Oxford Real Farming Conference 2019

Waking at 5am on the 3rd January, we headed to Oxford for the Oxford Real Farming Conference. The event was a fantastic opportunity to meet people from a range of professions and organisations working to forward food and sustainability and hear fascinating discussions on topics ranging from regenerative supply chains to how to reduce our dependency on plastics.

The day began with our two presentations. Duncan spoke on his experience setting up and developing COFCO as part of a session entitled ‘How should we scale up box schemes and CSAs [Community Supported Agriculture] in the UK?’. In this session, he was joined by Julie Brown from Growing Communities in Hackney, London; Guy Singh-Watson from Riverford; and Gareth Davies from Canalside Community Food CSA. Each gave unique insights into how they had developed their box schemes or CSA and where they saw them going in the future. Duncan argued that in order for box schemes to continue to grow into the future, they may need to consider ‘rebirthing’ as a provider of food services, which set me [Alice] up nicely for my talk on the Cambridge Sustainable Food Hub.

The talk was given as part of the session ‘Food Hubs: An Introduction’. I talked about our vision to create an inherently sustainable local food system, where all actors within the food supply chain are better connected and supported in order to bring environmental and social benefit. I described the activities we see the Food Hub as performing, including our incubator kitchens and trading platform, and questioned the sustainability of our existing food industry and economic system more generally. You can hear the full speech here. I was joined by Growing Communities, who spoke about their new initiative ‘the Better Food Shed’, and two academics who had studied Food Hubs in the UK and the US respectively.

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Alice introducing the Cambridge Sustainable Food Hub

The discussion following our presentations was dominated by the question, ‘so what is a Food Hub?’. Members of the audience expressed some concern regarding the vagueness of definitions and the fact that each Food Hub seemed to be different and they were not necessarily tied together by a common theme. As one audience member pointed out, what is almost more important is defining what a Food Hub ‘isn’t’. For example, I would not be happy with a co-opting of the term by a large corporation such as Amazon, for example. For me, a Food Hub is rooted in community. As a result, they tend to operate at a local scale but, as I stated in my talk, there may be lessons that can be learnt from Food Hubs that can be applied to the wider food industry.

As for the activities a Food Hub performs, my personal opinion (which was shared by at least one member of the audience), is that their value comes from their diversity. A Food Hub should be based in a community, and all communities are unique. They have distinct characteristics that may vary from one place to another across the country, or even from one neighbourhood to another within a city. A Food Hub in Cambridge will be very different from one in London, for example. And a Food Hub in a wealthy suburb of London would be different from one in a deprived inner-city location (to give two slightly simplistic contrasting cases). Environmental factors such as access to fresh produce and socio-economic characteristics such as levels of food insecurity will inevitably influence the activities that a Food Hub will, and should, perform.

After giving our presentations, I attended a discussion on regenerative supply chains. ‘Regenerative’ refers to a supply chain that gives back more than it takes, as opposed to sustainable supply chains that keep things the way they are, or degenerative supply chains that take away more than they give. A representative from LUSH spoke about their cork shampoo containers that are made by a family-run business in Portugal. The family gains financial stability from the cork business, which enables them to fund rewilding and educational projects. Cork is also a renewable resource as you do not need to kill the tree when harvesting. This was followed by a talk from Hodmedod’s on their development of UK-grown vegetable protein (crucially: that is edible for humans, not just livestock). Finally, Jyoti Fernandes, a smallholder farmer from Devon and member of the Landworkers’ Alliance and La Via Campesina, spoke on agroecology and food sovereignty. She powerfully argued that we need to shift our focus away from an obsession with global supply chains – a structure that has its roots in colonial extractivism, the process of commodification, and the powerful financial influence of institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. Instead, we in the UK, Jyoti asserted, should consider how we can increase our own food sovereignty in order to enable the food sovereignty of others. She encouraged the audience, and I would pass her recommendations on here, to contact their MPs and talk to policymakers to ensure significant changes and commitments are made in the upcoming Agricultural Bill.

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Q&A Session with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

This in turn led into the question and answer session with Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He began his introductory speech by critiquing the impact of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and asserting the need to replenish the UK’s stock of ‘natural capital’ through the provision of public money for public goods – i.e., rewarding those who produce environmental benefit and not those who simply hold the most land. The questions ranged from whether he would commit to a tax on nitrogen users to whether there would be a reversal of funding cuts for enforcing environmental regulation, through questions on regenerative agriculture and permaculture and the impact of Chinese purchases of UK agricultural land. My overall impression was in line with the first question that was asked: ‘You’re saying all the right things, but none of this is mentioned in the Bill… Will your warm words be genuinely supported?’. In other words, it awaits to be seen how much becomes a political reality, and I felt the general mood at the conference is that not many people are holding their breath!

Our afternoon was taken up by two debates. The first was ‘Plastics after Blue Planet II: as food producers and retailers, how can we wean ourselves off our dependency on plastic?’. As a topic that has gained considerable attention this year, I was interested to hear how the panellists would build on the narratives that are most frequently heard in the media. We first heard from Erica Davies from the Keynsham Wombles on the actions individuals and communities can do to reduce the environmental impact of plastics in their local areas. She was followed by Guy Singh-Watson and Robyn Copley-Wilkins, a packaging technologist, from Riverford. Guy argued that the knee-jerk reaction is rarely the correct one and expressed his frustration at the sentiment that an ‘informed consumer is going to drive better environmental change’. He also expressed concern that the focus on plastics was distracting from more significant action on climate change and was giving people the false impression that small individual changes, such as not using plastic straws, were enough. Robyn provided more detail of the ways in which Riverford has tried to respond to customer demands that they reduce the amount of plastic packaging used. She stated that plastic is still the best material for a number of products, particularly fragile vegetables such as salad leaves, and extends shelf lives and reduces food waste. However, the most important factor for producers and distributors is knowing the ’end of life solutions’ for their products. The fact that kerbside policies (i.e., what can be recycled) vary across the UK makes things much more difficult. This was echoed by the final speaker, a representative from the NFU, whose main argument was that simplifying the inconsistent and confusing nature of recycling and disposal infrastructure would help to solve many of the plastic problems that we have.

All speakers agreed that plastics, like much of our food, are artificially valued. Because the cost of plastics does not include the externalities (negative impacts that are passed on to the public and not borne by the producers of the product), it is low enough to be financially competitive in contrast to biodegradable or compostable alternatives, for example. However, Guy voiced his doubts regarding compostable material made from annual plants, such as maize, as the environmental impact of these materials is often greater than plastic, due to the resources that have to go into producing these plants and then the material. He also strongly stated his stance that legislation is necessary, and we cannot rely on the ‘informed consumer’ or the markets to find the solution. A final point that the panel seemed to agree on was that ultimately, the system we have created is the problem. Our reliance on long supply chains in almost all circumstances, which necessitate packaging to increase shelf life, has fuelled our need for plastics. If we are to wean ourselves off plastics for good, we need to reform the system entirely.

The final session that I attended was on ‘Stopping the financialisation of agricultural land’, which I found incredibly informative. Robin Grey, a speaker from the Land Justice Network gave a summary of the ways in which farmland has increasingly become a speculative investment and status symbol, rather than a resource for producing food. He highlighted the factors that have led to this situation: the finite nature of land, of course, but more importantly, the major tax privileges for owners of farmland that, he argued, are hurting many farmers, particularly family-run or small-scale farmers. Farmland is exempt from business rates, inheritance tax, and capital gains tax. This situation means that Amazon pays £2m in business rates annually for its warehouse in Fife (incidentally, more than it pays in corporation tax) but the UK’s biggest ‘mega farm’, which is ¼ of the size, pays none. This, he asserted, gives an unfair advantage to industrial farms. The speculation on farmland also means that a lot of land is landbanked, for example for housing developments, meaning that people cannot and are not growing food there. A number of his points were rebutted by Christopher Price, from the Country Land and Business Association, who argued that the exemption of farmland from inheritance tax prevents it from being sold or split up with each generation. Whilst I personally disagreed with him on several issues, I found it interesting how he began his speech. He highlighted the unique character of land in contrast to other forms of capital: it is not created by humans; it is finite in supply; it can’t be moved around; and it provides things we require to live. He also stated that the way in which land has come to be ‘owned’ is from people taking it: either enclosing it themselves or taking it from someone else who did. Consequently, ownership of land is reliant on force, and equates to power. I found this summary interesting as it reflects exactly the narrative made by the Land Justice Network – but he has come to very different conclusions as to the relevance of this historical context to the present day.

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Publication handed out by the Land Justice Network

Finally, Molly Scott Cato, an economist and Green MEP, asserted that land needs to work for the public good, rather than being used as a tool in the process of capital accumulation. She convincingly argued that land use choices are social claims. In other words, what land does has an impact on society. If a farmer decides to farm in a certain way that, say, increases (or decreases) flood risk, or improves (or worsens) soil quality, then that has an impact on wider society. We all need the land to be managed well, for the benefit of society and the environment.  She called for large landholdings to be broken up and land to be taxed through a land-value tax. I also liked the way that she began her talk, with a quote from an Indigenous land protector that ‘We belong to the Earth’. Land ownership has been viewed differently through time and space, so there’s no reason that the way we do things now is necessarily the best way or the one that needs to exist.

Overall, the day was incredibly informative, inspiring and engaging. Several themes stick with me:

  • The complexity of issues. Nothing is ever black and white, particularly when discussing the environment.
  • The importance of a political framing for food. From historical processes and past injustices, to the impact of current political decisions, food – like climate change – is inherently political.
  • Individual action is important, but this needs to come with system change. Many of the food-related problems we face today – whether plastic packaging or unfair global trade – are rooted in an unsustainable food system, that relies too much on global supply chains and prioritises profit over planetary and human health.

What we hope to show with the Food Hub is that another way is possible.

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