Whepstead: Women’s Institute Great Food Debate gives food for thought

Speakers at the Great Food Debate, Whepstead: Norfolk dairy farmer Ken Proctor of the National Farme

Speakers at the Great Food Debate, Whepstead: Norfolk dairy farmer Ken Proctor of the National Farmers Union, Dr Wendy Harwood of the John Innes Centre, Lisa Barker and Christine Ro of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), weatherman Jim Bacon and Norfolk farmer and policy director at the Soil Association Peter Melchett. - Credit: Archant

More than 100 members of the Women’s Institute (WI) joined the organisation’s national debate on food at an event last month.

Peter Melchett at the Great Food Debate, Whepstead

Peter Melchett at the Great Food Debate, Whepstead - Credit: Archant

The Great Food Debate came to Suffolk on October 24, when Suffolk West members gathered at Whepstead community centre near Bury St Edmunds to hear from a range of speakers including farmers, scientists and members of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW).

Wendy Harwood at the Great Food Debate, Whepstead

Wendy Harwood at the Great Food Debate, Whepstead - Credit: Archant

Dr Wendy Harwood from the John Innes Institute in Norwich spoke about the myths surrounding genetically modified crops, and explained how the science worked. Norfolk dairy farmer and National Farmers’ Union member Ken Proctor explained how national campaigning had helped his sector to get a fairer deal.

Mr Proctor, who keeps Holsteins on the family farm, told delegates that dairy farmers were now getting 8p per litre more for their milk than they were a year ago as a result of their campaigning efforts.

Although he would prefer smaller herds, he recognised that a small unit was uneconomical. He expressed his concern at the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB) and said Government compensation did not cover for the loss of a prize animal.


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At the moment, inoculation is not the answer, he told the audience. He described his love of animals, and his desire to see more cooperation between the various groups concerned with farming and food production.

Lisa Barker and Christine Ro of the Associated Country Women of the World explained the work of their organisation and how helping women in turn helps the whole family and the community. ACWW runs projects each year to improve the lives of those in the poorer countries and Women’s Institute members have raised money for projects around the world. They encouraged delegates to continue their support of the “Pennies for Friendship” charity initiative.

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Amanda Bloomfield, who works with the charity Gatehouse in Bury St Edmunds, told conference goers about its food bank which issues food parcels for those in dire need.

Norfolk farmer Peter Melchett, policy director at the Soil Association, spoke about the health of the soil and its importance to both crops and animals. Mr Melchett, an organic farmer for 15 years, described the decline in bird and wild life in the countryside over the years. He explained how the publication of Silent Spring some years ago momentarily awakened the public consciousness over the consequences of such a serious decline

Weatherman Jim Bacon spoke about climate change and how it affects food production.

He said he was not as concerned about sudden climactic changes as he has looked at records going back into history and variations have occurred at regular intervals. He explained how drought was more damaging than floods because flooding is local and the results are usually short-lived.

Drought, on the other hand, covers vast areas and can have long-lasting effects. The management of our water stocks is essential if we are to maintain the welfare of an ever increasing world population, he said.

“It was obvious that all the questions could not be answered in a day and we should go away and carry on debating the quality and availability of our food with our institutes and families,” said Sturmer and District WI member Barbara Collar, who described the event as “excellent”.

“Although the speakers came to the subject from different angles it was generally agreed that all should work together to come up with a sustainable programme using the best from all areas.”

Ixworth & District WI member Elizabeth Sharpe said: “It was a very worthwhile and stimulating debate, showing that there are still very many problems for future discussion.”

Lunch was prepared by Elizabeth Lansman and her catering team, we took our seats for the afternoon session.

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