Make farming part of an ambitious food policy to transform Wales

By Rhodri Elfyn Jones

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

One-dimensional approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

Papering over the cracks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transformative policy possible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Images: Rhodri Elfyn Jones.

Covid: nutrition is part of the solution

By Eilish Blade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Welsh food production out of a dependency culture

By Adam Alexander

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feature image of ploughing: Nick Rebbeck.

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

By Carwyn Graves

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

A Small Farm Future published by Chelsea Green 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] p.91

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

[3] p.260

How urban food growing brings people together to respond to big changes

By Jane Powell. This article was originally published by Renew Wales

Aberystwyth resident Tom Thomas leans on his hoe and remembers how he got involved with the Penparcau Planting Project back in the spring. “It was soon after lockdown started, and I was just popping out to get a paper,” he says, “then I noticed that someone had been clearing the ground around the community hub, so I stopped for a chat. Jon, the caretaker, asked me if I wanted to help which of course I did, and now I do two mornings a week. I love it – it’s great to be outside and doing something for the local area.”

Tom has taken over the wildlife garden near the entrance, which is now a mass of flowers feeding bees and other pollinators. A former farmworker who worked for many years as a groundsman at Aberystwyth University until his retirement last year, he is happy to share his skills. “We couldn’t have achieved half of what we have, without Tom,” says Clare Jackson, Local Conversation Officer at the Hub, which is run by Penparcau Community Forum and includes a café and an outreach programme. “He is so experienced, and he turns up regular as clockwork, whatever the weather. He has an amazing work ethic and a cracking sense of humour that always brightens our day.  You can tell when Tom is in the garden as people keep stopping to talk to him. Just meeting him has been one of the highlights for us. Jon, Tom and I are like the ‘Three Musketeers’ of the Penparcau Planting Project.’’

Clare, who was brand new to gardening, has transformed the site. She and caretaker Jon Evans have also cleared another large area on the other side of the entrance, where they are growing vegetables in pots around a large lawn. Tomatoes, lettuces and herbs have been the main crops this summer, with a few peas and beans, and she has been giving produce away to local people who have been intrigued by the developments, which are clearly visible from the road.

She is full of plans for expanding the project. Thanks to various funding applications she is confident of a greenhouse to extend the food growing season – and for Tom to raise more flowers – and hopes by next year to be serving homegrown food in the Hub’s café. “It’s all going to be chemical-free and no-dig,” says Clare, who has also been inspired by national networks such as Social Farms and Gardens. She also wants to encourage local families, many of whom live in food poverty, to eat well. “Before lockdown we were working on a programme to teach families how to cook from scratch on a budget, and how to use leftovers to make delicious meals.  With the planting project we can do both these things and actually have the families grow the food they are going to cook.” 

Plans are also afoot to start a community composting project which will collect kitchen waste from participating households, to set up a growing area at the Football Club, and to extend existing activities with the local primary school. “Community growing does so much,” says Clare. “It means more control over our food, healthier diets, and more social interaction. People just drop in now because the garden is so welcoming, and it does them good. We have the older generation like Tom, who have gardening skills, and young people wanting to learn. We can start to be more self-reliant, bartering and recycling for instance, and that is so important in the response to climate change.”

The Penparcau Community Forum is part of larger network of food projects in the town, which are all sharing ideas, as well as food and plants. Many of the vegetable plants this year came from a seedling swap that was organized in the spring by Renew Wales supported groups, Aber Food Surplus and Penglais Community Garden, with local residents. This year also saw the start of the Aberystwyth Seed Library which will encourage local residents to save and swap seeds, building up a repertoire of varieties that are adapted to the local area and saving money too. A heritage apple orchard just outside the town is also getting involved.

Aber Food Surplus, which began a few years ago as a student volunteer project to distribute supermarket surplus food and is now a social enterprise with Lottery funding, is a leader in the town. Director Heather McClure has a radical vision of how community food projects can drive social change. “It’s not a simple story of food waste going to poor people,” she explains. “Food waste is just not a reliable way of feeding people, and there’s no dignity in it. But what we can do is use surplus food to engage volunteers in creative projects, such as catering for community meals, which brings people together in a new conversation. Through working with people in this way we get to see where the cracks are in our food system, and we can come up with long term solutions, rather than emergency food.”

Over the summer, Aber Food Surplus used part of a Welsh Government food poverty grant which came through Ceredigion County Council to supply 59 households around Aberystwyth with growing kits, consisting of paper cups, compost, salad and herb seeds and compost. They are keen to partner more closely with the Council and one of their plans is to set up a Food Council for the town, which would engage local residents with food growing, cooking and eating, and give them a voice into local government.

The embryonic Food Council includes Penglais Community Garden, Borth Family Centre (another group supported by Renew Wales), the Council’s Youth Justice team and a farmer who is raising meat and eggs for sale locally. This follows the example of Food Cardiff, a partnership of voluntary organizations, businesses and individuals which has adopted a Food Charter and is coordinating food activities across the city. Local food plans are just one way to tap into the enthusiasm that emerged during lockdown and are a means by which communities can partner with their local authorities to drive change. A recent Renew Wales seminar brought together inspiring examples from around Wales and found strong interest in changing our food system ‘from the ground up’.

Community food projects have tremendous potential to change people’s lives for the better, and also to drive national change. Food unites policy areas such as health, climate change, mental health, education and the economy, not to mention cultural and spiritual concerns.

Penparcau Hub’s Brwydr y Bwgan Brain display, organized with support from Welsh language promoters Cered, won ‘Best in Wales’ and brought a lot of smiles, community engagement and pride in the village. That, and the forthcoming Halloween celebrations, show how gardens can be the setting for drawing in hearts and minds.

Everyone should be able to join in a community garden,” says Tom. “It brings people together and cheers everyone up. It’s great to bring some beauty into people’s lives.”

Jane Powell is a coordinator with Renew Wales, a practitioner led programme which helps communities in Wales reduce their carbon footprint, adapt to the impacts of climate change and live more sustainably. She also writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

Trafodwn: a new way to talk about food and farming

By Jane Powell

One evening in late June, two months into lockdown, 156 people logged on to Zoom to talk about food and farming in Ceredigion. It was no ordinary discussion. After hearing from a range of farmers, community organizers and environmentalists, they had spent time in small groups sharing their personal responses to the crisis that is Covid, Brexit, climate change, globalization and much else. Guided by a facilitator, they listened carefully to each other, looking for common ground and tentatively suggesting solutions.

Ben Lake MP addresses the Ceredigion People’s Assembly on Food and Farming

At the end of the two-hour meeting, when the note-takers had reported back, it was clear that the event had achieved a remarkable level of shared inspiration. There was a strong call for the relocalizing of food, self-determination for communities and support for young people to enter the food and farming sector, among other things. It had demonstrated the hunger that there is for change in the county, and the richness of knowledge and expertise present.

As one retired farmer put it: “It was quite amazing to have such a breadth of participation…to have a platform where parties involved in farming, land management, horticulture, nature reserves all on large and small scales being represented was so very worthwhile.” Another commented that he had no idea so many people cared about farming. For many, it was an emotional experience to find such warmth and compassion between hitherto opposing sectors.

The event itself came out of a somewhat unlikely collaboration between the Cardigan branch of climate protest group Extinction Rebellion (XR) and local Member of Senedd and former agriculture minister Elin Jones, with support from the farming unions and environmental groups. Ben Lake MP also spoke. As Vicky Moller, one of the organizers, said: “Elin Jones’ decision to co-host with the local Extinction Rebellion branch was in the spirit of the event. Everyone feared hostility or ding dong argument. It didn’t happen.”

People’s Assemblies

This was many people’s first experience of a People’s Assembly, one of a series of five that have so far been organized in west and mid Wales since Covid. The first was held in Pembrokeshire in late April, and it came about from work that organizers Vicky Moller and Anna Monro had been doing to support community groups during lockdown. “At our meetings people discussed the future, and it was clear that they did not want to return to the old normal,” says Vicky. “The leading area where they wanted to see change was food and farming, and so we decided to look at that in detail.”

The format of the People’s Assembly is widely used in XR, which is perhaps best known for its high-profile protests in London, Cardiff and other cities last year. “They are a taster of a growing global alternative to our adversarial model of democracy – where rival parties slug it out and we choose between them every few years, often motivated by fear of those we oppose,” says Vicky. “It’s officially known as deliberative democracy, and in Wales we are calling it ‘trafodwn’, which means ‘let’s discuss’.”

Central to all Assemblies is the work of the facilitators, who are trained in the three pillars of the method: radical inclusion (hearing all voices), active listening (dropping your own agenda to give your full attention to the speaker); and trusting the process (allowing the wisdom of the hive to generate new thinking).

“Thankfully, there is a growing number of trained facilitators available,” says Angie Polkey, one of the organizers of the Ceredigion event and herself a trainer. “We are all helping to satisfy people’s thirst to have they say, be heard and, most vitally, be part of the change that many of us know is needed for a more sustainable and just world.”

Angie explains how important it is that the Assemblies have an impact. One of the five events stimulated local action groups to form, but as she says, “the significance of the others lies as much in the inspiration they created, which will shape future relationships, as well as the feedback that has been shared with elected representatives and local Council.” It is a fundamental tenet that the participants know why the Assembly has been called and what will happen to the findings, because otherwise “people will feel disillusioned and that their time has been for nothing”.

Deliberative democracy for Wales

The People’s Assemblies described here were citizen-led and unfunded, but the principle is also used when Citizens’ Assemblies are commissioned by governments who want to make difficult ethical decisions with public buy-in, such as the abortion laws in Ireland. They use an approach similar to the recruitment of jurors to ensure that the groups are representative, and they typically run over several days or weeks with professional facilitation. A recent OECD study reviewed about 300 government-commissioned events on five continents, and a good practice guide is also available.

Wales held its first Citizens’ Assembly at Newtown in July 2019, to discuss how citizens could engage with the National Assembly for Wales (now the Senedd), and since then there have been calls for Wales to make more use of them in the recovery from Covid. The ground-breaking Well-being of Future Generations Act already sets out a process whereby public bodies are required to collaborate with the public in creating an ecologically sustainable Wales, but it is not enough on its own, as David Thorpe explains in a recent blog for the One Planet Centre.

He calls for Citizens’ Assemblies to work with the Public Services Boards of every local authority, and for the Boards to be held accountable to them. That would raise awareness of the Act and tap into the energy and expertise of community groups, which has been so much in evidence during the coronavirus pandemic. Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre made a similar point in the Western Mail recently:

“We have a chance to reverse normal political relationships, for the public to be in the driving seat via something like a more expansive citizens’ assembly…If a consensus was reached, we could then hand over our blueprint to the parties and test their genuine appetite for change.”

“Trafodwn is a good term for this newer version of deliberative democracy,” says Vicky. “It is organised from the ground up, with both sides of the divide wanting to meet and sort things out. Something is stirring.”

Watch an interview with Vicky Moller, explaining ‘Trafodwn’ and the Aberystwyth event (12 mins)

For a full account of the five Assemblies, including the main conclusions from the Ceredigion event, click here.

Jane Powell is a volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto and took part in the Ceredigion Assembly. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

The impact of Covid on the Welsh food industry: a view from Castell Howell

By Jane Powell

Castell Howell has come a long way since its beginnings on a Carmarthenshire farm in the 1970s, and is now one of Wales’ biggest independent wholesalers, with depots in Merthyr, Blaenau, Chirk and Avonmouth as well as its headquarters in Cross Hands, Carmarthenshire. But when Covid struck, the foodservice business lost 60% of its business almost overnight. Their main customers are catering outlets such as universities, sports stadia, venues and school kitchens, and is not clear when many of these will start serving food again. The company has had to put 400 staff on furlough and doesn’t see sales returning to normal until 2021 or even 2022.

“It’s been challenging, disastrous,” says Ed Morgan, their Corporate Social Responsibility and Training Manager, “but that is shared by our customers, who are in a precarious position, and our suppliers. We’re not alone.”

The company has had to adapt fast and find new markets.  One step has been to open its wholesale business to the public, using ‘click and collect’ to maintain social distancing, and changing its purchasing to source food in smaller quantities for the retail market. They have also been supplying food banks and free school meals schemes.

A significant boost to their business has come from local authorities looking for ingredients for their emergency food boxes. At first the Welsh Government was supplying these directly, but Ceredigion County Council negotiated a cash payment instead and chose to give their business to Castell Howell as a local supplier. Other councils followed suit.

Ed sees this political decision as a significant step forward. “I’d like to think there’s more of an awareness across local authorities about where food comes from,” he says, referring to the way that staff have been taken away from their regular duties in order to meet the councils’ obligation to feed vulnerable members of society, by packing and distributing the food boxes. “Instead of being involved in transport or town planning, they’ve been hands on with food”. He hopes that food procurement will now receive a cross-departmental focus, reflecting its significance for the local economy and communities.

Public procurement – buying food for care homes, the NHS, school meals and so on – is one of the constants that Castell Howell sees as crucial to its future. “We have a team of three dedicated to this market, but recently they’ve been introduced to different suppliers and different ways of doing things and we’d like to maintain the momentum. And push it upstream of the Welsh supply chain,” he adds, citing the government’s support for the foundational economy, including a public procurement project in Carmarthenshire.

Castell Howell depends of course on a strong supply base. As Ed Morgan lists some of the products they source from Welsh companies – roast chicken, bottled water, desserts – it’s clear we aren’t talking farm to fork, although Daioni’s UHT milk is a recent success story. Even the iconic Welsh cake is made from global ingredients. This may disappoint those who would like to see Wales growing more of its own food, and particularly vegetables, but nevertheless, there are important benefits from having a strong food industry. “There are opportunities to add value here in Wales and that in itself brings economic and social benefits,” he explains. “If big factories close that can rip the heart out of a community.”

He points to the crucial role of Welsh food policy in creating the conditions for food businesses to benefit the people of Wales. Having taken part in the government’s consultation on sustainable brand values, he thinks that companies should be encouraged to do better. “I do feel environmental impacts need to be pretty much at the top of the list,” he says, suggesting that businesses might be incentivized to measure their carbon footprints and say how they intend to reduce them, and be audited on their green credentials. Good employee care and social benefits to local communities are also important, he thinks.

The government can do much to help food businesses by supporting public procurement, and this is one way that environmental criteria can be imposed. But there is a balance to be struck. “If it’s too stringent, it frightens companies off. They’ll say they’re better off supplying the pub down the road, or Tesco’s or Morrisons.” This is especially true as long as the margins on public sector food are tight, compared with the tourist trade. Understanding the environmental impacts of food can also be complicated and controversial, which is another reason for a pragmatic approach.

Another cause of hope that he sees is the Well-being of Future Generations Act, although it “probably needs to accelerate slightly”. Linking as it does economic prosperity with environmental sustainability and community cohesion, as well as promoting collaboration between government, business and communities, the Act is a foundation for a better Wales. Food is an obvious way of joining up all the dots and drawing people into its vision – an opportunity, therefore, for food businesses to build on recent public concern about food supplies.

“When Covid started, food and health care shot to prominence. Now we want to harness this. Where can we take this economic benefit of dealing with Welsh manufacturers and Welsh suppliers?”

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant, writer and volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto. Her website is www.foodsociety.wales

How local authorities and community groups can re-set the food system

By Jane Powell

There has rarely been a more potent time to talk about change in the food system. The pandemic has brought unprecedented interest in local food suppliers and homegrown food and sparked a surge in community activity. But while for some, cooking and gardening have been new-found pleasures, there are others who are unable to go out to the shops or cannot afford to buy food. According to a YouGov poll of Welsh adults in early April conducted by the Food Foundation and shared by Food Sense Wales here, an estimated 13% were not getting enough to eat in lockdown, many of them skipping meals. All this shows the need, and also the potential, for change. Could it be time for food democracy, joining citizen action with government policy?

For many years now, community food projects of all types – gardens, surplus food distribution projects, food banks, healthy eating programmes, food cooperatives and hubs – have been quietly trying out new ways of engaging the public with good food. They may lack influence with national government, but they do have a chance with local authorities, who have statutory roles involving food, such as environmental health, trading standards and the provision of allotments. Councils are close enough to their local communities to develop the personal relationships and practical collaborations that build trust. Crucially, they also work with food businesses, buying ingredients for school meals and other council facilities. Some even own farmland.

The response to Covid-19 has put the spotlight on local food relationships and gives some pointers towards what might come next. In Ceredigion for instance, Council staff are keeping in touch with 2,500 of the county’s most vulnerable people, phoning those considered most at risk weekly and supplying 900 of them with boxes of food. Initially these came from Welsh Government, but Ceredigion led the way in negotiating a cash payment instead, and is using it to buy more locally produced foods from Castell Howell as well as fresh produce from Jones and Davies in Llandysul. They plan to re-double their efforts to support local suppliers when the crisis is over. ‘Much of the pressure for this is coming from local dairy and meat farmers,’ explains Cllr Alun Williams, ‘but it is heartening to see across-the-board consensus about this. We have an opportunity to re-set the food system.’

In Cardiff meanwhile, a Covid-19 Food Response Group was set up early on. It began with emergency food distribution but recently supported Edible Cardiff to distribute nearly 14,000 plants, seeds and growing kits to households in the city (pictured above). Food Cardiff coordinator Pearl Costello describes how important it was to nurture good relationships between the Council and local volunteers. ‘It’s not just going to the Council and saying “can you do this?”, it’s saying “we’re here as a resource”…one of the things I didn’t want it to be is quite top-down, and thankfully it’s not that. It’s about collaborating and channelling resources to where they are needed.’ Food Cardiff have issued a briefing paper for other local authorities based on their experience.

Free school meals are another way that local authorities help families most in need. Some authorities have been issuing supermarket vouchers during lockdown, but in Cardiff cash payments are given so that parents can buy the food they want. In Caerphilly meanwhile, the catering service is working with Castell Howell and other suppliers, as well as a team of volunteers, to supply five frozen meals a week, not just in term time but through the Easter holidays as well. They are also supplying bread and milk.

A great advantage of local government is the flexibility. Responses can be adapted to local conditions and draw on the knowledge that is held in communities, and people can work together in ways that suit them. In Cardiff for instance, the council is part of a formal food network. Food Cardiff is a partnership of over 30 members including public bodies, businesses and charities which since 2013 has been part of the Sustainable Food Places project (formerly Sustainable Food Cities), with a full-time coordinator.

In rural Ceredigion meanwhile, where no such partnership exists yet, a creative network of mutual aid has emerged by other means, with home deliveries of food and medicines by volunteers. New supply chains are springing up: a vegetarian baker in Cardigan has teamed up with a local butcher to get their bread out, pubs are doing meals on wheels, and community growing projects are producing supplies for home vegetable growing.

At the same time, a patchwork of local responses has much to gain from being part of a bigger story, finding common cause and identifying guiding principles that can be pushed upwards into national government. The Well-being of Future Generations Act provides an important opportunity, with its call for a social and economic transformation towards low-carbon prosperity and local resilience. Covid-19 is a foretaste of the deep change that will involve, and food is an obvious rallying point.

Meanwhile, there are some tough challenges to solve. One is the big retailers, who are the main suppliers of our food but conspicuously absent from, say, the Food Cardiff partnership. They do of course contribute to their local communities, especially in supplying surplus food and with cash sponsorship, but it is an unequal relationship which is governed as much by expediency and the edicts of Head Office as by a real care for the needs of a community. Their supply chain logistics do not favour local food production, either.

Another area that is perhaps not properly included in local authority food activity is farming. Some do source catering ingredients from local suppliers, and politicians have called repeatedly for more use of public procurement to regenerate the local economy, while a new project to stimulate the ‘foundational economy’ of which food is a part is due to start in Carmarthenshire soon. But it is not a consistent approach. Pembrokeshire County Council for instance cited ‘severe financial pressures’ as a reason for rejecting an offer from a local group who wanted to set up a community farm. Meanwhile, as Ceredigion County Council considers an application for a controversial intensive poultry unit, it must decide on the basis of planning considerations only. There will be no discussion of the type of farming that would best serve the area.

How can we develop local food democracy, allowing the public to channel their ideas into local and national government and ensuring a food system that reflects what people really care about? There are some exciting initiatives on offer at the moment: People’s Assemblies, the expansion of the Sustainable Food Places project in Wales, the Our Food initiative in Crickhowell, and countless small-scale interactions. This is what the Well-being of Future Generations Act was made for, with its new ways of working between community groups, councils and businesses. As Jane Davidson, one of its architects, says:

‘A food system that looks after future generations will support local communities, create innovative low carbon jobs, tackle climate change, enhance biodiversity, address inequality and proudly celebrate the Wales brand to the world. It can do this through thinking long term, preventatively and by encouraging innovative, collaborative opportunities between public services and food businesses, small and large. COVID has highlighted the risk of not having a food system, so now let’s take the opportunity to build one fit for our age – for Wales, by Wales.’

Now is our moment, and we must seize it.

Image: Food Cardiff. Almost 14,000 plants, seeds and growing kits have been distributed to families in the city, by 70 volunteers across 60 projects.

Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and volunteer coordinator of the Manifesto. She writes at www.foodsociety.wales.

Building democratic food systems following COVID-19

By Ludivine Petetin

Amidst the grimness of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be difficult to see the opportunities arising from it. However, all over the UK and Wales there are pockets of hope and good practice that indicate how food systems could become more resilient. This blog post is based on an open access journal article that I wrote in April 2020 entitled ‘The COVID-19 Crisis: An Opportunity to Integrate Food Democracy into Post-Pandemic Food Systems’.

1. Interconnected food supply chains

The disruption within food systems and the lack of certain foods on the shelves is highlighting the interconnectedness of our food supply chains. Looking outside the UK, some countries have put in place measures to restrict the export of staple foods. They have done this for two main reasons: to guarantee their stability and avoid civil unrest, and to ensure their own food security. However, such export restrictions will have consequences for the world market in terms of food availability and price volatility, and ultimately could lead to international food shortages and a possible worldwide food crisis – affecting the most vulnerable.

Within the UK, disruptions to the ‘just-in-time’ methods of the food supply chain have indicated how closely linked all actors are: the farmer grows cereals, the miller grinds the grain, another company packages the flour, different people again take care of logistics and transport, including delivery drivers, and (often) the supermarket sells the flour – and this is not an exhaustive list. Indeed, flour is a good example of a staple food that is elusive on the food shelves – indicating how intricated but fragile the food supply chain really is.

Under the circumstances, there is a risk of a return to less environmentally friendly practices. Calls to intensify food production in response to shortages could threaten the move towards further sustainable agriculture. However, and more positively, this crisis should be seen as an opportunity to use more sustainable techniques, such as agroecology and agroforestry, and to redesign food systems post-pandemic by building a new model of multilevel food governance based on food democracy.

2. More democratic food systems

In Wales, we have seen how some local farmers, suppliers and shops have been particularly resilient in supplying the local population. In and around Cardiff, butchers like Oriel Jones and Martin Player have modified their businesses to increase their online presence and add home deliveries – indicating the ability to quickly diversify. Meanwhile, fruit and vegetable box schemes, such as the Welsh Food Box Company and Paul’s Organic Vegetables, have responded to the increased local demand. It is to be applauded that the local population can count on its local shops and growers and it is to be hoped that this momentum for local, sustainable and healthy food will remain post lockdown.

My article suggests four characteristics for a ‘food democracy’ model to build upon to increase the reliability, locality and resilience of food systems post-pandemic (combined with longer, sustainable food supply chains). Some of these new approaches are already emerging  during COVID-19, whilst others still require improvement:

  1. True information, genuine choice and alternative products being offered to consumers: this is demonstrated by the increased interest from citizens in where their food comes from (i.e. food provenance) as well as how it was produced, with a shift in consumption pattern towards local fruit and vegetable box schemes, local butchers and bakeries.
  2. Upstream engagement and a bottom-up approach in the decision-making process: this starts with local authorities being more involved in supporting local food production, and feeding into the future agri-food policy still under formulation by Welsh Government. They should act upwards, and Welsh Government should be ready to listen to them.
  3. Good health, food safety, sustainable agriculture and environmental protection, improvement of the rights of farmers and agricultural workers and their opportunities: strengthening and shortening food supply chains, leading to fewer food miles, less packaging and processing; also active participation by the public, for instance in harvesting fruits and vegetables.
  4. Restoration of faith and trust in the food system, its institutions and in farmers: this includes a stronger and fairer role for the farmer; transparent food supply chains with fair dealing; a local population interested in supporting local producers either by buying their products or becoming an agricultural worker; and stronger links between supermarkets and local producers.

3. Multilevel food systems

The COVID-19 crisis shows how food supply chains and agri-food policies functions on many levels, from the local to the international. Political decisions on agri-food made at one level impact on all the others. What is needed is increased coordination between the different levels of governments and governance within Wales and beyond. This should lead to agri-food policies that are joined up and support primary producers and local shops.

The ‘Sustainable Farming and our Land’ document published in 2019 is no longer sufficient to solve the issues faced by the sector post COVID-19. The pandemic makes it clear that agriculture and food policies can no longer be kept apart. They need bringing together, as the new President of the EU Commission is aiming to do with its new Farm to Fork Strategy, part of the European Green Deal. A holistic, forward-looking approach towards agri-food systems built on a multilevel agri-food governance is the way forward for all level of governments – from local authorities, to Welsh Government and beyond.

Dr Ludivine Petetin is a Senior Lecturer in Law at the School of Law and Politics and the Wales Governance Centre of Cardiff University. Her expertise lies in agri-food issues and international trade as well as the challenges that Brexit and COVID-19 pose to these areas.

Food hubs: bringing people together and revaluing food

By Heather McClure, Aber Food Surplus

The idea of creating food hubs appeared in numerous different contexts at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Aberystwyth last year. I hope to share a few thoughts on why I find food hubs an exciting way of working towards a more sustainable food system.

The word ‘hub’ implies bringing people together, and a ‘food hub’ suggests that people come together because of food. Driven by progressive organisations working towards more social and environmentally minded enterprises, food hubs have been gaining popularity in the UK over the last 10 years. This shows that people are inspired to work together, and that there is a desire for change towards a more sustainable food system.

Bringing people together is a central principle of a food hub

But what is a food hub, and what can it do? At the Conference,  people suggested many roles. All were presented as part of a solution and part of an opportunity for different aspects of our food system to flourish and become more sustainable.

Here is a summary of the different type of food hubs I heard being discussed:

  • ‘Producer Hubs’ – Supporting local smaller scale food producers to reach a market.
  • ‘Procurement Hubs’ – A focus on bringing in food to sell in quantity to institutions, offices, schools or hospitals.
  • ‘Redistribution / Food Surplus Hubs’ – there are lots of these popping up around the UK to deal with the environmental issue of supermarket and business food waste
  • ‘Waste Recovery / Value Hubs’ – A similar idea to a food surplus hub, but perhaps more focused on innovation and large-scale waste, to be used for creating a more ‘closed loop’ and circular food system. This could involve a focus on secondary products or by-products.
  • ‘Seed Hubs/ libraries’ – Challenging the ownership of seeds, building a more genetically diverse and resilient local seed base.
  • ‘Skill sharing hubs’ – small scale caterers or producers of manufactured foods can share the infrastructure and kitchen resources to operate self-employed businesses. These spaces can also be used for upskilling people in cooking.

This wide range of issues highlights what people want from our food system. Food hubs can enable more local decision-making powers surrounding food trade, and where our food comes from – an integral aspect of a healthy food system, where citizens have affordable access to food produced in balance with nature.

Furthermore, using these hubs, food does not go through the same valuing / de-valuing processes that it goes through in retail chains or institutional processes. Its worth is informed by people closer to where it is grown and eaten. Perhaps the food hub model of a food system could reflect the truer value of food? Where bringing people together within a transparent food system could showcase the enormous unaccounted value and power of food and food production, and produce a more circular and participatory food system.

The ECO Food Sharing Hub, Aberystwyth

In Aberystwyth, we have had an ECO Food Sharing Hub since March 2019. It is based in a former greengrocer’s shop on a busy shopping street, and was developed jointly by the community and the Aber Food Surplus project. Aber Food Surplus is a food waste redistribution project that started from conversations involving supermarkets, churches, community gardens, bakers, farmers, food banks, students, and charities who could see the community value that sharing food could foster. It was an idea designed in a ‘best fit approach’ to make food ‘waste’ available to the community – where it was ultimately intended to be all along – not in landfill bins!  

A shop window for doing things differently, on a busy street

Aber Food Surplus was founded in 2016, and the project continually highlights a strong desire for change in both our food system and our local area. There is a core team of three staff members and 35 volunteers that collect and redistribute the surplus food. This means the hub is always bustling. There is a kitchen where surplus food can be cooked up for community events, and a community fridge where food surplus is shared. The hub space aims to support knowledge sharing, entrepreneurialism, sustainability, and conversations about our food system. It also hosts the Aber Food Coop, which provides a weekly box of fresh produce to its members.

The ECO Food Sharing Hub is stimulating conversations about what else can be achieved by working together, and how else we can become closer to our food and food producers – a fundamental part of the community here in rural Wales. Through the conversations at our food hub we are evolving every day to become a town that has more knowledge and control over its food supply.

Food hubs have the potential to make change! If you want to be part of this conversation please get in touch. And if you are a grower or producer local to Aberystwyth looking to shorten your food supply chain please get in touch– our Aber Food Coop would be keen to meet you, visit your farm, advertise you, and sell your produce on a weekly basis!

Heather McClure is a director of Aber Food Surplus. She is passionate about the role of food in connecting us to nature, and hopes to see Aberystwyth growing more food and become a wonderful example of a zero food waste town in the near future. This year she is particularly excited to see how aubergines grow.