Future of food

Robert Dangerfield finds out more about an innovative project targeting food, health and nature in Wales that seeks to deliver change
Selection of winter vegetables

An innovative social change initiative is challenging assumptions and calling for system change around food production and land management in Wales as part of a wider debate about the future of food and wellbeing.

The Wales Transition Lab project looks to reconnect food, health and nature to deliver “beneficial solutions that address the root causes of wellbeing decline”. It includes implications for the supply chain and how land is managed, financed and regulated. Established in October 2020, it brings together 30 leaders from food, farming, environment, water, business, education and health sectors across Wales and seeks change at a national level.

Economist, business and social entrepreneur Jyoti Banerjee of North Star Transition, which is leading the project, wants to seize the many opportunities the transition lab presents. He says: “We face multiple crises on every side. Why don’t we do more? And when we act, why do we achieve so little?”

The project has four key pillars. One is leveraging creative diversity by bringing together representatives from health, farming unions, NGOs, conservation and water to explore overlapping initiatives, such as farmers working directly with health boards to improve nutrient levels in food, for example. Others focus on emerging practices and how to facilitate the transition from ideas to solutions.

Jyoti says: “Wales Transition Lab is looking to neutralise change hesitancy to create the momentum for change. Farmers don’t adopt changes suggested to them by those who are remote from the land – why should they? We’re looking to create a sense of agency in the farming and land management community. In this sense, it’s not just an enabling exercise, it is about empowerment that is mutually enriching.” Governments, key public services and businesses are listening. Recent events have shifted UK administrations’ focus on public health. Th ere is a commitment to reversing climate change and clear goals for improving the way we manage the physical environment. Jyoti continues: “We’ve been experiencing an intensive process of change, but the combination of issues such as climate, biodiversity loss and social inequality has brought about a crisis. There’s no doubt that old norms about how societies, communities and households work are being challenged.

“We’ve created a global system that is complex and adaptive. It is made up of deeply inter-connected and interdependent systems that are change-resistant. A big part of this is cultural: uncertainty thrives amid radical change. It can suppress innovation and investment, and promote destructive cynicism. I think that there’s an appetite in government and the whole community to move away from a largely transactional relationship to a better marriage with those who manage food and land.

“From farmers, land managers and food producers’ perspective, the benefit is not just commercial, but it redefines their role in society and facilitates a better relationship with government and with the community – but we need a mechanism to achieve it. We also need to focus our resources on achievable goals.”

Why Wales?

Jyoti explains why the project focuses on Wales. “We wanted a place that is small enough to be able to bring the leaders together and big enough to change a community of three million people. Th e government here is increasingly committed to the concept that food, health and nature are connected. “It’s encouraging to see movement at the high level, but we need action. Hitherto, decisions about food, health and nature have been disconnected from each other.

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Jyoti Banerjee of North Star Transition

Wales Transition Lab brings 35 organisations together, with CLA Cymru being one of them. It also includes Welsh Water and fresh food producers. Other notable members are NHS Wales, health boards Hywel Dda and Cardiff and Vale, and representatives from the finance and education sectors. “Hywel Dda is the UK’s first health board researching how to make food a long-term planning objective. This is driven by not only the diet-health link, but also the opportunity for our high-volume public procurement departments to source locally-produced fresh food. The NHS in Wales spends about £20m buying food for hospital in-patients; very little of this is sourced from Welsh farms. This presents a captivating challenge around creating new high-volume, local supply chains and better-quality outcomes for farmers and the local economy.

“The UK Treasury-supported Green Finance Institute is on board with the Wales Transition Lab to examine what actions can be taken to bring about change,” Jyoti continues. “One example is improving soil health. Success here requires multiple actions by multiple parties. Quite often, these parties don’t have the resources to take a long-term view - barely any are in a position to invest in their soil, regardless of what happens to yield. Meanwhile, the water company is challenged by nutrient and chemical run-off, and our health services continue to treat what patients present in the general practice surgery. Part of the solution here is a hybrid finance vehicle to facilitate large-scale change among many system participants, which would include higher carbon sequestration and the right water content in soils.”