A just transition for farming in Wales

Sue Pritchard on how, with the right support, farmers can be a force for change.

13th February 2024

I’m a miner’s daughter from the Rhondda. Forty years ago, I lived through the Miners' Strike, collecting for food parcels at my university to take back to my community in the Valleys. Wales cannot afford – economically, socially or psychologically – another botched transition.

That failed transition away from coal and steel to – what? – has left Wales scarred – poorer, sicker, economically under-productive. It costs us all – in the NHS, looking after people with ill-health rooted in poverty; in schools, with too many kids without hope and ambition…

A just transition then would have balanced the pace of change with strategic investment in building new industries, in the sectors we need for a resilient future.

No one in Welsh Government could possibly think that the politics of the ‘80s is a good model for just and sustainable change.

But right now, this is a huge opportunity for Welsh government to show that it will back a just transition in food and farming - sectors core to a foundational economy - providing strategic leadership for the whole sector.

As farmers, we are on the front line of climate change. The world has breached 1.5 degrees. This is a global problem of the same scale and seriousness as the energy transition. In Wales, over 80% of the land is farmed land. Farmers and land managers have unique opportunities to play a huge part in the solutions.

Many farmers are already making changes. But to do this at the scale and pace we need, we must bring all farmers along. And to do that, we need to see the version of the future that works for all of us, and a properly resourced, strategic plan to get us there.

I’ve been to Sustainable Farming Scheme (SFS) meetings. I see serious people – my friends – angry and worried, looking for serious and fair solutions, so we can run viable businesses and help shape an adaptable and resilient future for all of us in Wales.

They’re worried about food security, wondering where the nation’s food will come from in the future. And they’re right to be concerned. In a climate-challenged world, a responsible and resilient nation must stop offshoring its food production and take more responsibility for producing sustainably the healthy food we need. This is especially true in Wales, where diet-related ill health costs the NHS, the economy – and people’s wellbeing – dear.

There’s huge scope for compromise and creativity on issues where farmers feel ignored. A strategic government can identify all the resource available in this sector, which trades over £22bn in the Welsh economy. This is not just about public money; the government can work with supply chain and private finance to ensure they are investing fairly in their producers, and for the public interest - not just extracting value, leaving Wales worse off.

Farmers want a fair price for their produce. A supply chain that forces farmers to cut corners to keep food cheap - dairy? chicken? - must change. The processors and retailers must invest in the farmers in their value chain, reflecting the true cost of producing food well.

Public procurement – buying local, sustainable produce for schools and hospitals – has the potential to be a game changer for a just transition. Look at Denmark, whose government set clear intentions to buy organic food for the public plate, and who exceeded their target of 80% organic food ahead of plan. The Danish government names four key policy levers that worked. 1. Set clear national intentions 2. Get good cooks back in school kitchens 3. Design and promote clear national labelling, and 4. Invest in producers and processors to help them deliver the plan. Governments can use ALL public money for public value.

Put proper guardrails around land sales, and carbon and nature credits. Welsh farmers can benefit from these new and emerging global markets, with the right frameworks in place to make sure the value is shared fairly across farm enterprises and communities. Through the Agriscop schemes, Welsh farmers have a history of collaboration and cooperation to tackle tough challenges. We need to re-engage this for landscape and community-scale projects.

And through SFS, pay farmers properly for the actions government needs them to undertake. For any of this to work, and to take the heat out of the debate, we need to see a comprehensive and strategic investment plan.