Jenny Rathbone AM reflects on the danger Brexit poses to our food supply and the potential of local solutions
Crashing out of the European Union without a negotiated deal would present major issues for the security of Britain’s food supplies. Overnight, it could have a major impact on the availability of the food we eat. This is because most of our vegetables and fruit are imported from EU countries. We import £8bn worth of fruit and veg from Europe, compared with £1bn worth grown in the UK every year.
The first task is to avoid such a catastrophe, though the signs coming from the UK Government are not encouraging. Theresa May’s plans, carefully choreographed at Chequers, lasted less than a week before being trashed by Brexit fundamentalists in the House of Commons. The outcome of the Brexit negotiations with 27 EU Governments and the response of MPs at Westminster are impossible to predict.
So disaster could strike as soon as March next year.
Vegetables, and to a lesser extent fruit, are the foods we must eat to stay healthy. March is the beginning of the growing season when the choice of home-grown produce is rhubarb and a range of winter vegetables – but not nearly enough to feed the whole population. What can we do in Wales to avoid such a catastrophic crisis for public health?
The Welsh Government is consulting on its approach to land management for Wales once we leave the EU and are no longer part of the Common Agricultural Payments (CAP) scheme.
The CAP has provided Welsh farmers with up to 80% of their income for the last few decades so the changes will be challenging under all circumstances. Brexit and the Land proposes two new support schemes to keep farmers on the land and avoid wholesale abandonment.
The first, an Economic Resilience scheme, aims to deliver stability in an unpredictable business – this year farmers are plagued by both drought and floods. This scheme would enable farmers to diversify what they produce. Growing trees is a long term investment, tourism a seasonal one; producing a range of crops and animals mitigates against sudden price fluctuations imposed by the all-powerful big food manufacturers.
The second proposal, a Public Goods scheme, focuses on the public benefits of maintaining the countryside to support our tourism, our clean water supplies and to reverse the decline in the diversity of our flora and fauna.
Farmers have a crucial role to play in protecting Wales from the threat of environmental disaster caused by climate change. For example, peat bogs absorb the carbon emissions we produce from our cars, homes and factories. Peat bogs evolve over hundreds of years but can be destroyed in days if not nurtured effectively. Equally if farmers leave the soil bare it can be swept into the rivers and seas in a single downpour, gone forever. It takes years to recreate the topsoil required for growing food.
Wales used to grow a lot more vegetables. The Vale of Glamorgan and the Gower peninsula were famous for it. The Common Agricultural Policy did not reward growers who had less than 8 hectares of land, so inevitably people gravitated toward where the money was. Today you would be hard pressed to find our national emblem, the leek, growing in Wales outside people’s allotments.
We are justly proud of our Pembrokeshire potatoes which benefit from EU protected food status; this means they have to be grown in Pembrokeshire. Like potatoes, onions, parsnips and carrots are grown more easily on vast, mechanised fields. But most vegetables can be grown just as easily on small plots of land, in the open air and in poly-tunnels.
Food is not currently classified as a public good though many argue that it should be. If the Public Goods scheme doesn’t kick start the expansion of home grown vegetables, then there is already an EU programme which could be deployed immediately to safeguard our food security against an uncertain Brexit outcome.
LEADER is a small scale community-led strategy within the Rural Development Programme aimed at stimulating growth in deprived communities. As former Chair of the Welsh Government’s EU Monitoring Committee, I have visited many fantastic LEADER projects and have always been a huge fan of its bottom up, community-led approach which is the antithesis of “policy dictated by Brussels”.
In the middle of a community that still struggles from the closure of its coal mine is ‘Our Garden’ on the Dan y Bryn Estate in Evanstown, Gilfach Goch. On the border between Bridgend and RCT local authorities, the Britgrowers have created 18 raised beds including two beds specifically for disabled people.
The local school teaches pupils how to plant different types of produce and the benefits of ‘growing your own’. Families grow vegetables, fruit and flowers. Ten year old Kian Protheroe has grown radishes, potatoes, onions, lettuce, dwarf beans, peas, garlic and even sweetcorn with his father’s help.
‘Our Garden’ has become the place where the community gets together. Barbecues and other events are held and people who do not garden go there just to have a chat. There are thousands of communities like Evanstown which would benefit from a similar growing project.
Another LEADER growing project in Treoes in the Vale of Glamorgan was created out of a couple of abandoned tennis courts. They are overwhelmed by the demand from local pubs and restaurants all wanting to get their hands on fresh local produce, but the prohibitive cost of the adjacent land prevents the project expanding.
Cardiff is the only part of Wales which is not part of the LEADER programme. Statistically Cardiff does not flash up as a centre of deprivation. But within our capital city there are many struggling communities whose diet is dismal to say the least. Without LEADER seed funding, other strategies need to be used to get people growing. In the centre of Cardiff’s Bute Park, a project to support people with mental health challenges now produces 15 kilos of salad crops a week which is sold to restaurants as well as for home consumption.
The over-centralisation of distribution networks means that it is currently cheaper to get hold of vegetables and fruit in Cardiff than it is in Caernarvon or Caerphilly. What is sold in supermarkets has often crossed the Welsh border twice since it was picked. This is absurd. More local produce across Wales means more really fresh vegetables getting to schools, hospitals and homes across Wales.
The Welsh Government is starting to use its purchasing power to increase the amount of Welsh food used to supply schools, hospitals and nursing homes. The Vale of Glamorgan has created a local authority trading company to source local produce for school dinners. Gwynedd Council already sources most of the ingredients for their school dinners locally. We need to encourage other local authorities to follow their example. Initiatives like VegPower are working with retailers to increase the amount of vegetables sold in supermarkets and in children’s food.
The primary role of government must be to feed its citizens. Stockpiling food to mitigate against a hard Brexit is impossible for fresh produce and most of us would recoil at the prospect of only eating tinned vegetables. Quite apart from the Brexit threat, the Welsh Government’s aspirations for A Healthier Wales are unachievable unless we transform people’s diets to include more vegetables. How we manage our land is not just a matter for rural communities, it affects all of us. Let’s get digging.
The Welsh Government’s Brexit and Our Land consultation is open until 30th October 2018.
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