Elin Jones, Minister for Rural Affairs,
Food in the City conference
24 May 2010
That the Institute of Welsh Affairs and the Regeneration Institute have decided to run a conference on Food today demonstrates just how important it has become to public policy and civil life in Wales.
As Minister for Rural Affairs, I’m pleased to have responsibility for leading on this issue across the Cabinet and this is a central part of my work.
Today, I want to stress what I believe is my role as Minister. For me, it’s two things. Firstly, it’s to set a clear direction by Welsh Government on Food Policy. Secondly it’s to use public funds and legislation to create a framework so that we can all achieve a positive food system.
I will share with you my vision and what I’m doing through government. I also want to congratulate you on what you are achieving through your businesses and organizations – I’ve seen and heard of such good work that happens in communities throughout Wales. I also want to challenge you to play your full part as we plan for the future.
With public finances shrinking, this is ever more important.
Unlike the new UK Prime Minister, I do not believe we should be thinking in terms of a ‘big society’ versus the state. I believe that if we are to achieve the society we all want, we need strong government, strong industries and a strong civil society. Each must play their distinctive part.
Food is too important a product to be left just to the marketplace. The resilience of our food supply chain must always be scrutinised for its ability to withstand climate changes and geo-political changes. Remember the Fuel Duty Blockade in 2000, not only were our ambulances in danger of not being able to run, but our food shelves were within hours of being completely empty.
Brinle Williams holding out for an extra 24 hours would have exposed the vulnerability of our food supply chain.
I visited Cuba with some Plaid Cymru colleagues in 2008. Feeding your people without oil is the lesson learnt there. And as an oil importer we should never think that we are totally immune from such a possibility here. I’ll not forget passing a very large Tractor showroom in Havana – completely empty of tractors. I’ll not forget for a long time either sitting in a meeting with Communist Party officials and asking a – what I thought was a straightforward, simple question – on adjusting to agriculture without tractors – and getting an answer that lasted a full hour. That is Cuba. If ever you go there, and you meet Party officials, never ask a question about tractors, or never ask a question. However, building the resilience of food production has become important to me, in terms of agricultural mass food production and in community and urban food production.
I know everybody here today will be aware that there are now major new opportunities, as well as challenges, for our food system.
I’m sure you don’t need me to underline these to you, but suffice to say, whether it’s about our health and well-being or climate change, our economy or our biodiversity, our local communities or our international role, food is now very much at the heart of the matter.
These are big issues that present real challenges but also opportunities of which we must be prepared to take advantage. They demand a new approach. That’s why I’ve asked my officials to work with partners to develop a new Food Strategy.
I’m sure some of you will groan at government’s response being yet another strategy. I’m well aware that government strategies can drain people of time and energy only to result in a wishy washy vision that promises everything then hopes for the best. I want to make sure this isn’t the case with this Food strategy, or the other work we’re doing underneath on Local Sourcing, Community Growing and Horticulture.
These issues are too important and it is vital that the Welsh Government plays a strong role in providing clear leadership and a framework that will enable all of us to take those opportunities and meet those challenges going into the future.
The new Food strategy for Wales is being developed in partnership. In saying this, I’m conscious that partnership has just as bad a reputation as ‘strategy’ and the two words together are probably enough to make sure most of you switch off entirely. They make this Minister switch off.
It’s true that poor partnership working has led to fuzzy thinking and confusion over responsibilities. But again, I want to set out why, if we do want to achieve a better food system, collaboration is vital.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you here today who have given your time and energy in developing this strategy and the related action plans.
I’d especially like to thank the Food and Drink Advisory Partnership, Dr Haydn Edwards its Chair and BRASS, in Cardiff University, for facilitating the development of the Strategy.
Successful partnerships must start with a clear understanding of the distinct roles of each partner; what each wants to get out of the process and what they can put in.
I see my role as Minister as providing Leadership; leadership on food within the Cabinet, and, listening carefully to the different voices, leadership for the wider food sector in Wales. It’s also my job to ensure that the public money within my department is spent wisely and to best effect. That is, stepping in where neither the market nor other social players are able to deliver a on their own.
It’s also to make sure that the relevant legislation and regulations are effective – cutting down on red tape to enable industry to flourish whilst protecting the wider public good.
I hope leadership and direction will be reflected in the new Food Strategy. This will be about looking at the whole of the food system – from growing to eating and all the stages in between. It’ll be about food for Wales as well as food from Wales. It will also set out four key principles that need to underpin our food system in Wales. These are Sustainability, Resilience, Competitiveness and Profitability.
I’m pleased that the IWA’s conference flyer describes the new Strategy as ‘radical’. I hope it will live up its reputation when it’s published for consultation later this summer. Sitting underneath this broad vision for food, we have already developed a number of action plans and begun to target government resources to make this a reality.
One of my main aspirations, I know shared by many of you here today, is to get more people eating fresh, local produce. But that isn’t as simple as it seems. Firstly, we can’t eat it if we don’t grow it.
At my first NFU conference when I became Minister, I challenged the audience by saying that our schoolchildren can not live on lamb alone. I lived to tell the tale, and the NFU and others realize the need to diversify the food produced from the land of Wales. I made that comment in particular because of the demands on the public sector to procure more Welsh food. However, the public sector – our schools and hospitals – need a variety of food, not just red meat and dairy. Due to headage payments for sheep and cattle, our agriculture has become dominated by lamb and beef production. Those subsidies have stopped and the incentive to just keep sheep is no longer in the public subsidy system. That’s not to say that there are many parts of Wales that will always only suit red meat production, but there is other more low-lying land that is better used for other food production ( and did so in the past) and also then will not compete with lamb and beef farmers.
At the moment, therefore, we simply don’t produce the diversity of food needed for a healthy diet. If we want to eat local, we need to grow more vegetables. That’s why I’ve launched an action plan to strengthen the horticultural sector in Wales. It’s also why I’ve changed the rules for accessing agricultural subsidies so, for the first time, they do not disincentivise the horticultural sector.
Sometimes we do produce the food and we still don’t eat it. With our fishing industry, we catch some of the best fish and seafood, but will still don’t seem to eat it. That’s why I’ve also been working with the fishing industry and retailers so that we can link supply and demand. I have been really pleased to see the interest coming from some of the large retailers in sourcing sustainable, local fish – and how our fishermen are keen to build the resilience of their market and reduce their dependence on the arctic lorries taking their fish to the continental market. Again, it is political factors such as angry French fishermen blockading French ports that remind our fishermen here how much better it would be to create the infrastructure to create a more local supply network. We are using our European Fisheries Fund to invest in quayside storage and processing facilities for fishermen around the coast of Wales. The French blockade also, by the way, was due to oil and its price.
Once you start exploring how local food economies can be strengthened, it soon becomes clear that there are so many things that make it more difficult than I’d like.
That’s why one my top priorities when I became Minister was to set out all the issues and how we can best respond to them. This has been done through the Local Sourcing Action Plan, launched last year. It includes promoting farmers markets, getting more schools and hospitals to buy local and developing food distribution networks and businesses so that small scale local producers can sell to major and minor food retailers.
We have also been actively promoting what you might term a food culture in Wales. Through the True Taste initiative, we’re promoting Wales’ reputation for distinct and high quality produce, whether it’s our cheeses, wines, Welsh beef and lamb or our fish and seafood. I also want to enable consumers to know more about their food wherever it comes from which is why I’ve been pushing hard for better food labelling.
Reconnecting people with the food they eat is one of the objectives of the Community Growing Action Plan, which is now being finalized. I don’t see community growing as an alternative to the supermarket or a path to self-sufficiency – although Community Supported Agriculture offers exciting potential.
I do see it as a way of reconnecting people, including children, with the food on their plate so we understand more about how it was grown or reared and the resources that go into it.
By doing this, we will begin to question things like waste, food miles, impact on the environment and animal welfare. It’s all part of becoming much more savvy consumers. If you’ve got a small garden and you start to grow some food, then you very quickly realize that you’re not going to be able to get strawberries in January. Appreciation of seasonality almost disappeared from society, but there has been a slight resurrection. Go out and buy asparagus now!
I’ll be publishing the Community Grown food report soon, and it’s clear to me that access to land is a key enabling factor and is one where publicly-owned land could provide an early impetus. But it’s not just about setting the direction and coordinating action. It’s also about directing public spend effectively.
Under the Rural Development Plan, groups based in rural wards can apply for funding for activities to regenerate their communities. I’m particularly keen for this to be used as a catalyst developing more local community food projects.
Exciting as it is, Urban Growing and Community Growing is still a small part of our food system. Through the Rural Development Plan I’m also introducing a major new initiative called Glastir, open to all farmers across Wales, which will pay farmers to provide environmental goods. Payments will be dependent on doing things that increase biodiversity, manage carbon, mitigate against climate change, and improving water quality. This is a radical shift which both secures income for farmers and delivers environmental benefits. I’m desperate for everyone to see that it is not an either or – either food production or environmental benefits. They do not need to be in competition. I want to see more food produced in Wales but with less environmental impact.
The Rural Development Plan is also being used to direct resources to support innovation so that businesses throughout the food and drink industry can add value to their products, become more competitive and reach new markets. It supports the development of new products, processes and technologies. This is a key part of our support to encourage a sector that is competitive and profitable.
My Cabinet colleagues have also run important programmes. The Health and Social Care Department deliver a national Food Cooperative programme. There are now over 270 community food cooperatives under this scheme. Many work out of schools with pupils playing an active role.
My Regeneration colleagues support a number of allotment programmes which have enabled communities to turn derelict land into fully functioning growing spaces. But I want to re-emphasis that government can only be one part of the jigsaw.
Government doesn’t produce food, it doesn’t process or package food and it doesn’t of itself consume food. The land or the means of production are not nationalized. Cuba and Cymru could conceivably sit next to each other in the United Nations one day, but we would be very different.
Sometimes it frustrates me that as a Government we are not more interventionist. When DFB ceased operation and the milk processing plant in Bridgend ceased operating – leaving no large-scale milk-bottling plant in south Wales; and no prospective buyers, I did ask my officials how possible it was for the Welsh Government to buy the plant and run it. I’ve no idea whether I am the first Welsh Minister to make such a request of civil servants – but I was reluctantly persuaded that it was not a sensible thing to do.
Government can only provide direction and work with partners to get the right framework for others to prosper within.
With public budgets set to be slashed by the incoming UK Coalition Government, the ability of government here in Wales to provide financial support will be severely shrunk. It’s easy today to think that public spending cuts will only be about not allowing civil servants and Ministers to use first class travel. ( I look forward to the day when I see William Hague flying to Beijing in Economy class!) However, public sector budget cuts will reduce budgets on programmes and services that Welsh Government currently support.
Financial support for the Food Sector will not be immune to these cuts. This is why I want to challenge all those who want to see a profitable and sustainable food system in Wales to continue the good work and play their full part. The public sector will shrink over the next few years – many think that is a good in itself, but the third sector and private sector need to grow to compensate.
We need a strong food and drink industry in Wales. It is those businesses, those community enterprises and when it comes down to it, those inspiring individuals who come together to spread good practice, develop new ideas, be innovative, learn new skills, spot those gaps in the market and have the courage to go for them. We need the industry to respond to the market and make businesses or cooperatives as competitive and profitable as they can be.
But we cannot only aim to support a competitive food and drink industry in Wales. I firmly believe that the market alone cannot deliver what our society wants from its food system.
Government’s role is to enable industry to prosper, but within a framework that reflects society’s wider concerns – including health and well being; biodiversity; fair access to resources and consumer rights. Society needs prosperity not just for our generation, but the next; prosperity not just for one business or sector, but right across Wales; prosperity not just within Wales, but for us to achieve this whilst also be a responsible international partner.
We also need our Universities to research our food systems, so that we are basing our actions on strong evidence and new technological advances, whilst also understanding the wider implications of our actions.
This is why I believe we cannot rely on Cameron’s ‘big society’ to achieve a good food system in Wales. We need a strong government working with a strong industry and a strong civil society.
I hope I’ve outlined my priorities for food in Wales. The last decade may be characterized as emphasis on Food From Wales – the next decade needs to be focused on Food For Wales.