Food in Wales means many things. For some it is sheep on the mountains, shellfish in Cardigan Bay and black and white cows in the ‘milk fields’ of the southwest and the northeast. For others, it is free school breakfasts, a childhood obesity rate that is the highest in the UK with over 28% overweight or obese in the most deprived areas, and a population that doesn’t eat enough fruit and vegetables. Then again, it is an industry with an annual turnover of nearly £17 billion that employs a quarter of a million people, a money-earner that can never be outsourced. Or it is the growing number of food banks – 157 last year – which co-exists with the 300,000 tonnes of food waste thrown out by Welsh households in 2015, below average for the UK.
It is prestigious food festivals and high-end restaurants, and it is parents who don’t know how to cook a meal from scratch and children who have never seen a cow. It is back gardens, allotments and community gardens where many of us grow at least a few veg, and it is Welsh cakes and cawl, the remnants of our peasant food culture. And it is our connection with the natural world: the winter stubble and hedgerows that shelter nesting birds, the bees that pollinate our orchards, the grassland that puts carbon in the soil and keeps the climate cool.
When food is so much part of our lives, and has so many apparently unrelated aspects, how do we join the dots and make it work on all fronts – health, the economy, the environment, social justice, farming, climate and culture? It is an absolute necessity for our survival that we all work together on this, but so often the pressures of rapid change set one interest group against the other and the system fragments. Economic expansion may have an unacceptable environmental cost, affordable food means low pay for those who produce it, nutritionists don’t talk to farmers (much) and food education struggles for a place in an overcrowded school curriculum.
And it’s not just at the policy level that we are divided. As a society, we are increasingly isolated from each other, as the technologies that are supposed to connect us actually draw us apart: the car that means we can live far away from our jobs and families, the internet that gives us enough company not to bother with our neighbours down the road, the smartphones around the dinner table – and in many homes, no dinner table at all. Loneliness is epidemic, and in a culture where the economy is all-important, those who are not in good jobs – the young, the old, the underpaid, the sick, their carers – get left behind.
What’s needed is a national conversation, ideally over a meal, that emblem of togetherness. We need to step out of our professional and economic roles for a while and connect as human beings. We also need to move beyond the comfort of our own kind and seek out those who see things differently, not just because there are joyful discoveries to be made, but also because sometimes the very discomfort of such encounters wakes us up to new possibilities. That is the buzz that happens when a farmer goes into a school classroom, for instance, or a supermarket manager delivers surplus food to a Christmas dinner for homeless people, or a primary school teacher learns some gardening from a grandparent.
Rather than seeing the complexity and rival agendas of the food system as a problem, we could see them as a sign of unrealized potential. What new connections could we make? And what fresh enthusiasm might be released if we thought we could really make a difference and that it was worth trying? The more intractable a problem may appear, the greater the benefits that might result. Now is the time for creative thinking, for imagination, for play. Feeding the world is a job for the arts as much as the sciences.
This is the premise of a proposed new Food Network Wales. So far it is simply an idea and an invitation, linked to a Food Manifesto Wales that has been ticking over for a few years, gathering blog posts and followers. It aims to be a space where conversations can happen and new ideas emerge, as well as a conventional network that will make some new connections in the food system. It has only just begun and will only grow if it meets a need and attracts support; it is an act of faith. It does however have strong underpinning values, and it builds on some encouraging developments in Wales and beyond.
One of these is human rights, including the right to food enshrined in international law and placing obligations on government and business. Another is the Well-being of Future Generations Act (Wales) 2015 which requires public bodies to work with business and civil society on matters which affect the general population, and to extend this concern to generations yet to come. Our commitment is therefore to a food system which is fair, provides good food to all, enriches our lives, supports human connection and coexists with a thriving natural world. Just as importantly, when compromises inevitably have to be made, these should be on the basis of respect and dialogue. Sensitive issues should not be settled by a contest to see who can shout the loudest or buy the most advertising space.
Running alongside this, we need a step change in the way we think of ourselves, leaving behind the passive role of the consumer and the employee and claiming our agency as citizens, as the New Citizenship Project’s Food Citizenship report argues. It is not enough to excuse ourselves on the grounds of the power wielded by governments or multinational corporations, or the limitations of our job remits, or the unfairness of the ‘system’. We can all do something, however small, and that counts. Citizens are to be found everywhere: in government, in community groups, in business. It is time we identified ourselves as such.
Could you be part of the new Network? Read more about it and complete our survey here.