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Farmer protests betray a deeper crisis our politicians won’t confront

09 Feb 2024 5 minute read
Protesting farmers in the Republic of Ireland. Photo Niall Carson/PA Wire

Protests are erupting all over Europe as farmers feel the squeeze of policies that on the one hand demand that they farm more sustainably and on the other continue to sell produce at prices that struggle to meet the cost of production.

At the same time, the last weekend of January saw the first hunger march in the South Wales valleys in a hundred years against a backdrop of spiralling food bank use and a shocking rise in cases of malnutrition.

In the past few weeks there has been a stream of headlines reporting alarming if all too predictable research pointing to the declining physical and mental health of our citizens, particularly children, as a result of poor diet. In short, if you need to see the evidence of a broken and dysfunctional food system, turn on the news.

Yet inexplicably in Wales we have a political contest for the role of next first minister that seems to fail to even acknowledge that these are the times we are now in.

Given all this is obvious to the person on the street, as evidenced by hunger marches, farmers’ rising anger and widespread alarm at the destruction of our natural capital it’s difficult not to despair at the refusal of those vying for power to engage with the very bread-and-butter issues that are likely to define politics for decades to come.

Food banks

Seasoned tropes continue to replace informed, real-world policy. Food banks proliferate within a context where the unchallenged thought-stopper that everybody simply wants cheap food leads to unchecked economic and social ruin in a food system that has many more losers than winners.

We currently have a situation where shoppers are gaslit by supermarkets into believing that they are buying chicken meat from a bucolic family farm when the reality is polluting intensive poultry units and industrial processing plants beset by regulatory breaches.

At least 30% of the now unmanageable NHS bill is specifically attributable to known, diet-related causes.

People on the street know full well that we are what we eat; but the system we are expected to inhabit coerces us to consume ‘food’ that we know serves no nutritional purpose.

At the same time, we have an independent hospitality economy that is more creative and energetic than ever, and plays an all-important multiplier role on our high streets yet is pitifully undervalued by government with seemingly little understanding of its connection either to the woes of farming, economic resilience or social wellbeing

In other words, the politics that both farmers and consumers are now living through is utterly removed from the well-meaning manifestos that both candidates for the Labour leadership have put forward.

Food is in there, just about, but when it is mentioned it is firmly in the back seat of other policy areas and there is nothing that recognises the urgent need to put it in the driving seat.

The political need of the current moment, as the erupting protests demonstrate, is for joined up policy making and for real convening.

Social connection

This should be much easier for a small nation with strong degrees of social connection and its own government than the task facing many more sprawling state entities.

That means bringing contending interest groups into the room and leading them to debate and problem solve in the national interest – the need for a strategic plan for food being something that pretty much all stakeholders agree upon.

To take the issue of the moment, farmers’ grievances are disparate and varied but they are rooted in a food system that benefits no-one in Wales. Despite empty rhetoric to the contrary, most people we encounter on the environmental side of these debates do not fit the stereotype of farmer-bashing, and similarly most in the farming community are not interested in characterizing concern for the planet as “Pontcanna veganism”.

It may be a cliché, but our experience is there really more that unites than divides on this issue but it’s increasingly hard to see amongst the social media swagger, soundbites and spite that is flourishing in the absence of meaningful leadership in government.

Deepening division

If this vacuum persists, we face the frightening prospect of deepening division and further loss of control over the very things that underpin our existence. This – namely a coherent approach to feeding the nation – has always been at the heart of the affairs of state:

  • Firstly, geopolitical security – which in our day certainly doesn’t mean anything less than ensuring people are adequately fed.
  • Secondly, a functioning economy – which in our day means the fundamentals of livelihoods, including farming, food production and hospitality that retain value within Wales.
  • Thirdly, as widely aspired to in recent decades but little realised, Wellbeing – which simply cannot exist without good health, which in turn is entirely dependent on good food.

None of these functions of government can be carried out without a laser-sharp and intelligent focus on food. We have multiple ministers for health, social services and well-being but no minister for food. As far as the food system is concerned we have multiple ministries for mitigation but none for transformation.

Devolution was set up to allow precisely this sort of political agility. As has been widely acknowledged, this was never going to occur within a party-political tribalism.

Food unites people packing out town hall meetings and worried about how they will solve their own bread-and-butter issues. Nations and even empires have risen or fallen off the back of wise or ignorant food policy. Without political leadership of a sort as yet absent from this leadership contest, perhaps the greatest opportunity to be responsible and innovative as a nation will be missed – at significant cost to us all.

Simon Wright, broadcaster and restaurateur and Carwyn Graves, author

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Mab Meirion
Mab Meirion
5 months ago

Back to basics…

Enough of the expensive linked-in self-serving corrupt solicitor dilettantes in Cardiff Bay who share little of life’s hardships with the rest of us…

5 months ago

So what’s the suggestion? Are there any practical suggestions which confront the reality of austerity and its trade-offs?

Padi Phillips
Padi Phillips
5 months ago
Reply to  Dewi

I think for starters the ‘reality; that the austerity that has been in place for the past 14 years is entirely ideological in basis, and completely unnecessary, predicated as it is on the long since debunked notion that national economics are like those of a household budget. People need to become aware that nations that have their own currency cannot become bankrupt, and the worst that can happen, though undesirable, is high inflation, which worries bankers more than it does workers as it sees the value of debt decrease massively – we only have to look at the relatively recent… Read more »

5 months ago

The European farmers main grievance appears to be what they see as unfair competition from countries outside the EU. However, this food produced cheaply, probably because of less regulation and free of import taxes, is exactly what cash strapped consumers of the EU and UK need…witness the growth in demand for food banks. This of course affects UK farmers just as much. Globalisation and free market economics, the poster child of the West for 45 years, far from creating more vibrant efficient economies has left us with a high cost base system weighed down by the growing millstone of parasitic… Read more »

Neil Anderson
Neil Anderson
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim1

Energy should not be cheap, Jim, because of its environmental impact from production to end use. Neither should food to ensure quality and a fair reward for growers. We need to pay our farmers more and require wages, pensions and benefits are increased commensurately.
As Paid Philips notes, our own currency is key. Hence independence…Let’s not wait another ten years. Let’s avoid 15y of poverty thereafter as some economists predict. I’m one who doesn’t – there is a solution, and we can do it better.

5 months ago
Reply to  Neil Anderson

The problem we have with energy Neil is the human race has created, over millennia, a social and economic structure that now completely depends on there being abundant and cheap sources of energy to maintain the momentum. Industrial scale farming, powered by fossil fuels, is all that prevents global mass starvation. As you point out this has damaged the environment and created this dilemma now over the protection of the environment versus the need to provide a good living for all. Despite warnings being raised since the 1950s, little has been done to negotiate a path through this maze until… Read more »

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