What Wales Could Do with a Community Food Strategy

By Jane Powell

This article was originally published by IWA on August 31, 2021.

As pressure to meet net zero emissions targets grows, Oxfam has warned that the drive to plant trees could lead to vast areas of land being taken out of food production, leading to hunger for the most vulnerable.

Now carbon offsetting is causing concern much closer to home. As reports emerge of corporations buying whole farms for afforestation. Ceredigion MP Ben Lake has warned that rural communities, the Welsh language and food production are being sacrificed to a ‘green-washed business-as-usual’.

Wales has its own target of net zero by 2050. Following guidance from the Climate Change Committee, it plans to move around a fifth of agricultural land from livestock rearing to carbon sequestration, supported by a change in diet away from red meat consumption. 

However, even given the need for more trees, there does not need to be a simple sacrifice of food production for forestry. What is needed is a comprehensive land use policy, one that recognises that food production, forestry and other land uses all have a place, and can even sometimes be combined, as for instance in agroforestry. 

A food strategy for Wales

An effective land use policy would need to be linked to a food policy. England has come up with some pointers in its recent National Food Strategy, an independent report to which government has yet to respond. Such a food policy could help us decide what our land is for, as well as pulling together other threads, from farming and the economy to health and social inclusion.

Both the Welsh Food Manifesto and the Food Policy Alliance Cymru have been calling for just such a joined-up food policy for some time. Now, the Welsh Government has announced that it will create a Community Food Strategy during its current term.

At first glance, the reference to ‘community’ seems limiting. It makes no reference to how Wales as a whole intends to feed itself, or to the global impacts of outsourcing food production to countries with lower farming standards, or of importing livestock feed grown on land taken out of tropical rainforest.

Maybe, though, communities are a good place to start. We have many inspiring grassroots projects which are busy reconnecting people with food production. Numerically small, these projects nevertheless represent the citizen power so essential to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

They are pioneering new ways of doing things, including community gardens, local food hubs, community meals and Community Supported Agriculture projects. 

Local integration

In particular, community food projects could be an important way to integrate farming and food policy. 

On the one hand, we have a forthcoming Sustainable Farming Scheme that will reward farmers for managing the land environmentally, while at the same time supporting them to develop their businesses. Food production, which is not considered to be a public good, will not be directly supported and so will depend on other policy moves. 

On the other, we have an action plan for food that is mainly about developing the food and drinks industry, with an aspiration in the next version to contribute to community development.  This strategy has little to say about farming.

What community projects might do therefore is to bridge the gap between these two policies, by reaching out to local farmers and growers and connecting them with markets, tapping into a growing demand for local food. 

These markets include retail, the hospitality sector and public procurement; Carmarthenshire is already backing local sourcing as part of the government’s Foundational Economy programme.

The missing link here is infrastructure, including small abattoirs, processing facilities, cold storage and distribution, which will need investment. The returns are big though: the regeneration of rural economies, vibrant communities and a healthier population with cooking and gardening skills.

Alongside physical infrastructure it is also important to build democratic processes that allow citizens to contribute to local decision-making, something that is encouraged by the Well-being of Future Generations Act but difficult to attain in practice.

Here, there is inspiration in the shape of Food CardiffOur Food Crickhowell and the Sustainable Food Places network which have shown their worth in mobilising community responses to the pandemic.

Land use

Food security is a key concern of community food projects, and provides an impetus for local food production. But this depends on access to land. As outrage builds over the sale of the countryside to corporate interests, what can we do?

One approach might be to develop a Rural Land Use Framework, as the English food strategy recommends. The English model would assign land to one of three compartments: intensive food production, natural habitats or an agroecological combination of farming and nature. 

We might not follow that model in Wales, but without any plan at all, we may default to a combination of intensive farming and rewilding which will disappoint many. 

The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission is calling for the English land use framework to be led by local communities, and again, a Welsh Community Food Strategy could allow for that.

Another approach would be to follow Scotland’s example of the community right to buy, so that Welsh farms that came on the market could be bought by local groups, such as Community Land Trusts

Alternatively, local authorities could step in and increase their stocks of county farms, neatly reversing the sad case of Trecadwgan, where a community group failed in their bid to buy a 14th century farm from Pembrokeshire County Council.

Wales has no equivalent of either the Scottish land reform legislation or the English Localism Act, and we will need to establish our own principles of land management. 

One starting point could be to find common ground between those who want to preserve traditional family farms, with all they contribute to the local culture and language, and new entrants to farming, often from urban backgrounds. A community food strategy could help to do this. 

Food democracy

There is strong public feeling about the Welsh countryside. Concerns about the sell-off of farms to corporate interests and the proliferation of intensive poultry units are rooted in a deeper concern about our national culture and the natural world. 

A Community Food Strategy must give people the means to ground those concerns in practical action, and a voice into government.  The mechanisms exist: the Future Generations Act provides for communities to influence local authorities via Public Services Boards, and the Environment Act invites collaboration through the Area Statement process. 

The Public Services Boards do not have the power to block the sale of farms for carbon offsetting, any more than they can stop the proliferation of intensive poultry units. 

What they can do, however, is provide a space for community organisations to propose strategies for local land use which could then be picked up by national government. This would allow local and national priorities to be matched.

They could also set up mechanisms by which environmental goods such as carbon sequestration and flood prevention can be rigorously audited to allow for a blend of public and private investment, leaving farmers in control of the land. In Pembrokeshire, the BRICS project is pioneering a blended model for water quality. 

It will not be easy to create these new structures for a new form of governance, but working locally does bring the energy and creativity of communities, and maybe they can do what government cannot.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and Renew Wales coordinator and writes at http://www.foodsociety.wales.

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

The Brecon Beacons Mega Catchment: A proactive and collaborative approach to delivering a resilient drinking water supply

By Dave Ashford

The ongoing debate around the sustainable production of food and the inextricable links with the climate and nature crises is vitally important, but there is an extra element which is often overlooked. In a country like Wales blessed with our wonderful rivers, lakes and abundant (occasionally too abundant) rain, it seems odd to worry about the quality and availability of drinking water sources. However, there are a number of challenges that we need to respond to, so that we can ensure we protect our drinking water supplies for current and future generations.

The cluster of drinking water catchments across the Brecon Beacons supply almost half of the drinking water Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water provides to customers every day – that’s more than 400 million litres of water, equivalent to 160 Olympic-sized swimming pools. But it’s not just water that make the Beacons extraordinary. Communities, biodiversity, agriculture, forestry and tourism all play a part in making it such an iconic landscape that provides so much for so many.

As a water company, we need to treat water to remove a range of contaminants to ensure we serve our customers safe, wholesome drinking water.

For example, pesticides enter our water ways from a variety of sources including our gardens and allotments, parks and sports grounds and from farms. Our routine water monitoring programme has detected increasing traces of pesticides in areas we have never seen them before, and therefore more treatment is needed.

Sediment, which has to be filtered out, enters water courses from a number of sources including landslips and cultivation, and that sediment can carry pathogens, nutrients and agricultural chemicals, all of which need to be removed as they can impact the safety and enjoyment of our drinking water.

And these are just some of the water quality risks we deal with daily. As a result of climate change, we can expect to see more erratic floods and droughts, and we may even see different animal and plant diseases that we have not encountered before in the UK. This could mean more erosion of soils, new pathogens or veterinary medicines finding their way into drinking water catchments. We may start to see changes in food production trends – for example more home-grown fodder and horticulture expansion could mean detecting more pesticides being used in areas where we aren’t used to dealing with them.

While we already work hard to respond to these changes, we believe there is a huge benefit to be gained from trying to get ahead of the risks. That is why we are shifting our emphasis from reactive treatment of water to proactive measures to reduce or prevent water quality issues before they happen. We will, of course, treat water to make it safe and wholesome to drink, but we believe that by focusing on the management of water within the wider environment we can reduce the chemicals and energy needed in the treatment process – which is better for everyone.

Considering some of these issues in the context of drinking water may help clarify why it is important to adapt certain practices. However, we don’t want to implement more actions for overstretched farmers to juggle, because many of the actions needed to improve water quality are the same actions being discussed in relation to sustainable food production – improved soil husbandry, proactive animal health planning and caring for our precious habitats – including restoring them where needed.

The Brecon Beacons Mega Catchment (BBMC) is a Welsh Water-led initiative, and we’re now getting underway with an active programme of collaborative land management and engagement trials.  We want to explore new ways of working – on the land and with each other.

We are a growing partnership of individuals and organisations representing farming, forestry, community, tourism, academia and ecology. This is a network we want to expand further to encompass other elements, but the most valuable partnerships we have are with the farmers and community members at a grass roots level who can bring their experience and ideas to bear, helping us develop and trial these new ways of working. Collaboration has recently become another fashionable term to use in land management discussions. But we believe the value of coordinating our expertise and resources with others, means that we can achieve far more together than we can achieve individually. We are not a major landowner in these drinking water catchments, so we must work in partnership with others if we are to have a positive impact.

For example, inspired by a knowledge exchange with our friends working in the Catskills catchment which supplies New York (widely recognised as one of the most successful catchment management examples globally) we are trialling a new approach to smarter nutrient applications with the Beacons Water Group – a farmer led group in the heart of the Beacons. Here, we will be using data on drainage patterns across individual fields and whole farms to identify ‘spread / no spread’ zones to reduce nutrient run off to water courses and make more efficient use of manures.

We’re also scoping out the restoration of damaged areas of peatbog to reduce water quality risks of sediment and colour compounds from eroding peat. In addition, this restoration should prevent further carbon emissions and regulate peak water flow. But again, we will need to work with a range of partners to deliver this. There are many peat restoration activities taking place across the country, but importantly, we will be working closely with local graziers to explore how best to share information on the importance and ambitions of peatbog management, and how to monitor the success of the project and make more locally based management decisions that are right for the conditions and the season.

We are also exploring opportunities for working with groups of farmers to develop more integrated livestock health planning, biosecurity and quarantine that will support livestock health as well as reducing pathogens and medicines lost to water.

We will be trialling these initiatives in the Brecon Beacons with a view to rolling these new ways of working out in the drinking water catchments throughout Wales. These results cannot be achieved over night and our ambition is to deliver long term sustainable solutions to safeguard our environment and drinking water for generations to come. We are keen to hear from any new partners who would be interested in working with us to deliver these ambitions.

For more information contact bbmc@dwrcymru.com.

Dave Ashford currently works for Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water as Programme Manager for the Brecon Beacons Mega Catchment – a programme of collaborative activities to avoid risks to drinking water supplies.

Photo by Carl Jorgensen on Unsplash.

Taking trees off the menu: How our food behaviour in Wales is driving tropical deforestation and what we can do about it

By Angie Kirby

Tropical forests are complex ecosystems rich in biodiversity – the work of millions of years of evolution captured in the DNA of every plant and animal. Each one is a tiny thread in the tapestry of life: each interconnected, each reliant on and contributing to a healthy, functioning ecosystem. In their ability to sequester vast amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, tropical forests are an essential tool in the fight against climate change, helping to regulate our climate and maintain a healthy planet – our life-support system.

In addition to sucking up carbon and storing it deep in the soil, tropical forests provide a huge range of ecosystem services, from regulating services, such as water purification and flood prevention, to provisional services, such as shelter, food and medicinenot to mention cultural benefits, such as spiritual enrichment and inspiration.

However, currently, global rates of deforestation cause more CO2 emissions than all the world’s transport combined, seriously undermining our ability to tackle climate change. At the New York Declaration of Forests in 2014, governments and organisations around the world committed to removing deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. However, since 2014, deforestation rates have increased by 44%. According to the World Resources Institute, around 18 million hectares of forest are lost every year – roughly nine times the size of Wales. Not only is this diminishing the health and viability of forest ecosystems, but it is having a devastating effect on indigenous communities, who frequently suffer severe human rights violations at the hands of corporations, criminal gangs and local law enforcement

Alongside these impacts, the destruction of tropical forests also brings an increased risk of pandemics. Seventy-five per cent of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic – spread from animals to humans – with increasing rates of tropical deforestation providing the perfect opportunity for zoonotic diseases to leap into human populations. It is clear we cannot continue down this path and expect our world to be a safe and habitable one, but what is driving this increase and what can we do about it here in Wales?

Firstly, it is helpful to know that 73%of all tropical deforestation is caused by a handful of key agricultural products – products we buy, use and consume in Wales every day, including beef, soy, palm oil, coffee and cacao. Many of us will be aware of the impacts of unsustainably produced palm oil, thanks to campaigns such as Iceland’s Rang-tan the Orangutan, but how many of us would relate a dash of milk in our morning brew to tropical deforestation? I think you would agree the answer is not many. However, emissions from imported deforestation are deeply rooted in the Welsh economy. For example, 80-90% of soy grown in tropical regions and imported into the UK goes into animal feed, including farmed fish, pork, beef and dairy cattle and poultry, particularly here in Wales where there are a growing number of intensive poultry operations. Therefore, by consuming meat and dairy from animals reared on soy, we are inadvertently contributing to the problem of deforestation.  

On average, the UK consumes around 3.3 million tonnes of soy per year, requiring nearly two million hectares of land. Of this it is estimated that at least 77% comes from countries and regions with a high risk of deforestation, including the Brazilian Cerrado, which has lost over 50% of its mass due to land conversion. The Cerrado is a rich, biodiverse savannah, vital in the fight against climate change and home to 5% of the world’s biodiversity.

In Brazil, the global demand for beef is the single biggest driver of deforestation and land conversion, accounting for around 65-70% of all deforestation in the Amazon region between 2000 and 2005. During a five year period, the UK imported around £1 billion worth of beef linked to deforestation in the Amazon – enough to make 170 million burgers a year. Brazilian beef imports include tinned corned beef and highly processed beef, which is linked to fast food consumption and rising obesity levels in Wales.

Forest footprints also vary within commodities. For example, Welsh cattle is mainly grass-fed and supplemented with soy to help them build protein before slaughter. So, Welsh beef has a significantly lower forest footprint than imported beef, such as beef from Brazil. Building on this, certified organic or 100% grass-fed beef goes even further in taking trees off the menu. These variations can make a huge difference to tropical forests.

So, by joining the dots from farm to fork, we can see that our consumer behaviour – for example, which products we buy and how they are produced – can have a direct impact on communities, tropical forests, biodiversity, climate and health.

The need for collective action

In order to tackle these complex and compounded issues, Wales must transition to a sustainable food system that respects environmental limits and human rights. To do this, it is essential that public bodies, businesses and civil society work together to remove imported deforestation from the Welsh economy.

As civil society, whether individuals, groups or businesses, there are practical steps we can take to reduce our forest footprints. These include:

  • Eating more plant-based foods, including high protein pulses, such as beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas and alternative proteins, such as organic tofu and tempeh.
  • Eating less, but better quality and locally sourced meat and dairy, such as 100% grass-fed animal products. Look for the Pasture for Life label, which is widely available in Wales.
  • Buying products with an ethical certification, such as Fairtrade, which includes a no-deforestation criterion, and Soil Association Organic, which guarantees nature friendly farming methods.
  • Avoiding processed foods, such as fast food and ready meals, to reduce your consumption of unsustainably sourced palm oil and beef and soy from deforestation risk regions.
  • Only buying products that contain sustainably sourced palm oil. Palm oil and its derivatives are found in over 50% of packaged products, ranging from foodstuffs to household and body products. Furthermore, with over 200 names it is incredibly difficult spot in the ingredients list. While many organisations have called to boycott palm oil, switching to other oil crops would require more land to produce the same amount of oil, resulting in wider deforestation and environmental degradation. So, when out shopping, look for the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) logo, which now includes a no further deforestation criterion or burning of land to clear it. Chester Zoo has compiled this handy shopping list of common brands that source 100% of their palm oil through RSPO certified physical supply chains.

While we can take practical steps to reduce our impact on tropical forests, it is still incredibly difficult for the consumer to know the true forest footprint of a product or ingredient. This is due to the complexity of current systems, ranging from traceability and labelling to local laws and standards, including country definitions of what is deemed ‘sustainable’ practice. Furthermore, regardless of the desire or motivation to live more sustainably, many people cannot afford to make these choices. That is why clear, legislative commitments are so important. By taking a firm position on imported deforestation, we can create more demand and fairer access to sustainably sourced goods that work for both people and planet.

As part of the transition, Welsh Government should lead the way by introducing a deforestation free public procurement policy and creating a public register of deforestation free businesses. Many countries and states have either implemented or are currently developing policies to remove imported deforestation from public procurement, among them France, Norway, California and most recently, the United States.

We must also introduce sustainable farming practices that do not contribute to deforestation overseas. This includes ending the reliance on imported soy animal feed that originates from forest risk areas and adopting nature and climate-friendly farming methods, such as, organic farming, agroecology and agroforestry. We need a new cross-departmental food system strategy that incentivises local and sustainable supply chains and prioritises sustainably sourced goods from overseas to support livelihoods both at home and abroad. Furthermore, as we enter new trading relationships around the world, it is crucial that policymakers in Wales and the UK ensure that any future trade policies will guarantee environmental and human rights standards. We cannot do this alone, however. Politicians in Wales must urge the UK Government to implement mandatory due diligence legislation that applies to all companies importing deforestation risk goods, including those deemed legal by weaker local laws and standards.

If we are to reach our target of net-zero by 2050 and preserve our planet for future generations, we must eliminate imported deforestation from the Welsh economy and work with international partners to end global deforestation. With 87% of people wanting action on deforestation, the public appetite for change already exists. Wales might be a small country, but we are a global leader in sustainability. In 2008, we became the world’s first Fairtrade Nation, in 2015, the first country to legislate for sustainable development through the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act and in 2019, the first parliament to declare a Climate Emergency. So, let us pursue our goals of becoming a healthier, resilient, prosperous and globally responsible Wales and commit to become the world’s first Deforestation Free Nation.

The Deforestation Free Nation campaign is a coalition between Welsh charities Size of Wales, WWF Cymru and RSPB Cymru. The campaign invites individuals, communities, businesses and the Welsh public sector to pledge their commitment in eliminating tropical deforestation from the Welsh economy. For anyone interested in establishing a Deforestation Free Community in their area, please contact Size of Wales for more information.

Angie Kirby is the Advocacy Outreach Officer for the Deforestation Free Nation campaign. She has experience working in the voluntary and public sector in Wales – most recently with the Health and Sustainability Hub in Public Health Wales NHS Trust, where she worked on policy and sustainable behaviour change, including climate change education, active travel, green recovery and biodiversity. She is also a creative practitioner, singer, artist and poet.

Photo credit: Felipe Werneck

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

From community gardens to public procurement, homegrown food provides value

By Jane Powell

The west Wales market town of Llandysul has lost a lot in the last ten years or so. The mart has gone, and so have all the banks and the Post Office. The new bypass means fewer people stop there, and the main schools are now out of town too. Meanwhile, the introduction of parking charges by the county council diverts shoppers away from the family shops on the high street, towards the new supermarket with its free parking.

But all is not lost. The town has a strong community, and many groups – covering interests such as youth, elderly people, the arts and the Welsh language – have come together to set up a community garden on the outskirts of town. Yr Ardd, as it is known, will be about bringing people together, beginning with gardening but including cookery classes, arts and creative activities, and education.

“We want to see enterprises running at the garden, growing food and running courses. Ultimately we want to be self-sufficient, we don’t want to be dependent on grants,” says founder-member Andrea Sanders, who is inspired by the work of Mach Maethlon, the Machynlleth project that has engaged the public through edible gardens, gardening courses and cookery sessions, as well as finding a market for local produce. During lockdown, it gave rise to a local growing initiative that saw a ‘land army’ growing food on nearby farms.

Tom (centre) at a farmers’ market at the old primary school in Llandysul

Tom Cowcher, who has an organic farm near Llandysul and is also a town councillor, is optimistic about the town’s future too, seeing a new interest in local food and the countryside. Llandysul is part of the Welsh Government’s Transforming Towns initiative and he thinks they could soon have market stalls selling local produce once again.

”I do envisage a green revolution in local supply. The tide is about to turn in rural Wales, there’s a tremendous opportunity coming,” he says, noting the demand for the small proportion of his own meat that he is able to sell locally through catering for events. However, there is an urgent need for more small abattoirs to service meat supply chains, and he is concerned that the public does not appreciate the environmental and nutritional qualities of red meat reared in Wales. More attention should perhaps be paid to the impacts of agrochemicals on crops.

Local food growing meets an important social need for connection, which is an important driver for Yr Ardd. They can engage people in rewarding volunteer work, build community, improve nutrition and share food skills. They can also reach into the countryside, for instance buying direct from farmers. But as Katie Hastings of Mach Maethlon notes, it can be difficult to marry up the social and commercial aspects.

Katie in the potato field

“Mach Maethlon set up as a group of people who wanted to be able to make a livelihood growing vegetables,” she says, “but it quickly became apparent that that is nigh-on impossible. So then we moved into community activity and that’s been brilliant, but I’d love to see more veg being produced and sold into the local economy.” Low prices, difficulties accessing land and lack of investment in infrastructure are just a few of the problems they face.

There are some encouraging signs. Welsh Government has expressed strong support for community growing, as Lucie Taylor of the Community Land Advisory Service points out, and a recent change in government regulations gives more freedom to community gardens to develop their sites. In the countryside, One Planet Development has brought new possibilities. The government could do more to developing infrastructure by bringing together its support for farming on the one hand, and the food industry on the other – and community groups could be the catalyst for that.

And of course the Well-Being of Future Generations Act requires local authorities and other public bodies to work with businesses and community groups to create better futures locally – and what better way to do this than through food democracy. Local marketing initiatives such as food hubs,  many of them powered by the Open Food Network, can help to create a vibrant food culture that naturally draws people in and empowers them to become change agents. Meanwhile organizations such as Slow Food Cymru Wales and the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference make this movement visible, while the Food Policy Alliance Cymru is lobbying government.

But all this ‘food from the ground up’ needs to be met with national support if it is to transform Wales. It is government that can properly assess the value of a good food system to human health, the environment, the economy and well-being, not just now but in the future, and direct public finance towards this vital goal. This is where public procurement – the purchase of food for schools, hospitals, day centres and so on – comes in. It can create stronger demand for Welsh produce and overcome the challenges of distribution, as well as raising the profile of local food and shifting public perceptions.

Carmarthenshire County Council is running just such a project, with support from Welsh Government under the Foundational Economy programme, and taking inspiration from the English South West Food Hub and a Copenhagen food project. The challenge is to quantify the benefits of local procurement, making the case for greater investment in good food, and to see how supply and demand can be matched in the area.

“I consider myself a food activist,” says Alex Cook, who owns his own food business and is a supply adviser to the project.  ”The us-and-them mentality needs to change and we need to work together, from the community level to large businesses. It has to be collaboration not competition.”

The lessons from the Carmarthenshire project, which is led by its Public Services Board (PSB) – the mechanism by which the Future Generations Act stimulates place-based collaboration – will serve as a template for the rest of Wales. As local capacity builds, thanks to projects like Mach Maethlon and Yr Ardd, as well as Our Food Crickhowell, Food Cardiff and others linked to the Sustainable Food Places project, so on the other hand PSBs will be able to follow Carmarthenshire’s lead.

Getting food right is much more than a lifestyle choice about how we eat or where we shop. It is about health, and the quality of the food we grow, down to its nutritional composition and the trace elements it contains. It is about how Wales trades across the globe. It has to do with how farmers use their land here in Wales, whether for mixed farming that feeds local communities, or the specialized commodity farming encouraged by the CAP.

Brexit has changed the rules for procurement and farm support, Covid has shaken up our assumptions about how things are done, and climate change is forcing us to make deep changes. We have an opportunity to do things differently, if we are prepared to seize it.

This article is based on Food from the Ground Up #3, an event organized by Renew Wales on 17th February 2021. View recording.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and Renew Wales coordinator, and writes at http://www.foodsociety.wales.

Food from the ground up: The potential of citizen food initiatives

By Jane Powell

Ask people what they would like to change about food, and very often they say they like to be able to buy it locally, and to know where it comes from. Relocalizing the food system is important as a contribution to food security and a vital part of building a healthy food culture. Key to this is bringing together government policy with citizen food initiatives.

The Welsh Government put out two food policy documents for consultation in the summer, with October closing dates, and both have a bearing on this. One was about how to support farmers after Brexit puts an end to EU farming subsidies, and the other was about the future of the food and drink industry. Both are relevant to local food.

Farming and food businesses

First, farming. Sustainable Farming and our Land proposes a single support scheme with two main aims. One is to reward farmers for delivering environmental benefits such as biodiversity, clean water, flood protection and carbon sequestration. The other is to support them to produce and market their products – including food – more effectively.

This raises questions about the relationship between farming and food production. Is growing food merely an income-generating activity for farmers, one that they might replace with glamping or forestry if the conditions are right, or is it a public service to the nation? Farmers lean towards the second aspect, as the NFU’s #proudtoproduce posters proclaim, but as they know better than anyone, they need to make money too.

Then, the consultation on the future of the food and drink sector, which was drawn up jointly by the Welsh Government and the Food and Drink Wales Industry Board. It had three aims. The first was to develop Welsh food businesses, the third was to promote Wales as a food nation, and sandwiched between those two came this one: ‘benefiting our people and society’. The idea here is that businesses who receive government support will ‘provide wider benefits through fair work, developing skills and using resources sustainably’.

Economy or people?

It was good to see this nod to the social aspect of food, as thegovernment’s current action plan Towards Sustainable Growth has been criticized for its heavy emphasis on jobs and exports. This had been a disappointment, given that the underlying strategy document Food from Wales, Food for Wales 2010-2020 took a much broader view, as its title suggests. It attempted to integrate food business development with health, education, community development and food security.

In fact neither policy document has much to say about the value of a thriving local food economy. Instead, they bow to the political imperatives of keeping farmers in business and boosting food industry jobs and exports. Given that farming relies heavily on producing red meat for export while the biggest part of the food sector by value is drinks – notably bottled water and gin – it’s not easy to join the two up.

Nevertheless, where there is an opportunity we must take it, and so at a meeting of community food initatives organized by Renew Wales at Machynlleth, both consultations were given an airing. What could these projects contribute to food policy? Eight speakers shared insights from their projects, and a further 25 or so participants from all over Wales took part in discussions.

two men sorting potatoes
Sorting potatoes at Clynfyw Care Farm

Some of the projects that were represented are working directly on local food supply chains, such as Riverside Community Market Association, Aber Food Surplus and Mach Maethlon’s Pathways to Farming project. Others, such as Borth Family Centre, have a primary focus on people, but use food as an activity to bring them in, and also do their bit to support healthy eating and reduce food waste. Clynfyw Care Farm artfully combines food production with social care, Incredible Edible Porthmadog has a focus on public education, and the Denbigh Plum is all about our food heritage. The Machynlleth Climate Emergency Food Group is researching a food plan for the area.

What was clear is how creative such initiatives are, and how little heed they pay to the boundaries between government policy areas. They draw people together, they prototype new food products and supply chains, they perserve food skills, they enrich our lives through the arts, and they generally change the communities of which they are part. They unlock enthusiasm and dedication from both staff and volunteers, and they care for people who are left behind by austerity and a competitive, materialistic culture.

Significantly, a few farmers attended the event too. As Brexit threatens big changes to their livelihoods, they spoke about their need for closer connection with their local communities and for their work to be appreciated. For them, the opportunity to sell food locally at a good price was a much better option than dependency on subsidies.

So what is the message to the Welsh Government?

Joining up policy

First, there is a strong case for using both areas of policy to support local food systems, and the community food sector with its adaptability and drive is well placed to support that.

The farming consultation already proposes improvements to local infrastructure in some cases, but this must be stepped up as it is central to rebuilding local food economies. Cold storage, distribution hubs, food processing and packing facilities – all of which could be made available to community food initiatives as well as larger food producers – would make local trade much easier.

This could be combined with a drive on public procurement, using the purchasing power of schools and hospitals to prime the pump of local production. The case for this has been made repeatedly, and the Assembly’s Rethinking Food in Wales project recently produced a document with some clear calls for action, available here. Just this month, the Welsh Government has allocated £100,000 to Carmarthenshire Public Services Board to improve local food procurement as part of the £4.5 million Foundational Economy Challenge Fund.

Meanwhile, food businesses also have a key role to play, one which goes beyond job creation and export earnings. It is in everyone’s interests to have a vibrant food culture, with a mix of businesses from the artisan to the large-scale, and a strong story about food and place. The food industry also needs to attract young people, who care not just about pay and conditions, but also about the environmental and social performance of businesses. They want to work for companies that do good, and the food industry has great capacity for that.

Again, community projects are crucial here, connecting people and telling the story of food. Businesses could be doing more to support them, by making their facilities and expertise available, in exchange for a genuine connection with the public. The support they already give to their communities – from snacks for schools sports days, up to grants for capital improvements – could be better coordinated, too. At present it’s haphazard and sets groups up to compete when they could collaborate.

Local food strategies

A clear local food strategy which businesses, community groups, local health boards and others decided together, would be a start. Cardiff just published theirs and it includes community food growing spaces, limiting fast food outlets near schools and a revamp of Cardiff Market. Other areas of Wales could take a lead from them. Government could play a role in bringing people together, as part of its delivery of the Future Generations Act (and incidentally, the Future Generations office is collecting ideas from the public here).

Citizen food initiatives are numerically small, but they are powerful. As Olivier de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food argues in this video, they draw people together, building trust and creating spaces for new ideas to emerge. By creating alliances with politicians, local businesses and the public, they can amplify their effects, creating real force for change.

We need more of that in Wales. Community initiatives can do what government and business can’t, and they deserve to have more influence. Meanwhile, please sign the petition for more local food in Wales here: www.localfoodpetition.cymru.

Jane Powell is an independent writer and consultant, and a volunteer coordinator of the Food Manifesto. She is also a coordinator for Renew Wales. See www.foodsociety.wales.

Image: Clynfyw Care Farm.

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.

Farming for biodiversity at the Botanic Garden – what local and national collaboration can achieve

By Bruce Langridge, National Botanic Garden of Wales

It’s surprising how quick you can make a difference.

I’ve been working at the National Botanic Garden of Wales since 2003 and have keenly observed some dramatic changes to meadows that we’ve been managing for hay. Formerly dull swathes of grass-dominated pasture now bloom with colourful waves of fascinating flowers that were once common in our countryside but which have declined dramatically since the intensification of agriculture.

How did we do this? Simples. We cut the meadow in the late summer, don’t add any fertiliser and occasionally graze a few cattle in the winter. We’ve not introduced any wildflower seeds or plugs, we’ve just let nature do what nature does.Yellow Rattle, Trawscoed North plants 19 June 2013 056

It’s a vital role of a national botanic garden like ours to conserve, educate and inspire. With over 300 acres of agricultural grassland to manage on our Waun Las National Nature Reserve, it’s vital that we can show our visitors how farming can work with, rather than against nature. With around 60 Welsh Black cattle and a new flock of local-breed Balwen sheep, we produce beef and lamb that we sell to our Garden members and supporters.

I’m no farmer myself. I’m the Garden’s Head of Interpretation but I used to be a field botanist in the 1980s and a natural history museum curator in the 1990s. As a very young charitable institution when I joined in 2003, the Garden was flexible enough to harness its staff’s knowledge and passions, even when they didn’t strictly adhere to job descriptions. That’s how I got to know this wonderful farmland. And luckily I’ve worked successively with two farmers, Tim Bevan and Huw Jones, who know their balers from their billhooks.

Our Head of Science, Dr. Natasha De Vere is also a national expert on rhos pastures, a hugely declined Welsh farming habitat which survives in fragments on the NNR – we’re working to join up these wet meadow gems. Wales is also blessed with plenty of people who have been happy to advise us whether it be the Freshwater Habitat Trust on our lakes and dipping ponds, PONT (Pori, Natur a Threftadaeth) on organically managing rush – we don’t use chemicals – and Plantlife Cymru on how to short-cut the creation of new species-rich meadows using our own green hay. I suspect most Welsh mycologists have helped us to record our internationally important waxcap fungi pastures whilst all manner of pollinator-friendly people have helped us become leading research institute with a specialism in DNA barcoding. Our half a million honeybees have been so well observed now that we’ve a pretty good idea of where and what they forage. This means we have a more tolerant view on what we now know is one of the honey bees’ favourite food source – the bramble. This is handy as we’ve recently discovered we’ve got dormice, a fact that requires us not to hack back bramble without looking for small mammals first.

Sharing these experiences with other small-scale farmers, such as those on the recently formed Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, is what helps me to find my job so rewarding. Inspired by the incredible efforts of the Monmouthshire Meadows Group, this new group is made up of people who want to farm with, rather than against, nature. Just by meeting with others, sharing experience and knowledge, then later tools and grazing livestock, these farmers are helping to either conserve or create new pockets of biodiversity which are so needed across our biodiversity-depleted countryside. Wouldn’t it be great to see this model of small scale co-operation working across all the counties of Wales?

I’m now all set for a new aspect to food production. The Garden has recently been tasked to run a five-year project called Growing the Future – this follows on from a pilot project run between 2012-15. This pan-Wales European funded project is aimed at raising interest and participation in horticulture. So if you want upskill your green fingers, keep an eye out for a whole range of upcoming hands-on, and online, courses which will be advertised via the Garden’s website botanicgarden.wales or garddfotaneg.cymru.

Personally, I’m looking forward to the events this will allow us to run. We’ll be expanding our Wales Wildflower Day to a weekend event, creating a brand new Wales Bee Weekend, creating a secular harvest festival in autumn featuring food grown in our Double Walled Garden, expanding our Apple Weekend and raising awareness of fungi in gardens as part of our UK Fungus Day event.

These events, and stands at various shows, give us the chance to meet and talk to new people, especially those who want to learn, just like I do.

Bruce Langridge is Head of Interpretation at the National Botanic Garden of Wales in Carmarthenshire.

Mae tim y Maniffesto Bwyd yn cynnal cyfarfod yn yr Ardd ar 9fed Chwefror er mwyn cychwyn rhwydwaith fwyd i Gymru. Cysylltwch â helo@maniffestobwyd.cymru i wybod mwy.

The Food Manifesto team are holding a meeting at the Garden on 9 February to build a food network for Wales. Please contact hello@foodmanifesto.wales to find out more.

 

Ashfield Community Enterprise: A horticultural resource for the local community

By Pamela Mason

It’s a pity it’s so hard to generate an income from growing vegetables. Grown organically, they are amongst the healthiest foods on the planet. But you have only got to see the sore hands and, often, painful backs and stiff joints of those who have worked hard in the fields for a long time, to realize just how tough it is to produce these healthiest of foods and get them to market.

This is, in part, what the people who have bought Ashfield Community Enterprise, near Llandrindod Wells in mid-Wales, are learning and struggling with. They do much more than grow vegetables, as a group of us on a recent Federation of City Farms and Gardens (FCFCG) Tyfu Fyny study day discovered, and that is partly about creating a diverse enterprise but also about the sheer hard work of making money out of vegetables alone. But with just six months of experience in growing tomatoes and chillis in the one of the centre’s polytunnels, grower nickm – as he is known – is up to the task and has bottled a glorious rainbow of differently coloured chillis in glass jars for the Christmas market in Llandrindod.

Herbs are a winner too, he says, in that people are very willing to pay £2.50 for a pot of hyssop or oregano. He’s grown a variety of parsleys, corianders and basils, including one I hadn’t come across before – cinnamon basil, which I believe is great mixed with garlic and olive oil for pesto.

Fliss, the project co-ordinator, told us that Ashfield is a seven-acre piece of land which locals came together to buy for the whole community. Purchased in 2010 with the Village SOS Big Lottery Fund, it had been used by people with learning difficulties. Ashfield has allotments, one of which is used by a local primary school, five polytunnels, an orchard, greenhouses, training rooms for hire and an office. There is also a 4 star kitchen from which our group enjoyed a lovely lunch of vegetable curry and damson fool in the community long room.

Volunteers come and help to grow for veg boxes and market, learn gardening, cooking, healthy eating, beekeeping and composting. Fliss explained that they have referrals from local organisations for volunteers to benefit from the therapeutic space and the activities. Three micro businesses – including an aquaponics project – have been set up here by young people. There is a Local Roots Forest School for children, and a Men in Sheds group.

A beautiful dry stone walled sensory garden had been recently completed on the day we visited. Sensory gardens are particularly beneficial to people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, helping to keep them calm and interested. Funding for the garden was obtained from the Tesco Bags of Help initiative which uses revenue raised from its 5p carrier bag charge to help community projects and projects.

Rhian leads on gardening activities. She is employed 12 hours a week and gives 12 hours a week of her time for free. Vegetables are sold on Llandrindod market on a Friday and also to local pubs. A burger bar in Builth Wells buys some of the salad vegetables. Veg boxes are available for collection on site or at a newsagent in Llandrindod.

In March this year, Ashfield was successful in acquiring funding from ARWAIN (the LEADER programme in Powys) to run a three year feasibility project to establish a community facility for people of all ages and abilities to develop skills in growing, cooking, preserving and reducing food waste.

Ashfield runs all these activities with just four and a half staff and a lot of volunteer time. Last year, this equated to 2000 volunteer hours and this year 82 different people have volunteered. Overall income is around £45,000, a third of which comes from renting out two flats on site.

Fliss told us she is in two minds about whether to apply for more funding in 2018 as, understandably, she wants Ashfield to stand on its own feet financially. Without the impressive bunch of people we met, it would be very much harder than it is. And nickm, who had no experience growing tomatoes and chillis before this year, is already planning for next year. He has learned a lot in 6 months and most impressively he told us that he had recorded everything he had learned within the greenhouse in a notebook. Armed with this knowledge, making passata, chilli sauce, pickled cucumbers and sun-dried tomatoes are on his to-do list for 2018. These added value products should hopefully bring in more revenue and reward for this, to my mind at least, the hardest of jobs that produces the healthiest of foods.

Pamela Mason is a nutritionist and author, see sustainablediets.co.uk

 

 

 

Rethinking food in Wales: linking food production and public health

Submission to the Assembly’s Rethinking food in Wales consultation, from Amber Wheeler,  University of South Wales and Peas Please Steering Committee

There is much good food work being done across Wales in terms of production, manufacturing, processing, brands, food poverty alleviation, community growing, food sustainability and more with many enthusiastic and successful stakeholders. However, there is more that can be done to enhance the food and drink sector, and particularly the food we eat, by adopting a more collaborative approach and adding to that work.

For many years I have been conducting doctoral research around a vision for a sustainable food system in Wales that is linked to fulfilling the health requirements of the nation. The particular focus of my research has been fruit and vegetables but I have learnt a lot, through extensive consultation and engagement, that can be applied across the food sector. I have found there is a lack of overall vision, lack of a plan and lack of an organisation and network to deliver a food secure and sustainable food system in Wales. Some key points : –

  1. It is clear from my research and the research of others, see particularly http://foodfoundation.org.uk/publication/force-fed/, that the food system, as it stands, is not enabling the population to eat as healthily as it should.
  2. Historically the approach has been to try and drive food system change through focussing mainly on the consumer, but this narrow focus has not been enough to drive change : –AW graphic 1
  3. What might be needed is a new systemic approach where food sustainability and public health issues are worked on by every aspect of the food system : –AW graphic 2
  4. This model needs exploring further in Wales. Through participatory doctoral research I became involved with the Food Foundation, Nourish Scotland, WWF-UK and Food Cardiff in organising national initiative called Peas Please to increase vegetable availability and increase consumption through supply chain collaboration. As a result of Peas Please, major stakeholders in the supply chain will be pledging to increase the availability of veg in the UK at summits held in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff on October 24th 2017. This initiative represents a test bed of a systemic approach to public health and sustainable food and yet it is being delivered in Wales by myself as a volunteer, and by Food Cardiff who are coming up against the limits of their capacity to deliver Wales wide work. Wales is missing a national food organisation.

To achieve a sustainable and secure food system in Wales it is clear that we need the following : –

  1. A Food Needs Assessment

We need to model the secure and sustainable food needs of the Welsh population. In relation to fruit and vegetables my research remains the only research to date, showing that there is a large deficit in terms of production and availability compared to public health requirements of the population. Fish and wholegrain needs would be an easy next step to analyse. Once secure and sustainable food needs have been established national aims can be set and actions generated.

  1. A Plan

We need a new ‘Sustainable Food For and From Wales Action Plan’ based on a Food Needs Assessment and the current Food and Drink Action Plan.

  1. An Organisation

Progress does not happen without a driving force. Scotland has Nourish Scotland http://www.nourishscotland.org/ and England has the Food Foundation http://foodfoundation.org.uk/ who are pushing forward these agendas with small, flexible teams. Wales does not have a national organisation, though Food Cardiff has been increasingly helping in this capacity. We need a national organisation, funded from central resources, as Nourish Scotland, which drives this agenda in tandem to the other nations.

  1. A Network

A national organisation will need to be backed up by a Wales Food Network where good practice can be shared and spread across the nation in an efficient way.

Without these steps progress is likely to be slow and disjointed. With these steps Wales has a really good chance of becoming a leading light in sustainable food and helping to ensure Wales has a thriving food sector as well as a healthy eating nation.

Amber Wheeler is working on a PhD at the University of South Wales and is on the steering committee of Peas Please. She is based in Pembrokeshire.

 

Rethinking food: a response from Paramaethu Cymru

Paramaethu Cymru, the Welsh arm of the Permaculture Association (Britain), has responded to the Assembly consultation on rethinking food in Wales. Here is the introduction and a link to the full article.

paramaethu logo1.1   Paramaethu Cymru is in contact with more than 500 individuals, families, groups and small businesses across Wales with interest in permaculture practices. They especially include growing food in healthy, sustainable ways. It also teaches design principles to people on courses, short or long, and easily understood, so that they are empowered to make earth-friendly, people-friendly choices in their lives.

2017-6-18 marquee with dog.jpg

Trafod dyfodol bwyd a ffermio – discussing the future of food and farming at a recent gathering

1.2   A permaculture approach requires careful design commencing with Survey and Analysis, so we welcome this survey and especially the fact that it requests referenced evidence rather than simply opinion. However, the short time scale given to it may not lead to thorough and inclusive bilingual responses, especially in these months when food producers are particularly busy.

1.3   Permaculture is guided by three ethics: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Earth Care is implied in the issues you selected. A Permaculture approach is also guided by 12 principles, one of which is to integrate, rather than segregate. It results in a planning design which takes a holistic view, exploring interrelated outcomes, seeing our relationship with food as a web of connection to other factors (eg soil health, human health, biodiversity, social justice, employment, education, history and culture), as indicated by the 2015  Aberystwyth University Food Values project, and the 2009 IAASTD Agriculture at a Crossroads Global Report. Our response tries to explore some of those interconnections.

To download the full response, see Rethinking food – Paramaethu Cymru