The first Wales Real Food and Farming Conference, held on 11-12 November in Aberystwyth, was an event that had been waiting to happen for some time. The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), which inspired the WRFFC, has always had a Welsh contingent, meeting over drinks in the pub and finding inspiration for the year ahead. The 2019 ORFC included a session on Welsh food and farming, and from there it was a short step to announcing our own event.
Pulled together by a team of people from various organisations engaged in food, farming and the environment, it readily attracted sponsorship, with the conference selling out weeks ahead. It filled a vacuum, bringing food and farming together in one room, and relating them to each other and to wider topics such as health, poverty and the environment. Some 220 delegates, including farmers, growers, academics, businesses, campaigners and civil servants, filled the venue.
Wales has a special opportunity to set a new course for its food. Since devolution in the late 1990s, the Welsh Government has had control of agriculture, health, environment and education, amongst other areas, and it has also brought in forward-looking legislation such as the Well-being of Future Generations Act and One Planet Development. The size of Wales – a familiar geographical unit in itself – means that it is big enough for variety and economies of scale, but small enough to allow personal ties to build trust. It has ancient traditions of landscape and community that persist today, and it has long attracted incomers with energy and ideas.
It was fitting that Colin Tudge, one of the founders of the Oxford event, opened the proceedings together with Gerald Miles, an organic farmer, member of the Landworkers’ Alliance Cymru and a long-standing champion of Community Support Agriculture (CSA). Together they set the scene for discussions that would start to bring the different strands of food and farming into alignment, with sessions covering such topics as the impact of Brexit, climate change, increasing horticulture across the country, mental health, nutrition, farming traditions and food safety.
The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act provides a framework for drawing government, businesses and the public together to create a better Wales, and the relationship between this and the growing food movement was the subject of one session. Dr Jane Davidson, who as former Environment Minister was the original architect of the Act and also inspired the Wales Food Manifesto, called for concerted action to put healthy local food on the nation’s plates, citing recent government funding for food procurement in Carmarthenshire as part of the ‘foundational economy’, while Sue Pritchard of the RSA’s Food and Farming Commission, herself a Welsh farmer, spoke about the recent report Our Future in the Land. This includes ideas such as a ‘beetroot bond’ which would be a monthly share for each adult and child to spend on fresh, locally produced food. These would also allow people to influence local food production by their choices. A Welsh version of the RSA report is being prepared.
The Welsh food system needs some work. Farming produces mainly red meat, much of it for export, while the public health sector recommends that we eat more fruit and vegetables. Dr Amber Wheeler shared her finding that a mere 0.1% of land in Wales is under horticulture, and that for everyone to get their five-a-day, that figure should be 2%. There are plenty of reasons why this is difficult, including a lack of skills and poor infrastructure in horticulture production. Patrick Holden meanwhile defended red meat consumption in Wales against the growing orthodoxy of a plant-based diet, pointing out the role of ruminants in the fertility-building phase of a crop rotation, and standing for the principle of eating what the land provides.
Localising the food system was another theme, and the opening speaker on the second day was Rudolf Bühler, founder and chairman of the Schwäbisch Hall Farmers Association, with an inspiring story from Germany. Beginning in 1988 with just eight farmers, the Association has over 1400 farmers – 480 of them organic – supplying restaurants, catering companies and the public sector. They have built meat processing facilities, food halls and shops, and even turned the local castle into a sustainability centre and hotel. Significantly, the Association formed in an area that already had a strong food culture, and concerns about the future of a local rare breed of pig were a focus for the initial activity. EU grants subsequently helped them to scale the idea up.
Concerns about the future of farming, even with the threat of no-deal Brexit receding, were still strong. The Welsh Government’s latest consultation on support for farming, Sustainable Farming and Our Land, is now closed, but it is clear that payments will in future be strongly linked to the environmental benefits that farmers are delivering. A panel comprised entirely of women, put forward their views on farming for nature, and sessions on carbon sequestration and water purity covered other public goods.
The Welsh language is strongly linked with farming, which helps to maintain the rural communities that are one of its strongholds. Two sessions were held mainly in Welsh, with simultaneous translation, and the language was also heard through the conference, in plenary talks and conversations between sessions.
Throughout the event, a graffiti wall gathered people’s comments, and the final session was a ‘people’s assembly’ at which the remaining delegates crystallized their thoughts into a series of suggestions for future action. These showed a strong appetite for more joining up of people and ideas, and especially the strengthening of local food systems. This is an area where real action is possible, and there was talk of food hubs, tree planting, composting and a plea to “make the food system more human again”.
Wales lacks an equivalent to Nourish Scotland, whose director Pete Ritchie shared his experience of building a food movement in a devolved nation. It’s important, he said, to include everyone, because otherwise when you talk to government, “you find there is nobody standing behind you”. There was a palpable sense of a food movement in the hall as he spoke, but we have a way to go before that is a political reality. There are many more voices to include, and next year’s conference is already in the works.
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