Ladies and gentlemen. Foneddigion a boneddigesau. It is a great pleasure to be here today and to have met so many food producers across the country over the last few days, especially in Countryside Week – an idea, I hasten to say, created by my Countryside Fund! The aim of the week is to highlight the importance of the work done by people who live and work in the countryside; who produce the wonderful variety of top quality food in Wales and manage the landscapes that we all cherish. It is, after all, that effort which makes this part of the world such a special place to live and so attractive to visitors. It doesn’t just happen without you!
It is, perhaps, appropriate that your discussion is taking place in the splendid surroundings of the National Botanic Garden of Wales because we can all too easily forget the central relationship between humanity and the land. We have to see it, though, as a symbiotic relationship, as those before us always did. You will know that old Welsh proverb, “Cadw dy ardd," ceidw dy ardd dithau,” “Keep your garden – your garden will keep you.”
That principle is what links food production to the health and wellbeing of a thriving rural community and it is this integrated situation, where the individual-in-community is set within the health and wellbeing of Nature’s eco-systems which has always been the central focus of my concern. It is no use, it seems to me, helping one of those elements to thrive if all of them are not going to benefit in equal measure. So I hope that in your deliberations today the need for a truly integrated approach is central to your thinking, because if one element in the equation is neglected then the whole system will suffer serious decline. There is now plenty of terrifying evidence of this happening around the world, to the extent that I cannot stress to you enough just how important it is to see things in the round; to find solutions and better ways of operating that are properly joined-up and focussed implicitly on the wellbeing of the individual in community, sustained by a healthy, biodiverse natural environment.
This is why I am so grateful that companies like ASDA have been such generous supporters of my Countryside Fund, which is about to announce a new set of grants. It is vital that major retailers and the big players in the food business are part of this picture too, investing in rural communities.
I would add, though, that the way we produce that food has to be as sustainable as possible. If, like me, you have your sights set firmly on the future, then in the very challenging circumstances of the 21st Century we have to see sustainability as much more than just an environmental or “green” issue. It is an absolutely vital economic issue, one that underpins any attempt to create long-term resilience in a country’s food security, particularly as we are now exposing ourselves to increasingly severe climate and weather shocks by failing to act globally on climate change. So genuine sustainability is central to safeguarding jobs and promoting the rural economy. But it must do this in an integrated way.
I have certainly been heartened by the succession of environmental management schemes that have long been in operation here, many of them with such resonant Welsh names as Tir Mynydd, Tir Gofal, Tir Cynnal. I know there is now another one, Glastir, and it is worth noting that the common element in all of those names is “tir,” “land.”
As you might imagine, I am particularly encouraged by the schemes that have helped farmers convert to organic approaches (in many ways, I prefer to call them agro-ecological systems), simply because they are a form of farming that puts the health of the land, of the soil and its ecosystem, at the very heart of the picture and, by doing so, benefitting human health as well. About ten years ago I enjoyed a fascinating evening with the late Archdruid, Dic Jones, who was, himself, a farmer. He wrote a wonderful poem called “Cynhaeaf,” “Harvest,” in which he talks about his intimate knowledge of the rhythms of the seasons and the way the soil must be nurtured if it is to nurture future generations. The soil, he said, contains “Cynhaeaf cynaeafau,” “a harvest of harvests,” enriched with the growth of past Summers, and the wisdom of human tending.
He speaks a great and practical truth, not a poetic fantasy. The question is, how do we bring that poetic understanding much more to bear on the practical, day-to-day business of producing food in today’s globalised world – particularly without suffering the unintended consequences of those outwardly beneficial management schemes separating the attention we give to the conservation of Nature from the attention given to farming? For it to be a truly sustainable approach, we have to guard against this. So I wonder, is there not an urgent need to encourage a form of farming that enables things like habitats and all of the natural systems at work on the land to co-exist within a sustainable form of farming? Could this be a goal your attention might focus on for a while today?
Yesterday I visited various examples of the work being done as part of my Cambrian Mountains initiative in mid Wales – the whole idea being to stimulate and promote rural enterprise as well as promoting the produce of the area. Lots of other things are being done to help this happen. The Soil Association, for instance, has its Food for Life catering mark, which I am pleased to hear has recently been extended into Wales. The emphasis in all of these cases is on enhancing Welsh food production – but might I ask another rather difficult question which, I feel, we have to bear in mind? The question is, where does so much of this food end up going? If the ultimate aim is to put more resilience into the food security of Wales, is it not worth developing a more specific strategy that re-localises the food system in Wales, so that more of the food produced here actually stays here, to be processed and consumed? If the aim is to achieve that degree of proper resilience and food security, then it seems to me the situation has to be encouraged whereby a country is producing as great a percentage of its staple foods as near as possible to its big urban centres of population. I wonder how much of the food that supplies, say, local Welsh schools actually comes from Welsh farms around them? Or does that prove too expensive, so it ends up coming from much further afield? What about hospitals? What about the food consumed by people living in every town and city of Wales? Is it wise that we are so dependent upon a form of food production that puts such a distance between the producer and the consumer – if the aim is to ensure resilient food security in the future?
I know these questions are being addressed by some of you here today who make up the Food and Farming Panel chaired by Dr. Haydn Edwards and I would hope your deliberations will result in a strategic assessment of these sorts of issues which will go on to inform the food plan for Wales.
You will be hearing shortly from the Deputy Minister, Alun Davies, about how such a joint vision and joint action can tackle the challenges our countryside faces and I am very pleased to hear he is keen for this action to be rooted in the wishes, needs and priorities of those living and working in our rural areas. This is such an important approach because it recognizes just how integrated the problems are and, therefore, how joined-up the solutions have to be. We ignore what I can only call “Community Capital” at our peril, just as it is dangerous to ignore the needs of “Natural Capital.” We can only properly safeguard the future of the individual if we safeguard the well-being of both.
Ladies and gentlemen, it has been inspiring to see so many examples over the past few days of those in rural communities in this part of the world pulling together, often against very difficult odds, to produce food of such quality. It has encouraged me to believe that it is possible to forge an intelligent, scientifically sound, local and economically viable approach to food production which dramatically enhances the resilience of food security here in Wales. It is an approach which, ultimately of course, we might then pass on to those who follow us because they, too, have to be included in our reckoning. After all, it is dangerous to forget that it is they – our grandchildren and their grandchildren – from whom we borrow the world. Diolch yn fawr i chi i gyd.