Oxford Real Farming Conference 2020

You can read my summary of ORFC 2019 here. There’s a huge range of topics covered briefly here, but I hope it is an interesting insight into some of the contemporary debates and ideas in the realm of food.

The conference began with a rousing performance of taiko drumming. The majority population of Japan have been farmers for much of its history. Taiko drumming was used to celebrate harvests, to avoid disasters and to give thanks – an appropriate way to start a conference with a strong emphasis on connection to the land.

This was followed by a welcome from Colin Tudge, one of the founders of the ORFC. He stressed the importance of radical solutions. Not ‘radical’ in the way that many people understand it now (extreme, violent, etc.) but in its original meaning of ‘getting to the roots of something’ (coming as it does from the Latin radicalis -‘of or having roots’). He argued that we need to challenge the status quo – including ‘uncritical technophilia and rampant neoliberalism’ – and in particular the notion that it is ‘unrealistic’ to consider alternatives. If the status quo is wrecking the planet, how can it be more ‘realistic’ to stick with this than to challenge it?

So what might ‘challenging the status quo’ look like? Importantly, it has to be a people’s/farmers’ movement. He suggested five crucial steps:

  1. frame the necessary theory/philosophy
  2. demonstrate there is an alternative to status quo based on reality and ecology
  3. ask, what do we mean by the alternative?

Do we need the corporates onside? What kind of science do we need? Just biotech? Or more subtle – agroecology? What kind of mindset do we need – competitive or compassionate, collaborative, spiritual?

4. bring together people who are showing things can be different

Having set the tone and purpose of the conference, he was followed by Leah Penniman from Soul Fire Farm (@soulfirefarm). She recounted a story from the indigenous people of the land she farms on of the three sister crops, squash, bean and maize, that, when farmed together, provide mutual benefit. She contrasted this with their current production. In particular that of maize, which is grown in immense monocultures for purposes including animal feed and the production of corn syrup, the high-calorific sweetener that’s added to a many American products. She posed the question, how can we return maize to how it was intended to be farmed? I’d already intended to go to her session later on in the day, but the power of her storytelling convinced me of this.

John Meadly explored what would happen ‘if livestock stepped off the land – forever’ and argued for integrated farming systems that include animals as a crucial part. He emphasised the role that grazing can play in healing soils and insisted that the conflict is between industrial and pastural farming.

The first session I attended was on ‘Food, Farming and Climate Justice’. The headline spoke to my interests, although on reflection it may have been better to attend a session on something I knew less about.

Oli Rodker from the Ecological Land Coop and Land Workers’ Alliance began by highlighting insults such as ‘buffon’, ‘bumpkin’ and ‘oaf’ that have all been used in the past against peasants, to portray them as foolish and unintelligent. He talked briefly about the historical context of our food system, including an increasing urban bias with a growing number of people becoming removed from the land. This led on to the present and the need (according to organisations such as the Land Workers’ Alliance – I expect the arguments would have opposed by certain attendees at the Oxford Farming Conference) for agroecology, land sharing and making multiple uses of the land. He then went on to talk about climate justice: the unequal impacts of climate change; the political dimensions of climate; and the need for ‘systems change not climate change’. I appreciated the way that he tied this to other forms of injustice. For example, land injustice means that many people who may wish to do so don’t have access to the land and resources necessary to build non-extractive systems. He finished by noting that modern life has ‘de-educated us from working together’ (we have an emphasis on individual success, individual choices, individual action) and that ‘we are still losing’. However, there are campaigns to draw hope from, and support, whether it’s the Green New Deal at Westminster, the youth climate movement in the streets, or the campaigns of organisations such as the LWA and the Land Justice Network on the land.

We then heard from Nelson Mudzingwa, a farmer from Zimbabwe and one of the core innovators of the Shashe Agroecology School and Paula Joya from La Via Campesina. Nelson spoke about the droughts that are occurring across south Africa. Droughts have led to the loss of livestock, impacts on nutrition and the increased importing of food to supplement stores. In the past thirty years, he said, they have had fifteen particularly bad years and only five that could be defined as very ‘good’ years. It is a series of extremes. When it isn’t a period of drought, cyclones lead to widespread flooding. Cyclone Dineo in 2017, for example, brought torrential rain and damaging winds to countries including Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Botswana, claiming the lives of 280 people and leading to an outbreak of cholera that affected a further 1,200 people.

Nelson described how they were trying to build resilience and rebuild seed and food sovereignty from the grassroots, with a focus on four elements:

  1. soil and soil fertility, through intercropping and rotations
  2. the water cycle and coping with the extremes of droughts and floods, through micro and macro water harvesting
  3. strengthening the local food web through farmer-managed systems and growing their own indigenous seed varieties
  4. succession – managing indigenous species in ecological way

I would have liked to have heard more from Nelson on this, but unfortunately the session was tight for time. It did disappoint me that, despite other speakers stating that we need to centre the voices of people who are at the ‘frontline of climate change’, we didn’t hear from him in the concluding statements.

Finally, we heard from Peter Stevenson from Compassion in World Farming. He began with a figure that livestock are 75% of agricultural emissions but only provide 18% of calories. He spoke about the importance not just of reducing emissions, but also restoring biodiversity, promoting good animal welfare and reducing antibiotic use. He argued that in order to … the industrial pig and poultry sector – reliant as it is on cereal crops and their increasingly intensive production, and the overuse and pollution of ground and surface waters – needs to be cut by 50%. As Oli Rodker commented in response to the first question of the Q&A, the choice of dynamic is between industrial and non-industrial production, rather than between animals and no animals. The dependence of livestock of human edible grain is the greater problem, not the animals themselves.

A later question asked how farmers could ‘win the argument with young people’. The suggestion was that young people are ‘giving up on our food system’ and becoming vegan in increasing numbers, with the framing appearing to be that you are ‘vegan, or you’re against the environment’. As a vegan myself I found this interesting. I agree that the argument is between industrial and non-industrial farming. I also acknowledge that animals are important parts of natural systems (it feels odd having to state that..!) and can bring environmental benefit. I would argue, along the lines of Sustain and others, for people – if they will eat meat – to eat ‘a lot less and better’. However, the neglect of the animal welfare (or, philosophical?) perspective, i.e. that those of us who are able to have a nutritious diet without having an animal be killed or exploited for it should do so, means that most of these debates about veganism vs the environment miss one of the key reasons why people become vegan (and stick with it).

The last question, posed to Paula Joya and Nelson Mudzingwa, was on how food activists in the global north can ‘highlight and centre justice’. Nelson responded that we need to build from the grassroots and establish connections between campaigners. Paula argued that we need to change our own lifestyles in the north and not simply rely on neo-colonial ‘solutions’ such as carbon markets to continue ‘business as usual’.

The final thing I have in my notes for this session – and I can’t remember who said it – is ‘Everyone has their own place in an ecology of social change. Need to collaborate and discuss more. Move away from productivism and profit driven

No simplistic answers’

Which seems like a fair summary on a topic as broad as ‘food, farming and climate justice’.

My favourite session of the day was given by Leah Penningham from Soul Fire Firm on ‘Farming While Black: African Diasporic Wisdom for Farming and Food Justice’. She began by asking us to reflect on our ancestors and those that had done something to make future generations more resilient. Her own example was of her ancestors in Ghana in the 1700s. Women braided seeds such as okra and millet into their hair before being forced onto slave ships, so they could take these seeds with them.

Three stones will keep the cooking pot firm” was the Ghanaian proverb that she referenced to speak about the three pillars of their work at Soul Fire Farm. The first is the land: marginal hillside land, that was stolen in the 17/18th century from the Stockbridge Mohican people who were forced off the land into reservations, that they farm using regenerative afro-indigenous methods. The food produced feeds 400 people, who pay what they can afford.

The second pillar is the concept of ‘each one, teach one’. This is the idea that knowledge is a property of your community. Anything you learn, you share. To achieve this, they run training courses and week-long residential courses on land-based skills. Having been involved in some activism I really appreciate this sentiment. Particularly because, if you don’t share knowledge you end up losing it.

The final pillar is the importance of organising and mobilising. She spoke about the important of laws that protect farmers and land tenure and their efforts to change policy and drive reparations – necessary to repair the harm and violence done by theft of land and exploitation of labour.

Returning to the story of her ancestors braiding seeds into their hair, Leah argued that braiding was a form of cultural transmission, allowing the use of these crops to be passed on to future generations. Crops from Africa – as varied as rice, coffee, cotton, okra, basil and palm – are now found worldwide. Moreover, there are varieties of crops that come from the Americas, but that were domesticated and created by enslaved Africans.

Much of Leah’s talk was exploring the agricultural tools and techniques that originated in Africa. Her stories were engaging and memorable: apparently, Cleopatra greatly valued the role of worms in composting and had the death penalty for people that harmed them. Earth worm castings were 10x higher during her reign than anywhere else on the planet. In Ghana and Liberia, they create ‘super black compost’ from ash, bone and crop residue. This soil sequesters three times the amount of carbon compared to standard soil. Each generation adds a layer of soil, meaning these layers can be read like tree rings to determine the age of a village or town. Talking of carbon sequestration – ‘fanyaju’ (‘throw it upwards’ – a form of terracing), which can be 25% more productive and sequester four times the amount of carbon, were another technique discussed.

Fundamental agrarian practices and tools, including nurseries, transplanting and the hoe, all have their origins in Africa.

She also considered social and economic techniques in agriculture, including the work parties and societies of mutual aid developed in the Caribbean, the Community Land Trust movement (and, ultimately, Food Hubs – very relevant to us) that came out of rural African-American farming communities in the US South in the 1970s, agricultural ‘schools on wheels’ such as that developed by Booker T Washington, or credit unions developed by Black women in West Africa.

For me, the important message is where and who we attribute knowledge to. A lot of knowledge that has come from the Black Agrarian tradition has been ignored or appropriated. It is also important to consider how forms of knowledge are perceived and valued. For example, she showed us an image of a wooded area where most of the trees had been burnt to clear the land. ‘Slash and burn’ is typically perceived in a negative way, as a short-sighted form of land clearance. However, swidden agriculture (‘slash and burn’, without the negative connotations) is intended as a form of long-range crop rotation, involving cover cropping and a fallow period, that allows for 20-30 years of recovery of the soil. During this time the forest regrows, playing an important part in the water cycle, capturing carbon and soil stabilisation. However, as land was stolen or enclosed and the amount of land people had access to decreased, the rotations became shorter to the extent that they were no longer sustainable.

Another example was that of permaculture. She had quite a dismissive attitude towards it, stating that it was not ‘real’ but rather a rebranding of indigenous practices for profit. However, she explained, the techniques, such as agroforestry, do exist. In Nigeria, they have over twenty-six kinds of tree guilds, containing species such as moringa, cherry, lemon, erosion controlling grasses and annuals around stabilised soils.

Our relationship with the land is another way in which we can learn from afro-indigenous methods. Leah recounted a trip back to Ghana she had made, and the astonishment of women there that ‘in America, you plant a seed, you don’t give thanks and you just expect it to grow??’. Instead of treating the land as a commodity, they felt it was important to view it more like a relative, and to give thanks for the benefits it provided.

Colonialism, slavery and the process of enclosure are crucial parts of the history of how we relate to the land. If you divorce yourself from the land by forcing people who do not look like you to do the labour, this affects the way in which you relate to it. As Wendell Berry, who Leah Penningham quoted, wrote in The Hidden Wound (1970), ‘Because [the white man] did not know the land it was inevitable that he would squander its natural bounty’. On the other side, talking about the various societal conditions that mean Black Agrarianism hasn’t been able to flourish in countries such as the US and UK (farming is the UK’s least diverse profession) despite its rich historical basis, she noted that one of the greatest barriers is trauma. Slavery, sharecropping and convict leasing all had the land as the ‘scene of the crime’, even though the land was ‘not the criminal’.

Wendell Berry, (1970): The Hidden Wound

The process of enclosure in the UK, and patterns land ownership stretching back to the Normal conquest, means that half of England is owned by just 1% of the population (Who Owns England? by Guy Shrubsole and the related website are both highly recommended). There is, unsurprisingly, a significant mismatch between ownership and labour on farms in terms of power and access. 90% of British fruit and veg is picked by migrant labour. Farm labour in the US is mainly migrant labour too (which links on to the precarity of farm labour jobs… more on that topic in a bit).

This article by Leah Penningham expands on some of her points I have recounted here:
By Reconnecting With Soil, We Heal the Planet and Ourselves’

The first session after lunch was on ‘Making Your Food Enterprise More Efficient’ and was organised by the Open Food Network (OFN). The session focused on IT systems and programmes that food enterprises are using to help manage sales, invoicing, accounting, harvesting to order etc. I spoke on how the OFN has enabled us at the Food Hub to facilitate direct trade between local buyers and producers.

It was great to have a practical session such as this, and I picked up a number of useful tips from more established enterprises that were also presenting, including StroudCo and Tamar Grow Local.

The final panel event I attended was ‘Answering to the Next Generation: A Young People’s Assembly on the National Food Strategy for England’. The concept was that a group of young people (15-25) would pose questions to two panels of experts regarding the National Food Strategy, including Henry Dimbleby, leader of the National Food Strategy.

The questions ranged from public health to carbon emissions to training future generations of farmers. If anything, this panel event suffered from trying to cover too much in too little time. Questions that could easily have been addressed in a whole session of their own were given unfortunately brief answers, with limited opportunity to challenge or explore them further.

The session began by introducing the People’s Food Policy, developed by representatives from the Land Workers’ Alliance, Global Justice Now, the Ecological Land Co-op, The Centre for Agroecology and the Permaculture Association. The aim of the People’s Food Policy is to prioritise real food that nourishes and place people at the heart of decision making.

The People’s Food Policy

The question from one of the young people that I’d loved them to have led with was, ‘who benefits most and who loses out from our current food system?’, as it would have set the framework for a discussion around food that was explicitly politically. Charlie Clutterbuck responded with ‘food multinationals’ and food speculators, who gamble on food production and manufacture food shortages, as two groups that benefit most. Guy Singh Watson from Riverford offered large-scale landowners as an additional answer, as they receive considerable payments under the Common Agricultural Policy simply for owning land. Essentially, we have public funds subsidising the richest people in the country.

The answer to ‘who loses out most’ was clear from answers to other questions that explored the connection between food and wages/job insecurity. When asked, ‘how will the NFS place society and equality at the centre of food supply?’ Imogen Richmond-Bishop, coordinator of the Right to Food programme for Sustain, answered that we need to realise Right to Food legislation in the UK, which is already implemented in one form or another in ten countries worldwide. Stagnating wages and insufficient welfare payments mean that people struggle to afford to buy better food. She also argued that we need greater equality in food production, with better careers on the land rather than the exploitation and modern slavery that is rampant presently.

A later question asked how we can support living wage food companies (the Food Hub is proudly one of these).  The debate led to the pay of farm labourers. Guy Singh-Watson argued that farm labourers should be paid more – but that this would mean we would have to pay more for our food. Charlie Clutterbuck added that it is very hard to organise migrant farm labour. He told the story of 150 farm labourers that were recruited from a farm in Kent to form a union. They approached their bosses, putting forward their main complaint – that they weren’t being given any annual leave. The bosses reluctantly agreed to give them leave, but when the labourers returned from it their jobs were gone. The Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales – responsible for setting the minimum rates of pay and other terms and conditions of employment for any worker employed in agriculture anywhere in England & Wales – was abolished by the coalition government in 2013.

Public health and consumption were discussed from a number of different angles. One question asked how people’s food choices could be guided to encourage people to eat more local and seasonal food. Most panellists agreed that you had to make it as easy as possible for people, as well as inspiring and educating people on recipes they could make and what fruit and veg is seasonal at different times of the year. As was pointed out, the offering of most supermarkets is the same all year round, making it difficult for people to know what is in season. Regarding local produce, as Guy related, restricting fruit and veg to solely ‘local’ produce (and there’s always the debate of how to define ‘local’, or whether it’s always better for the environment to buy local – spoiler, not necessarily) means that for several months of the year the offering is comparatively unattractive. Riverford’s initial introduction of a UK-only box never saw it go above 1% of sales – they have tried re-offering this, and it is now at 4% of sales. Imogen Richmond-Bishop suggested we look to France for inspiration, where 50% of food in schools has to be local or seasonal. This means that children go through the seasons and see different fruit and vegetables, ensuring that their tastes and eating habits are influenced from an early age.

On the topic of the potential of dairy and meat alternatives such as lab-grown meat, Sue Pritchard, Director of the RSA Commission on Food, Farming and the Countryside, expressed the opinion that they hold considerable potential, particularly in moving us away from housed poultry and pork and livestock reliant on cereal feed. However, she stated that she would want to know the health implications of eating food ‘that we have not evolved to consume’ and that, moreover, we should not be seduced by the ‘tech will save us’ mantra (a recurring theme of the ORFC).

A question in the second panel asked how the National Food Strategy could be integrated into public health strategies. Dr Angela Raffle, who works on ‘ecological public health’, argued that we should learn from health policy. For example, it is illegal to directly advertise health products and she felt the same approach should be taken for food and drink products. And what about a ‘National Food Service’ that could take inspiration from the NHS? The state doesn’t provide all medical care under the NHS, but it does ensure a free at the point of use baseline. Instead of viewing people as ‘consumers’ of food, she stressed, we need to view people as citizens and implement a total shift in mindset. Henry Dimbleby expressed some reservations (at least, implicitly), making the point that the emphasis still remains on ‘personal responsibility’ regarding food and there is a general perception that people ‘don’t like the state getting involved in their private life’.

The final question of this session addressed the focus on ‘education of the masses’ and asked where responsibilities lies for making a better food system and better food choices. The point was argued that everyone has the power to change the system, but that effective education necessitates empowerment. Part of this empowerment comes from viewing the public as citizens, rather than consumers. Continuing with the theme of empowerment, another panel member argued that conferences such as the ORFC are important aspects of countering the ‘Big Food Lobby’, as they bring together people with shared visions and values. However, Sue Pritchard argued that we need to have conversations with those we call ‘the other’, including ‘individuals who want to do the right thing in these [‘Big Food Lobby’] organisations’, and make it easier for these people to have any impact.  

On the topic of education and talking with ‘the other’, another question posed to the panel was on how traditional mindsets could be changed, particularly in the context of agricultural colleges, and how we could make regenerative agriculture more mainstream. Huw Richards, creator of Huw’s Nursery, who posed the question, stated that his perception was that a lot of young people in his area in west Wales are leaning towards traditional methods, meaning we won’t see the changes in agricultural practice in the future when land is passed down. He argued that the idea persists that you must own a lot of land in order to be profitable. A similar question was posed in the first session I attended, and it was mentioned that La Via Campesina has, and continues to develop, a network of over 55 independent agroecology schools around the world.

For me, there were several themes that ran through the day’s sessions.  Our relationship with the land was one: many of us need to develop a closer relationship with and understanding of the processes, people and natural resources that are necessary to produce our food. Another was around knowledge and education: what kind of knowledge we value; who we attribute knowledge to; the importance of sharing and passing on knowledge to enable future resilience; education combined with empowerment as a crucial part of changing our food system. A third would be the need to consider radical solutions and challenge the status quo, whether in the language we use, the way we approach food and public health, or the things that we teach future generations of farmers. Having now written ‘future’ twice in this paragraph, it’s clear that underlining all of these is a recognition that things, from the way we farm to patterns of land ownership, need to change to face the combined challenges of increasing environmental degradation and social inequality.

At the Food Hub we will continue to do our bit to build a food system that is fit for the future.

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