An opinion piece by Growth Deal Programme Manager, Robyn Lovelock
The food and farming sectors are at the heart of our economy and our culture here in North Wales. They are a central element of our foundational economy, a bastion of Welsh language, and drive a key element of our export wealth.
But never before has this sector faced so much change at once. The only certainty for the future seems more change and further complexity. Political, economic, technological, social and environmental change all feed into each other, creating challenges. But they also bring opportunities.
The Wales Real Food and Farming Conference Cynhadledd 2023 Conference – CGFFfC 2022 WRFFC is coming to North Wales for the first time this year. It is hosted by Coleg Cambria Llysfasi – an important agricultural college for the region. The Conference brings together farmers and food businesses with groups and individuals involved in public health, food procurement and education, food sovereignty and social justice – covering the whole field to fork spectrum. It has grown over the past five years, and now attracts up to 400 delegates, offering valuable opportunities for integrating the traditional with the progressive, the ambitious with key practicalities – all critical discussions for these complex times.
As the Tourism and Agri-food Programme Manager at Ambition North Wales I will be leading an important session at the conference with Growth Deal stakeholders. We’ll be looking at how learning institutions across Wales are changing the way they develop and deliver their courses amid all this change. I’ll be joined by a panel representing Coleg Cambria Llysfasi, Glynllifon Agricultural College, Canolfan Tir Glas, Black Mountains College and Farming Connect.
So, what will be on the agenda?
We’ll open with technology. Wales’ first autonomous tractor was launched in the north this month, and farmers and food producers here are at the forefront of balancing investments in technology against the value and skills of human experts. Panellists will discuss how they are tackling this balance of innovation and promises of efficiency, alongside the risk of losing human skills and grassroots developed over many generations.
We’ll also focus on political dynamics. Whether we like it or not, this will shape the decisions future the food and farming sector need to grapple with. The rising cost of fertiliser in 2022 due to the war in Ukraine raised important questions about low-input farming options; and Brexit and subsequent trade deals have led to changes in import and export patterns, as well as changes to availability of frontline agricultural workers.
A third area of focus will be the social trends that are playing a role – while younger generations are more likely to choose meals without meat, they are also less likely to want to grow vegetables themselves and registrations for college-based horticulture courses have stagnated and even declined in recent years. With the UK reliant on imports for over 70% of its fruit and veg and nearly 30% of its meat, panellists will consider how their institutions are incorporating these political and social considerations into their plans and how much responsibility learning institutions can take on for shaping trends, as well as respond to them.
Finally, we’ll look at climate change. The spotlight has been on agriculture and land for its contribution to the emissions profile of Wales and for its role in sequestration. Recent Climate Commission projections indicate food and farming sectors are set to become the largest domestic emitters of greenhouse gases (GHG) by around 2035, with agricultural emissions in Wales on the rise. As we balance decarbonisation with the need to boost biodiversity, the workforce of the future will need a wide range of new skills in addition to the technicalities of food production, whether livestock or horticulture. With government funding streams shifting to delivery of ‘public goods’ and large food sector players such as Nestle committing to 50% regenerative agriculture by 2030, we’ll be discussing how our partners are supporting learners to manage such significant shifts.
A lot to cover in a short session, but no doubt just seeds for discussions that will trickle through other parts of the conference and – hopefully – into the wider sector discourse.