Beneath the anxiety and upheaval that the prospect of Brexit has brought to Wales, threatening as it does to cut off export markets for farmers, change the face of support for rural development and weaken our sovereignty if power passes back to London, runs a current of hope. As long-term assumptions about food, farming and the environment are shaken, so opportunities arise for fresh thinking.
One thing we need to face is food poverty, which is as much a problem in Wales as anywhere else in the UK, as Pat Caplan has pointed out in a recent blog for the Wales Food Manifesto. Even in Pembrokeshire, home to one of the strongest food cultures in Wales, rural poverty bites hard and many are reliant on food banks and community fridges. Malnutrition, diabetes and obesity are rife in other less well off communities in Wales, too. So how could this change?
In our recent paper for the Food Research Collaboration at City University, Corinne Castle and I argue that the disruption of Brexit is also an opportunity for a new view of the Welsh food system, one which draws all aspects of food together – farming, food culture, social justice, environment, public health and the economy – and puts human and environmental well-being at the centre of food policy. We can see several reasons for optimism, and we think that now is the time for a step change.
One important factor is the forward-thinking legislation that we have in Wales. The Well-being of Future Generations Act, in particular, requires public bodies to consider the long-term consequences of their decisions, and to draw up local well-being plans. These are administered by Public Services Boards located in each local authority, and although they are still finding their feet, they have an obvious role in developing local food policy. Ensuring that everyone has enough to eat is a foundation of well-being that nobody can ignore for long.
The Act also requires government to collaborate with businesses and community groups, one of five ‘new ways of working’ that are intended to bring about a new ethos of government, one which recognizes that we are all in this together. Combined with the Environment Act, which requires Natural Resources Wales to consult locally on the environmental matters, it suggests new possibilities for place-based working that could release fresh energy and ideas, unlocking the latent energies of grassroots action.
Another reason for optimism is the vigour and diversity of new initiatives that are springing up on farms and in communities around the country. Many imaginative projects are drawing on a combination of Welsh tradition and international examples to come up with new models of food production and supply. These range from agroforestry and a grain revival to Community Supported Agriculture, horticulture, micro-dairies and community gardens. There are also place-based projects, notably Food Cardiff.
Some of these initiatives have a bearing on food poverty, such as the Food and Fun project which provides free meals and other activities during the school holidays in areas of social deprivation, pioneered by Food Cardiff. There are also several projects redistributing supermarket surplus food to charities, or making it available through community fridges. Other groups such as Aber Food Surplus in Aberystwyth are using surplus food to run Pay as You Feel community meals for the public. These allow people to eat for free if they need to, while collecting donations to support local projects. Community gardens similarly provide free food to their volunteers.
The hope now is that by joining the energy of rural agroecology initiatives with urban social justice projects, using food as a link between the two, we can start a movement to push our food system in a new direction. We all need to respond to the climate change emergency and put the economy in service to human happiness, not the other way around. With the Wales Food Manifesto we are calling for a national civil society network for food, one that will draw people together on the basis of shared values and develop a vision for radical change.
There is plenty that government could do to support this: make more use of public procurement to support farmers to grow more food for local markets, use farming support payments to invest in food culture and environmentally-friendly farming, support regional self-direction, and broaden its food and drink policy to include social considerations, not just export markets.
It’s time for a new conversation about food.
Jane Powell is a freelance education consultant and writer based near Aberystwyth. She worked at Organic Centre Wales from 2000 to 2015 and has been the Wales coordinator for LEAF Education (formerly FACE) since 2006. She volunteers with the Food Manifesto and with community food projects in Aberystwyth.
Please download our briefing, Brexit and Wales: A fresh approach to food and farming?