Rethinking food in Wales: linking food production and public health

Submission to the Assembly’s Rethinking food in Wales consultation, from Amber Wheeler,  University of South Wales and Peas Please Steering Committee

There is much good food work being done across Wales in terms of production, manufacturing, processing, brands, food poverty alleviation, community growing, food sustainability and more with many enthusiastic and successful stakeholders. However, there is more that can be done to enhance the food and drink sector, and particularly the food we eat, by adopting a more collaborative approach and adding to that work.

For many years I have been conducting doctoral research around a vision for a sustainable food system in Wales that is linked to fulfilling the health requirements of the nation. The particular focus of my research has been fruit and vegetables but I have learnt a lot, through extensive consultation and engagement, that can be applied across the food sector. I have found there is a lack of overall vision, lack of a plan and lack of an organisation and network to deliver a food secure and sustainable food system in Wales. Some key points : –

  1. It is clear from my research and the research of others, see particularly http://foodfoundation.org.uk/publication/force-fed/, that the food system, as it stands, is not enabling the population to eat as healthily as it should.
  2. Historically the approach has been to try and drive food system change through focussing mainly on the consumer, but this narrow focus has not been enough to drive change : –AW graphic 1
  3. What might be needed is a new systemic approach where food sustainability and public health issues are worked on by every aspect of the food system : –AW graphic 2
  4. This model needs exploring further in Wales. Through participatory doctoral research I became involved with the Food Foundation, Nourish Scotland, WWF-UK and Food Cardiff in organising national initiative called Peas Please to increase vegetable availability and increase consumption through supply chain collaboration. As a result of Peas Please, major stakeholders in the supply chain will be pledging to increase the availability of veg in the UK at summits held in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff on October 24th 2017. This initiative represents a test bed of a systemic approach to public health and sustainable food and yet it is being delivered in Wales by myself as a volunteer, and by Food Cardiff who are coming up against the limits of their capacity to deliver Wales wide work. Wales is missing a national food organisation.

To achieve a sustainable and secure food system in Wales it is clear that we need the following : –

  1. A Food Needs Assessment

We need to model the secure and sustainable food needs of the Welsh population. In relation to fruit and vegetables my research remains the only research to date, showing that there is a large deficit in terms of production and availability compared to public health requirements of the population. Fish and wholegrain needs would be an easy next step to analyse. Once secure and sustainable food needs have been established national aims can be set and actions generated.

  1. A Plan

We need a new ‘Sustainable Food For and From Wales Action Plan’ based on a Food Needs Assessment and the current Food and Drink Action Plan.

  1. An Organisation

Progress does not happen without a driving force. Scotland has Nourish Scotland http://www.nourishscotland.org/ and England has the Food Foundation http://foodfoundation.org.uk/ who are pushing forward these agendas with small, flexible teams. Wales does not have a national organisation, though Food Cardiff has been increasingly helping in this capacity. We need a national organisation, funded from central resources, as Nourish Scotland, which drives this agenda in tandem to the other nations.

  1. A Network

A national organisation will need to be backed up by a Wales Food Network where good practice can be shared and spread across the nation in an efficient way.

Without these steps progress is likely to be slow and disjointed. With these steps Wales has a really good chance of becoming a leading light in sustainable food and helping to ensure Wales has a thriving food sector as well as a healthy eating nation.

Amber Wheeler is working on a PhD at the University of South Wales and is on the steering committee of Peas Please. She is based in Pembrokeshire.

 

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A new economic framework

By Dr John Clements

The contemporary economic system has broken the vital relationship between Land, Food and People. There is a crucial need to renew the system that has produced this breakdown. Brexit represents a propitious historical moment to respond decisively to a range of critical issues relating to the disproportionate empowerment of corporations, landowners and shareholders—an empowerment that has come at the cost of our national health, the democratic concerns of systemic stakeholders and the legitimate expectations of land-workers, in particular.

The figure below models and critiques the current economic system, using three overlapping circles, representing Land, Food, People and the crucial overlaps between them, of production, consumption and participation.

land-food-people

Land

The vast majority of UK land is owned by a tiny minority of the UK population. Wealthy landowners include: aristocratic families, the Anglican Church, the military, the government, utility companies and financial institutions. As a result, most agricultural land forms part of large estates, inevitably effecting how it is managed. Just 2% is built upon. Put simply, land ownership is undemocratic because the general population, even rural dwellers (and particularly land workers) have practically zero influence over how UK land is utilised—such as how to appropriately respond to the housing crisis.

People

The UK population is increasingly urbanised, so that even those who live outside of towns are increasingly resourced by urban services (surgeries, hospitals, supermarkets, shops etc). It is also increasingly diseased: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer etc. Our national health system is pharmaceutical-centric, yet drugs are generally unsuited to curing chronic disease, root causes of which lie in diet, lifestyle and environmental factors, leading to lifelong prescriptions: good for pharmaceutical corporations, bad for patients.

Food

The basic problem with the food we eat is nutritional. Many people, including (actually, particularly) obese people, are undernourished. Consuming a surplus of calories, yet lacking an adequate intake of healthy nutrients. Furthermore, there is endemic, damaging confusion about the pros and cons of carbohydrate and fat. “Time-poverty” has led to a perceived need for convenience, leading to the availability, promotion and use of processed foods and subsequent deterioration in the social value of food and food preparation as an integral element of family life.

Consumption

The relationship between food and people is dominated by supermarkets. Supermarkets, like all corporations, are driven by the need to create shareholder profits. When corporations calculate their profits, they typically ignore large, un-costed ecological consequences. Despite ubiquitous TV programming, fresh food preparation is an increasingly lost art in many homes, as well as hospitals, care-homes and schools.

Production

Currently, food production is based largely on an intensive, industrialised model, which relies upon exploiting ecological resources, in unsustainable ways, such as those that lead to soil nutrient erosion, widespread use of chemical pesticides, livestock welfare issues, flora, fauna diversity loss, ecological destruction, erosion, flooding etc. These economic patterns have also contributed to a general loss of social, economic, cultural diversity in rural regions.

Participation

The link between land and people is essentially broken: a whole generation of young people lack understanding about food origins, whilst urbanised populations associate “countryside” primarily with recreational activities and believe that countryside issues should be left to farmers to resolve. As allotments have disappeared, the growing of vegetables—once a national pastime—is now considered “quaint” and irrelevant, despite our nationally importing about 40% of our food, raising important issues of “food sovereignty”.

Is systemic renewal possible?

There are reasons to be hopeful. Fresh, innovative perspectives are being informed by emerging research, highlighting formerly-overlooked issues. Useful examples include: Common Wealth, by Martin Large1, Blessed Unrest, by Paul Hawken2 and Doughnut Economics, by Kate Raworth. 3

The figure below models some primary elements that need to be addressed if the current economic system is to be renewed in favour of creating one more appropriately weighted towards the holistic needs of the general population, systemic stakeholders (everyone holding a stake in any particular system) and land-workers, in particular.

land-food-people-2

Production

By focussing economic rewards on marginal, small and family farms, it becomes possible to move steadily towards environmentally-sustainable means of production, such as organic, biodynamic and permaculture. Local food production and distribution can go hand-in-hand with allowing more people to live on the land—as envisaged by Wales’ innovative—but currently under-utilised—One Planet Policy.

Consumption

A renaissance in freshly prepared, local, organic food, based around authentic nutritional knowledge and use of local food produce, will allow the relationship between food and people to be restored. Nutritious, (chemical) pesticide-free and organic food will contribute to better health amongst populations that partake—of special relevance to schools, care-homes and hospitals.

Participation

As people become increasingly ecologically aware, the possibility exists to integrate rural and urban living more holistically than before. Innovative expression such as Food Assemblies—now over 900 existing around Europe—such as the one I am involved in pioneering in Llanelli, and Community Supported Agriculture schemes, such as Banc Organics, established in the marginal land of the Gwendraeth Valley, herald unique opportunities for participation, including volunteering, education and potentially significantly higher employment rates per hectare, compared to intensive farming.

Summary

In comparing two economic models, I’ve highlighted a series of critical issues relating to the contemporary system in relation to land, food and people.

  • The first model illustrates how the current system “distributes” wealth to shareholders and landowners. It is my contention that the current state of the UK economy and health of the population-at-large confirms that in this scenario, there are few winners and many losers.
  • The second model illustrates the potential for reimagining and “redistributing” economic empowerment to stakeholders and land-workers. A scenario, I would contend, with the potential to create many winners, few losers. Getting there will require not only innovative thinking—thankfully, there is much of it about—but more importantly, a great deal of determined, pioneering action, coupled with political liberation from the shackles of the contemporary system—if there is to be any hope of significant change.
  1. Common Wealth—For a free, equal, mutual and sustainable society, 2010, Hawthorn Press, Stroud.
  2. Blessed Unrest—How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, 2007, Penguin Group, New York.
  3. Doughnut Economics—Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, 2017, Random House, London.

John Clements is based in Llanelli and writes at https://jbclements.wordpress.com

 

A living room at the heart of a Valleys community

By Pamela Mason

All our living rooms say something about us and what’s important to us. And a new living room, Yr Ystafell Fyw in the Rhymney Valley in South Wales, very much reflects the values of the community that established it. When you walk through the front door into this very comfortable cafe, you cannot help but notice the ease of access (no steps), the bowl of water for dogs, the open kitchen and serving area, how light it is, the soft chairs and sofas, and the pictures on the wall, many locally commissioned.

An initiative of the Church in Wales Parish of Bedwellty and New Tredegar, Yr Ystafell Fyw is a living room created to improve health and well-being in its communities. As a café, food is at the heart of its work. All of this in a place where community is still very much alive but, with its industry now largely gone, one that thrives less than it once did. It’s a community that runs a food bank but knows that’s an inadequate response to the problems of poverty that cause the fridge to become bare. In running the food bank, the community became more aware of what it already knew, that people needed more than a food parcel. Having worked in this food bank on one busy morning, I still remember how as the range of breakfast cereals began to reduce, I was the one who decided what people would take home to eat. It was uncomfortable. No one should have control of what another household gets to eat.

Leah at Ystafell Fyw

Revd Leah Philbrick serves tea at Yr Ystafell Fyw

Food has a very different place in the Living Room, although many of the people who visit have the same problems as those visiting the food bank. Revd Leah Philbrick, who with Revd Dr Rosie Dymond is a Director of The Living Room, emphasises that food here is about giving hospitality and raising the ‘feel good’ factor of the visitors. “We aspire to serve the best coffee in the Rhymney Valley,” she adds. Not for its own sake but to help people feel good about themselves. This is no small aim in area where unemployment remains high. Some of the crockery, like a 1930s dinner plate from New Tredegar, speaks of the valley’s history and the coffee is served in china cups and saucers. The cake is home-made, as much of the food as possible is locally sourced, and it’s all presented in the form of a lovely treat, yet in responsibly small portions so that no one need overeat the delicious cake.

Food and drink is not the only or even main  aim of the Living Room. It’s about providing a space where people can share those problems that the food bank cannot alleviate and it’s a space for prayer and meditation. There is a kitchen table around which people gather to enjoy food and listen to each another. A large wooden clock in one corner strikes every quarter of an hour as a reminder of the importance of a time to be silent, while a small red desk in another corner reminds of the importance of meeting face to face rather than just on social media.

Like the community pharmacy which was once located in the space occupied by the Living Room, Yr Ystafell Fyw is about health and well-being in the community. But unlike the pharmacy, now sited a few hundred yards away adjacent to a doctor’s surgery, The Living Room is not a about providing a public service, but rather a space for the community run by the community. And as a Community Interest Company (CIC), the Living Room is a social enterprise that will use its profits and assets for the public good. What is interesting, though, is that both the pharmacy and the surgery are beginning to refer people to the Living Room for that essential prescription of “Time to Listen and Space to Share”.

Pamela Mason is the author, with Tim Lang, of Sustainable Diets and is active in food projects in Monmouthshire.

 

What farmers really care about

By the Food Values team

Farmers occupy a very special place in the food system. As the people who grow crops and raise animals, generating most of the raw materials for our food supply chains, they are at the point where different interests come together and so often find themselves the focus of controversy. Should we eat less meat to save the climate, or are sheep and cows the best way to use the grass that grows in Wales? Should we do more to preserve biodiversity or have we gone too far in that direction? How far should we support food production with public money? These important debates can all too often become polarized and focus on what divides us, rather than what brings us together. So we made a video…

We wanted to see how an exploration of shared values could create connection across some of the apparent divides in the food system, and so the Food Values project headed to the Royal Welsh Show this summer to talk to farmers and land managers and start a conversation. It’s easy for discussions about farming to get side-tracked into complaints about the system – the frustrations of dealing with bureaucracy, the powerlessness of the producer in the face of market forces, public indifference to where their food comes from – but we wanted to get beyond those concerns.

We wanted to explore instead the core values that farmers bring to their work, so we engaged them in conversation about their lives and let them speak for themselves. The half-dozen people that we spoke to on a sweltering afternoon amid the crowds of the Royal Welsh were hardly a big enough sample to draw firm conclusions but they did represent a cross-section of farming – young and old, Welsh and incomer, full time and part time, male and female – and a few themes emerged which resonated with wider research we have conducted.

Perhaps the main message was how they saw themselves as producers of food. They spoke of the contribution that they are able to make to rural communities, with whom they are in a “symbiotic relationship”, not just by supplying food but also supporting small businesses and craftspeople, and generally maintaining the fabric of the countryside. They took a pride in their skills and mentioned the satisfaction that came from managing resources well, reducing external inputs and employing local people. There are fewer people working the countryside than there were, and there has been a cultural impoverishment as a result, but farmers know that food production will always be important and so they are ready to look to the future and adapt.

Another theme was the sense they had of obligation towards the land that had come into their care.  “We try not to mess it up for the next generation,” as one of them put it, a way of thinking that naturally encompasses an ethos of conservation and care for wildlife, and comes with a sense of history and a familiarity with the pendulum swings of agricultural policy. There was pride too in educating urban people about food production and the countryside, through schemes such as Open Farm Sunday.

What happens next? We made this video not to be the final word on what farmers care about, but to start a discussion which might lead to deeper understanding of what it is to work the land. We hope it will encourage other farmers to reflect on what really matters to them, and that this might start a wider conversation which will lead to constructive change. Brexit brings with it an opportunity to re-think our food system from the bottom up, and it’s important that everyone’s voice is heard.

You can find out more  about Food Values on foodvaluesblog.wordpress.com.

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.