Why effective regulation is so important along the food chain

By Jane Powell

Earlier this year the Welsh Government announced it would make the whole of Wales a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ). This is a European mechanism that requires farmers to follow stringent rules to reduce nitrate pollution. It was greeted with fury by the farming unions, who had favoured a voluntary approach. At the root of this is the view that nitrate pollution, as a by-product of food production, is the responsibility of wider society. It should therefore be managed by negotiation, as has been proposed in Pembrokeshire, not by draconian measures imposed from above. Additionally, regulations that are not widely supported tend to be less effective, which might be why a 2009 study found that many NVZs in England showed no significant benefits even after 15 years. 

What this controversy proves, negatively, is how important it is to have good regulation. We all want clean rivers and waterways, and farmers need clear rules about what they can and cannot do, so that the playing field is level and the quality of their goods is recognised. But regulation must be fair if it is to be effective, and it must be supported by a network of trust and communication as well as credible enforcement. This applies all along the food chain, from environmental protection to nutrition, food safety and trade.

So how is Wales doing? A recent report from Unchecked UK, Safeguarding standards in Wales: Why Wales should lead the way commends the Welsh Government for its generally positive approach, and for the notable Well-being of Future Generations Act, and contrasts it favourably with the policy of deregulation that it sees in Westminster. Unfortunately, though, the UK Government’s austerity policy has weakened the regulatory agencies in Wales, and most of the report is a chronicle of the damage that has been done.

First on the list is environmental protection. Their research shows that the main environmental regulator, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), has lost 35% of its funding from 2013 to 2020, while prosecutions of environmental offences fell by 61% in the period from 2014-20. This is cause for concern. But what the report does not cover is the positive ways in which NRW could uphold standards, for instance by working alongside farmers and businesses to help them to do better, and by maintaining conversations with countryside groups and organisations.

This is important because the Well-being of Future Generations Act, as part of its Five Ways of Working, requires public bodies to focus on prevention rather than the cure, and to be collaborative and to involve their stakeholders – with the punishment of offenders as a backstop. Consultation takes up staff time. But NRW, the report says, has 53 fewer staff than it had six years ago and so it is likely that this function has also been weakened. Meanwhile, local authority spending on environmental services fell by 13% during 2009-20, adding to the problem.

The section on food and public health also makes for a depressing read. Wales has brought in some ground-breaking legislation, including its food hygiene rating system, nutritional standards for school meals and a national strategy on tackling obesity, as well as the Well-being of Future Generations Act. But because of cuts to local authority funding, the number of people working in councils across Wales fell by 37,000 between 2009 and 2018.

“This has had far-reaching effects on local authorities’ ability to carry out their duties,” the report notes. “As a result, frontline staff tend to work reactively rather than proactively, at which point the damage – be it fraud, health and safety violations, or food safety breaches – has often been done.”

When councils lose staff, they also lose expertise. It isn’t just that local health and safety inspections in Wales fell by 45% during 2015-20 – a whole culture of cooperation and local knowledge has been weakened. Again, the principles of collaboration and involvement that are so key to the Future Generations Act are threatened, as the public realm is hollowed out. Opportunities for local food democracy will be lost.

Wales does not act in isolation, of course. It has been subject to regulation by both the EU and the UK government, and both of those relationships have changed since Brexit. The Welsh government has pledged to retain EU standards of environmental protection, using the Well-being of Future Generations and Environment Acts. However, it will no longer be able to call on the European Court of Justice to hold public bodies to account, and we have already seen how NRW has been weakened by staff cuts. Meanwhile the UK government’s Internal Market Act, intended to secure frictionless trade within the UK, threatens the rights of devolved administrations to set their own (higher) standards and has caused alarm in Wales

Unchecked UK has conducted a survey which finds support across all political persuasions for strong regulation in Wales. Over two-thirds of people in Wales, for instance, would like to see legally binding targets for wildlife restoration. There is also strong support for maintaining quality and sustainability standards for food, and fair workplace practices. Their campaign video calls on the Welsh public to keep up the pressure on our politicians, and “protect the things that make Wales the country we all love.”

Good enforcement of regulations is certainly essential, and government has a vital role to play. But equally, we need public understanding and support to build consensus around the regulations that are put in place. That requires joined up thinking. The consumers who want higher food standards are also the taxpayers who support farmers, who in turn have a huge influence on wildlife and water quality. They are also the citizens who have been empowered to create a better world for future generations. We need to bring all that together.

It is telling that the report commends the forthcoming Agriculture Bill for strengthening food safety and environmental and animal welfare standards. What the Bill fails to do however is to consider the contribution that farming makes to food production itself, because that is held to be a market good, not a public one. But a thriving local food economy, to which farming is central, is about much more than food security or the viability of farms. It is about the sense of place that creates social as well as economic bonds, and this is ultimately the basis of regulation in its truest sense – a set of agreements arising from a shared intention. Regulation must be bottom-up as well as top-down.

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

Manifesto for food to nourish a healthy society: the opportunity

By Jane Powell. This article was published in the Western Mail on 13 February 2018

A report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy published last month forecasts tough times ahead for Welsh farming. It recommends, amongst other things, investment in longer-term partnerships between government, food retailers and others to grow business networks across Wales.

Meanwhile, in other circles, there is concern that the food industry is suffering from a skills shortage (and an image problem) and that it needs to do more to tackle public health problems such as obesity and diabetes.

Elsewhere again, there are social concerns. Increasing demand for food banks has led to the formation by Welsh Government of a Food Poverty Network. Children are growing up in a world where food comes from the supermarket shelf, and there is an epidemic of loneliness: people of all ages who eat alone, and not by choice.

It seems that the crisis facing farming is part of a much bigger picture of social disconnection from where our food comes from, where competing points of view struggle for air time in the rush to promote simple solutions. The pressures of Brexit only serve to intensify the discord.

But if the threat to farming subsidies and export markets provides a painful stimulus to action, it also gives us permission to think more deeply than before and question received truths. Discussions about food readily reveal ideological splits – the current debate about meat-eating being just one of them – but food by its very nature also brings people together.

While we may have very different views on what constitutes sustainable food production and makes for a nutritious diet, we can nevertheless agree on some shared values. We surely all want to see a Wales where everyone has enough to eat, food is of high quality, and we are fair in our dealings with each other.

Fortunately, we have some new structures to support a fresh approach to food. One is the Well-Being of Future Generations Act, which requires public bodies to act in a more collaborative way with business and civil society, and thus gives NGOs a new opportunity to step up and be heard. Another is the Assembly’s Rethinking Food in Wales consultation (closed, but still in progress).

There are also many encouraging initiatives that use food to cross sectors and silos. The Nature Friendly Farming Network honours the unity of food production and care for the environment. Food Cardiff brings together the public sector, academia and community groups to tackle problems such as school holiday hunger. The UK campaign Peas Please includes supermarkets, farmers, caterers and others in a bid to increase vegetable production and consumption.

There is a bigger question here. Could it be that the future of food and farming is not simply a practical challenge, to be sorted by new partnerships, but also a means to creating a more connected society and thus tackling many of our social ills? Food creates a human connection which is ultimately closer to most people’s hearts than money. We want a thriving economy, but it should be in support of human happiness, not the other way around.

That is the thinking behind the Wales Food Manifesto. The process began in 2015, with the support of Sustainable Futures Commissioner Peter Davies and former environment minister Jane Davidson, and can be described as a conversation that is gaining momentum. The aim is to develop food policy from the bottom up, with regular blog posts on our website from individuals and organizations.

Last week the Manifesto took another step with a public meeting at the National Botanic Garden, where speakers from the RSPB, NFU, Transition Bro Gwaun, Wright’s Food Emporium, Just Food Abergavenny and Food Cardiff set out their aspirations and considered how a national food network or alliance could support them to be more effective, for the good of everyone.

Taking part in the discussions which followed were representatives from different parts of the food chain from field to fork, as well as groups with a community or health focus. Some were senior members of staff in national organizations, some were self-employed people taking a day away from their businesses, while others were volunteers making inspiring contributions to their local communities through gardening, shared meals and debates.

We need all points of view to get the full picture, and last Friday was just a beginning. We won’t agree on every detail of the perfect food system – far from it – but by coming together to learn from each other, we can find some new ways forward.

Os hoffech ddod yn rhan o’r Maniffesto a helpu llunio’r system fwyd yng Nghymru, dilynwch chi yma neu e-bostio helo [at] maniffestobwyd.cymru.

If you would like to get involved with the Manifesto and help shape the food system in Wales, please follow us here or get in touch at hello [at] foodmanifesto.wales.

Calbee UK: a food business that lives its values

by Jane Powell (also published on Food Grads

When a production worker at savoury snack factory Calbee UK in Deeside, north Wales, heard that a café serving supermarket surplus food was opening in nearby Buckley, she was keen to get involved. But she didn’t just sign up as a volunteer. She told her employer about it, and now they are one of the café’s regular supporters, donating their own products and releasing staff to volunteer at the café in the company’s time. It’s just one example of their commitment to “make a positive and lasting difference to local people”.

“When we get involved with a local project we don’t just give money and walk away,” explains Mags Kerns, Human Resources Manager and Community Champion at Calbee. “We want to offer personal support, to get under the skin of a project. The café is great because they are making such a contribution to the community, bringing people together and relieving loneliness, as well as serving meals on a Pay As You Feel basis so everyone can afford to eat there. We’re glad to be part of that.”

Values are very important to Calbee UK, which was set up two years ago as a subsidiary of a Japanese company. Calbee Inc was founded in 1949 with the aim of tackling the malnutrition that was afflicting post-war Hiroshima. It was a particular emphasis on calcium and Vitamin B which gave the company its name. The Deeside factory supplies vegetable-based snacks under the brand name Yushoi to most of the main supermarkets, as well as Marks and Spencer’s Eatwell range. The bulk of its ingredients, especially peas, are sourced from the UK, although some such as rice are imported.

“Deeside was a perfect location for us,” says Managing Director Richard Robinson, “and we’re really excited about our growth plans here. The Japanese and Chinese are really investing in food businesses in the UK and Calbee is a great sign of how global the food industry now is.” He also acknowledges generous support from the Welsh Government, who helped them to source their premises and set up an apprenticeship scheme, besides investing in the facility which began production in 2015. Calbee, which now employs 50 people and is still only at about 25% of its capacity, is on course to turn over £65m by the end of 2020, and wants to become “one of the UK’s best savoury snack suppliers”.

Clearly, performance and success are important to the company, but their vision is much broader than that; they also want to have “a leading role in supporting the industry voice on health and well-being” and it’s clear that they see money as being in service to people, rather than the other way around. “Values run through all we do,” says Mags. “We’re proud of our low-fat, high-protein products that are not just tasty but healthy too. And it’s really important to us to be a responsible employer, as well as contributing to the community.”

Sometimes this attitude shows up in small ways that make a big difference. All staff are known as ‘colleagues’ rather than ‘employees’, which reflects the company’s flat structure and helps to create a sense of collaboration in the workplace. When a colleague is rewarded for exceptional performance they are given a day off – that is, time to spend with their families and friends – rather than a cash bonus, neatly demonstrating the company’s priorities. They are also encouraged to volunteer for the local community in company time. “Our colleagues and their families are partners in our business,” as their values statement has it. And they pay well too, as an accredited Living Wage Employer, another reason they have no problems recruiting staff and absenteeism is minimal.

“People knock on our door with their CV,” says Mags. “Of course, they don’t always have the skills we need, but working with Coleg Cambria we are able to offer apprenticeships that lead to a qualification in Food Manufacturing Excellence. In fact, all our staff take it, right up to management level, because it’s important we have a shared understanding of what the factory is about. And we’re glad to be supporting the development of food skills in Wales generally.”

Calbee could have some encouraging lessons for the food industry in Wales. As it takes a stand for shared values centring on human dignity while also achieving healthy growth and profitability, it shows how business can be a force for good. “Together we laugh, learn and love what we do,” they say on their website. Who wouldn’t want to be part of a workplace like that?

Jane Powell writes at www.foodsociety.wales

 

Rethinking food in Wales: reconnecting through values

The National Assembly for Wales (that is, our politicians, as distinct from the civil servants in Welsh Government) has recently announced a new consultation called ‘rethinking food in Wales’. Its scope is very broad: they want to know what we can do to ‘enhance the food and drink sector and our relationship with the food we eat’. What is our vision, and how can we get there? They suggest that we might like to see a healthy local food culture, a thriving food industry, food produced to high environmental and animal welfare standards and an international destination for food lovers, but they invite other ideas too.

Our Food Manifesto and proposed Food Network Wales have exactly this aim of rethinking food in Wales, so this is a great opportunity to work with the Assembly and get everyone’s voices heard. We invite all our readers not only to respond to the consultation but to reference the Food Manifesto and send us a summary of their key points so that we can publish them here and share our thinking. To start us off, here is the response from the Food Values team.

Background

The Food Values project ran a series of events and seminars in 2015 and 2016 to explore how an approach based on values, as put forward by Common Cause, could help people understand and shape the food system. This starts from the premise that people are not rational actors and we need to consider the role of people’s beliefs, identity and emotions if we are truly going to change our food system. As part of the project we launched a Food Manifesto for Wales which is an ongoing project from which a new Food Network Wales is emerging. We are no longer funded, but we continue to work together informally to develop the approach.

Our vision for the food system in Wales

Our work, summarized in our 2015 report Food Values, showed how people respond to food as an important means through which to connect to each other in our families and communities. Our project worked with diverse groups, including refugees seeking asylum and isolated older people in rural areas. Food was seen to offer a focal point to come together and look beyond difference. We all eat and thus food has enormous potential as a social equaliser. Linked to this, there was an overwhelming concern was that everyone should have enough to eat, and that food should be of high quality; premium produce should not be a niche commodity for the more affluent.

Exploring people’s motivation to tackle food waste and poverty reaffirmed the benefits of reconnecting with values to communicate and consolidate progressive action. People also wanted to know where food comes from, and valued traditional food skills such as gardening and cooking. Whilst there are clear challenges to enhancing this in our current social and food system, there was an appetite to re-connect. These findings have been confirmed in wider studies by the Food Standards Agency.

Through our project we saw a contrast between a ‘community’ approach to food, which sought to address the issues raised above, and corporate framings of food as a commodity and a source of income and jobs. We found that there was a tendency to alternate between these two approaches to food in government policy (see our analysis here). The current action plan Towards Sustainable Growth for instance has a strong business focus, while the earlier Food for Wales, food from Wales placed more emphasis on community. At the same time, there is general agreement that both viewpoints are valid and that what is needed is to bring them together more closely so that each serves the other. There are of course many other points of disconnection in the food system; this is just one example.

How to get there

Joining up the dots of the Welsh food system will mean working across sectors, which is as challenging as it is potentially productive. We offer the values approach as a means to dig deep beneath cultural differences and find common ground. There are many ways in which it could be used, including video communications, events and especially shared meals that bring different groups together in an enquiry, as well as case studies of good practice. We are interested in exploring these further.

Jane Powell, independent consultant; Dr Sophie Wynne-Jones, Bangor University; Sam Packer, independent commentator; Rosa Robinson,Work With Meaning.

A living room at the heart of a Valleys community

By Pamela Mason

All our living rooms say something about us and what’s important to us. And a new living room, Yr Ystafell Fyw in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales, very much reflects the values of the community that established it. When you walk through the front door into this very comfortable cafe, you cannot help but notice the ease of access (no steps), the bowl of water for dogs, the open kitchen and serving area, how light it is, the soft chairs and sofas, and the pictures on the wall, many locally commissioned.

An initiative of the Church in Wales Parish of Bedwellty and New Tredegar, Yr Ystafell Fyw is a living room created to improve health and well-being in its communities. As a café, food is at the heart of its work. All of this in a place where community is still very much alive but, with its industry now largely gone, one that thrives less than it once did. It’s a community that runs a food bank but knows that’s an inadequate response to the problems of poverty that cause the fridge to become bare. In running the food bank, the community became more aware of what it already knew, that people needed more than a food parcel. Having worked in this food bank on one busy morning, I still remember how as the range of breakfast cereals began to reduce, I was the one who decided what people would take home to eat. It was uncomfortable. No one should have control of what another household gets to eat.

Leah at Ystafell Fyw

Revd Leah Philbrick serves tea at Yr Ystafell Fyw

Food has a very different place in the Living Room, although many of the people who visit have the same problems as those visiting the food bank. Revd Leah Philbrick, who with Revd Dr Rosie Dymond is a Director of The Living Room, emphasises that food here is about giving hospitality and raising the ‘feel good’ factor of the visitors. “We aspire to serve the best coffee in the Rhymney Valley,” she adds. Not for its own sake but to help people feel good about themselves. This is no small aim in area where unemployment remains high. Some of the crockery, like a 1930s dinner plate from New Tredegar, speaks of the valley’s history and the coffee is served in china cups and saucers. The cake is home-made, as much of the food as possible is locally sourced, and it’s all presented in the form of a lovely treat, yet in responsibly small portions so that no one need overeat the delicious cake.

Food and drink is not the only or even main  aim of the Living Room. It’s about providing a space where people can share those problems that the food bank cannot alleviate and it’s a space for prayer and meditation. There is a kitchen table around which people gather to enjoy food and listen to each another. A large wooden clock in one corner strikes every quarter of an hour as a reminder of the importance of a time to be silent, while a small red desk in another corner reminds of the importance of meeting face to face rather than just on social media.

Like the community pharmacy which was once located in the space occupied by the Living Room, Yr Ystafell Fyw is about health and well-being in the community. But unlike the pharmacy, now sited a few hundred yards away adjacent to a doctor’s surgery, The Living Room is not a about providing a public service, but rather a space for the community run by the community. And as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Living Room is a social enterprise that will use its profits and assets for the public good. What is interesting, though, is that both the pharmacy and the surgery are beginning to refer people to the Living Room for that essential prescription of “Time to Listen and Space to Share”.

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