Global reforestation and sustainable farming – 200 million trees for Wales?

By Rob Squires

Scottish agroforestry

Agroforestry (main species silvopastoral system) at Bolfracks Estate, Upper Farrochil, by Aberfeldy. Forestry Grant Scheme. Photographer – Matt Cartney. Crown Copyright.

A recent Guardian article covered a report proposing the planting of one trillion trees over the next 50-100 years, to mop up two-thirds of global carbon emissions. The Global Tree Restoration Potential excludes arable and urban areas from its calculations, but includes grazing land, on which the researchers say trees can benefit sheep and cattle. As the most effective projects cost as little as 30 US cents a tree, the total price could be £240bn.

This may sound like a lot of money, but on the same day as the Guardian article came out I received a petition from Positive Money (who campaign for monetary reform) demanding the Bank of England divest from fossil fuels. It stated: “Since 2009 the Bank of England has created £445bn of new money, in the process termed ‘quantitative easing’.” Reading this put the situation into sharp context for me. If the banks are “too big to fail”, such that £445bn can be whipped up using the government’s “magic money tree”,  then surely the planet is big enough to merit a mere £240bn to put the brakes on the climate crisis? What is more, this would be £240bn globally, so Wales’ share of this would be a drop in the ocean, compared with the bill for bailing out the bankers.

I recently attended a meeting about the Sustainable Farming and our Land, the Welsh Government’s consultation on support to farmers after Brexit. This got me thinking about the one trillion trees and what it would take for Wales to play its part in this, and I was prompted to do some back-of-an-envelope number crunching.

Let us assume 200 million trees[i] would need planting in Wales, for us to achieve our share of one trillion. Using the same planting densities as the report, this will require around 285,000 hectares (ha). Wales actually contains about 1,500,000 ha of grazing land, which is roughly three-quarters of the total land mass of the country. If most of the trees were planted on this land, it would take up about 20% of it. The average holding size in Wales is about 48 ha, and on that basis an average of 6,720 trees will need planting per holding, at a rate of 140 trees per ha.

If planting 200m trees sounds like a tall order, then serendipitously, in the few days I have been writing this blog, Ethiopia has broken a world record by planting an incredible 350m trees in just one day! Their plan is to plant four billion to counter deforestation, and climate change. The surface area of Ethiopia is 53 times greater than that of Wales, so this target equates to pretty much the same amount of additional trees per hectare as Wales.

Tree planting on this scale will have a dramatic impact, both on the natural world and on the livelihoods of farmers and smallholders. For the environment the benefits of reforestation are obvious, providing habitat, increased biodiversity and ecological resilience. The challenge however, is to develop ways in which the rural economy can adapt to such changes, building food security and ensuring financial benefits.

One important aspect of the government’s proposed Sustainable Farming Scheme is that it plans to reward farmers with subsidies for environmental outcomes, such as biodiversity, air quality, and water quality, all of which tree planting can contribute to. Since currently an average of 80% of Welsh farmers’ income comes from the direct payments they receive through the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the new environmental rewards are going to be crucial to prevent many farmers from going out of business after Brexit. Tree planting offers much more potential for farmers though, than simply obtaining a replacement subsidy.

The Soil Association’s new Agroforestry Handbook explains the potential of different types of tree farming systems, with advice on implementation, case studies, and market opportunities. The economic case for agroforestry can be considered in three main ways: enhanced ecosystem services; enhanced agricultural outputs; and direct tree outputs.

  • The enhanced ecosystem services that can be achieved are perfect for the Sustainable Farming Scheme, and include carbon capture, biodiversity, rain water retention and soil improvement.
  • A good case study for enhanced agricultural outputs is Welsh sheep and beef farmer Jonathan Francis, who was unable to turn stock into some fields because of rainfall and lack of shelter. With support from Coed Cadw (the Woodland Trust in Wales) he planted 15,000 trees on his 113 ha farm. He is creating shelter for his stock, and reducing water logging and erosion of the soil, thus reclaiming the land and enhancing his conventional outputs. Meanwhile Pembrokeshire farmer Alex Heffron who has written about silvopasture (the grazing of livestock amongst trees) is applying for funding from Coed Cadw to plant tens of thousands of trees on his land.
  • In terms of direct tree outputs, the Agroforestry Handbook lists a range of potential market opportunities, including timber, fuel, food, leisure, and carbon markets. As well as the direct sales, farmers could choose to reduce costs by utilising their own timber for things like fencing, farm buildings, and fuel.

Within the Sustainable Farming Scheme, in addition to a regular income stream from environmental rewards, farmers will be able to access a wider range of business support such as advice, capital investment and skills development. With such a framework in place, it is feasible that land use can be reformed such that Wales makes a fair contribution to global reforestation, whilst supporting land managers to release themselves from the worst of global market forces, moving  away from a heavily subsidised and precarious place, to a new position of much improved community resilience.

Rob Squires is a web developer and food activist in Aberystwyth.

Both images: agroforestry in Scotland, by Matt Cartney, under a Creative Commons licence

[i]. Global population is currently about 7.72bn (growing by over 200,000 / day!), and the population of Wales is around 3.2m, or 0.041%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant around 410m trees in order to meet its commitment to 1tn trees. This however, is a lot of trees for a relatively small country.

Another way to break it down might be by surface area. The land mass of the entire world is 149 million km², whist the area of Wales is 20,735 km², which is about 0.014%. Based on this percentage, Wales would be required to plant about 140m trees in order to fulfil it’s commitment, which seems more do-able.

There are other ways of thinking about this, such as basing the size of Wales’ commitment on the country’s GDP, or on its carbon footprint. If either of these measures were used, then the Welsh commitment to 1tn trees would no doubt be a lot higher than either of the two figures above. To keep things simple though I have chosen a figure of 200m trees, somewhere in between the estimates formed from population and land mass.

A new food and farming conference for Wales

One afternoon in January 2010, some 50 farmers and others gathered in a mediaeval library in Oxford to debate the future of food and farming. Meeting at the same time as the prestigious Oxford Farming Conference, they were interested in a new approach to food and farming, one which puts food producers at the centre, and challenges the establishment approach of high tech methods for global markets. The idea caught on, and so the Oxford Real Farming Conference began.

This conference, now in its tenth year, is centred around farmers and growers, and draws in scientists, caterers, nutritionists, economists, artists and policy-makers, with the aim of exploring together how we can develop a better food system. The result is a highly energizing and inspiring brew which gives an annual boost to a growing movement  of food activists from all walks of life. This year’s event attracted 1000 delegates to Oxford Town Hall, half of them farmers, with dozens of workshops, fringe events and informal gatherings, all leavened with art, poetry and good food.

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Colin Tudge addresses the Oxford Real Farming Conference in 2017

In the words of Colin Tudge, co-founder with Ruth West of the ORFC and of the Campaign for Real Farming, the purpose of the event is to promote ‘enlightened agriculture’, that is, ‘farming that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, forever, with food of the highest quality, without cruelty or injustice, and without wrecking the rest of the world’. It’s based on the four principles of agroecology, food sovereignty, economic democracy and respect for traditional knowledge, and by drawing together different elements of the food system it presents a vision of a new relationship between food and society.

There has always been a strong contingent from Wales, and this year we had our very own session centred on the Wales Food Manifesto. Chaired by Alicia Miller of Troed-y-Rhiw Organics, it covered nutrition (Pamela Mason, author of Sustainable Diets), small-scale growing (Nathan Richards, grower at Troed-y-Rhiw), Welsh language and rural culture (Dr Eifiona Thomas-Lane of Bangor University). schools and education (Jane Powell of LEAF Education), environment (Arfon Williams of the RSPB) and how to encourage a new generation into farming (Gerald Miles, Caerhys Organic Community Association and the Landworkers Alliance).

Together with delegates from Wales who were in the audience and added in ideas to do with fisheries, gardening at home, school meals and other areas, we explored some of the possibilities for bringing farming and the public closer together in Wales, and encouraging new approaches to food production. We also aired the idea of doing our own version of the Oxford conference in Wales and found enthusiastic support – so that’s what we’re doing.

The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference (or in Welsh, Cynhadledd Gwir Fwyd a Ffermio Cymru) will take place at Aberystwyth University on 11 and 12 November 2019. We inserted food into the title because food is what brings us together, and we don’t want to suggest that there is anything unreal about the excellent Wales Farming Conference. The conference will welcome anyone who is interested in a fresh approach to farming and growing in Wales.

We want farmers and growers to thrive, to be appreciated by their local communities, to be rewarded for what they do, and get the support they need to produce healthy food for everyone, in a fair and responsible way that builds biodiversity and human culture. We invite anyone with an interest in that to join us – suggest a workshop or a speaker, join the organizing team, and of course buy a ticket and come along for a whole new event in Welsh food and farming.

For more information and to register your interest, see http://wrffc.wales or http://cgfffc.cymru. Bookings will open over the summer.

Gweledigaethau Gwledig – Cynhadledd Gwir Fwyd a Ffermio Cymru (CGFFfC)

Gan Eifiona Thomas Lane

[Eifiona reflects on the Oxford Real Farming Conference and its new Welsh offshoot; use Google Translate to find out more]

Ar ddechrau’r flwyddyn newydd eleni cefais fy mhrofiad cyntaf o’r ORFC, sef Oxford Real Farming Conference, sydd yn amlwg yn cael ei threfnu yn Rhydychen. Cyfle oedd hyn imi drafod syniadau am sut allai dyfodol tu allan i Undeb Ewropeaidd effeithio ar gymunedau ffermio – yn benodol oblygiadau iaith a pheryglu diwylliant gwledig Cymreig.

Ond cyn fy seswin cefais gyfle i fwynhau bore braf yn crwydro o amgylch y gynhadledd. Yr argraff gyntaf wnaeth arnaf oedd bod amrwyiaeth o stondinau safonol lle roedd pwyslais nid – fel oeddwn yn ei dybio (o ystyried ansawdd y stondinau) – ar ffermio dwys comersial ar gyfer y system fwyd a masnach byd eang, ond yn hytrach ar ffermio llai arddwys lle roedd torreth o wybodaeth defnyddiol ac ymarferol ar ddulliau a busnesau.

Roedd yno hefyd nifer o grwpiau cynghori ffermio oedd yn hybu parchu’r pridd, cyfoeth ecosystemau naturiol a thirluniau amrwyiol. Dyma’r union systemau rwyf wedi arfer gorfod eu amddiffyn a ceisio egluro eu potensial i gyflwyno gwasanaethau ecosystemau rheoli a diwylliannol. Neu, mewn iaith arall, cynnal treftadaeth, cymunedau ffermio a chefn gwlad mwy cynaliadwy.

Yn ystod fy nghyflwyniad, a oedd yn rhan o sesiwn Maniffesto Bwyd Cymru, trafodwyd ystadegau o’r ystadegau Sensws (2011) ac astudiaeth gan Undeb Amaethwyr Cymru 2018, sy’d dangos bod 40% o ffermwyr yn siarad Cymraeg, sef ddwywaith yn fwy nac unrhyw gategori gwaith arall ar draws Cymru. Mae 100% o ffermwyr cymunedau Dolbenmaen, Y Bala / Llanuwchlyn a Melindwr yng Ngheredigion yn siarad yr iaith. Cyflwynwyd ymateb Llywodraeth Cymru a’r Undebau Amaethwyr Cymru i’r her byddai dirywiad yn amaeth yn ei gynnig:

  • ‘Moves which undermine the viability of Welsh Agriculture are likely to represent significant threats to the Welsh language particularly in communities where the proportion of the population who speak Welsh is low or intermediate.’ (UAC 2018, Ffermio yng Nghymru a’r Iaith Gymraeg)
  • ‘The composition of our farming sector is very different to the rest of the UK, particularly to England. Our landscape is more varied, our rural communities are a much greater share of the population and our agriculture is more integrated into the fabric of our culture, especially the Welsh language. We have a once in a generation chance to redesign our policies in a manner consistent with Wales’ unique integrated approach, delivering for our economy, society and natural environment.’ (Dyfodol Amaeth a Rheolaeth Tir, Lesley Griffiths, Mawrth 2017)

Y prif her byddai gwanio’r economi wledig draddodiadol ac arwain at sefyllfa ansicr iawn o ran argaeledd bwyd ffres, iach a fforddadwy mewn cymunedau sydd yn ddaearyddol fwy ymylol.

Felly – a’m sesiwn drafod wedi bod – roeddwn yn falch iawn o allu cefnogi syniad eithaf trawiadol, sef y dylai cynhadledd debyg ddigwydd yn Nghymru sef cyfle i ganolbwyntio ar ffermio a bwyd Cymreig. Byddai hon yn wahanol i gynhadleddau academaidd ar amaeth ac hefyd yn wahanol i’r Sioe Fawr yn Llanwelwedd, oherwydd byddai yn dod a chydrannau y drafodaeth wledig ynghyd. Cynhadledd integredig, ymarferol ydy’r gwledigaeth (gyda chytundeb trefnwyr yr ORFC gwreiddiol) a fydd yn lledaenu ymarfer da. Yn ystod y sesiynnau trafod traddodiadau hynafol Cymreig ar gyfer rheoli amgylchedd ac amaethu organig ac anarddwys, cynhyrchu bwyd da iach, ac yn caniatau trafodaeth ar bolisiau a gwleidyddiaeth.

Yn yr ychydig misoedd dilynol cafwyd trafodaeth brwd ar ei lleoliad ac a dylai fod yn symudol fel yr Eisteddfod, a wedyn mwy byth o drafodaeth am yr enw yn  Gymraeg. Er mwyn crynhoi felly, eleni ym mis Tachwedd 2019 bydd Cynhadledd (gyntaf) Gwir Fwyd a Ffermio Cymru yn digwydd yn Aberystwyth. Mae’r lleoliad yma yn draddodiadol, hygyrch a rhesymol am eleni; cawn weld am flynyddoedd i ddilyn.

Mae nifer fawr o fudiadau cefn gwlad ac unigolion egniol a phrofiadol nawr yn cydweithio i sefydlu a cynllunio’r digwyddiad, ac yn sicr bydd eraill yn ymuno, ond araf deg mae dal iar! Gobeithiaf yn fawr iawn y bydd yn egino a thyfu yn driw i egwyddorion cynhadledd ORFC, sef parodrwydd i herio rhai agweddau o amaethu diwydiannol, ac y bydd yn cyfarfod lle mae cyfle ar gyfer trafodaethau rhyngddisgyblaethol, gwahanol ac amgen.

Mwy na hynny, rwyf yn gobeithio bydd y gynhadledd hon yn adlewyrchu amrywiaeth gwir gyfoeth bwyd a ffermio Cymru, ac efalla hyd yn oed mwy pwysig i mi yw bod y CGFFfC yn cychwyn a parhau i fod (pan bydd yn llwyddo a thyfu ) yn gynhadledd wledig wir Gymreig.

Mae Eifiona Thomas Lane yn ddarlithydd mewn Daearyddiaeth yn yr Ysgol Gwyddorau Naturiol, Prifysgol Bangor.

Llun: Eifiona Thomas Lane

Food poverty is escalating in Wales – what should we do about it?

By Pat Caplan

In the last few decades, Welsh food has changed out of all recognition, with highly successful branding of Welsh products being synonymous with quality. Examples include beef, lamb, fish, chocolate, wine, beer and honey but there are many more. Along with this has gone the revival of traditional foods such as laverbread, bara brith, and Welsh cakes, and many areas of Wales now have their own annual food festivals. All of this is good for tourism and exports.

Furthermore the Welsh government has been interested in a sustainable food strategy for Wales since 2010 and the growth of organic farms and smallholdings in Wales has been encouraged. Unfortunately, all of these welcome trends do not help with escalating food poverty.

The high rates of poverty in Wales can be seen from numerous reports issued during the past few years and published by the Welsh Government, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, WISERD (Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data & Methods); campaigning organisations like Oxfam Cymru, the Welsh Food Poverty Network, and Food Poverty Alliance Wales as well as national papers such as the Guardian and local papers including the Pembrokeshire Herald and the South Wales Evening Post.

Basically food poverty is caused by low income: high rates of unemployment, very low pay and benefit cuts. In households with low income, food may not be prioritised as highly as rent, council tax and other bills, since failure to pay these can have grave consequences. Food is seen as an elastic part of the budget, with parents reporting that they skip meals so that children can eat and that they have to buy the cheapest food available, which is not necessarily the healthiest.

But poverty is also caused by the high costs of housing, transport and food. In some areas locals, tourists and second home owners are in competition for accommodation, while poor public transport creates pressure to own a car, with its attendant costs. Furthermore, much of Wales exists in a ‘food desert’, particularly in the rural areas where it is difficult for many people to access shops, especially the supermarkets which usually carry a wider range of fresh foods. Small local shops are often very expensive and what fresh food they carry may not be very fresh because of the low turnover and the need to transport it over long distances. All of these tendencies are likely to be exacerbated by Brexit.

Poverty in general usually leads to food poverty which is also a public health issue. There have been reports of high rates of malnutrition and morbidity, and a decline in longevity. As  noted by Health in Wales, ‘Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is a leading cause of death in the United Kingdom, and particularly in Wales, where the death rate is greater than in the majority of the countries in Western Europe’.

Furthermore it is the poorest people who are most likely to suffer from obesity with levels higher across all ages in the more deprived areas (Welsh Health Survey 2013). The BBC recently reported that obesity is now overtaking smoking as the biggest risk to health in Wales and attributed this to the widespread availability of cheap junk food.

The case of Pembrokeshire

Pembrokeshire is where my research on food poverty has focused over the last few years. The Bevan Foundation noted in 2018 that ‘Pembrokeshire has one of the highest risks of poverty among people of working age in the UK, resulting from a mix of low wages and high housing costs’.

Pembrokeshire has a high number of incomers who are either permanent or temporary residents. There are retirees who can afford high housing costs, wealthier second home owners, and a big demand for holiday rentals. All of these push up the costs of accommodation, especially in tourist ‘hotspots’ such as Newport where houses have become unaffordable for local people.

There is a large amount of ‘hidden poverty’, especially in rural areas, but it also exists in the small towns, including those in the south where former industries have disappeared. There is a high rate of unemployment in the county, while those who are in work often have to accept low wages (sometimes below the Minimum Wage), seasonal employment (especially in areas of tourism), and precarity (e.g. zero-hours contracts).

The roll-out of Universal Credit in Pembrokeshire has further exacerbated poverty because of the long period between the ending of old benefits and the start of new ones, as well as the continuing of the punitive sanctions regime and the cuts in benefits more generally.

But there is another dimension to food poverty in rural areas and small towns and that is the reluctance to disclose it. As I have heard many times ‘You don’t want to be seen as poor’, which is considered stigmatising.

Food aid

For several years Wales has had an unusually high prevalence of food banks and the number of both Trussell Trust and independent food banks has increased since that time. In Pembrokeshire for example, Trussell now has four food banks as does Patch, an independent charity. Both are run largely by volunteers and receive their supplies from donors.

Wales is part of the globalised food marketing system, with supermarkets like Tesco, Morrisons, Sainsburys, Coop, Aldi and Lidl in the towns. Most of these cooperate with food banks to allow in-store collections of long-life food donated by customers. More recently, supermarkets have also been providing their surplus fresh food to charities, in some cases via the Food Cloud facilitated by the organisation Fareshare, in other cases with bilateral or unofficial arrangements between food outlet and food banks. The Food Cloud has meant that more fresh produce is available to food banks, but supplies are inevitably uncertain.

How then is it possible to bring good quality fresh food to people who need it but cannot afford it, without having recourse to food banks which risks the clients suffering from the associated stigma? One promising development is Community Fridges, open to all. At present in Pembrokeshire for example, these exist in Narberth, Fishguard and Haverfordwest.

Another is the setting up of regular community meals, available to everyone, not just the food poor.  These emulate some of the policies being adopted in Scotland which emphasise the links between food and community thereby ensuring both sociality and dignity. But more such initiatives are needed.

Pat Caplan is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London. Further information on her research and writing is available on her webpage https://www.gold.ac.uk/anthropology/staff/pat-caplan/ and she blogs on http://sites.gold.ac.uk/food-poverty/.

Thanks:  I am grateful to the clients and volunteers of the food aid organisations which facilitated my research. Image: Pat Caplan.

‘Well-being Wales’ – agroecological food and farming transitions

By Sam Packer

Farmers know a thing or two about the weather, and it’s clear that the winds are changing fast. A bodged Brexit has put farming on the ropes: Welsh lamb, dependent on the EU export market, looks particularly at risk; devolved administrations have been excluded and sidelined through Westminster’s flagrant use of Henry VIII powers; trade-deals pose enormous threats to the sector, with a flood of bargain basement food likely to undercut domestic producers.

Brexit is, nevertheless, somewhat of a smoke-screen to the more fundamental challenges we face to global planetary health, manifesting in the interrelated crises of diet-related ill health, climate change, antimicrobial resistance and biodiversity collapse. In these turbulent times the status quo of food and farming needs a rethink, and fast.

The way we farm is connected to the way we eat; ask anyone to look at the land and reflect – is that where my meal was made? The answer is, most likely not: your protein was grown in the Amazon, your oils in Malaysia, your fruit Spain, your wheat Ukraine. Gazing on a landscape of livestock, many – one third of the UK population is estimated to be flexitarian – are well placed to ask the question, is this land feeding me?

Disconnected from the means of production, we are mindlessly fuelling these crises, for example, deforestation for palm oil – a major ingredient in ultra-processed (junk) foods – contributes to our obesity crisis.

Even in Wales, the disconnect is damaging; despite 80% of Welsh land being under agricultural management, many children barely visit a farm. Bringing people closer to their food production has multiple wins – education, health, community cohesion – and putting farmers in the seat of power to make that change must be a priority for future farm policy. Farms such as COCA (Caerhys Organic Community Agriculture) in Pembrokeshire should be front of mind as part of this social food revolution – pioneers such as Gerald Miles should be given a national platform.

The Well-being of Future Generations Act demands that law, policy and public money are developed and used in the interest of those that follow. It is an extraordinary opportunity to drive the food and farming system towards one that considers public health, climate resilience and nature – but until now we have largely overlooked the vehicles that will take the food system there.

Plaid Cymru have had a go, hitting the headlines in 2018 for proposing a bold vision for Wales to be 30% organic by 2030. This may seem a tall order, but Austria has achieved 22% of farmed area under organic already, and across Europe organic land area increased 18% between 2012 and 2016. The biggest driver of this change is market demand, which is outstripping production considerably; in the same period the EU organic market grew 45% to €30bn, while in the UK it is a fast-growing £2bn food market and we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Without policymakers responding to these challenges, they risk leaving the Welsh food and farming sector behind. There must be support for adaptation and innovation across the sector, and crucially, this will need to privilege systems that enhance ecological resilience. Thriving diverse landscapes, full of life, full of food are a cornerstone to thriving rural communities.

Here’s some ideas to kick-start the food transition to ‘Well-being Wales’:

  1. Fruit and veg first: A Wales empty (less than 0.2% of land) of fruit and veg production is a weaker, unhealthier place. High quality fruit and veg must land on the public plate – and domestic producers with support can fill the void. Wales must make good food the easy choice for schools, hospitals and care settings.
  2. Biodiversity, in-the-field: Out of sight our soils are losing life, compacted, eroded. Wildlife lives on scraps at the edges of monocultures, our road-verges and back-gardens often support more diversity than our fields. Wales must commit to in-field biodiversity where farmers can be simultaneously profitable and work with nature.
  3. Farming in 3D: Trees and farming are a fabulous partnership, Wales should commit to agroforestry full-pelt – 25% of Welsh farms integrating trees and agriculture by 2025 would not only bring well-needed business diversity (timber, fruits, nuts) it would go a significant way to meeting Government ambitions for tree planting.
  4. Quick gains with proven systems: organic farming may not be the silver bullet for sustainable food systems, but it is market-ready, verifiable and exportable; it might be as close as we’ve got. Committing to a widescale and rapid transition to agroecological systems – such as organic – should be front page of a future Welsh food and farming strategy.

Welsh citizens must harness this unique moment to make food and farming fit for future generations – tell your politicians, listen to your local farmers and land managers, and imagine what ‘Well-being Wales’ means for food and land.

Sam Packer is farming and land use policy officer at the Soil Association, where his work focuses on horticulture, agroforestry and climate change. Prior to this role he has been a grower/ teacher for mid-Wales community food project Mach Maethlon, contributed to the Food Values Wales project, and worked at Coed Cadw, Woodland Trust Wales. He can be contacted on spacker@soilassociation.org or @samtpacker on Twitter.

Image: Creative Commons

Brexit – the starting point for a fresh approach to food and farming in Wales

FRCBrexit could be the starting point for a fresh approach to food and farming in Wales, setting the standard for the United Kingdom; argues a new briefing from the Food Research Collaboration1.

Much has been made of the risks Brexit poses to Welsh food producers, especially its upland lamb and beef farmers. However, the briefing argues that Wales has a forward-looking government with several innovative pieces of legislation that could support a transition to fairer and more environmentally sustainable farming and food production, if political authority and public support can be mobilised to link them together.

The briefing, written by Jane Powell and Corinne Castle of the Wales Food Manifesto, sets out the steps needed to achieve an integrated food and farming policy for Wales post-Brexit. They emphasize two key factors that enable Wales to take these steps: vibrant networks of grassroots organisations building innovative local food enterprises and the radical pieces of legislation introduced by the Welsh government that could be used to engineer a new food economy.

Corinne Castle said:

‘Brexit gives Wales an opportunity to make a step-change into a new approach to food and farming, but it will only happen if there is a wholesale realignment of all those involved with the food system, and a willingness to see ourselves differently. Old oppositions, say between food production and wildlife, or between supermarkets and community initiatives, will have to transform. Above all, we will need to bring back more trust and respect to the vital business of feeding a nation.’

The authors recommend that the public funding that replaces the Common Agricultural Policy, must be for farming that integrates food production with care for the environment. Subsidy should be based on what farmers do, not how much land they manage, with support for new entrants.

Jane Powell commented:

‘It’s time for a fresh approach to food and farming in Wales. Grassroots initiatives in both rural areas and cities are pioneering new ways of producing and distributing food, government is changing the way it works, and global challenges are more acute than ever. We need to seize the moment and set a new course for food, one that works for everyone. A new national civil society network would be a vital first step to draw people together.’

For the full list of recommendations read the briefing: https://foodresearch.org.uk/download/14226/

Read the Executive summary: https://foodresearch.org.uk/download/14227/

1, The Food Research Collaboration (FRC) brings together academics and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to improve food policy in the United Kingdom. As an initiative of the Centre for Food Policy, at City, University of London, we support the Centre’s mission of advancing integrated and inclusive food policy. This briefing paper is part of the FRC Food Brexit Briefing series, with the full series available here: https://foodresearch.org.uk/food-brexit-briefings/

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

By Jane Powell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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