While we wait to see how the London government and Defra respond to the (English) Independent Review for the National Food Strategy (NFS), Wales and Scotland are already debating their own new Food Bills. An English White Paper is expected early in 2022 but the politics are fraught. One faction is hostile to the scale of what the NFS proposed, another says it’s all or nothing, and some outsiders say huge gaps exist on key matters such as food security, workforce shortage, competition and corporate concentration. It’s a relief therefore to look beyond Whitehall.
Across England, there’s barely any devolved food power. There ought to be. London’s food economy is bigger than Wales and Scotland’s combined. Nor has Brexit ‘taken back control’. One of the five UK supermarket giants has just been sold off to a US private equity fund without political comment. Some small trade deals have been done but without monitoring from the delayed and weak new Trade & Agriculture Commission, whose focus is only on exports when the EU still provides much UK food.
Northern Ireland agri-food politics are again a punchbag in the London-Brussels slugging match, with UK envoy Lord Frost recently claiming the UK signed the Brexit deal from ‘a weakened position’, as though it and he didn’t do the negotiation. One could argue that the one constant food policy is UK hostility to migrant food labour, but even this has been weakened by exemptions for turkey abattoir workers here and fruit pickers there. But no-one is happy; the UK soft fruit industry plans fewer plantings for 2022 – no pickers, what’s the point of planting?
Scotland receives Westminster attention mostly in relation to the threat of another independence referendum. In 1998 it was given significant devolved powers, including over agri-food. In the 2014 referendum, 55% voted to stay in the UK; 44.7% to leave. The country might have voted not to leave the UK, but Scotland’s Food Standards Agency did the next year. The implications are still being worked out. It doesn’t help build confidence over maintaining high food standards.
Some fear that this fractiousness is the hallmark of post-Brexit Britain: no level playing field, food used as a weapon. But at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference this November, I argued it’s giving space to reinject more local and sub-national energies into agri-food-culture.
Wales and Scotland exhibit important similarities as they gradually diverge from England. This is largely positive. While Whitehall seems intent on creating ‘Global Britain’, just when geo-political temperatures are rising (China vs USA vs Russia, etc.), as a NATO conference I attended recently argued, these devolved parts of Britain have other ideas: more localised, more responsive to social pressures, and firmly with an eye on Europe.
For Scotland, food and drink are much more important economically than they are in England. Its 19,000 businesses are worth £14 billion each year and employ 115,000 people, including a fifth of manufacturing jobs. Vast exports of Scottish whisky keep Scotland’s (and the UK’s) food and drink economy in the black. As elsewhere, the land and seas are of huge cultural significance, with seafood exports mostly Europe-focussed. A decade after devolution, Scotland began to indicate a change of food direction in the Good Food Nation Bill. The result of years of patient civil society-led coalition-building began to pay off, only for Covid to disrupt progress. But on October 7, 2021, a Bill was presented.
Two years ago, public consultation on the draft Bill received calls for a legally based Right to Food, sectoral food plans and a new Food Commission, a kind of Food Policy Council, to oversee progress. Only the commitment to food plans made it to the Bill as published this October. The SNP-Green power sharing coalition should alter these omissions at a later parliamentary stage, unless all the talk at Glasgow’s COP26 was hot air.
In Wales, too, a Food (Wales) Bill has just been presented. A surprise proposal from an opposition Conservative, Peter Fox MS, this was approved for discussion by the Senedd, Wales’ parliament, with some Labour Members backing it. In the same week, the Wales Labour Government announced an unexpected three-year agreement with Plaid Cymru. Food matters are woven across this 12-page document, including free school meals for all, anti-food-poverty measures, massive tree planting, and most significantly a commitment to “develop a community food strategy to encourage the production and supply of locally-sourced food in Wales.”
This sentence is what excited attendees at last week’s 3rd Real Wales Food and Farming Conference. As throughout the UK, there are many projects and local food supply chains in Wales but until now they’ve lacked coherent national Welsh support. This week, a new community interest project, Our Food 1200, in Monmouth & Brecon, sets out to create 1200 acres of horticulture over the next decade. The figure is calculated as what could feed the county. This isn’t raise-the-drawbridge ‘little Monmouth’ but taking sustainability, land use and job creation seriously, a desire to reconnect land to urban needs. A new Black Mountains agri-food college is part of the plan.
Everyone knows that the next 10-20 years are make or break. Wales’ small-scale, animal-rearing farming already faces serious problems of access to EU markets. Agri-food has been hugely important to Wales’ economy. In 2019, the food economy had a turnover of £21.35 billion, 27,000 enterprises and exports of £0.5 billion, and it provided 229,500 jobs, a hefty 17% of all Wales’ jobs, many in small and medium-sized enterprises.
While Westminster is riven by in-fighting, Cardiff and Edinburgh seem to be places of emerging consensus. What characterises both Wales and Scotland is closer ties across civil society interests with policy-makers across parties. In England, so far, it’s the conservation movement which seems to have triumphed. Unless the Defra White Paper reverses the absurdity of land being seen as almost solely for environmental purposes – er, what about food? – all the efforts of Wales and Scotland could go awry. The encouraging news is that WWF, the biggest conservation organisation in the world, is redoubling efforts to help change diets everywhere. Dietary change is the glue that gives coherence to the good intentions. That’s something on which the Welsh, Scottish and (if it comes) English Food Bills should unite. It’s called ecological public health.