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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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.