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.

Why Welsh food history matters

Book review by Jane Powell

Welsh Food Stories, by Carwyn Graves. University of Wales Press, 2022.

The unassuming title of this book suggests an anecdotal tour of the Welsh food scene, a blend, perhaps, of nostalgia and foodie adventures, entertaining but hardly serious. Indeed, there is plenty to enjoy as food historian and linguist Carwyn Graves visits farms and food businesses from saltmarsh lamb on the Gower to sea salt in Anglesey, and from cider orchards in the southeast to cheesemaking in the west. But do note: this is a scholarly book with a serious message.

A series of interviews with farmers, growers and food processors gives a vivid snapshot of the way that traditions going back many centuries are expressed in the present day. Each is the jumping off point from which Graves painstakingly unearths a complex history and even a pre-history. Here are the Welsh armies feasting on mead in the 7th century poem Y Gododdin, the Romans importing white-fleeced sheep to add to the dark-fleeced flocks that were already here, the colourful culture of the Drovers, the intrepid nineteenth-century travel writer George Borrow rhapsodizing about mutton in a Llangollen inn, the rise and fall of Caerphilly cheese, and an army of women, (presumably), proficient in turning oatmeal, water, salt and dripping into oatcakes on a bakestone, producing ‘wafer-thin rounds as large as a dinner plate with fine even edges’.

Harvesting cockles

For those of us who think it is enough to know about Welsh cakes, laverbread, Caerphilly cheese and cawl, Graves provides a bracing corrective. Welsh food is a serious thing. It is not just a peasant cuisine, the making-do of an impoverished and marginalised people, to be forgotten in the face of technological advances and changes in nutritional fashion. We have our hundreds of apple varieties, our distinctive cheeses that are the product of our acid soils and native breeds, our nurserymen and country estates, and our knowledge of the wild foods to be had from the sea and the hedgerow. This is vital knowledge for the future.

In nine chapters, Graves covers topics such as bread, butter, salt and seafoods. Each is full of fascinating facts that certainly changed my understanding of farming history. Red meat, for instance, is not just one thing, whatever the impression given by Hybu Cig Cymru. Cattle were to early Welsh society what bank accounts are now, and so it was not surprising that beef became a commodity out of the reach of most people when the drovers began to herd their cattle down to London in the Middle Ages, responding to (and helping to create) the English demand for roast beef. Sheep, meanwhile, stayed at home, although their wool travelled, and so mutton became a mainstay of the rural economy. It was only in the 20th century that a global export trade for lamb developed, where prices justified the early slaughter of animals for the sake of their tender meat. As a result, mutton ‘became ever more associated with the older generations, poverty and poor taste’ – an example of how fashions in food shape entire economies.

Some foods have all but disappeared. A nineteenth century boom in the oyster trade around Swansea led to a collapse in the price and the exhaustion of the beds, although there are hopes of a modern revival involving artificial reefs. Cockles have fared better, but they are hardly the staple they were, and the economics of the traditional methods of gathering them by hand, don’t work out. Perhaps changing tastes come into it as well – the shellfish of Cardigan Bay may be celebrated in France and Spain, but there is little demand for crabs and scallops at home, and young people are not queuing up to join the industry.

Other traditional foods are enjoying a modest success. Here are stories of cider makers in south Wales reviving an ancient craft, of Hen Gymro wheat being grown again in Ceredigion (thanks in part to the foresight of Aberystwyth agriculturist Sir George Stapledon and the Vavilov Institute in St Petersburg), of new cheeses blending cow’s and sheep’s milk, of growing demand for Welsh sea salt. Meanwhile, cawl adapts to new ingredients, vegetables are grown organically and profitably in rural Ceredigion, and bakers are finding new interest in sourdough loaves made with local grain.

Why does all this matter? The power of the book lies in its use of present-day stories as a pivot between a rich and neglected tradition on the one hand, and an uncertain future on the other. Implied, rather than spelt out, is the question of what diet would best meet the various requirements of healthy nutrition, environmental sustainability, affordability and cultural expectations. Thanks to Graves’ scholarly research we have a much clearer picture not only of what our ancestors produced and ate, but why they did so, and how it brought them not just sustenance but pleasure and meaning.

The challenges we face now are nowhere more poignantly illustrated than by the author’s sad tale of growing leeks. Thanks to the ravages of the leek moth, a recent Asian import, he can no longer grow the national vegetable in his garden at home, and other pests like the allium leaf miner also threaten the crop’s future. How can we imagine cooking and gardening without this familiar standby? But we might have to, and meanwhile climate change allows new crops to grow. It is the principle of growing vegetables, and the recipes that enshrine them, that really matter and that will carry us through.

For the past few centuries, Welsh identity has centred on language and religion, with little thought of such basic concerns as how we feed ourselves. But times change, and now it is food, Graves suggests, that can help to unite us, especially as we begin to welcome refugees from war, drought and flooding. And of course, food is not just a marker of social connection, inviting us to adapt our traditions to new ingredients and tastes. It is also a marker of our relationship with the natural world – or lack of it – and so a powerful way to save our civilization. It deserves our full attention.

Read this book (I wish it had an index!) and be grateful for the past generations who gave us such a rich food culture, and resolve to pass the best of it on to the people who will come after us. For ‘to base the food economy on the foods of a faceless global village and a soulless global market, would be to do not just Wales but the entire world a disservice.’

Carwyn Graves will be talking about the history and future of Welsh food at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference on 23-25 November 2022, in Lampeter.

Jane Powell is a freelance writer and education consultant based near Aberystwyth. She writes at http://www.foodsociety.wales.

Main picture: Caerphilly cheese, courtesy of Carwyn Graves. Cockling picture, from the National Library of Wales.

Building the food economy in Monmouthshire and the Brecon Beacons: 1200 acres wanted

By Duncan Fisher

In Monmouthshire and the Brecon Beacons, we have started to build a new local food economy. The undertaking is vast but the best way to achieve it is to start. Launched on 30 March this year, local community benefit society Our Food 1200 / Ein Bwyd 1200 is searching for 1200 acres of land for local small-scale regenerative horticulture; 1200 acres would be enough to feed every household in the region with seasonal vegetables.

An appeal went out to landowners to make land available for horticulture. In the first week, 21 offers of land were received. Once all these are assessed and profiled online, the search for growers can begin. All over the UK, skilled growers are looking for land to grow on and we would like them to come here. Working with the local regenerative horticulture training course at Black Mountains College, we will also nurture a new generation of growers from among young people raised here.

The aim is, over 10 years, to rebuild a vibrant local economy, serving additionally the nearby towns and cities of Cardiff, Newport, Bristol and Hereford, so that all local farmers can access new markets that pay better prices and offer them and buyers more security. And keeping local ownership of the supply chain, means profits are kept ‘near the roots’. Local trading builds community.

Some 75 people attended the online launch event, including representatives from Public Health Wales, Monmouthshire County Council, Powys County Council, Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, Tyfu Cymru, Black Mountains College and the National Trust.

Speakers included landowners who have already leased land to successful horticulture enterprises, such as John Morris in Crickhowell. John leased land to Katherine and David Langton to create the farm pictured above. Speaking about his experience, he said: “It’s not a new concept: farmers have always rented out their land. But renting land for horticulture is a bigger commitment because of the infrastructure change that’s required with polytunnels and so on.”

Local land agent, Stewart Waters of DJ&P Newland Rennie, said “most farmers have that small parcel of land – 2-5 acres – that’s not entirely suited to the rest of their farming system. I can see that a young and enthusiastic grower could bring a completely different dynamic to a farmer’s life. And of course it’s providing what is these days a very scarce opportunity for young farmers and new entrants to get a start.”

Catherine Mealing-Jones, CEO of the Brecon Beacons National Park, pledged support. “We’ve got huge potential in this area and in surrounding communities to feed ourselves and others with the best-quality, local seasonal produce. But we’ve got to start doing something quite fundamentally different. We are expected to offer the Brecon Beacons National Park as a test bed for the thinking that will shape future policy. And I really believe that if we work together, we can make the changes that we want to see.”

For more on this project, watch the discussion at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference last November, where Duncan spoken in a panel with Prof Tim Lang, Monmouthshire RDP Manager Michael Powell and farmer Peter Greig.

Duncan lives in the Brecon Beacons and is leading the Our Food 1200 project with Sue Holbrook. He is a campaigner for sustainability and also, with another hat on, for child welfare.

Image: Tim Jones/As You See it Media.

Looking forward to WRFFC 21

By Alicia Miller

After a busy summer of meetings to pull together this year’s Wales Real Food and Farming Conference (WRFFC), the programme is really coming together for 24-26 November.

It’s a stimulating and exciting project to be a part of, though for me it requires a delicate balancing act between my work at the Sustainable Food Trust, running an organic horticulture business with my husband (Troed y Rhiw Farm) and contributing to the WRFFC programme content.  I’m not always on top of things!  That said, this is such an important thing to be involved in – opening up the vital conversations that we need to have around our food and farming systems and working towards how we make them better, more friendly to nature and more sustainable in all ways.

The WRFFC will be online again this year, after a hopeful start that we might pull off an in-person event; but with Covid still significantly active across Wales (currently we are the country with the highest number of Covid cases in the UK), we had to make a very difficult decision.  

However, we will hold the thought of a live in-person event for next year, when the pandemic should be wrapping up, and we can meet face to face again.  It’s been a very tough couple of years, but it’s important that we look beyond the pandemic to the wider, and arguably much more pressing, issues facing us as regards the climate emergency.  Food and farming sit at a critical nexus in this crisis and we must address how to help rather than hinder the change that we need to make.

With the 2020 WRFFC a fantastic success, we feel confident that this year’s conference will be just as good.  The WRFFC will look at a range of current topics across three days, exploring what defines a fair and sustainable food system, whilst also offering practical sessions on improving the sustainability of farming practices.

We have three great guest speakers to get us thinking and doing: Tim Lang Professor Emeritus at City University, London getting right to the heart of a fair and sustainable food system; Prof Lois Mansfield from Cumbria University digging into why hill farming is so important to our biodiversity; and Adam Jones (or Adam yn yr ardd as he’s better known) on encouraging young people to grow food.  The Welsh Government will also be joining the WRFFC with an update on Welsh food and farming policy.

Then there is a full programme of presentations and discussions, on topics such as the Wales Community Food Strategy, food as medicine, responding to controversial developments such as intensive poultry units, and a new Global Farm Metric. We will explore growing fruit and nuts, cooperative models for food chains, grassroots food democracy, livestock in integrated systems, reducing Wales’ contribution to tropical deforestation and agroforestry. There will also be informal networking sessions.

And I’m especially looking forward to a panel that I’m coordinating on a topic close to my heart: how do we make sustainable farming and growing a meaningful and deeply important thing for young people to be doing?  We need to inspire and support a new generation to feel passionate about farming, to believe deeply that caring for the land and all that lives on it is one of the most important things to be doing in the world today.

So, both listen and bring your voice to the Conference and be heard. Tickets are available at £5, £20 or £35 plus Eventbrite booking fee. Follow the link.

Alicia’s work on the WRFFC is supported by the Sustainable Food Trust.

What Wales Could Do with a Community Food Strategy

By Jane Powell

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

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

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

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

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

A food strategy for Wales

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

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

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

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

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

Local integration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Land use

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food democracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Beth Macdonald on Unsplash

UK names first food with protected status in post-Brexit scheme – here’s how it will promote sustainable farming

By Luke Prosser

This article was originally published by The Conversation on August 17, 2021.

Sheep have been grazing the salt marsh landscape of the Gower Peninsula in Wales since medieval times. Today around 3,500 lambs and ewes feed there, where a diet of naturally growing samphire and sorrel gives their meat a unique flavour.

Gower lamb, which is available to buy and eat between June and December, matures more slowly and lives longer than intensively reared lamb, which further adds to the characteristic taste.

That flavour has now been given protected status, providing the farmers of those lambs with membership of an exclusive club. Fellow members include producers of Cornish clotted cream, Melton Mowbray pork pies and champagne, which have long been part of a European scheme which means certain food and drink can only be made in certain places.

Since Brexit, the UK has established its own geographical indication scheme, which closely resembles the EU version. Gower salt marsh lamb is the first product to be added to the new British scheme and must be born, raised and slaughtered within the 19 electoral constituency boundaries that make up the Gower Peninsular. It joins 16 other Welsh products already protected including Anglesey sea salt, Welsh laverbread and Conwy mussels.

My ongoing research is looking into the the contribution to that sector of local food production which is sustainable – environmentally, socially and economically. My colleagues and I are so far finding that locally produced food contributes significantly to making sure rural areas are viable communities. And evidence shows officially recognising and protecting the links between a food product and the area it comes can have significant benefits for that community.

In a competitive market, this protection really counts. The food and drink sector is worth £29bn to the UK economy, so standing out from the crowd has never been more important.

The protected designation of origin (PDO) awarded to Gower salt marsh lamb is reserved for products with the strongest links to the place in which they are made. There is strong evidence that such protections mean better prices for producers. For example, prices of French cheeses with a PDO are higher by an average of 11.5%.

PDOs also help to preserve traditional methods from being driven out by intensive agricultural systems by stipulating a number of requirements on the methods of production. In the Gower’s case this includes recognising the shepherding skills and knowledge of the salt marsh tidal ranges to protect the animals from dangerous rising tides. These are skills which have been developed and passed on through generations.

But it could potentially have a damaging effect on the sale of Welsh lamb from other regions, which is itself protected by a similar but less specific classification, known as a protected geographical indication (PGI).

Again, this is designed to emphasise the relationship between the specific geographic region and the name of the product. The PDO will likely be seen by consumers as a mark that Gower salt marsh lamb ranks even more highly for quality and taste against other Welsh Lamb, which could be a blow for many of Wales’ other sheep farmers currently boosted by their PGI status. At the moment there is a lack of research on the differing perceptions of PDO and PGI categorisation, so we will have to wait and see if this turns out to have any significant impact.

That issue aside, geographical indicators generally work well in protecting consumers against food fraud, through an official process of audit and authentication. They are designed to avoid things like the 2013 scandal in which a number of beef products from across the EU were found to contain varying levels of horse meat.

Check meat

Products with geographical indicators are subjected to extra auditing to ensure authentic products for consumers, with controls conducted by local authority trading standards.

Compliance is monitored, and suspicion of counterfeit products can be reported directly to the enforcement body who have the power to impose fines or imprisonment under various consumer protection laws.

Geographical indicators also promote a sustainable food system by promoting localised approaches to food production. They champion and protect local and traditional production systems that limit intensification and market saturation, and promote high quality and welfare produce.

By supporting low impact practices GIs provide greater stability for those working in the industry, protecting traditional skills and maintaining viable rural livelihoods by placing requirements on production processes

Asked about the importance of designation for its Anglesey Sea Salt (protected by a PDO since 2014) Halen Mon director Alison Wilson told me it was one of the company’s “proudest achievments”. She added: “It gives protection when it’s needed, and status and proof of the particular qualities of our hand-harvested sea salt. It means that we are the only British sea salt to be audited and proved 100% authentic, in a world full of food fraud.”

As dietary habits continue to change, many people are looking to reduce the impact of their diet on the environment. The new status for Gower salt marsh lamb will hopefully give consumers reassurance that they are eating a high welfare, pasture fed animal, which has had a minimal environmental impact over its life. A protected product can help protect the planet.

Luke Prosser is a PhD researcher at Bangor University with a specialism in Food and Drink Geographies and Rural Communities, focusing primarily on Food and Drink supply chains and procurement.

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

By Dave Ashford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more information contact bbmc@dwrcymru.com.

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

Photo by Carl Jorgensen on Unsplash.

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

By Angie Kirby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The need for collective action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Felipe Werneck

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

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.