Oxford Farming Conferences: Highlights 2017

Date Published: 11/01/2017

Oxford Real Farming Conference 2017

The future of agricultural support post-Brexit, fair-trade farming systems and protecting soils were the talk of Oxford last week as hundreds of farmers and growers convened for the annual Oxford Farming and the Oxford Real Farming Conferences. OF&G kick-started 2017 by being at both events, and here we bring you the highlights…..

Farewell to direct support?

Defra minister Andrea Leadsom opened OFC with a whistle-stop tour of the current state of British agriculture, touching on everything from issues around migrant workers and trade, to exports and the environment.

Her attempts to please the crowd, however, came in the shape of announcing plans to hold a wide-ranging consultation on the future of food and farming post-Brexit, as well as a promise to scrap regulations which were an ‘unnecessary burden’ on producers.

Mrs Leadsom said that leaving the EU was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to design a farming system which encouraged innovation, increased productivity and enhanced the environment.

And she said that Defra wanted to make sure that any decisions about agriculture were made with the industry’s input, and would help to ensure farm businesses thrived.

While Mrs Leadsom refused to be drawn on any detail of future farm policies, her Defra colleague, farm minister George Eustice, was a little more candid.

Saying that the government wanted to move away from a direct-support model post-2020, he said he envisaged a system where farmers would be paid for ‘ecosystem services’.

He also wanted a new agricultural policy which provided insurance for farmers and supported productivity.

While Mr Eustice said he wanted to see a UK framework to replace Brussels-based decision-making, farm ministers from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were less impressed by the idea.

Calum Kerr, SNP Defra spokesman, said different parts of the UK should have different policies.

“Repatriation of powers shouldn’t mean powers move from Brussels to London,” he said. “We should consult as good neighbours should.”

Welsh Assembly agriculture minister Lesley Griffiths agreed: “The frameworks have to be based on agreement between the UK government and devolved regions. This isn’t a rewinding back from devolution.”

Tasting the difference

The first-ever joint event between the OFC and the ORFC saw delegates from both conferences get the chance to find out exactly how inputs can impact on food.

The Grate Cheese Event involved a number of innovative dairy farmers – including OF&G licensee Hugh Padfield of the Bath Cheese Company – who guided delegates through a special cheese-tasting event.

The cheese-makers described how their cheeses were made, and explained how everything from breed to the types of forage and the time of year the milk is produced can impact on flavour.

Organised by Innovative Farmers, the event also explained how different production systems can influence food. Robin Skailes of Cropwell Bishop Creamery described how clover in his organic pasture creates a softer cheese which tastes very different to his non-organic blue cheese thanks to the higher levels of omega 3 fats in organic milk

Reversing unjust food systems

Event founder Colin Tudge opened the eighth Oxford Real Farming Conference. Food production underpinned democracies, he said, yet the drive to make food systems as efficient and profitable as possible created ‘food injustice’.

Mr Tudge said agroecology – which has organic at its core – was a key route to reversing this injustice, as good food leads to an economic democracy which is geared to the well-being of people and the environment.

Creating sustainable food systems

The UN’s former Special Rapporteur on the right to food told delegates at the Oxford Real Farming Conference that creating sustainable food systems are key to helping tackle the obesity epidemic.

Olivier De Schutter, now the co-chairman of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable food systems, presented evidence from his own research showing that obesity was linked to social norms, and not just levels of household income.

He said elements of the current food system were preventing it from being sustainable, with costs of production not being internalised in the price of food, and large agri-businesses having disproportionate influence on the political system.

The results meant that the balance between agroecological and large-scale agriculture was largely skewed in the favour of large systems.

Mr De Schutter said that the UK’s strategy to rely on imports had created a system which was geared towards monoculture and reducing farm labour. This had led to a reduction in soil health, poor natural diversity, low-value food and poor wages in the food production system.

He closed his speech by calling on the government and businesses to be supportive of local initiatives, and to incentive a more balanced approach to producing healthy food.

Don’t eat us out of house and home

Mark Lea, Oxford Real Farming Conference
Mark Lea at Oxford Real Farming Conference

The conference heard from a number of experienced farmers, including organic producers Mark Lea, Tim May and John Pawsey and non-organic farmers Andrew Howard and David Walston, who tackled topics ranging from soil health and moving away from the plough, to agroforestry and reducing stress in livestock.

John Pawsey told us: “It feels like a groundswell of passion for farming and growing which is missing from most conferences. It also considers the wider issues which can help focus the mind into what we should be doing and what we should be producing in the near future.”

Meanwhile grower and baker John Letts discussed heritage cereals, Hodmedods’ grower Mark Lea looked at British pulses for human consumption, and the National Trust’s Patrick Begg led a session on land beyond the plough – a future for the uplands.

Graeme Willis, senior rural policy campaigner for the Campaign for Rural England was one of many speakers who reiterated these themes over the two days.

He told the conference that reports of upwards of 30% of food wasted does not include statistics on soil health, and that the negative impacts of high-volume food production – where soil health is critical to stabilising food production – was especially important considering extreme weather events.

Kath Dalmeny of the Sustain, the Alliance for Better Food and Farming, spoke about the need to realise that food security must include ‘not eating ourselves out of house and home’.

In the session called Public Money for Public Good, Professor of Food Policy Tim Lang from City University London described how cheap calories leads to obesity, and that food is too cheap.

Prof Lang said there needed to be diversification in what we produce, and as most calories currently come from eight crops, we must stimulate the market to move away from cheap calories.

Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology and Dean of Strategic Research at Leeds University, said that resilience is a description of how to respond to shock with one of two options – either to come back to the same place, or find yourself in a new point entirely.

“What would happen if we had a dust bowl event in East Anglia?” he asked. “And who owns the risks?”

ORFC talks will be available to listen to on the ORFC website, while you can watch sessions from the OFC online.