Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Agroecology: Future of farming in Wales?

By Will Frazer

19th May 2021

We recently hosted our Wales #RoutestoAction workshop, which explored the future of farming in Wales. The #RoutestoAction series aims to help build the evidence, ideas and community of practice for a transition to agroecology in the UK by 2030 - and we have been joined by a fantastic mix of hundreds of farmers, academics, NGOs, Government and civil society exploring an agroecological future for farming in Wales.  

With presentations from speakers Professor Kevin Morgan of Cardiff University, Patrick Holden of the Sustainable Food Trust and Dr Prysor Williams of Bangor University, and closing remarks from FFCC Wales Inquiry Chair, as well as Chairing from FFCC Commissioner, Ann Jones, the session covered a huge amount of ground in 90 minutes, including:

  • Understanding Wales’ particular agricultural context and political ambitions 
  • The potential to make agroecological farming more mainstream in Wales  
  • The barriers and challenges in transitioning to agroecology in Wales 
  • Opportunities and areas for growth, including local food systems and mixed farming models 
  • Enablers for transition in the form of finance, infrastructure, knowledge and skills  

This blog shares some of the evidence and ideas gathered from the panel speakers and the audience’s comments and questions. We will use this material to inform the second phase of our Farming for Change research, due to be shared in the autumn alongside the final technical modelling paper from IDDRI – Modelling an agroecological UK in 2050.

What did we hear?
  • There is an urgency to get beyond the notion that low cost equals best value in regard to our food. The UK remains the country with the third lowest household spend on food globally. Driving down prices in the supermarket means that we are not yet paying for the true cost of our food at the till. As a result, this cost is borne elsewhere, for instance through our health system or in the environmental crisis. Making high quality, sustainable and nutritious food 'affordable’ whilst giving a fair price to the producer remains problematic due to the complex structural social and economic factors that dictate accessibility of food, from the UK’s social benefit system through to house pricing, urban design and education.
  • Wales sits in a unique position with its agricultural systems historically and culturally being rooted in ruminant agriculture due to the limitations caused by Wales’ topography, soil and climate. Dietary shifts towards eating less and better meat will have huge implications for the Welsh livestock sector.
  • Agroecological farming systems will not become mainstream if there isn’t the market to incentivise farmers to produce food sustainably. We have to create the infrastructure, investment and market demand that will transform the food system.
  • Public procurement can play a major role in transforming our food system. But we need the skill set and the leadership to truly cost the possibility of public procurement and to drive it forward.
Comments from Professor Morgan

"We face a triple challenge that consists of the new net zero target – which I do not believe we have fully thought through the implications of in Wales –; the challenge of changing diets - 80% of our ag sector are meat and dairy – those sectors face enormous headwinds; and thirdly, a more benign challenge is our world class legislation."

"For a country that specialises in red meat and dairy, the sustainability challenge is enormous."

"When we think of a transition, we must always think of a just transition. If there’s no just transition, there will be no viable transition."

"Public procurement has the status of a magic bullet – but it can’t deliver everything we want it to deliver. From our own work we’ve identified the two fundamental problems with public procurement: an acute skills shortage in the public sector; we don’t have the skill set to do whole life costing and we’ve allowed low cost to masquerade as best value. And the second problem is a chronic failure of leadership in the Welsh public sector in terms of appreciating the strategic value of public procurement. In short, public procurement needs to come from the backroom into the boardroom of our organisations."

"Public procurement has a major role to play in moving us towards a sustainable food and farming system, but we need to disentangle two rationales for public procurement: are we using it for a sociocultural role – to raise the quality of food on the public plate – or are we using it to play an economic promotion role – in terms of boosting development prospects for food firms – in which case we must engage with food system intermediaries."

"In Wales, the problem isn’t being small, it’s being lonely, where you aren’t connected to a wider network of collaborators."

Comments from Dr Prysor Williams

"There is a limit to what we can do in Wales agriculturally, based on our topography, soils and climate. This isn’t a point that is always recognised or understood."

"When we talk about sustainability, we talk about the economics, the environment and the social aspects and talking about the three in tandem is fundamental."

"How do we reduce Welsh agricultures environmental impact? It’s a combination of the old and the new: new technologies are definitely part of the answer, but I always think we shouldn’t get too excited of new technology and what might be coming and lose sight of what we already know…If we’re not researching and moving forwards then we’re going backwards. Research has a huge role to play in the future."

"The direct link that people have between themselves and food production…is now longer and weaker. There is now a much poorer understanding of how food is produced; people don’t see the value of food, they just see price, they cannot question what is sustainable and what is not."

Comments from Patrick Holden

"Unless the kinds of farming systems we want, pay, then farmers won’t be able to switch to them. So, it’s all about the money. If farmers who are contemplating farming in a different way can’t see a way to make those systems pay, then it’s not going to go mainstream."

"We want to farm within the carrying capacity of the land."

"We need to get radical about this, because at the moment we have a food system which is based on vast scale production, high centralisation and an anonymity that goes right through to the labelling."

"We haven’t really got the infrastructure to enable the vertically integrated development of the food systems of the future."

Comments from Jane Davidson, reflecting on the Routes to Action series

"Across the UK each country has different culture, different heritage, different laws and different outcomes."

"Food has to be something for all ministers. Education ministers, health ministers, climate ministers, rural ministers and finance ministers must have an interest in food."

Comments from the audience

"Why is it that all socially or ethically-based financial operations seem unable to compete in terms of market rates for lending and investing?" Bill Grayson

"I have been interviewing livestock farmers in West Wales for my MSc and one of the big issues they have found has been communication – broadband issues/ where to go for help and information on how to transition if they are not IT savvy or haven’t got access to the internet. How can this be changed?" Andrea Sanders

"Kevin’s ‘low cost masquerading as best value’ could be a description of how we value our food in our current system. How can we shift to valuation away from food from low cost to best value?" Graeme W

"We don’t have a detailed enough vision and pathway for a just transition to agroecology in Wales and how that pathway delivers net zero in a nature positive way. I agree with Kevin – this needs to be co-produced. And quickly, given how crucial the next decade is. Action on the ground is crucial, but where are we trying to get to?" Shea Buckland-Jones

"We need a major public engagement push. Without public buy-in, change isn’t going to happen. We also need to pay what food actually costs and make healthy food readily accessible and affordable for those for whom it isn’t now, which will require different sorts of subsidies, incentives to businesses, community involvement, etc." Jean McKendree

"Purposeful and patient finance to support transitions to more extensive agroecological systems, including silvopasture and agroforestry, would be transformational for farm enterprises and for our ecosystems." Sue Pritchard

"[The transition and food prices] must be connected to labour policies and housing policies. No use in knowing what is sustainable and healthy if you can’t afford it because you have a zero-hour contract and expensive rent." Alice Taherzadeh

Research shared by the audience

Carbon Footprint Evaluation of Regenerative Grazing at White Oak Pastures: https://blog.whiteoakpastures.com/hubfs/WOP-LCA-Quantis-2019.pdf

Cardiff Research Centre, Good Food Cardiff 21-24 Strategy: https://foodcardiff.com/app/uploads/2021/04/City-Wide-Food-Strategy-Public-Consultation-Report.pdf

Nature Means Business report from the Nature Friendly Farming Network: https://www.nffn.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/20012-NFFN-Report-Nature-means-business-DIGITAL-1.pdf

Twitter thread from Child Action on Poverty summarising child poverty figures in Wales – the highest rate of any UK nation: https://twitter.com/ellie_cpag/status/1394911574486306820

Food Ethics Council, Food Justice, report: https://www.foodethicscouncil.org/resource/food_justice_report/

The Broken Plate 2020: The State of the Nation’s Food System: https://foodfoundation.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/FF-Broken-Plate-2020-DIGITAL-FULL.pdf

The Lancet, The Global Syndemic, report: https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/global-syndemic

Food Citizenship: https://foodcitizenship.info/

Effects of ultra-processed foods: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-9588967/What-month-eating-ultra-processed-food-did-me.html