Crisis and opportunity will drive innovation in Welsh food production

Bethany Turner reports on our dynamic political breakfast event at the Royal Welsh Show.
RWAS political breakfast panel 2023
Eclectic, expert line-up: our panel for our political breakfast event at the Royal Welsh Show on Tuesday 25th July. Top-left: CLA Cymru Chair, Iain Hill Trevor. From left: Jyoti Banerjee, Helen Bailey, Prof Iain Donnison, Derek Walker, Future Generations Commissioner, Andrew Richards, Rachel Gwynon, Hannah Thomas and former CLA Cymru Director, Nigel Hollett.

Opportunity abounds. Our panel of experts excited our audience of CLA members and guests with a taste of the exciting breadth and depth of innovation. “Incredible stuff,” Chair Iain Hill Trevor reported being carried out by farms and businesses, agri-tech and vertical farming of micro-veg bringing higher production closer to the point of consumption, (Helen Bailey), great leaps forward in grassland science (Professor Iain Donnison) – which are not only increasing production and nutritive value, but tackling environmental issues too. Andy Richardson from the Food & Drink Federation optimistically reported continuous improvement and diversification in the UK food supply chain and Rachel Gwynon reported tantalising progress in international trade deals providing Welsh producers with new markets for their high quality products. For some moments, all doubt and cynicism was set-aside. If delivered with focus on the priority of the welfare of future generations (Derek Walker), there will be much to celebrate.

But we’re in a climate emergency, a biodiversity crisis, a soil crisis, water crisis, health crisis and inequality crisis. Jyoti Banergee explained how his organisation, North Star Transition, is spearheading an extraordinarily ambitious vision to “re-imagine Wales as a regenerative place.” The whole food and farming industry needs to change: he’s looking to generate what seems like enormous investment from international financial institutions, to resource it. To coin a couple of phrases: need is the mother of invention. A silver-lining in the crisis-cloud should be that the severity of the crises should drive the scale and intensity of innovation.

“The problems are too big and complex to be solved by farmers,” Iain Hill Trevor declared, “There needs to be collaboration throughout the supply network, accompanied by cross-cutting policy.” And these policies need the right funding to work.

Compensating farmers with income-foregone plus costs simply isn’t sufficient to meet the vision

Iain Hill Trevor, Chair, CLA Cymru.

Focused by questions from the floor, the panel discussed the role of government and the public sector as a regulator, force for support, conductor of cooperation and a substantial market for Welsh produce. Jyoti Banerjee explained, “In Wales the Government sends some £97 million a year on food for hospitals, schools and social care. The food’s bad because it’s cheap: neither good for people eating it or the land it’s grown on. But this is seen as okay, because the land it’s damaging isn’t in Wales.” There’s a contradiction in procurement policy and Government mission.”

Where the sustainable vision’s being applied the need to feed and our expectations are getting in the way. Land managers are expected to deploy land to sequester carbon dioxide to offset the impact of vital industrial emissions which can’t be reduced at-source. But, as one questioner posed to the panel, “What industry can reduce production by up to 20 per cent and still keep going?” Iain Hill Trevor nut-shelled the paradox in his words, “Cheap food, farm profitability and high environmental standards are simply not compatible...” A voice from the floor added, “…without strict control of imported goods” – which could have grave implications elsewhere in the economy.

Part of the solution is the increase in localisation of food production and distribution. Singapore has increased its food production in adopting this policy on an island of relatively poor soil fertility and high incidence of flooding. Wales needs to be more creative in how it uses land, optimise how it uses land – anticipate the effects of global warming and changing diet - and be willing to adopt new production techniques. It may be a revolution in land management: the Sustainable Farming Scheme must be sufficiently versatile and resourced to embrace it.

Key contact:

Bethany Turner headshot
Bethany Turner CLA Environment Policy Adviser, London