Monday, 13 January 2014

Oxford Real Farming Conference Report

Oxford Real Farming Conference Report
Harry Greenfield

Every January for the last 65 years, farmers have gathered in Oxford to look at the state of agriculture and its future. Or should I say the farming establishment has gathered, for at £350 for the cheapest ticket the Oxford Farming Conference is only open to farmers of a certain type – namely wealthy landowners. For that price you get to hear speeches by the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, as well as the head of the NFU, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and others from the upper echelons of modern agriculture. The event is sponsored by the biggest names in agri-business and food processing and retail including Bayer, BASF, Syngenta and McDonalds.

5 years ago a small group decided that this conference did not represent either the most innovative developments in farming or, more importantly, the direction agriculture needed to move in and so they decided to set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). Concentrating on small scale, low-input agriculture and lamenting the corporate takeover of the majority of food production in the UK and beyond, the ORFC aims to provide a space for all those interested to discuss the changes needed to achieve what should be fairly straight-forward: producing enough food to feed everyone on the planet without destroying it. When you realise how far the current food system has diverged from this seemingly simple aim, it becomes clear that the necessary changes are in fact radical.

This January the ORFC was celebrating its 5th anniversary and the range of people and organisations attending covered the full spectrum, from conventional farmers looking at unconventional techniques, to community supported agriculture, cooperatives and radical groups aiming to reclaim control of the food system and support the rights of small producers. The ORFC hosted over 100 speakers, and included practical workshops on agroforestry, soil fertility and horticulture as well as discussions of the political, social and economic context within which food production and consumption take place, and how these are part of the problem.

There were many highlights of the conference, including a meeting of Reclaim the Fields, a group aiming to take back control of the land and food production through occupation and a debate on what “An Economy Fit for Farming” would look like. The latter was one of a series of discussions on economics, with many people pointing out that food production is not an economic activity like any other. Food is not merely a commodity or a source of profit but the basis for all human activity and as such access to food should not be determined by ability to pay. The Landworkers Alliance (LWA), who represent small farmers and landless workers in Britain, campaign for food sovereignty – i.e. popular, local control of the food system. Part of La Via Campesina International, the LWA promotes solidarity among producers and the right of consumers to determine and control where their food comes from. The LWA staged a protest outside the other (establishment) conference, complaining that it is unaffordable  to small-scale producers and does not represent their interests, or those of the general public.

While not all speakers or attendees were anti-capitalist, the vast majority of them recognised that the current economic system (neoliberalism) was a huge obstacle to achieving a more just and sustainable system of food production. Several workshops looked at how the industrialisation of farming – led by large land-owners and backed by agri-business – used the mantra of cheap food and the fear of supply shortages to push a model that can only allow the biggest players to survive. This despite the fact that 70% of global food is produced by small-scale, agroecological farmers.

Government support, or at least acquiescence, is key to this industrial takeover of the food supply. For example government research funding goes largely towards high-tech solutions, including GM, and ignores the more practical, but lower key, needs of farmers and consumers. Such high-tech solutions are usually expensive and require high levels of investment by farmers, thus only the biggest can take advantage of them. The recent UK agri-tech strategy, for example, pushes technology as the solution to all the problems caused by food production, whereas many would argue a radical redesign of the entire food system is necessary. Hence at the ORFC we heard a call for a citizen and producer-led research agenda, which takes into account the local context of both producer and consumer, rather than a corporate-driven agenda. Similarly a return to a publically-funded extension service, giving free and impartial advice to food producers, would help counter-balance the effect of corporations pushing their wares as the only solution for the future.

Another key debate is over access to land and land grabbing. In the UK, land prices are pushed up in line with house prices, even if the land cannot currently be developed. The result is that prime agricultural land in desirable areas, such as the South East, costs more to buy than it can ever hope to make under agricultural production. The possibility of young people, community groups or new growers finding land to work on is a huge barrier to new entrants and helps entrench the status quo. The ORFC heard from projects to reclaim unused land and convert it to food production as well as attempts to provide small, affordable plots for new land-based enterprises.

Overall there was much to be optimistic about at the ORFC – the large number of community owned and cooperative food systems springing up in places like Edinburgh, Manchester and Bristol show what can be done. At the same time the appetite of many farmers to look beyond what the government and agri-business is telling them and consider new approaches, such as developing soil fertility, permanent pasture and more local sales, is heartening.

Hopefully in future years an ecosocialist presence at the conference can help develop and refine solutions in particular around ensuring that the type of production promoted at the ORFC leads to affordable, healthy food for all. Several models of distribution and retail were discussed at the event but it is here that the challenge may be greatest, to make sustainably produced food available to all, and not merely the engaged and affluent.

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