Talking about food can be an exercise in futility. It can get you so far, but it won’t sate the appetite.
However, it is vital that we openly discuss our food and how it gets to the table.
The system we have is multi-layered, has many actors, and can be severely dislocated.
According to Defra, the number of people farming in Britain is dropping, the size of farm holdings is increasing, the gross margin on farms is not rising, and neither is yield.
Farmer and columnist Ian Pigott commented on this topic last week in the Farmers Weekly.
Looking at his father’s detailed records from the farm over many decades, Ian concluded – In summary, set against the value of wheat, over 50 years yields have doubled, wages have gone up six-fold and blackgrass control 50-fold. Ouch. And gross margins have stayed the same.
Over the past fifty years, our food system has stretched across the planet, almost to breaking point. And we have seen a dramatic increase in global trade of food commodities. Vast sums of money moving rapidly in, and out, out of food and farming worldwide.
As Ian notes, this has not resulted in an inflation of farmers’ bank accounts, though it has inflated our population in other respects – and our health service is bearing the burden. The UK-wide NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050, with wider costs to society estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year.
Although this is a bleak picture, and despite the fact that solutions seem to be almost impossible to find, I can testify that there are positive steps being made.
The pathways to long-lasting and positive change for our economy, for our environment and for our communities are being trodden, today, and they must be celebrated.
Polly Davies runs a successful farm business, Slade Farm Organics in the Vale of Glamorgan. Polly is focused on both the commercial side of running a food business and on the hard work that she puts in to maintain and even to enhance the wildlife on her land.
One of the challenges facing a farm business is moving grains to local networks. It costs as much to haul a one-tonne bag of wheat as it does to move one 29-tonne load.
But for Polly that is changing. She has established links with food businesses in Wales to make the finances work and to help move grain from Slade Farm via millers and bakers then on to the larders of Welsh families without always going via wholesale traders.
This brings a better return to Slade Farm and puts high quality, local produce in Welsh kitchens at a reasonable price.
Objectively we can recognise how disconnected and unmoved many UK shoppers are when people see ‘convenience’ and ‘low price’ as badges of quality.
But very good work in food systems is happening, you just may not have heard about it.
And there is a lot still to be done. But Polly Davies and many others like her are showing some brilliant initiative and resilience. And it’s working for them and for their customers.
Polly, along with Anne Parry of the watermill at Felin Ganol in Ceredigion, Kate McEvoy of Real Seeds in Pembrokeshire, and many others will be telling their stories and sharing their experiences in Aberystwyth at the inaugural Wales Real Food and Farming Conference over the two days of 11 and 12 November.
And I’m really looking forward to it.