A Cross-the-Board Rethink

Colin reflects on the 2012 Oxford Real Farming Conference

This year’s theme was “A Cross-the-board Re-think” – for nothing less will do. If we truly want agriculture that provides everyone in the world with good food without wrecking the rest we need to re-think farming itself – the husbandry, the underlying science, the structure; and the whole corresponding food chain that takes the food to the people; and this leads us into food culture because good farmers can’t thrive unless people appreciate what they do. Overall we need nothing less than “Agrarian Renaissance”.

So we are led into economics, and into politics and the law – which at present are obstructing the kind of farming that the world really needs.  Then we need to ask – why bother? – which takes us into morality. But beneath science, and morality, and all human effort, lie the biggest questions of all such as “what is the universe really like?” and “where do we fit into it?” The answers define our attitude to life and in the end, attitude is all; and this, like it or not, is metaphysics.

We had to discuss all this in two days which meant parallel sessions which meant that no-one could get to everything  — but it’s all on film (all 30-plus hours of it!) and should soon be view-able on the ORFC website. This is just my own, personal, instant take. (I’ve space to mention only a few of the 50-odd speakers. Apologies to the rest.)

To begin at the beginning – we need to farm differently. In line with the simplest principles of ecology, we need farming that is diverse (polycultural) from genes to landscape; low input (organic by preference); and therefore complex and therefore skills-intensive (many more farmers than we have now!). Grass – represented not least by the newly-formed Pasture-Fed Livestock Association – and city-linked horticulture must feature mightily. All this is precisely opposite to what we have now and what the government advocates –  which is high-input monoculture on the grandest scale with as few workers as possible (if we don’t count the bus-loads of immigrants).

Industrial farming is favoured because it is profitable and in the present, corporate-led, neoliberal, heavily rigged but allegedly free global market, profit is all. So we must ask as a matter of urgency, like Lucy Ford of Brookes University, what can replace neoliberalism? More specifically we need to pin down, as writer Felicity Lawrence began to do, “what exactly is wrong with the corporates?” Are they damaging because they are so big, or because of their mandate (which is expressly to reward their shareholders) or because they are run by the wrong people? But then – one answer to all this is simply to set up alternative funding; and hence the pre-conference seminar, chaired by Sir Crispin Tickell – how to finance a new kind of farming and food chain by ethical investment; money invested by people at large with values in mind apart from short-term profit.

How do we get more farmers? Revolution, mega-land reform, and a total people’s buy-out of farmland (at around £270 billion) aren’t going to happen – and mercifully, probably aren’t necessary. Tom Curtis from LandShare has described the routes to tenancy and many landowners and farmers – including Chris Jones of Cornwall – would positively like to encourage young farmers on to their land. But who are these young farmers? Some already exist, like Russ Carrington and Ed Hamer. Others are clamouring to get in, like “Cultivate”, newly set up in Oxford by post-grads represented by Julian Cottee. But, said Nicole Vosper of “Re-claim the Fields”, young townies won’t just take themselves off all alone to what for them is the middle of no-where. Farms must be re-conceived socially – labour-intensive conviviality. Combine that with Andy Goldring’s and Tom Curtis’s concept of “the spongy city” and we begin to see that farming can and should be re-structured absolutely; the city-country barriers broken down.

The whole needs new technologies geared to the small to medium-sized mixed farm – as advocated and used by Ed Hamer; and behind that we need science that is geared to the public good and the wellbeing of the world and is not, as now, simply the handmaiden of big governments and big industries. As Tim Lang of City University said, we need to re-claim and re-open the once publicly-owned agricultural colleges, experimental husbandry farms, research stations and university departments that have been closed or privatized over the past 30 years. Or as Michel Pimbert of IIED puts the matter, above all we need democracy.

The task us huge, and it’s all waiting to be done. But as the many excellent speakers and delegates at the 2012 ORFC are demonstrating, it’s all do-able.

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