives to get set up at all levels and scales to increase the number of food co-operatives and size of the co-operative economy in Wales.
  2. Co-operative processing and distributing Promote co-operative approaches to food processing and distribution such as food hubs which would help smaller producers share resources and reduce the environmental impact of transportation by keeping things local.
  3. Networks of training and education Connect up the training landscape in Wales so that there are strong networks for training in sustainable food production as well as linking food and farming into schools and universities.
  4. More veg! Increase small-scale horticultural and arable production by providing better access to land and training for new entrants and business advice for producers in the meat and dairy sectors who want to diversify.

Bringing everyone together: Co-operative Roundtable

After the report was published in December 2019, we were invited to participate in an expert-led roundtable event on January 14th 2020 at the National Assembly hosted by the Wales Co-operative Party and the Assembly Members who funded the project. The event brought together growers, politicians, charities, community organisations, and researchers all working at different levels of the Welsh food system. This included the CSA Wales Network, Food Manifesto Wales, Food Sense Wales, Land Workers Alliance Cymru, Open Food Network, RSPB Cymru, Social Farms and Gardens Wales, Sustain, Trussell Trust, WWF Cymru.

There was a lot of enthusiasm for a more connected and co-operative food system in Wales that makes better links between food production, environmental sustainability, public health and the education system. After we presented our report, Tom O’Kane, grower at Cae Tan one of the largest CSAs in Wales spoke to everyone about the opportunities and challenges CSAs face – including training opportunities, planning constraints and access to land.  Nick Weir from Open Food Network also explained the potential for community food distribution online via platform co-operatives.

The Cardiff round table

Several attendees argued passionately for the importance of wildlife-friendly, regenerative and ecological farming and local food economies in achieving a more sustainable and just food future. They also highlighted the need to scale out (increasing in number as distributed networks) rather than scale up (increase in size). There were many people who emphasised the multiple barriers that are faced by those wanting to create a sustainable and just food system within the current unjust and unsustainable food system and they called for more ambitious and transformative change from government policy to challenge this. It was also pointed out that future meetings need to include the main farming unions as well as educational institutions and conservation groups, bringing the various sectors working within the food system into conversation with one another so that we can develop food policy which is good for people and the land at every level.

Conclusion:

The roundtable was a really valuable opportunity to bring together a range of people working across the food system and a much needed first step to create wider co-operation on the issue. However, there was also a strong sense that we need to move towards concrete action rather than just continued conversations. The roundtable presents the potential to launch a sustainable and just food network or another platform for co-operation across the food system to better inform policy. We are now in the next stages of this and exploring how we can bring together this network to achieve transformative policy action. We’ll keep you posted!

If you want further information or to get involved, then please get in touch.

Poppy Nicol: I am a research associate at the Sustainable Places Research Institute and a gardener. My research interests are in the connections between people and place. I am particularly interested in the relationships between biological and cultural diversity that come alive through agriculture. NicolP@cardiff.ac.uk

Alice Taherzadeh: I am a PhD researcher at the Sustainable Places Research Institute, an activist and a community organiser. My research interests lie in exploring how people learn in order to transform our food system. I am particularly interested in farmer to farmer models of learning and social movements. TaherzadehA@cardiff.ac.uk

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/

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

By Jane Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane Powell is the Wales coordinator of LEAF Education and is working on a case study of nitrate trading for use in secondary schools. She also writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

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

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

By Richard Kipling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Richard Kipling

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

By Jane Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Once in a lifetime: bringing food and farming closer together in Wales

By Jane Powell

Our departure from the EU provides an opportunity for citizens, groups and organisations to bring about deep change in the food and farming system in Wales, and the UK. Let’s put food at the heart of this transformation.  

When we leave the EU, the familiar system of farm subsidies will come to an end and it will be up to the governments in London and Cardiff to devise a new system of public support.

The UK government is working on an Agriculture Bill which is out for consultation until May. It is mainly concerned with England, but it does contain a section on frameworks for dealing with the devolved nations. This will determine the regulatory baselines and the power that the Welsh government will have to make its own policy.

Speaking at an NFU conference in Birmingham in February, the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths, set forth five principles that will guide a new Welsh land management policy.

The first four are: to keep farmers on the land, to ensure a prosperous agricultural sector, to ensure that public spending delivers public goods (meaning environmental benefits) and to make the support system accessible to all.

Bringing up the rear at number five is this:

“We must not turn our backs on food production. Where sustainable production is viable, we must help our farmers compete in a global marketplace… Food is core to Welsh farming values and is emblematic of our nation. We already have a thriving food and drink industry and this is the time to advance it.”

It is good to see the link being made between farming and the food industry. The Welsh Government’s Food and Drink Action Plan for 2014-2020, Towards Sustainable Growth, recognizes that 170,000 people are employed by the food and drink supply chain in Wales and that it is an important contributor to exports, jobs and general prosperity.

However, food is much more important than this, as the government’s own underlying Food and Drink Strategy for 2014-2020, Food for Wales, Food from Wales, makes clear. It is also about health, culture, education, food security, environmental sustainability and community development.

So let’s not talk only about jobs and exports, important though those are. Food is central to the way we hold together as a society and feed our young, the old, the sick and the vulnerable. It is the foundation on which future generations will literally grow.

As we embark on a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’ to set a new course for land management and all that flows from that, it is imperative we take a broad approach, recognising the complex relationships between our food, farming, society, economy and environment.

A systems approach to food and farming

Let’s look at a few things we might want to do if we thought farming was, at least in part, about producing food for the people of Wales.

For one thing, we would align farming with public health as well as the environment, so that we grow food that meets our nutritional needs. That would mean putting more land under horticulture, in particular. This is the focus of the Peas Please campaign, which brings together government, farming, supermarkets and caterers in a concerted effort to have the UK eat more vegetables. We might also grow more grain for human consumption.

We would use the power of the public purse to support this new model of farming, getting Welsh-grown food into public sector catering, such as schools and hospitals. Professor Kevin Morgan in his 2015 Senedd paper Good Food for All enlarges on this point and calls for a programme to train procurement staff in ‘values-for-money’ purchasing which stimulates sustainable food production and underpins education and community development.

We would also want to make sure that the public, and especially young people, understand how food is produced, so that they can support nature-friendly, high welfare farming with their votes and their shopping choices.

That would mean supporting links between farms and schools, backed up with gardening and cookery to help young people make the connection between nature, food and human health.

It would also mean supporting food festivals to tell the story of farming (and fishing), as well as promoting community gardens which introduce growing skills to so many people.

All this would encourage the public to place a higher value on food generally, and to waste less of it. It would create a climate where people were willing to pay more for high quality produce, and so generate more rewards for the people who work so hard to produce it and bring it to our plates.

Finally, we would want to enshrine the inseparability of food, farming, the environment, health and culture in a new alignment of organizations and policies that ensures that we gain as much benefit as possible from joining the dots. Local groupings such as Food Cardiff are an example of what can be done; we need to work nationally as well.

It is human nature to divide into competing interest groups, or siloes that ignore each other, and so we need to make a positive effort to work for unity and understanding. We call on the Welsh Government to engage with civil society and business and unlock the power of food to bring us together into a new vision of a healthy nation.

View the second draft of the Wales Food Manifesto and send us your comments: Food Manifesto Wales Second Draft Apr 2018. And sign up to our newsletter.

Download the report of our public meeting: Food Network Wales 9 Feb 2018 report

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

Llun/picture: Anthony Pugh

Wales Food Manifesto: An invitation to shape the next draft

Andy Middleton mugshotThis article was written by Andy Middleton following the launch of the Wales Food Manifesto at the National Botanic Gardens on 9 February 2018. Andy is a environmental activist and social entrepreneur who is Founder and Chief Exploration Officer at TYF St.Davids, a Founding Partner at the Do Lectures, a Non-Exec Director on the Board of National Resources Wales and a member of the Innovation Advisory Council for Wales.

There’s a forester’s saying that the best time to plant a tree is 25 years ago, and the next best time is today. The same goes for changes to our food system needed to restore resilience and productivity to the natural systems that provide us food, water and resources. A wide range of organisations have been calling for transformational change to the way we grow, process and consume food, with far-reaching recommendations that would shift an industry on its axis if adopted widely.

The World Health Organisation have made causal links between red meat and cancer, and recommend reducing its consumption. Compassion in World Farming are calling for an end to factory farming to preserve the world’s biodiversity. Research from Cambridge University and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change call for reductions in meat and dairy consumption for carbon reduction.

Brexit meanwhile brings its own set of challenges that need to be balanced by an understanding of the trade deal balances between UK and food exporting countries. In new technology, innovators such as Aerofarms and Growing Underground are extending the boundaries of possibility with hydroponic growing whilst  ‘safe meat’ businesses such as Memphis Meats question our assumptions further. Changing diets are shifting meal choices towards meat-free menus, with nearly a third of UK dinners now vegetarian or vegan dishes.

Humanity is already making new choices about the food that it grows and eats. In Wales, we can plan a route to a resilient future by putting food and farming at the centre of a journey that leads to the wellbeing of citizens, communities and nature.

The principles and actions in this latest draft of the Wales Food Manifesto are offered for the discussion, improvement and debate that leads to the scale of response needed.

Download the second draft at Food Manifesto Wales Second Draft Apr 2018, then please let the team at Wales Food Manifesto know:

  1.  What changes would you would want to see for you and/or your organization to declare support for the ten principles?
  2. What comments do you have on the calls to action? Would you choose different ones?
  3. Can you help us work out how to achieve these goals? For instance, maybe you or your organization are already working in these areas and can share your thinking, or maybe you could commit to actions that would inspire others to join in.

Please reply to hello @ foodmanifesto.wales, neu ysgrifennwch at helo @ maniffestobwyd.cymru.

(You can see the current draft here: first draft of the Manifesto)