Llŷr Gruffydd MS, Shadow Minister for the Environment, explores the benefits of a whole system approach to food policy.
They say food is a universal language. Like a language, food crosses into many aspects of our lives. The food we eat affects our health and the way we produce it impacts our environment. It forms the basis of whole industries and the absence of food can be devastating. Yet, all too often, its treated purely as an economic matter, and each aspect is treated as a separate issue.
What might a whole system approach to the food system look like?
First, let me outline some of the ways that the food system is interlinked with many other aspects of our lives.
It won’t come as a surprise that our food system has a significant impact on public health. Perhaps the most obvious way is the way in which we consume food. The old adage “you are what you eat” has a lot of truth in it – indeed, the wrong diet can cause diet-related health problems.
We’re not just talking about sailors of old who would die of scurvy through lack of fresh vegetables. Poor diet in modern Wales has been linked to the development of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, various cancers and coronary heart disease. So decisions we make about the food that’s made available – about how healthy, and affordable it is – need to take into account the corresponding impact on public health.
Our current food system also has a significant impact on the environment. The way we currently produce and consume food contributes to biodiversity decline and climate change. Scenes on television showing swathes of rainforests being cut down to make way for farmland or oil palm trees will be familiar to many of us.
While we don’t have rainforests in Wales, there has been concern about the amount of natural forests lost to farming and agriculture, which led to the National Trust announcing in 2019, a commitment to create 44,478 acres of new woodland across Wales, England and Northern Ireland by 2030.
As trees grow, they help stop climate change by removing carbon from the atmosphere. In the words of the Woodland Trust, “trees are the ultimate carbon capture and storage machines.” If trees are rapidly removed from our planet, we lose this “carbon sink” and climate change is accelerated.
In turn, that climate change impacts farmer’s ability to grow food, or keep livestock. And given that the demand for food is ever increasing, so decisions about food need to take into account the environment, but can’t be made without consideration for people’s livelihoods.
Another major factor on the viability of these livelihoods is global demands and even food trends. Demands for certain standards – for example, organic or halal or ‘plant based’ is growing, and this in turn drives changes in the food industry – what crops are sought, and even in which part of the country they’re grown.
A crop that has received a lot of bad press is the oil palm tree. Native to Africa, 85% of global supply now comes from Indonesia and Malaysia – you can imagine what changes this has brought about to the landscape of these two countries, as land is found for the oil palm trees. Yet boycotting palm oil is not always the answer – the WWF is calling for more sustainable production.
As we’ve said before, the food system touches upon so many aspects of our lives. When businesses become less viable, the business owners can face real financial hardship.
This is no less true of products sourced in Wales. During much of the pandemic, when hospitality was largely closed down in Wales, demand for milk dramatically reduced and many dairy farmers found they had no choice but to pour unwanted milk down the drain – complex contracts with suppliers to the hospitality trade meant they were unable to sell the milk on. This has been devastating for so many of our farmers and their families.
It’s clear that the food system, like language, is a large and complex web, to which we’re all attached. Whether we’re involved in growing, producing, manufacturing, supplying or simply consuming food, it touches us all.
So why, then, are these issues relating to the food system treated separately, very often with their own separate strategy? For example in Wales, we have Food for Wales, Food from Wales, Food Strategy Wales, Food and Drink Action Plan – and these are the strategies with the wider ‘food’ focus!
The ones with a narrower focus include the Dairy Sector Strategy, the Wales Seafood Strategy and the Welsh Red Meat Industry. I could go on, but I think you get the picture!
Already it’s clear that we shouldn’t be looking at one aspect of the food system without considering another.
The food system encompasses agriculture, fisheries, food manufacturing, retail, food service, consumption and waste. It includes the social and economic drivers of choices and dynamics within the system and cuts across all scales and aspects of policy, including the economy, environment, business, education, welfare, health, transport, trade, planning and local government.
It’s only right that we have a holistic approach to the food system. It’s only with a joined up approach that we can hope to tackle some of the challenges we face.
We are currently facing multiple crises - climate and ecological emergencies, a public health crisis and a rise in food insecurity. The food and farming system has the opportunity to be core to addressing these multiple crises.
Now is a crucial time to build for the future, with the COVID-19 pandemic reinforcing the vulnerabilities that exist in our current food system. It has highlighted how the health of nature and humanity are closely linked on a global scale.
Rebuilding a more resilient and sustainable food system is a vital part of preventing future crises and is a key component in our pathway towards a collective “green and just” recovery.
That is why Plaid Cymru is backing calls for the appointment of a cross sector Food System Commission, which will be tasked with developing a roadmap to deliver a ‘Food System Fit for Future Generations’.
What we produce, how we produce it and what we consume in Wales need to be more closely linked, with stronger integration of social, economic, cultural and environmental considerations.
Wales needs a food system that better connects food production, manufacturing and processing, retail and consumption and education. A complex issue demands an integrated approach across the food system from farm to fork.