Why the Oxford Real Farming Conference is distinct and intends to remain so

A disclaimer by ORFC co-founder Colin Tudge

We don’t want to be unfriendly and we are all in this world together but: as a co-founder of the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) I would like to make clear that despite rumours that are beginning to amount to a press campaign, we are not joining forces with the original Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) and have no intention of doing so. Occasional, ad hoc, collaborative ventures – possibly on matters where we have the same point of view, and possibly to discuss points of difference – are conceivable. But any kinds of gathering that could be mistaken for any kind of merger:  absolutely not.

But why be so emphatic, not to say strident? Why should anyone else care? Is the perceived rivalry between the ORFC and the OFC any more than a turf war, such as might arise between two neighbourhood tennis clubs?

Well no it isn’t, is the answer. For even though the ORFC and the OFC may have common concerns – such as Brexit – and may sometimes agree on some big issues – on the importance of organic farming, for example – our approaches remain distinct. And in essence, even though the two conferences do not take place on the world stage, and are not generally thought to be of global significance, the differences between the two go right to the heart of all the world’s problems – not just specifically in agriculture, but across the board.

For the key difference, as discussed elsewhere in this column, is that the ORFC is radical, and the OFC very definitely is not. In fact, by all reasonable standards, the OFC is “establishment”. “Radical” does not mean that ORFC delegates wear fedoras and black cloaks, and carry bombs marked “Bomb”, as in Beano; or that they are obliged to wear beards and torn jeans.

It does mean that we start with an idea of what farming ought to be like, and must be like if all human beings everywhere are to be properly catered for, and if the “biosphere” – including our fellow creatures – is to survive in more than a relic form. Then, and only then, do we ask what kind of husbandry is needed to ensure that humanity and the biosphere are properly looked after, now and forever; and what kind of economy, what kind of government, and what kind of science and high-tech are needed to support the appropriate husbandry.

In practice it seems that farming should be guided by three grand principles which may all be grouped under the heading of “Enlightened Agriculture”, of which “Real Farming” is an abbreviation. They are:

Agroecology

Food Sovereignty and

Economic Democracy

The grand principles in part are moral – “what is it right to do?” – and in part ecological – “what is it necessary to do (if we really want to do the right things) and what is it possible to do” (given that the Earth is finite)? The details of what’s entailed if we want to behave in ways that are morally just and ecologically sound (“sustainable”, “resilient”) is the main subject both of the ORFC and of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture, which is intended to pick up on all the big issues that really matter and talk them through.

The ORFC organisers do not presume to pre-empt those discussions. All ideas including our own premises are up for grabs (though it is surely hard to improve on morality and ecological reality). What is important, and is sacrosanct, is the structure of the discussions. That is, we start with the idea that what really matters is, or are, these bedrock principles. Then we ask what kind of husbandry is needed to meet our moral obligation, to provide good food without cruelty or injustice; and to take good care of the biosphere. Then we ask what kind of science and technology are needed to support the appropriate husbandry. Then we ask what kind of economy and governance are needed that will support appropriate science and husbandry; and also ask whether what we have now is fit for purpose.

That is what being “radical” implies: start with principles, and then ask how the status quo can and must be structured, and if necessary transformed, if those principles are to be upheld.

But non-radicals – those of the kind that can be called “Establishment” – approach the problems the other way around. They begin with the premise that the status quo is OK, or is “here to stay”, and then ask what can be done within its constraints. The economy we have right now is “neoliberal”: materialist through and through; all action and indeed all moral principle decided and constrained by the “free” market – what people will pay for is good, and “realistic”, and whatever isn’t profitable in the short term just has to go. Governance, despite much talk of “democracy” when governments want to invade some foreign power with a president who obviously isn’t democratic, is decidedly top-down. Ecological principles give way to the perceived need to maximise wealth (“economic growth”) which is seen as the sine qua non. Care for the biosphere, concern for our fellow creatures, is measured out according to its immediate material benefit to us: “ecosystem services”, “natural capital”, “the triple bottom line” are the guiding slogans. It is not apparently “realistic” to suggest that maximally profitable strategies should give way to the far more fundamental principles of morality and ecology. It is apparently “realistic” to forego compassion, and care, and protection of the fabric of the Earth itself, to boost GDP.

I am not suggesting that the OFC does not recognise the need to break out of the neoliberal, establishment strait-jacket. Clearly many of its delegates do want to. I do suggest, however, just to change the metaphor, that the OFC has not grasped the nettle, which is that we need to start by defining principles; decide– what we really hold to be important — by what we stand, as F R Leavis put the matter; and then devise structures and modus operandi that support those principles; and not be alarmed if the structures and methods we really need turn out to be very different from the ones that are now in place.

So long as this nettle remains un-grasped, then the difference between the ORFC and the OFC, however slight it may sometimes seem to some observers, remains absolute. More broadly, so long as the world fails to see that we need to define our bedrock principles, and act as if they mattered, then we will continue to head, as we very decidedly are heading, to the buffers.

Colin Tudge, November 20 2017

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3 Responses to Why the Oxford Real Farming Conference is distinct and intends to remain so

  1. Absolutely right Colin – well put. My father had a deflector on the bonnet of his car so his windscreen didn’t get covered with insects. You don’t need a deflector at all now. Farmers have devastated wild life in all it forms. We talk about saving the bees – important but what about all the other insects and creepy crawlies?
    This is the madness of the OFC.
    Yesterday I went to the Royal Society of Medicine for a debate about Pesticides and Food: Is low dose exposure harmful?
    We listened to the NFU and Crop Life and it was pathetic – no acknowledgement of the WHO’s figures of 220,000 who die each year from pesticides and many, many more who are harmed often for life! They quote Risk and Benefit as the issue but how many people, insects and our overall fauna have to die before the Risks become to great compared to the Benefits?

    Next one in the spring is on antibiotics – another major issue with conventional farming. Worth going to…

    Peter Melchet’s talk was to show how he farms with no chemicals and the farm had wonderful hedges for insects that help clean his fields of pests.

    The conventional guys had no answers and no questions!

  2. Pingback: Colin Tudge explains the crucial difference between @OFRC and @oxfordfarming. The R stands for Real, and also for Radical. Start from what you want, then

  3. David Llewellyn Foster says:

    (penultimate para…”what we stand” for?)

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