Shea Buckland-Jones and Ruth Lawrence say that now is the time for Wales to agree a long term vision for our food system
Food has rarely been out of the headlines this year.
As the challenges for the way we feed ourselves become ever more apparent, so the debate has risen up the Senedd agenda. The passage of the Agriculture (Wales) Act sets out the direction of travel for the future of farming in Wales. We’ve also welcomed new legislation to restrict the placement and price promotion of unhealthy products and wider legislation, such as the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Act, has the potential to significantly impact on our food system. Perhaps most crucially, the Wales Food Bill failed to progress by the narrowest of margins, but the widespread support it garnered nevertheless highlighted the appetite for a comprehensive and joined up response to the interconnected challenges we face in terms of environment, health, security of supply and affordability. The case for a resilient Welsh food system – with a comprehensive vision for the future and a clear pathway to reach it – is stronger than ever. Welsh Government has an essential leadership role to play, to bring stakeholders together to co-create a vision that embraces the necessary bold changes, while also managing the transition from long-standing farming and food production practices and policies.
The cost of our current food system
Food systems encompass the complex web of interactions that include the production of food, its packaging, transportation, processing, consumption and waste. Changing our food system is one of the most impactful things we can do to address climate change, nature loss, and to create healthy places and tackle social inequality. Globally, our food system is responsible for around 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. In Wales, unsustainable agricultural management is the main driver of biodiversity loss – and the UK’s first Food Security Report in 2021 announced that the greatest threat to long term food security is climate change, biodiversity loss and the exploitation of natural resources. The Trussell Trust’s report, Hunger in Wales found that 20% of all adults in Wales (or their households) have experienced food insecurity in a recent 12-month period and costs related to obesity in Wales are reported to be around £3bn, creating a burden on healthcare services and impacting on the lives of individuals. Furthermore, players in the food system are drastically unequal – in the UK, farmers receive the least profit from food they have grown, despite fronting most of the supply chain risk.
The Hidden Cost of UK food report found that for every £1 we spend on food, an extra 96.8p is spent elsewhere on costs that are not currently factored in.
With globalisation food supply chains have lengthened, increasing our choices when it comes to food, but with far-reaching negative impacts on environmental, economic and social issues abroad. The WWF Cymru, Size of Wales and RSPB Cymru Wales and Global Responsibility report found that 30% of the land used abroad to grow Welsh commodity imports (including food products such as beef, palm and cocoa) came from countries at a high or very high risk of deforestation, habitat loss and social exploitation.
Strategies to improve food security for individuals have often focused on keeping food cheap and the intensification of food production has increased to produce economies of scale. Despite this, cheap food means that the true cost of its production – pollution, biodiversity loss, ill health – are displaced elsewhere and paid for by society in the form of healthcare, water charges, income tax and insurance premiums. The Hidden Cost of UK food report found that for every £1 we spend on food, an extra 96.8p is spent elsewhere on costs that are not currently factored in. Unless this true cost is accounted for, this debt will continue to rise.
Which road do we take?
Despite these problems, often global in nature, Wales has significant leverage to drive food systems change and set its own direction with the powers it has. There is still so much to play for.
As a starting point, we do have a positive framework for agricultural support set out in the new Agriculture (Wales) Act. Its core objectives align agricultural production against sustainable land management that seeks to support the environmental, social and economic sustainability of Wales’ agricultural sector. The proof will now be in the ambition of the Sustainable Farming Scheme, which will come into force in 2025. A lot is riding on this scheme if Wales is to meet the 2030 targets set out in the landmark COP15 Global Biodiversity Framework agreed in December 2022, and to keep the country on track to meet its net zero ambitions up to 2030 and beyond.
Robust debate and agenda-setting research.
Support Wales’ leading independent think tank.
However, agriculture is only one piece of the puzzle. What about the rest of the supply chain, and food consumption and waste? There is a good deal of consensus among stakeholders in the food system around the urgent need for an overarching plan, a vision for our food system in Wales. They want:
- A plan that is clear about what we can grow and where in Wales, within environmental limits (for example, we grow only 2% of the fruits and vegetables we consume in Wales)
- Strategies to maximise local supply chains and grow the appropriate infrastructure to better link food production and consumption in Wales (and to build on Welsh Government’s commitment in the net zero plan to develop a policy to roll out the Eatwell diet)
- A clear plan for managing a fair, equitable and viable transition for farmers from policies that have shaped the financial context for agriculture for decades
- To improve food education and drive change to public procurement where the public plate (through schools, hospitals etc.) plays a part in catalysing a just transition to nature and climate friendly farming
- To strengthen existing policy on food waste.
We need this overreaching strategy and vision to make sure that food policy, which spans across a wide range of government departments, is properly aligned and that we avoid unintended consequences from different policy actions. For example, Wales has recently celebrated a new record high for Welsh Food and Drink exports, with the highest value export categories for 2022 being meat and meat products, but this has also come at a time when agricultural emissions in Wales have been rising over the last decade.
Embedding the principles of agroecology throughout the food system would help to change it for the better
Peter Fox’s Food Bill provided an opportunity for stakeholders and political parties to have a much needed debate on the future of our food system in Wales, and although the immediate opportunity for food-specific legislation has passed, a cross-ministerial forum has been set up, led by the First Minister, to explore food policy related issues within Wales. If this forum reflects seriously on feedback from stakeholders from the Food Bill process, it must surely conclude that we do need a long-term vision for food policy in Wales, with an urgency that meets the immediacy of the challenge.
Given that food system change has so much to offer to address social, economic, cultural and environmental challenges, it is no surprise that Derek Walker, the new Future Generations Commissioner, has expressed the need for a new long-term vision for food in Wales. Food has been at the centre of almost every conversation the Commissioner is having. We must use the Well-being of Future Generations Act to help create a massive shift in how we think about food, and use the spirit of the Act to take long term and preventative action. Despite pockets of good practice, the Commission has been clear that public bodies are not currently thinking in transformational terms where food is concerned. A clear and cohesive food policy would offer positive guidance for public bodies when developing their well-being plans – and we would argue that this should be backed up by reviewing the Act’s well-being goals and indicators so that they specifically address the need for food system change and mandate public bodies to better measure progress.
Central to this long-term vision, WWF Cymru believes that embedding the principles of agroecology throughout the food system would help to change it for the better. We have already heard from Welsh Government that the Sustainable Farming Scheme will embrace a regenerative and agroecological approach, but to be effective this needs to extend beyond food production, to wider food policy too.
There are under three years left of this Senedd term. The challenges are substantial and there are difficult conversations to be had, but there are also very real opportunities to make Wales a far better place in which to produce and consume food. We are at a fork in the road and Wales must not miss the chance to improve this crucial policy area, for the nation and its citizens.