What Shall We Eat?

What shall we eat? Powys Transition Towns and Low Carbon Communities network (PTLCC) conference report, 15 0ct 2016

In memory of the founder of Transition Llandrindod Wells, Di, who spent a year only eating local food.

Patrick Holden, former director of the Soil Association, was the main speaker and has managed a farm 6 miles north of Lampeter for 43 years with 20+ Ayrshire cows, producing milk and cheese, and sheep, during which time he has been developing his system.

He gave a history of agriculture: up to World War II we were more or less self-sufficient as a nation in food with mixed farming, smaller farms, more grain, more vegetables being grown and more jobs. In 1973 there were thousands of dairy farms in West Wales. Now, even sheep farms are in trouble. It is a mess.

This is a consequence of wrong policy and CAP criteria. Farming is an extractive industry, so soil has been depleted by non-organic processes, not using activities which feed the soil. Instead, soils are mined for fertility. The use of soluble nitrogen fertilisers leads to plants that are susceptible to fungal attacks so we have to use more pesticides. The use of monocultures leads to the necessity for herbicides to combat weeds. The rearing of animals in sheds means that we are reliant on much imported grain.

Modern agriculture is responsible for between 30 and 50% of global greenhouse gas emissions, depending on whether you count the whole food chain or not.

He referred us to David Montgomery’s Dirt: a history of farming.

“We are dining out on it and the party is coming to an end.”

Patrick used to grow carrots for supermarket sale but had to abandon it because the packhouses for packaging them in Wales all closed and he ended up having to send them to Peterborough on the other side of the country which proved to be uneconomic. This was as a result of the drive to centralise all food distribution systems. It would be quite possible for carrots to travel to Peterborough from Wales to be packaged and then back again to a shop in Wales.

The food system has caused specialisation and the abandonment of small-scale diversity. To rectify this educating the market is vital. In the Eastern counties of Wales mixed farming can be practice including clover and grass with up to 50% of land used for this purpose, with ruminants (cattle or sheep), in a rotation system. Cereal production would have to halve. Getting the price right would be a challenge, but not if we take account poor health and the burden on the NHS that as a consequence of the current system. We need to educate the public for dietary change.

How to farm?

We need to minimise artificial inputs and mimic the natural systems around us. We can never use nitrogen fertilisers but instead rotate crops, using clover and grass. Patrick thinks that we should therefore eat more meat because the use of ruminants is an essential part of a crop rotation system. It is important to rebuild soil biology, and keep poultry.

On his farm, every year, productivity has increased, as has biodiversity, for example there is a huge number of bats feeding on the insects attracted to the plants.

He believes that stewardship of the land should be integrated into farming, not confined to the margins, i.e. hedgerows. He has 20 acres of minute and oats which he grows for his cows and when they have been harvested there is, for days, huge number of crows feeding in the fields. This means that his farming system is also creating a feedstock for nature. Modern stewardship schemes are mistaken, he believes, and so are conservation groups because they encourage this separation of farming from conservation. It is an institutional separation of nature and food production which affects the quality of the crops that we eat.

He believes that George Monbiot is mostly wrong about sheep. Grass fed lamb is important and okay. Ruminants are vital to convert cellulose into food and manure which the practice of vegetable growing also needs.

The public needs to see where their food comes from and how it is produced. People shop on price because food buying is supermarket led, and they have no idea where their food comes from. So the marketing of food needs to be aligned with local activity and work to improve the farming system. It is a systemic problem that needs a holistic solution. We should encourage the eating of food that has a better backstory, from the soil around us.

The food movement, by which he means recent changes in diet, is an unstoppable force for change, he believes, and he believes that millennials, i.e. people under 30, get it, and are especially receptive to his message. But at the moment they are listening to George Monbiot and eating less meat.

Is he right?

Livestock rearing has a long carbon shadow producing between 13 and 18% of greenhouse gas emissions. More research is needed to determine the carbon balance once the sequestration of carbon in soil is taken into account. Modern depleted soil has just 1% of organic matter. Healthy soil should have around 60% of organic matter. He thinks the carbon balance is probably neutral for his kind of farming but we need evidence. He doesn’t have any figures. On the other hand, nitrogen fertiliser production itself is a huge source of carbon emissions. We can also return minerals to the soil by not using nitrogen. Microbes can process the minerals. He referred us to a book by Martin Blackley called ‘Mining Microbes’.

More information on the Sustainable Food Trust website.


Food values

I attended a workshop on Food Values Wales, which is a Facebook group.

When discussing food with people there should be no snobbery, no class values. What values do people have when they shop? The following values were listed: convenience, whether reared outdoors if meat, whether Welsh, the amount of packaging, the price, the design of the packaging, whether it is ready cooked or time-saving, Fairtrade, organic, health, taste (sugar, salt), animal welfare, social identity and peer group, justice (food policy), providing an enjoyable.

Discussing food and diet should be a positive experience on common ground, because food is what connects us. There should be no shameing. For example it should be possible to talk about obesity without mentioning sugar.


Mark Williams from the Farmers Union Wales spoke for the progressive wing of conventional agriculture.

He said he was introducing rotation into his farm and had tested the soils and added lime. He grew brassicas and legumes with mid-till. He said he does add glyphosphate to his soils, which admission provoked some controversy and criticism. He also admitted he had not investigated Permaculture.

He claimed it reduces carbon dioxide emissions. He also adds chicken manure and deploys winter grazing. He says he sows plants with deep roots to help with drainage and then sows spring crops which require lower inputs and but give lower yield. These are undersown with a ley of clover which is cut and put in the silo for winter feed. He doesn’t believe in organic farming. He does concede that some organic practices can be adapted into conventional farming but thinks that farmers do not change their ways, especially older farmers. He is in favour of the use of GPS, drones and so on to identify and target crops that are in need of care, feed, or treatment (pesticide).

He was told that organic growing, if practiced throughout the UK, would put 3.1 million tonnes of carbon into the soil according to one estimate.


Emma Maxwell talked of small-scale solutions.

She is a market gardener from Llanidloes, Cae Felyn.

See: cultivate.uk.com and ashandelmhorticulture.co.uk

She began by lampooning the idea of “sustainable intensification” of farming, which is a pseudonym for factory farming. She went on to say that worldwide, small scale producers feed 70% of the world’s population. They use 30% of arable land, 20% of fossil fuels and 30% of water’s total global consumption.

The landworkersalliance.org.uk is our voice, she said.

Cae Felyn is a diverse, organic,: closedloop system, which includes animals such as geese and hens and has no slugs. She contrasted land sharing (with nature) with land sparing (set-aside for large mammals). She is in favour of regenerative agriculture. She believes that agroforestry is the future and in favour of biological control of a fitting caterpillars. Agroforestry can create microclimates, for example by planting trees in North-South rows to cut shading, planting vegetables in between. Nowadays in Wales the climate has changed so that we often have droughts in the spring, and planting trees can help to relieve the drought by retaining moisture in the soil.

She showed a graph which demonstrated that 1 ha of agroforestry was equivalent in terms of production capacity to 0.8 ha of conventional agriculture plus 0.6 hectares of tree produce (fruit, etc), totalling 1.4 ha. I.e. a substantial increase in yield.

She spoke in favour of crop diversity. In conventional worldwide agriculture a total of just 30 different crops provides 95% of world food/diet. Just eight crops form 75% of our diet and a staggering four crops supply 60% of our diet – maize, wheat, rice and potatoes. In other words we rely on monocultures and very few crops, which makes us very vulnerable. Over the last century there has been a massive reduction in the number of species offered in seed catalogues. One great thing we can do is to save seeds.

She mentioned that Sue Stickland, who specialises in and advocates seed swapping and conservation, now lives in Newtown and is available for talks. She also referred us to the book “Vertical Veg” by Mark Ridsdill Smith. Cwm Harry also offers training.

David Thorpe.

The website of Transition Tywi Trawsnewid, Carmarthenshire, Wales