Our fragile food system

Tony Little has been involved in sustainable food and farming for nearly 20 years and was a key member of staff at Organic Centre Wales for 14 of those. He is actively involved in the Organic Growers Alliance and the Community Supported Agriculture Network UK, and recently set up the Sustainable Farming Consultancy.Tony Little

I spend a lot of time thinking about the agriculture in Wales, and I spend a lot of time listening to Welsh Government and other commentators on its future. One word crops up again and again and that word is resilience. And rightly so, for our food and farming system is fragile in the extreme.

Consider this. Practically all Welsh agriculture is based on just three products; lamb, beef and milk, and we export nearly all of it. Any ‘shocks’ to any one of these  – price volatility, collapse of export markets, animal health crises, fluctuations in exchange rates, regulation changes, exit from the EU – have disproportionately larger impacts on Wales compared to other countries with a wider production base. Of course many of these things are not independent of one another, so they can and do happen all at the same time to more than one sector.

In case anyone thinks I’m having go a livestock producers, I’m not. They are vital for nourishing the nation, cycling nutrients on the farm, habitat management, biodiversity and a great deal more. However, if we want a more resilient system, basing it on a very small number of products, whose fortunes are dictated by factors by and large outside our sphere of influence, is not the way I would go about it.

Diversifying the production base by strengthening arable and horticultural production, has to be the way to go, and there is massive potential to do so in Wales. There are over 4,000 ha of Grade 1 and 2 land in Wales, over 95% of which is currently under grass, and many more thousands of hectares of Grade 3 land that could grow crops, albeit in more challenging conditions. We grew crops in these areas in the past, and there is no technical reason why we could not again.

I don’t pretend that it’s easy – I’m in the process of introducing horticulture to an upland sheep system, so I know! Access to machinery, lack of skills and knowledge after a generation of specialised livestock production, the relatively high risk associated of horticultural enterprises and other factors conspire to make to it all rather challenging.

But it is absolutely necessary. No one really thinks the status quo is satisfactory. Over the 14 years I have been working in Wales I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of farmers I’ve spoken to who think that specialised beef and sheep production is a sound foundation for a profitable, and therefore resilient, business, and the annual farm income figures from the Farm Business Survey at IBERS tend to bear me out on this.

If our farming and food businesses are going to live, thrive and survive into the future – and our communities with them – we have to make fundamental changes. We’d be well advised to start now, before the wheels really come off.

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Harvest time is a time for celebration

By Awel Medi Morris, Assistant Communications Manager at NFU Cymru

This time of year is particularly poignant for farmers since it’s harvest time but we are cognisant of the fact that farmers need to look beyond the farm gate and that the Welsh food sector is not just a growing opportunity, forgive the pun, for primary producers but for the Welsh economy as a whole.Back Welsh farming

Welsh food and farming are a cornerstone of the Welsh economy – delivering £5.8billion and the Welsh Government has set itself, and the agricultural industry, a target to see a growth in the food and farming sector of 30% in terms of turnover to £6.7billion and a 10% growth in Gross Value Added to £1.4billion, by 2020. Whilst it is encouraging to see this recognition given to the food and drink industry the agriculture sector currently finds itself  in a state of deepening crisis, with lamb producers and dairy farmers in particular facing severe price pressures.

Welsh farmers work hard to deliver high quality, tasty, fresh and affordable food to World-leading standards, they are also ready and willing to meet the challenge of feeding our growing population. But to help them through these tough times they are calling for the continued support of the consumers to secure a positive future for the farming industry and to help harness the support of the public NFU Cymru recently launched a new campaign #BackWelshFarming.

The campaign started off with NFU Cymru taking a ‘taste’ of the countryside to Wales’ capital city in August, handing out Welsh produce to showcase the quality and versatility of Welsh produce first hand to consumers and to help explain to shoppers why it’s more important than ever to #backWelshfarming.

The unit has since travelled the length and breadth of Wales with farmers on hand to explain to the public why the farming industry is currently struggling and how they can help.

As shoppers and consumers, we can all make an effort to choose quality Welsh and indeed British food by buying directly from farms and farmshops, by choosing foods that are in season, by carefully reading labels for product origin and looking out for the Welsh Dragon on products and/or the Red Tractor logo. When out shopping consumers should also look out for the three ‘Ls’

  • Logos – indicating quality standards and origin of ingredients
  • Labels – indicate where products are from and how they are made
  • Location – point of sale locations like shops or supermarkets should be placing Welsh products in high-visibility areas.

We’re keen to harness Welsh consumers’ powerful voice so we can use it when it comes to getting retailers, restaurants and government in Wales to back the Welsh farming industry.

Wales is home to a very diverse range of high quality produce, that we, as farmers and food producers, are rightly proud of. There is tremendous potential to grow the market for what we produce in Wales, both within the UK and further afield, by playing to our strengths, our expertise and knowledge and our climate.