Co-designing new relationships between people, wildlife, land and sea in mid Wales

By Sian Stacey

You may well have heard of the Summit to Sea project, read the articles and spotted the signs – ‘Conservation Yes, Rewilding No’ – along the road between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth. The project has had a challenging and difficult history. But over the last 12 months, through some small steps and some larger leaps of faith, things have started to develop more positively. This has involved a lot of listening, reflecting and learning. After the departure of Rewilding Britain from the partnership in October 2019 the project has been re-setting and is in the middle of a new and exciting development phase. We are now concentrating entirely on co-designing a future, asking what the land and sea will look like in a Mid Wales where nature and people thrive.

One of the key criticisms that the project evaluators made of the first phase was the ‘lack of appreciation of the wider context of farming and land use in the area’. They also noted, however, that the controversy had the effect of galvanizing the farming community and bringing people together, as well as creating a much deeper understanding of the challenges that face farmers in particular.

Since June 2020 the project has been hosted by RSPB Cymru whilst a locally based partnership is developed, depending on the outcomes of the design stage. The project is currently exploring how to support healthy and biodiverse ecosystems that deliver economic, ecological and social benefits, through a connected land and sea, appropriate to the local place and culture. It’s about developing collaborative management for wildlife, across ownership boundaries. This will need a shared, agreed, and inspiring approach.

Co-designing a project

We’re working with the local community and key stakeholder groups and organizations to co-design this locally appropriate project. What do we mean by co-design? We’re not using this term to describe ‘engagement’. We are going beyond traditional consultation by building and deepening equal collaboration between people affected by, or attempting to, resolve a challenge. One of the main principles of co-design is that people are ‘experts’ of their own experience, and so central to the design process. We’ve been ensuring involvement in the project is accessible for all, and reaches the broad communities of this rural and semi urban area.

Although Covid-19 restrictions have forced the project to adapt, it has still been possible to continue  Following a large number of one to one conversations with people, organizations and businesses in the area, the project held several online workshops in 2020. These have been well attended with more than 70 people coming together across these to imagine what the future of land and sea use could look like in the area. Building on the excellent examples of some local people’s assemblies, these workshops have been supported by a number of local volunteers as facilitators to help make sure that the small group discussions in breakout rooms ran smoothly, and everyone had a chance to contribute and share. The notes of these workshops have been shared on the projects website and we’ve created a Google Drive for anyone involved in the project to find and contribute to documents.

At the moment, the key areas of focus which have been identified during these workshops are:

  • A nature-rich and sustainable production system
  • Connectivity between wildlife rich habitats for greater collective benefit
  • Re-connecting people to nature
  • Re-connecting the economy to nature

Within the themes we’ve begun to hear specific ideas for how they might be delivered. We’ll now be focusing on exploring a whole range of ideas, inviting more ideas, and discussing these in detail over the coming months.

Community facilitators

As the project moves into a more detailed stage, where these themes which have been identified from workshops and conversations lead to the potential interventions,  we hope to build a wider design team drawn partly from  the recent workshops. We’ll be recruiting ‘community facilitators’ who will hold their own conversations within their communities.

One of the biggest challenges and opportunities is that such a high proportion of the population of this part of Wales are dependent on natural resources for their income. For example, we have a high number of farmers and fishers, but also landscape photographers, outdoor pursuits providers, mountain bike centres, bee-keepers and tourism providers. This demonstrates the importance of getting the management of natural resources right, to ensure the same opportunities for future generations to live and work in the area.

Nothing can really replace a paned and piece of bara brith face to face, but we’re hoping that while we’re still unable to do this, we make the most of the situation and use other methods. Sometimes this can work in our favour, when people are able to join an online workshop without needing to drive half an hour, or while making dinner. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it can be more accessible and inclusive for many. An important principle for people working on a co-design project, is to go to where people are instead of expecting them to come to you. Until we can safely meet in local cafes, markets and village halls there’s nowhere closer than on a screen in everyone’s home!

What excites me most about this project is that we’re giving it the time and space needed to build a conversation between varied groups of people. Through building this conversation and listening to each other’s experiences, concerns and hopes we hope to build mutual trust and the possibility of working together to achieve impact at scale for nature. It is only through working across boundaries, real or imagined, that we’ll be able to tackle the threats our future generations face, but I strongly believe it’s possible to paint a positive picture of our futures together.

For more information about Summit to Sea, visit the project’s website on www.summit2sea.wales

Sian Stacey is the Project Development Officer for the Summit to Sea project and lives in Aberystwyth. She has previously worked for Menter a Busnes in the Cywain team, working with food and drink producers, and before this was the Warden/Island Manager on Bardsey Island for three years. Sian is now Chair of the Bardsey Island Trust and is also involved in the People’s Practice in Aberystwyth.

Main image: Ben Porter. Other images: Sian Stacey.

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/

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.

Creating connections – using the Food Manifesto in your community

By Corinne Cariad

With so much change taking place in the world around us – with Brexit and Covid-19 challenging the status quo – we have the opportunity to shape and transform the way we live and in some places changes are already underway. I wanted to offer my experience of using Food Manifesto Wales as a framework to consider our local and national food system.

I was drawn to Food Manifesto Wales because the invitation to contribute and join the process of creating a ‘food manifesto’ felt genuinely open. Also, because it provides a starting point for talking about food with different people. I like the inclusive and cooperative values of Food Manifesto Wales, and I’ve used it as the basis for discussions with various groups. From people who are deeply invested in the food system, growing, producing and selling food in Wales to people who are interested in the food they buy and eat and to those who don’t give much thought to these things.

I think a national food manifesto is a good idea for all citizens, for our communities and all those directly involved in the food system – to determine with intention the guiding principles for the complex food system we are all part of. I like the simplicity of Food Manifesto Wales’ main point, ‘Everyone in Wales has access to high-quality, nutritious and safe food’. There are nine accompanying action points in support of this, included to cover the wide reach of food in our society now and into the future – considering environmental and economic impacts as well as social aspects from farmers, food workers and animal welfare to education and the enjoyment of food.

Using Food Manifesto Wales as a starting point, what follows are some activities for facilitating conversations about food in Wales. Participants may be drawn together in numerous and intersecting ways – they may be citizens with a shared cause, a community group or an organisation or business. These activities may be delivered as standalone, one-off exercises or you may choose to use some, or all, of them to delve deeper. The order can be varied to suit the group needs. Once the10 points of the Manifesto have been introduced, you will have a good framework and common language to work with.

The more of us working towards the aim of everyone in Wales having access to high-quality, nutritious and safe food, the more likely we will be to achieve it! We are really interested to hear how you’ve used Food Manifesto Wales, so please feedback by e-mail to hello@foodmanifesto.wales. .

Mapping

Mapping is to identify what is already happening in your local geographical area. Although you may already know, taking the time to review your knowledge can be helpful – possibly before planning further actions or activities, or to identify partners and allies, or to identify current or best practice. The detailed discussion usually works best completed by a small group or a large group divided into smaller groups which report back to the large group.

Consider the 10 points of the Food Manifesto and choose those most relevant for your group – you may choose them all! You may consider the points of the Manifesto together, however, to cover points in depth, I suggest discussing 1-2 points in small groups or (if already a small group) consider 1-2 points over different group sessions. For each point you choose:

  • Based on the Food Manifesto Wales points that you have chosen, identify what is available or already happening in your local area or organisation or business. This may be as simple as discussing it or you could look at a map, take an enquiry walk around the area and talk in small groups about what you encounter.
  • Document your discussion: If discussing in situ you could draw/write on a map, mindmap ideas on post-it notes, or nominate a note taker. If walking around the area you could, take photos, record audio/video/written notes.

Next steps: consider what (if anything) you will do with the ideas and information you’ve gathered.

Prioritising

I’ve found it helpful to consider with groups how the 10 points of the Food Manifesto intersect (do some points rely on or support other points?), and/or to identify the priority points for the group. It may be a stand-alone activity or used before/following another activity. In small groups:

  • Discuss the 10 points and consider if you can/want to arrange them in an order of priority and/or identify those most relevant to the group. You may also discuss intersections between the points. Remember, there is no correct or incorrect answer. The aim is to promote discussion and to encourage all participants to contributemultiple perspectives will enrich the discussion and everyone’s understanding.
  • If doing further work, it is helpful to document your discussion and/or priorities via photographs, notes, audio/video recording.
  • If small groups are part of a larger group, it can be useful to share a summary of the smaller group discussions with everyone else and see if there is any commonality with action points the group consider most important, this can help to identify the groups’ priorities.

Next steps: the priority and/or intersection discussion can be used to inform planning any subsequent actions.

Visioning exercise

Before starting a new project or action it helps to consider what all involved envision. Following this comes agreement on what you want to achieve collectively, your shared vision. This activity is useful before planning actions/activities to set the intention and aim. It follows on well from the Mapping Activity.

Identifying and discussing different perspectives to create a shared vision can help everyone feel heard and more likely to invest their time, energy and support. It can also help maintain motivation to ultimately achieve the ambition of the shared vision.

In small groups choose one or two of the 10 points to focus on. As before, you may consider more, however, to cover points in depth I suggest discussing 1-2 points in small groups or (if already a small group) consider 1-2 points over different group sessions. For each point you choose:

  • Encourage everyone to share their vision with no limits to the ambition of these dreams and ideas – there are no ‘wrong’ ideas! It’s important not to shut any ideas down, yours or anyone else’s. You may choose to do this individually to begin with and then share your visions in the group, or, begin visioning together.
  • Document your visioning in whatever way feels appropriate. Creativity can help here, such as creating a collage from magazines, newspapers, pictures or texts; drawing or painting; free-writing; recording your idea with audio or video; or more traditional ways such as putting ideas on post-it notes or note-taking from discussion.

Next steps: share and/or display your vision and use it as the basis for your next step (if you’re taking one). Refer back to your shared vision whenever you need to, as inspiration to help keep on track and aid motivation.

Make connections

This activity is useful to identify potential ways of making connections and/or when collaborating with others. For example, connections/collaborations may be with one or more of the following: citizens coming together; established community groups; local authorities and services (incl. public service boards); organisations; businesses; Welsh Government. It may be used instead of or with other activities here, following ‘Mapping’ or in conjunction with ‘Prioritising’.

Recognising that the food system in Wales is complex with numerous intersections, making connections and collaborative working is vital for long-term and sustainable change. However, there may be other forces at play in terms of competition for resources and sensitivities around sharing business or sector knowledge. A shared agreement to establish trust may be helpful (such as The Courtauld Agreement).

  • Each participant/specific group identifies which of the 10 points they are most focused on, interested in or have influence/involvement with. Take notes/document and share with others – this could be a simple aide memoire or a more formal presentation.
  • Each participant/group shares their specific area of focus, interest and/or influence/involvement. Take notes/document this for future reference.

Next steps: all participants/groups encouraged to identify how they would like to connect or collaborate with others. This could be used to take further joint action and/or to support each other. A shared aim will help, such as ‘To work towards realising the common purpose of, “Everyone in Wales has access to high-quality, nutritious and safe food”.’ 

Please have a look at the toolkit that Sustainable Food Places has produced – it’s a great resource for just this type of work.


Corinne Cariad is a freelance consultant, coach and writer specialising in food education, structural organisation and event facilitation. She is an experienced food teacher and has taught in mainstream schools, the secure estate, as well as family and adult education.

Rising to the challenge: Re-imagining food and farming education in a time of crisis

By Dr Richard Kipling

We are all becoming acutely aware of the existential threats to humanity posed by climate change and biodiversity loss. Our unequal and divided societies breed short termism and waste, as people become ever more disconnected from nature and food production. This loss of connection and understanding puts food and farming education at the centre of attempts at transformation – but how can we create the education systems we need to drive change?

Last November the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference hosted a People’s Assembly. Our aim was to bring people together to re-imagine food and farming education in the face of current environmental crises. Held on Zoom, the assembly attracted around sixty participants from across the UK. The free event was advertised online to gain the views of as wide a group as possible.

Here, we share the perspectives voiced in the assembly. Their richness demonstrates the capacity of the approach to yield important insights. The assembly enabled a drawing together of diverse views into an overview that can help guide change in food and farming education.

Joining it up

At the heart of discussions was the importance of linking topics like food and farming, environment, and health to provide learners with holistic perspectives. This was exemplified by comments highlighting the need for “Greater connectivity between dietary choices, industrial farming, and impacts on health and the environment.”

Teaching methods were considered equally important. To stimulate critical thinking, active and experiential learning is essential. Few things are as hands-on and empowering as growing, preparing and sharing food. One example of how food and farming teaching can move beyond the classroom is the Forest School approach, which uses regular practical learning experiences in natural settings to develop children’s skills and confidence.

Food and farming teaching must also open up to different topics and approaches: “Use the wonderful mechanisms of play, creative theatre, storytelling and music-making natural to Early Years education to convey the message of Climate Emergency to all age groups.” This can mean drawing on the knowledge of practitioners and communities: “Teachers don’t have to be the only educators in schools – community engagement and ‘experts’ should be made use of.” This type of approach is exemplified by an initiative by Canton Community Gardens], in which an artist worked with children and adults to design recipe cards based on recipes gathered from local people. 

Practical skills

People commented on the issue of a lack of awareness of food and farming issues beyond the world of agriculture and conservation – including the need to “educate the educators.” There may also be some prejudice around more practical topics: “Gardening and horticulture may have traditionally been seen in schools as being options for problem children especially. This perpetuates the idea that they are not real careers.”

Even when people are aware of the issues, learning opportunities may be limited – practical teaching requires resources, equipment, and often, land: “Without a radical change in access to land for smallholders/ growers we will not have sufficient educational venues for skills training and forming communities around them to spread the word and practical skills about sustainable food systems.” Great examples show what can be achieved with resources, enthusiasm, and engagement: “Access to land and to the knowledge, skills and resources of the Community Supported Agriculture Network enables individuals and groups to ‘test the water’ and gain basic ‘hands-on’ experience of growing and the issues within the sector.”

Community links

The Tyddyn Teg cooperative in north Wales demonstrates the value of linking communities to food production and sharing skills and knowledge, growing and supplying organic vegetables to their local community while running education events and training courses.

Engagement was considered particularly important. Too often, delegates felt that discussions take place within the same groups: “How do we reach and connect with the majority of the citizens of Wales, especially those who live in deprived post-industrial areas, from our cosy rural echo chamber?” Involving all parts of society in food and farming education is essential to driving change. Contributions showed initiatives doing just that: “Community gardens are a great way to get more people involved in food production, encourage people to increase their knowledge about food and so help raise awareness of where and how food is or can be produced.” How can these examples be built upon?

Divisions and bridges

Division can often prevent change, arising from inequality: “There needs to be more education […] as to why these products [organic] are out of reach for some people”, difference of place: “There is an urban/rural disconnect between food and land and how these things are connected to all of our lives” and differences of culture: “Gap between permaculture people/agro-ecological ideas and traditional farming.” External constraints potentially stifle change before people even begin: “The situation can be overwhelming and can create frightening scenarios that produce feelings of disempowerment.”

Although divides are real, bridges can be built by increasing awareness of people’s inter-reliance at the global level: “Educating everyone on food systems and how their consumption affect global issues” and more locally: “Education for farmers and food industry to find different business models and ways of engaging with urban centres and making good food accessible to everyone.” By connecting across communities, generations, and parts of society, we can start to re-imagine the world, and open up to new values, perspectives and knowledge. Many suggested that food and farming can be what unites us: “Use ‘food’ as a focus for discussions with all communities of all ages to have hopeful creative conversations about the urgency of the Climate Emergency and the need for direct action on decision makers.”

Advocating for change

Facing external constraints, we must also learn to advocate for change: “How can we push government and councils to respect their commitments under the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act, Environment Wales Act, and other directives?” This must be done at the right times, in the right places, and engage the right people: “Which members of the Senedd are our allies to support the urgent paradigm shift to a diversified agro-ecological production system across Wales?”

In that context, delegates discussed strategies for overcoming the challenges. One was to identify specific opportunities to make and influence change – like the advent of the new curriculum in Wales. This provides opportunities for food and farming education, including encouraging outdoor learning.

Opportunities don’t just arise from new policies – they might also be events or times in people’s lives when they are most in need of community – and when they may be most open to learning about food: “Young mums rediscover food and farming challenges when they have children – need resources to help engage this group.” People might be similarly open to engagement when they move to a new area or experience crises like the ongoing pandemic. At these times, community-based learning activities may be particularly attractive and valuable.

Bringing organizations together

Particular emphasis was placed on sharing ideas and knowledge, and on bringing together education providers like schools, colleges, and training organisations. Current initiatives need to be showcased and shared to demonstrate what can be achieved.

Engagement across organisations should aim to provide seamless provision throughout formal education: “Understanding the link between caring for the planet/healthy soils and growing/preparing-cooking/eating from Early Years, through all curriculum Key Stages” and beyond “Education is key across society, from the early years of childhood through into adulthood, incorporating nutrition, growing skills, cooking, farm-visits etc., to promote the benefits of healthy food and good dietary habits to both drive demand and raise awareness.”

Urgency was a strong theme – we face existential threats that require transformational change here and now: “Food is fundamental to everyone’s health and well-being! Time is of the essence – the ‘window of opportunity’ is closing.” The People’s Assembly provided a rich overview of issues around food and farming education. We hope the themes raised focus minds, driving action to create systems able to address the threats before us. Do get in touch via this website if you have any questions, comments or ideas.

Thanks to all who made the People’s Assembly possible, including LEAF Education, Black Mountains College, Bioinnovation Wales and Tyddyn Teg for presenting their ideas to the assembly – check the links to learn more about these organisations.

Richard Kipling was part of the People’s Assembly organising team, all of whom contributed to this piece (Jessie Buchanan, Steven Jacobs, Angie Polkey and Sarah Watson-Jones). He is a lecturer in Sustainable Systems at Aberystwyth University.

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.

Make farming part of an ambitious food policy to transform Wales

By Rhodri Elfyn Jones

It was New York Yankees legend Yogi Berra who apparently said “It’s like déjà vu all over again”.  But it was also how I felt reading the Welsh Government’s Agriculture White Paper only a few short weeks after England’s attempt at setting out its own farming future.

One-dimensional approach

Once again, failing to link agriculture and food – particularly the food market – has led to a one-dimensional approach which will shackle farmers to support payments and perpetuate a broken market.  The White Paper mentions supply chains and economic resilience – as it seems all policies must these days – but the content does not fill me with confidence that the Welsh Government really wants to get to grips with the issue.  Its intentions have been clear now for several years but we are embarking on yet another consultation period without the slightest idea of how the oft-mentioned public goods are to be valued.  It therefore remains difficult to evaluate the likely effectiveness of the proposed scheme.

It seems the recent report from Bangor University (which fed into Hybu Cig Cymru’s “The Welsh Way” document) which showed that Welsh farms produce the most sustainable red meat in the world has come as something of an inconvenient truth to the Welsh Government.  The policy would see such farms reduce production in favour of delivering as-yet unconfirmed public goods.  The consequence would, of course, be that less sustainable meat would take the place of Welsh produce.  A climate own goal as well as being a complete failure to shift agriculture away from public funding.

Farming is realising that it is on the cusp of significant change and many farming groups are now presenting their own take on changes required.  For example, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission have recently published Farming for Change.  It would be a great shame if many of the great ideas being discussed by the farming community were ignored in favour of an office-based idea of sustainability.

Just as with its English counterpart the Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMS), the overwhelming focus is on sustainability, but a very narrow interpretation of it, I fear.  The intentions behind the new policy are, no doubt, sincere and in the main very worthwhile.  However, it wastes an opportunity to create a wide-ranging transformative policy for agriculture, environment and, importantly, food.  It’s concerning to see the Minister in her foreword saying that “A separate approach is proposed to provide wider (‘beyond the farm gate’) support for supply chain and agri-food development”.  Why does this need to be separate?  Why not take the opportunity to link the added value to the communities which produce the raw products?

That produce – which farmers can rightly label as with the most sustainable in the world – should have huge value as the world looks to “eat less but better” where meat is in the question. Our challenge as farmers is to capture far more of that value than we are able to at present – and we must also take responsibility and step up if we want to improve our lot.   Decades of subsidies and support payments have seen the industry become and remain reliant on public money.  Sadly, we continue to talk about the level of public payments and schemes to make farms viable rather than creating the correct environment for the sector.  With such a marketable product, the new policy should at least partly be about ensuring that this value is realised by the primary producers.

Despite making reference to it, the proposed approach also largely ignores the developing trade situation and the several other areas which are intertwined.  In particular, we can think of public health and food policy – an opportunity missed.  For Wales, there is the added dimension of a rich heritage linked to the land and, as the “Iaith y Pridd” report recently showed, the Welsh language is deeply rooted in our rural communities.  It is important that the final product protects them.

Papering over the cracks

Over the last 40 years, public funding of some sort has been present in UK farming and is now baked into farm and food economics. It has been estimated that in recent years some 80% of total farm income in Wales is derived from payments under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy.  If structural change is not part of the solution, then an ever-decreasing pot of money will simply see farms cease to trade, with dire effects on rural communities. 

The recent arguments when looking at a new Welsh agricultural policy have included whether the production of food – sometimes sold at below the cost of production – and the food security that brings is deemed a public good.  The Welsh Government says No, because there is a market for food.  However, it also contradicts itself by saying that “successive governments have provided support for policies that have increased agricultural production and provided affordable food.”  The market is, of course, broken and distorted and just like the UK Government, it is ignoring the elephant in the room.

It is interesting the way the White Paper talks of the wider industry and supply chain as something separate.  It does go on to talk of supporting the creation of local supply chains and increasing the amount and value of Welsh products used in the supply chain, both in Wales and beyond.  The Welsh Government needs to ensure that its future policy has measures which actually deliver on this and not keep what’s inside and beyond the farm gate separate.

Despite the few encouraging noises, they play a bit part in the proposed policy and once again, we have an approach which papers over the cracks of a broken food system.

There is, of course, no effective food policy in the UK and it was perhaps strange that the future agriculture policy proposals for England did not wait for the conclusion of the ongoing review on English food strategy being led by Henry Dimbleby.  Once again, it seems to reinforce the failure by UK Government to link agriculture and food. 

As for Wales, there are many strategic documents which have been produced by the Welsh Government, but nothing which ties them together and feeds through to the real world.  Without such a policy encompassing agriculture, the environment, food production and processing, public health, rural economy, culture, language (the list could go on), there is a vacuum.  As Professor Tim Lang says in his excellent book Feeding Britain, we are leaving the food policy to “Tesco et al”.  This has led to a completely extractive food economy, where large companies are now dictating what small amount of money is allowed to trickle down the supply chain to primary producers. The huge imbalance of power in the market and the wealth which is being taken out of local communities is itself a cause of the current reliance on public money in food production.  With funding about to be cut, a problem postponed with support schemes for many years has now become a real issue.

Transformative policy possible

Successive Governments – UK and Welsh – have ignored this issue and it has led to a plethora of other problems.  The prevalence of ultra-processed foods has contributed to unprecedented levels of chronic conditions such as diabetes and obesity; all because we have failed to look seriously at a food policy and we have instead allowed entirely profit driven companies to control our diets and keep our producers reliant on public money. 

Having allowed and indeed encouraged this, Governments must now acknowledge their role in doing so and the need for them to be a part of the solution.  There’s a significant amount of regulations which protect consumers when you have a monopoly or oligopoly (small number of sellers in a market) but no corresponding protection for producers where you have monopsonies or oligopsonies (one or a small number of buyers).   The Grocery Code Adjudicator’s remit is far too narrow to be effective in respect of primary producers.

Regulation and the creation of a fair marketplace is therefore one potential solution.  But it could also involve the provision of a protected space in the market for the creation of co-operatives or suitable organisations which could level the playing field to some degree.  Localism and shorter supply chains would be beneficial for Wales but we must also be able to target other lucrative markets and ensure that the profits are finding their way back to our communities.  The potential solutions deserve far more thorough consideration but it’s clear that Wales needs a mature discussion about this as a matter of urgency.

The UK Government has chosen its plan and it will be the end of many English farms.  Wales needs a different approach.  If it really wants to create a sustainable future for the sector, reduce or eliminate reliance on support payments and address a whole host of other issues at the same time, the Welsh Government must look at the structure of the entire food sector – a genuine farm to fork approach. A comprehensive policy looking at the wellbeing of its rural communities has the power to be transformative for the whole of our country.  The White Paper speaks of all of these things but they must be followed through and each of the issues given equal weight.

Having seen the future trajectory for the sector as proposed by Westminster, characterised by damaging our closest export links and failing to ensure standards of imports, I firmly believe that the brightest future for Wales lies in Independence.  Across the board where food is concerned, the UK Government’s approach is disappointing. There seems to be very little interest in promoting a successful agricultural sector or dealing with wider issues such as food poverty. All of the issues touched upon in this article will be better served by policies designed by and for Wales.

In the meantime, there is still much which could be done.  I would urge everyone who reads this to impress upon the Welsh Government – through the White Paper Consultation or via your MS’s – that the current proposals are an opportunity missed.  It’s also the case that The Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 could be a firm foundation for a sustainable future for agriculture, while also dealing with the issues of food poverty, food education and creating a food market which functions for Wales’s producers and its people.  The Future Generations Act really needs to start achieving something, not just be a nice idea. 

Dr Ludivine Petetin also proposes some excellent ideas about how we can all change small things based on what we have learnt during the Covid crisis.  Dr Petetin also notes what changes policymakers at several levels could adopt.  So much is based upon common sense but the neo-liberal oil tanker takes a great deal of effort to turn.  

At the essence of the food democracy she proposes is the simple challenge of getting everybody – all of us -– engaged with the subject.  It shouldn’t be hard – we all eat – but it is an issue which we have all been encouraged not to think too hard about for too long.  The time for an agricultural policy which plugs financial holes and only deals with what goes on within the farm gate are long gone.  For a country so able to produce sustainable food, Wales needs far more ambition to reach its potential.

Rhodri trained as a solicitor and specialised in Agricultural Law, becoming a Fellow of the Agricultural Law Association in 2016. While he still practises law part-time and advises on succession and business structures, he now farms and has recently entered a joint venture involving grass-based dairying.

Images: Rhodri Elfyn Jones.

Covid: nutrition is part of the solution

By Eilish Blade

Overwhelmed by data on Covid-19? Well, Covid fatigue is hard to escape these days, which means that we may be missing an important point. Current strategies to deal with the pandemic are dominated by global health security and a focus on infectious disease. The Lancet however recently challenged this narrow focus, saying that in reality we have a 30-year failure in tackling diet and lifestyle-related disease. We have seen the headlines linking metabolic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and obesity with severe outcomes from Covid. Right now, we have what is now more aptly called a syndemic. A syndemic is the interaction of two categories of disease within specific populations; in this case, SARS-CoV-2 on the one hand, and non-communicable diseases on the other. Crucial to the synergistic power of Covid and metabolic disease is a background of socio-economic inequality.

In case we weren’t aware, the NHS was already  struggling with the costs of these diseases. In 2006–07, diet-related ill health cost the NHS £5.8 billion, the cost of physical inactivity was £0.9 billion and overweight and obesity cost £5.1 billion. The WHO had already predicted that by 2020 chronic disease would account for nearly three-quarters of all deaths worldwide, and that in developing countries 70% of all deaths would be due to diabetes and associated complications. As if the picture isn’t gloomy enough we have a ticking time bomb of our own as Wales has the highest prevalence of diabetes in the UK with a cost of £500 million a year. More than 580,000 people are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes and this puts it as the fastest growing health crisis in Wales. 

With all of this in mind, and the data which shows that those with a high Body Mass Index (BMI) and metabolic disease are disproportionately affected by Covid, where is the preventative strategy? Given that it was clear back in May 2020  that poor nutrition was a critical part of the problem, why are we now well into a second wave with no mention of diet and lifestyle? To rub salt into the wounds we also had to endure the “Eat out to Help Out’’ campaign in August, only to later hear Boris Johnson admit that the campaign may have been influential in spreading Covid. Having a McDonald’s for half price was a double whammy.

As the nutrition and obesity expert Dr Zoe Harcombe puts it, “obesity is a natural response to an unnatural diet”. Yes, I’d say that’s it in a nutshell, as real food doesn’t come with a list of ingredients straight from the chemistry lab. As a Registered Nutritional Therapist and an Ambassador for the Real Food Campaign I am passionate about the role of food as medicine and now more than ever,  I find myself on a mission. Real food contributes to a nutrient-dense diet and while eating a wide variety of foods is important for our macro and micro intake, the quality of our food is more important than the quantity. Eat out to Help Out could have taken on a whole new flavour if the focus had been real food and all ultra-processed food and drinks had been off the menu.

So how is Wales responding to its own obesity and metabolic health crisis since Covid? February 2020 saw the launch of the 2020-2022 Delivery Plan as part of Healthy Weight, Healthy Wales strategy only to have to change tack when priorities shifted to Covid. This was understandable initially, but given that we seem to be now running a marathon not a 100m, then surely  diet and lifestyle are crucial? While Healthy Weight, Healthy Wales is on pause, our shopping, cooking and dietary patterns have taken an unprecedented shift since March. An unfortunate consequence of lockdowns is the negative effects on physical and mental health with 63% of people in Britain reporting that they are eating less healthily due to stress, anxiety and tiredness. When nearly half the country is not feeling motivated to eat well, and factoring in the rise in job losses and economic hardship, we are creating the conditions for a rapid growth in obesity and diabetes. Are we going to veer from one crisis to the next?

If ‘’following the science’’ meant just that, then we would be doing something about vitamin D. Deficiency of vitamin D is found in over 80% of hospitalised Covid patients, and it is a key feature in metabolic conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance. In one study, severely ill hospitalised Covid patients who received Vitamin D plus the anti-viral hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin saw a 98% reduction in ICU admissions and all were discharged with no complications and no deaths. The simple step of supplementing vitamin D on a national level – which incidentally we should already be doing between the months of October and March, according to government guidelines – and/or testing and supplementing all Covid-19 patients and high-risk-persons, should be implemented as a matter of urgency. Sadly, the NHS says that there is insufficient evidence to demonstrate that vitamin D supplementation can prevent Covid. This may be true, but vitamin D may still prevent more severe outcomes, and it is by definition necessary for those who are already deficient. Testing and supplementation are inexpensive and could be easily applied through GP surgeries as part of a wider strategy to reduce the burden on the NHS.*

We now know that Covid-19 is a disease which is perpetuated by oxidative stress. Oxidative stress is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, which can lead to cell and tissue damage. It occurs naturally and plays a role in the ageing process, which is why the elderly are more vulnerable to the virus. A pre-existing state of oxidative stress will only worsen outcomes for those who contract SARS-CoV-2and again the message is that diet and lifestyle are crucial. Increasing our levels of protective antioxidants starts with a nutrient-dense diet and healthy lifestyle. Studies have found lower levels of the master antioxidant glutathione in patients with moderate and severe Covid.

Other nutritional deficiencies have been highlighted. Zinc supplementation has potential as a treatment in the early stages of the virus and during the disease progression, particularly in those with chronic illness and the elderly. More studies are showing that a high dose of vitamin C can improve recovery time in clinical settings. We are not espousing woo-woo and maggot therapy…this is the science!

Political failures must also be acknowledged in the context of this catastrophe and will continue to impact outcomes both from Covid-19 and the management of underlying health conditions.  We have the potential now to really do things differently.  In a statement from the Real Food Campaign, Recovery from Covid-19 comes the following call to action:

‘’The Real Food Campaign UK is adding its voice to the increasing number of concerned citizens and groups from every part of society – doctors, healthcare practitioners and health workers, academics, chefs, regenerative and sustainability-led farmers and small food producers and retailers. We are demanding that the Government and public health agencies take urgent action to recognise and address the impact that food quality and methods of food production have on the health and the quality of life of every UK citizen and ultimately, on our planet.’’

A healthier Wales, with less metabolic disease, would give us some protection from Covid-19 and possible future viruses. Given that nutrient deficiencies and low antioxidant status are risk factors for severe outcomes from Covid, what should we eat? A varied plant-based diet is key to nutrient density, but certain animal foods are also vital, such as oily fish, eggs and liver which can all provide vitamin D and A; without these, we may need to take  supplements. Wales is in a unique position to promote a healthier national diet through the collaborative working encouraged by the Well-being for Future Generations Act. We must focus on nutrient-dense wholefoods which should be produced in ways that support health and be free from chemicals. To make this happen we must bring together health, food and farming, We also need education  at every level on the importance of real food. It is integral to our health.

*Postcript: In Wales, pregnant women, and women with a child under 12 months and children up to four years are entitled to Healthy Start vitamins from your local health board. These vitamins contain 10mcg of vitamin D.

Eilish Blade is a Registered Nutritional Therapist and a member of the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council. She has a background in horticulture and permaculture. She is the owner of Blade Clinic and you can read her blogs at www.bladeclinic.co.uk

Moving Welsh food production out of a dependency culture

By Adam Alexander

I was talking to an old farmer friend of mine about the ‘good old days’, before we joined the Common Market, and lived instead with the Milk Marketing Board (MMB) and Potato Marketing Board (PMB).  Under this system, farmers were guaranteed a minimum price that kept their farms viable but were restricted in what and how much they could produce, and were required to sell through a controlled monopoly. 

Another big difference all those years ago was that farms were more diverse and resilient.  However, even as a boy growing up on the land in the fifties and early sixties, my abiding memory of the politics of farming was around miserable wages for farm workers and the tyranny of tied housing.  (Rural poverty and a lack of housing is no less a major issue today.) Yet the stereotypical farmer seen from the outside continues to be one whose default mood is that of impending catastrophe and gloom.

We were lucky because we were able to have our own milk round, and as one of the first farms in the UK to be brucellosis-accredited there was no need for pasteurisation.  Sixty years ago, organic raw milk, cream and yoghurt were profitable on a farm of 125 acres supporting a family of eight with a full-time cowman and farm hand.  However, as we were not  accredited potato producers, we were not allowed to sell the harvest from more than an acre.

Joining the EEC in the early seventies set in motion a completely new regimen of support for farmers. As passionate a Europhile as I am, I think the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) turned farmers into dependents, and I am glad to see the back of it.  For the last one hundred years all farmers have done is what has been asked of them by their political masters. Successive governments have set standards, targets and operating practices which farmers have followed, believing promises of greater stability of markets that would make their businesses more sustainable and look where it has got them?  Farms that are only viable because 40% or more of their income arrives in the form of subsidy; land that is suffering from the ravages of high-input agricultural practices; and the burden of maintaining an unsustainable model of farming which means that most farmers are barely scraping a living, and are often weighed down by debt, the result of a constant drive to greater mechanisation and output per acre. 

So, where do we go from here?  I still fret that the dependency culture of food production is deeply ingrained amongst farmers, together with a mindset that expects government to solve our problems.  (I heard too much of this at last year’s Wales Real Food and Farming Conference.) No British government can or will, nor should they, be expected to save us from ourselves.  The abiding message we should be propagating must be about individual and collective empowerment.  In that much overused and abused phrase, we need to ‘Take Back Control.’ 

That means encouraging greater entrepreneurialism in food production, something we see more and more evidence of already.  Farmers may not all be natural business-folk, but they always have been resourceful, canny and resilient.  We need to reawaken on every farm that ingrained desire to make a living without dependency.  We need case studies and examples to provide vision and inspiration. Alongside this should be practical advice and help, which needs to come from within the food sector, not inspired by a top-down political agenda. 

Today’s political leaders are driven by the need to centralise and a belief that it is only they who can solve our problems.  Their obsession with ‘accountability’ and endemic bias against localism – believing that the people cannot be trusted to make choices and decisions that are right for them and their communities, so that money, resource and talent are drained out of local government – appears to have no end.

I think that food producers across Wales should simply ignore what is happening in Cardiff, and work out their own salvation.  Food producers simply need to get on with it.  Bottom-up action is already happening, so let’s do more of it and be a catalyst for those in the sector who recognise the need for change but are reluctant or fearful for all the reasons we know and understand. So, just what would that look like?

First up, change is driven by investment.  So, let’s call out the Development Bank of Wales.   It should be the first port of call for new entrants, for farm businesses wanting to modernise, and for other rural businesses that want to build a diverse and sustainable food sector.  Next, we know how important training, knowledge transfer and support are, so we need new organisations that will do the work of, say, Tyfu Cymru  but be independent of Welsh government funding. 

There are private investors and social entrepreneurs aplenty who are looking to get behind sustainable food businesses in all their forms, in city and countryside.  The Prince of Wales has established the Sustainable Markets Initiative and talks about the need for a Marshall-like plan for people, nature and planet. Let’s see just how this great vision can be employed in Wales.

The success of the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference, based on the shared values identified by the Food Manifesto, demonstrates real enthusiasm for change. We need now to mobilize that energy, not in order to lobby government, but to drive change ourselves. How do we do that? I have the management consultant Richard Davis to thank for the following proposal which I hope can act as a catalyst for further discussion:

THE CHALLENGE:
Demonstrate that sustainable, profitable agricultural enterprise is attainable independent of subsidy.

THE PRINCIPLES:
1.    The route to profit is ‘value’, not ‘efficiency’
2.    Value equals value to the consumer.

3.    Never outsource your relationship with the consumer to a third party.
4.    The consumer will be the same entity for many enterprises and so collaboration and cooperation will represent an opportunity for efficiency.
5.    Efficiency must always be a byproduct of value, not an end in itself
6.    Learning how to do this must be a collaborative venture.
 
Adam with his tomatoes

I believe that solutions will emerge naturally as producers and businesses learn what works for them, on the one hand, and what the public wants, on the other. That is why it is so important to have that direct relationship.  Solutions will differ, but the principles are powerful and they will travel.  We should not try and plan our way out but collect and use the best data to understand what is working and why.

We have a great opportunity now to make a fresh start. Let’s not waste it.

Adam Alexander grew up on a farm and worked for 40 years as a film and television producer. An experienced seed saver, he is currently working with a number of gardens and institutions reviving Welsh heritage vegetables. He is a trustee of Garden Organic and a steering group member for the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. He lives in Monmouthshire.

Feature image of ploughing: Nick Rebbeck.

‘A Small Farm Future’: could it happen in Wales?

By Carwyn Graves

A Small Farm Future by Chris Smaje is subtitled ‘making the case for a society built around local economies, self-provisioning agricultural diversity and a shared earth’. Smaje’s surprising core argument in this ambitious and timely work is that some kind of ‘small farm future’ in the above vein is both necessary and in fact, inevitable. Necessary, in the sense that in light of the compounding crises that now beset western civilisation, a society of this kind offers our best chance of a humane, liberal society that both reflects the democratic values held dear by most in the West, and respects the ecological limits set on human civilization by the planet on which we live. This is a desirable small farm future.

A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green 2020

But a small farm future of some sort is, says Smaje, inevitable in the sense that as a result of the crises facing our civilisation a significant proportion of the world’s population will likely end up in a situation where they are dependent on cultivating small parcels of land for their economic basis – and, he intimates, this is likely to be the case for the majority of the world’s population regardless of the trajectory we take. This is far from a groundless assertion, describing as it does what is already the reality for 1.2 billion people globally[1], and as Smaje notes, without the inflated symbolic economy drawing people to the slums and peripheries of the early 20th century’s megacities, the security offered by the land will once more increase in weight in their decision–making. This phenomenon is already in evidence in economies rejected by the arbiters of the current system, such as Greece and now Lebanon: a dystopian small farm future.

Wales is not, of course, currently in that economic place. It therefore stands in a position where it could opt to set a course for the former, desirable small farm future.[2] Most of Smaje’s energy in the book goes into outlining the choices and trade-offs that societies across the western world will need to negotiate in order to avoid the latter future and land instead somewhere in the realms of the former, desirable one. And as a small political-cultural unit currently on the periphery of the global capitalist system (or rather, the western inner ring thereof), Wales is in some-ways well-placed to make choices that would lead to that desirable option. A number of phenomena in the Welsh cultural and political landscape also augur well for this, on paper: a government that has, in its rhetoric at least, long been supportive of ambitious action towards creating a sustainable society (cf. the Future Generations act, the early adoption of planning policies allowing for low-impact dwellings and livelihoods and other legislation in a similar vein); the small size of farm holdings in the country and the high percentage of owners, rather than tenants (in contrast to Scotland or England); the fact that the current economic settlement doesn’t work well for Wales, at least when in comparison with most neighbouring societies (so that government and civil society hasn’t much to lose in opting to chart an unorthodox course).

Cwmyrarian was once a prosperous mixed farm, known for miles around. It provided work for a large family and several farmhands into the mid 20th century but now lies in ruins with its lands split between other holdings.

There are however significant obstacles to the realisation of anything approximating Smaje’s vision in Wales. Many of these arise from the Welsh situation: perhaps the most important of these is the destruction over recent decades of the lingering vestiges of peasant culture in this country, as in other parts of north-western Europe. Add to this is the lack of a strong civic sphere: the peculiar fact that national conversation takes place within different bubbles (British/ Welsh-regional/ Welsh-language) with poor interfaces between these conversations. Much energy therefore necessarily goes into the creation and maintenance of those parts of civic society which many other comparable societies take for granted; and when you’re forced to argue about the terms of your own existence as a cultural unit, there is little bandwidth left for serious debate about issues which seem tangential.

One of these obstacles, however, illuminates tensions which will be of relevance to the discussion about desirable small farm futures well beyond the bounds of our small country. The attractiveness of the small-farm future option arguably applies in the western world most readily to people in marginalized rural areas, who already have emotional investment in the flourishing of the countryside and of farming in particular, and who can see with their own eyes the bankruptcy of the current settlement. The kind of society sketched by Smaje is likely to be intrinsically attractive to many in these contexts, and to be viewed as a solution to many currently intractable and emotionally draining problems for these communities (rural depopulation, lack of jobs, thinning of society).

But in a Welsh context, and undoubtedly many others, solutions touted for rural Wales’ problems (which are at their most acute in the Welsh-speaking parts that cover a good half of the country by area and represent an internal colony of an internal colony in the words of Seimon Brooks) are often bedevilled by a perception that they are foisted upon those communities from the outside. In other words, the kinds of well-meaning institutions and organisations that are the main vehicles for rebuilding the foundations for a positive small-farm future in rural Wales tend to draw their energy and support from outside the communities which they would depend upon and ostensibly benefit. Particular organisations are not the point here: culture and ownership are. From a Welsh perspective this cuts to the core of the greatest weakness in Smaje’s erudite tome: a reluctance, perhaps understandable given his project, to engage with cultural specificities – and thus to acknowledge the real-world implications of these specificities on the likelihood of a positive small-farm future of the type he outlines arising in many contexts.

In other words, there will only be a desirable small-farm future if the effort to create one comes from within the communities themselves: otherwise, all that happens is the creation of a new fault-line between the advocates of such a settlement and everyone else. This potential disengagement is a serious issue, which pertains to ownership – in the emotional sense. In a section touching on these issues in section 4 Smaje states that, ‘as communities develop new commons through self-provisioning from the local ecological base, everybody’s voice counts, not just that of local elites…’[3] But it is far from clear in real-world scenarios where efforts to make this happen are underway that everybody’s voice does count – not because of exclusion so much as the fact that not everybody (or everybody that ought to matter) is in the room. They won’t be in the room if they aren’t invited; but they also won’t come if they don’t feel any potential ownership.

This is about more than simply making the case for a small farm future within wider western culture (vital though that is). Local ownership only happens through the means of local culture – there isn’t an alternative for the kind of bottom-up shift that Smaje is advocating (top-down is different, of course). And so that local culture needs to be the prism through which an argument for a small-farm future is filtered. In other words, the very rationale for why a small-farm future could be a desirable future needs to differ in meaningful ways from context to context. Where this doesn’t happen, only the “likely candidates” will take this forward – which risks alienating those very communities who most need a future of this kind, and who will also be most needed to make it happen in many western contexts. To avoid this, the argument in favour of a local small farm future should therefore look substantially different in the US rust belt, and Welsh-speaking rural Wales and wealthy Bavaria (where much of the same applies, mutatis mutandis). This is a point which Smaje almost acknowledges and often touches on, but which may transpire in practice to be key to the balance between the dystopian and the desirable small farm futures he outlines.

Despite this weakness in his argument, A Small Farm Future is a watershed work – intellectually brilliant and strongly argued. Several of the heuristics Smaje employs are illuminating (the concept of stocks and flows, the centrality of trade-offs for his analysis or the term ‘symbolic economy’ used above); and his bold marriage of sociology, political economy and philosophy with food history and agricultural analysis is riveting. We have here the ambitious groundwork, global in scale, for exactly the case for a small farm future that Smaje set out to write. It now remains for those of us who share his vision to do the hard work of applying that to our own varied contexts.

Carwyn Graves is an author, public speaker and linguist based near Carmarthen. Author of Apples of Wales (2018) and Welsh Food Stories (on its way in 2021…)

Carwyn will be speaking about the history and future of food in Wales at the second Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 16-19 November. Get your tickets now!

Feature image: A small farm in post-industrial Glamorgan, summer 2019. Whither Wales?


[1] p.91

[2] This term is also repeated, slightly ad nauseam, in the book.

[3] p.260