Job Vacancy: Oxford Real Farming Conference & College for Real Farming & Food Culture

We’re recruiting for a new conference manager and college event organiser.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference dates for next year are January 8 & 9. This will be our 11th year – with over 1,000 people expected to attend.

It’s a two year fixed term contract for three days a week, from July 2019 with the possibility of extending it should funds allow. A great opportunity as well to help us develop our new college programme. 

Salary: Between £27,000 and £30,000 FTE (depending on experience) on an employed basis

Applications need to be in by May 31st.

Interviews will be in Oxford on June 7th with a start date in July.

For more information including how to apply go to ORFC conference manager JD

The battle for the future of farming: what you need to know

This article, by Michel Pimbert and Colin Anderson (Centre for Agroecology Water and Resilience, Coventry University) was published in The Conversation, Nov 18 2018

It is widely agreed that today’s global agriculture system is a social and environmental failure. Business as usual is no longer an option: biodiversity loss and nitrogen pollution are exceeding planetary limits, and catastrophic risks of climate change demand immediate action.

Most concede that there is an urgent need to radically transform our food systems. But the proposed innovations for more sustainable food systems are drastically different. Which we choose will have long-lasting effects on human society and the planet.

Suggested innovations in food systems can be broadly understood as either seeking to conform with – or to transform – the status quo.

The future of farming is ours to decide. Raggedstone/Shutterstock.com

A technological future

Some want to keep the agriculture industry as close to existing practices as possible. This is true of the increasing number of corporate and financial actors who seek to solve the food crisis by developing new technologies. These technologies are envisaged as being part of what is being called the “fourth industrial revolution” (4IR). The “answer” here is thought to lie in a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between physical, digital and biological domains.

For example, the World Economic Forum is currently supporting agricultural transitions in 21 countries through its “New Vision for Agriculture” initiative. This initiative supports “innovation ecosystems” to re-engineer food systems based on “12 transforming technologies”. In this imagined future, next generation biotechnologies will re-engineer plants and animals. Precision farming will optimise use of water and pesticides. Global food systems will rely on smart robots, blockchain and the internet of things to manufacture synthetic foods for personalised nutrition.

Like previous green revolution technologies in agriculture, this effort is designed by and for powerful agricultural giants. These technological innovations reinforce the concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a small number of corporations. Indeed, the latter have a growing monopoly control over the “12 transforming technologies” protected by patents.

Who needs humans? Kung_tom/Shutterstock.comMost notably, the spread of these technologies will expand the technosphere at the expense of the biosphere. Flying robots will pollinate crops instead of living bees. Automated machines will replace farmers’ work on soil preparation, seeding, weeding, fertility, pest control and harvesting of crops.

These hi-tech innovations radically depart from most farming practices. They are moving us towards an increasingly people-less food system. Yet they show a remarkable continuity with the logic of capitalist accumulation – hence their staying power despite their significant risks.

The spread of automated, de-localised and digitalised production and commercialisation of food is part of the “financialisation” of the global food system. Financial markets play an increasing role in controlling food systems from a distance. This generates huge social and human risks. For example, the significant growth in the sale and purchase of financial products linked to food commodities was one of the determining factors in the 2008 world food crisis.

We could be seeing an extension of the megafarms we know today. Igorstevanovic/Shutterstock.com

Another option

But there is an alternative to this future. Agroecology involves the application of ecological principles for the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems. Our research on agroecology focuses on how it can contribute to food sovereignty, which emphasises the democratisation of food systems. Agroecology’s contribution to the Sustainable Development Goals is now recognised.

In contrast to the technological vision described above, agroecological innovations promote circular systems that involve recycling, reuse and combining resources to reduce dependency on external inputs, in particular fossil fuels. They mimic natural cycles and the functional diversity of natural ecosystems.

An organic coffee plantation in Ecuador. Dr Morley Read/Shutterstock.comFarming systems are designed in a way that is based on beneficial interactions between plants, animals and environments. Trees and shrubs might be planted amongst or around crops, say. Or two or more crops might be grown in proximity. Agroecology reduces the dependence of food producers on expensive external inputs, distant commodity markets and patented technologies. This is achieved by relying on appropriate biodiversity to ward off pests and increase farm yields.

At broader scales, agroecology involves circular systems that combine food and energy production with water and waste management. Pollution is minimised and synergies achieved by carefully clustering industries into functional wholes. The re-localisation of production and consumption within territories enhances local economic regeneration and sustainability.

Agroecological innovations in transitions to sustainable food systems are being driven largely from the bottom up by civil society, social movements and allied researchers. In this context, priorities for innovations are ones that increase citizen control for food sovereignty and decentralise power. This is in direct contrast to the monopoly control enabled by 4IR technologies.

Growing multiple crops at once. Katarzyna Mazurowska/Shutterstock.com

A democratic debate

Government, civil society and private sector representatives will soon meet in Rome at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to discuss the future of farming. Who controls the global governance of innovation will be a hotly debated topic.

But given these highly contested views on innovations for food and agriculture, it is vital that everyone is able to exercise their right to have a say on the future of their food supply. Deliberative and inclusive processes such as citizens’ juries, peoples’ assemblies and community-led participatory processes are urgently needed to decide priorities for food and agricultural innovations. This is all the more important in today’s context of rapid global change and uncertainty.

So. Do you want to live in a world in which artificial food is produced by intelligent robots and corporations that put profits before people? Or one where agroecological innovations ensure we can nourish ourselves and our communities in a fair, ecologically regenerative, and culturally rich way?

Why cows properly cared for are good – for the land, the climate, and us

This from Tom Chapman a livestock farmer, agriculture consultant and founding member of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association:

“The oft-mentioned trope about emissions from animals and their other, supposedly damaging, effects….. The majority of ruminants in the UK graze either marginal land (not suitable for growing other food crops) or within an arable rotation.

The former is making use of land areas that would otherwise go to waste. Millions of people are fed from the wet, cold uplands of the British Isles. The latter (livestock grazing grass planted as part of an arable rotation) is a key technique, used by farmers to conserve and build soil and, most importantly, to reduce the need for nitrates to be used when growing the following arable food crops. Livestock add natural fertility. Removing them would dramatically, and damagingly, increase the use of nitrogen fertilisers (as well as herbicides, pesticides, phosphates and a whole host of other chemicals needed to grow crops in denuded soils).

And then there are the emissions….. One of the key principles of physics is that matter can be neither created nor destroyed. Therefore, the carbon emitted by the animal hasn’t magically appeared. It is part of the carbon cycle: plants remove carbon from the air when photosynthesising, and lock it into their plant structures (leaves, stems, roots etc). The animal comes along and eats the leaves of the plant, digests it and, hey presto, releases the carbon back into the atmosphere from whence it came! (Comparé this to our cars and tractors which, in burning fossil fuels, are releasing “new” carbon into the atmosphere – carbon that was, ironically, captured and locked into the ground by photosynthesising plants millions of years ago!) It gets better on the grazing livestock front too.

Not only are their emissions of carbon simply putting back the carbon removed from the atmosphere a short while ago, but not all of it is returned to the air. The roots of the grass plants, plus much of the dung from the cattle, gets locked into the soil as “soil organic matter” and, ultimately, as a very stable form of carbon, known as humus. In in other words, grazing livestock have the potential to actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.

Australian scientists have calculated that using livestock to increase the soil organic matter of the worlds agricultural soils by 1% would capture all the fossil-fuel carbon we have released since the Industrial Revolution.

Bring back the cow!”

This was originally published as a comment in The Times in response to an opinion piece on vegans.

Natural Capital: a neoliberal response to species extinction

In this article, Ian Rappel attacks the thinking and ambition behind the drive to attach a monetary value to biodiversity and nature – that it “is being portrayed as a necessary means of translating the environmental message to legislators, business and the markets. This argument for nature ­financialisation—the processes by which banks and financiers have turned to environmental conservation as a new front for speculative investment, and the simultaneous rewriting of conservation to fit banking and financial ­concepts—has gained momentum and acceptance across environmental science and politics during the last decade as economic recession/depression and austerity have dominated global economic architectures.”

The global status of agroecology

Michel Pimbert (Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience) pulls no punches in this overview of agroecology as he traces its origins, its current popularity at governmental and intergovernmental levels, and its potential for truly transforming our ways of living.

Originally published in Economic & Political Weekly Vol. 53, Issue No. 41, 13 Oct, 2018, it is reproduced here with permission of the author and of the publisher.

Access to land for a new generation of farmers in Europe

This new report from the Access to Land group of EU farming organisations (funded by Erasmus) explores the difficulties and opportunities  for new farmers.

Here’s the introduction to the report:

European farmers are a greying population. More than half of European farmers will retire within 10 years, while only 7% are under the age of 35. Many senior farmers have no successors in their family, and have no identified successor outside of it. The question of who is going to be the next generation of European farmers is a very pressing one. Who will grow our food? Who will sustain rural economies and communities? Who will maintain open landscapes for everybody to enjoy?

There is also a major challenge in ensuring both the continuity and the necessary evolutions between the generations of farmers. How to avoid losing preciously developed soil quality and know-how held by the current generation of passionate farmers? And how to allow new farmers to develop more agroecological forms of farming?

Within the new generation of farmers, most new farmers are direct successors, also called “continuers”, i.e. young people taking over the family farm. But intra-family farm succession—which for centuries has been the dominant form of entry into farming in
Europe—is losing ground. Increasingly, the children of farmers opt for other careers, as many view farming as a profession requiring considerable working time and hard physical labour while earning little income and receiving little public recognition.

On the other hand, on the ground, a growing number of people are seeking to enter farming, without a family farm and sometimes even without prior experience with farming. These new farmers may be defined as “newcomers” to farming, or ex novo
new entrants. Many of them turn towards agroecological forms of farming and favour innovation—organic farming, short supply chains, community-supported agriculture, and on-farm food processing— which increase on-farm added value, while contributing to local
quality food, jobs and environmental protection. The exact number and potential of these newcomers is not well-known, as only a few countries have collected data and conducted studies about them.

It is also recognised that there is more of a continuum than a divide between continuers and newcomers. Many newcomers indeed have some connection with farming, through relatives, a rural background, on-farm experience, etc., while some continuers may
decide to continue farming but not take on the family farm, or to transform it radically (e.g. from a specialised farm to mixed farming, or from conventional to organic).

Our organisations are grassroots groups working to facilitate farm succession and entry of a new generation in a number of ways:
——training and advising young farmers and aspiring farmers,
——advising senior farmers and landowners to facilitate farm transmission,
——acquiring farms in order to make them available to new entrants, especially newcomers, under favourable terms,
——advocating for the preservation of existing farms and their transfer to a new generation,
——advocating for better support mechanisms for new entrants and progressive entry into farming.

Our vision is that of a Europe with multiple farms, farmers and local food systems, making European food and farming systems more resilient, creating jobs and activities in the countryside, providing safe, high-quality food, preserving the environment and
contributing to lively rural communities.

Our daily experience in advising and supporting new farmers, particularly newcomers, highlights the considerable hurdle of accessing land for farming. Access to land is now widely recognised as the number one obstacle to entering farming in Europe. Yet, the situation remains little-known and little-studied. Moreover, most public policies supporting new entrants, at the local, national and European level, are conceived for continuers and fail to address the specific needs and challenges of newcomers. And most agricultural policies give little consideration to land market regulations and specific mechanisms to facilitate access to land for new farmers.

This report aims to share our experience and analyses of the situation for new farmers and their access to land in our countries. It also presents a number of new farmers, to highlight their diverse backgrounds, difficulties and pathways into farming. All of these portraits also emphasise their enthusiasm, innovativeness and dedication to becoming a farmer. They also illustrate various ways in which they access land, often with the support of farmers’ organisations or various civil society movements. Based on these country studies and new farmers’ portraits, we then attempt to present an overview and characterise these novel ways to access land for farming. The report ends with an exploration of farm
incubators, which constitute one of the growing innovations to help new farmers (particularly newcomers) enter farming, including by providing start-up access to a plot of land.

Access to Land for Real Farming in the UK

This study, written by Robert Fraser (Real Farming Trust) explores the various financial / investment models and other related initiatives that could help with access to land for agroecological farming and growing. It reviews the current situation in the UK and the various initiatives being developed both here and in the rest of Europe and the USA, and comes up with some recommendations for supporting those seeking access to land in the UK.

The study looks at various models, including land trusts, a national ‘farmland investment fund’, bridging finance and the potential for attracting social investment into land and land-based projects, as well as other initiatives that support new entrants, but do not rely on the purchase of the land itself.
The key questions needing to be addressed can be summarised as follows:
– What lessons can we learn from other countries and initiatives?
– How can we funnel more investment into land for agroecological farming?
– Is there room for a new farmland trust or fund?
– How can the existing organisations work more closely together?
– Can land be secured for agroecological farming, without having to buy it?
– What else needs to change to help with access to land (e.g. policy, advice, etc.)?

The study sets out to:
– understand the current situation in the UK from the perspective of existing organisations
– learn from other countries, finding key exemplars,
– summarise the key lessons learned from these case studies
– review the various ideas, initiatives and business models that might work in the UK
– develop a set of recommendations and next steps.

Agroforestry: what it is and why it matters

A timely publication from the Woodland Trust and Soil Association – launched at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology this week (June 12)  just before the Agriculture Bill is published next month – urges the government to “recognise the vital role of trees in the . . . Bill, and support the potential of well-planned tree planting including agroforestry to achieve healthy environments, protect soils, sequester carbon from the atmosphere and support resilient farming”.

Support amongst UK pig farmers and agricultural stakeholders for the use of food losses in animal feed

This research, featuring the results of a survey of 82 pig farmers and 81 other stakeholders  at the British Pig & Poultry Fair on the 10-11 May 2016, Stoneleigh, Warwickshire was published on April 24 2018 in PLOS/One.

Background to the Study including the reasons for the current ban

Food losses, i.e. foods which were intended for human consumption, but which ultimately are not directly eaten by people, have long been used as an animal feed–they have, for example, been fed to pigs since the very domestication of wild pigs, around 10,000 years ago. While food losses continue to be included in animal feed in many parts of the world, the use of food losses in animal feed was all but banned in the European Union (EU) in 2002, after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak, which is thought to have been started by a farmer illegally feeding uncooked food waste to pigs in the UK.

Current EU legislation permits the inclusion of only a small subset of food losses in animal feed. For example, all food losses containing animal by-products (materials of animal origin that people do not consume e.g. tendons, processed animal proteins) are banned, except for those containing honey, eggs, pig or poultry gelatine, milk products, rendered fats, and collagen, where there is no risk of contamination with other sources of animal by-products [4]. These legal food losses are known as former foodstuffs. The legislation specifically bans catering wastes (i.e. food that has been through a home kitchen or restaurant, making up the 57% of food losses in the EU [5]) and feeds where there is the potential for intra-species recycling–i.e. pigs eating pork products, or chickens eating poultry products.

These regulations deliver a safe food system to millions of Europeans, though they are not without their trade-offs. The current legislation limits the potential for nutrient recycling and a circular economy–food losses that are not used as feed are instead disposed of in less efficient ways, lower down the food waste hierarchy. Recent studies have shown that the relegalisation of food losses in animal feed could cut feed costs for pig producers, reduce the land use of EU pork production by 22% (1.8 Mha), and reduce a host of other environmental pressures. The ban on animal by-products in feed also treats all livestock in Europe as being essentially vegetarian, though, of course, pigs and poultry are omnivorous.

In light of these trade-offs and the existence of regulated systems for incorporating food losses in feed in other countries, there have therefore been intermittent calls to relegalise the use of food losses in feed [2,8–10]. Japan and South Korea, for example, operate systems for safely recycling food losses as animal feed, based on the heat-treatment of food losses (heat-treated food losses are colloquially known as “swill”, though they are marketed as “Ecofeed” in Japan). Heat-treatment disactivates pathogens (such as foot-and-mouth) in the food, renders it safe for use as animal feed, and facilitates these countries recycling ca. 40% of their food losses as animal feed, compared with the 3–6% achieved in the EU.

Still, the debate continues to be polarised, with some arguing that the use of swill is unsafe or unnatural–the UK retailer The Co-operative, for example, banned the use of swill in 1995 —while others argue that the ban was an exaggerated response to a manageable risk. Little work has been done, however, to determine the attitudes of the people most affected by the ban on the use of food losses as feed–namely, pig farmers and workers in the agricultural sector. We therefore conducted a survey to investigate the attitudes of the farming community to the use of food losses as feed.

Abstract

While food losses (foods which were intended for human consumption, but which ultimately are not directly eaten by people) have been included in animal feed for millennia, the practice is all but banned in the European Union. Amid recent calls to promote a circular economy, we conducted a survey of pig farmers (n = 82) and other agricultural stakeholders (n = 81) at a UK agricultural trade fair on their attitudes toward the use of food losses in pig feed, and the potential relegalisation of swill (the use of cooked food losses as feed). While most respondents found the use of feeds containing animal by-products or with the potential for intra-species recycling (i.e. pigs eating pork products) to be less acceptable than feeds without, we found strong support (>75%) for the relegalisation of swill among both pig farmers and other stakeholders. We fit multi-hierarchical Bayesian models to understand people’s position on the relegalisation of swill, finding that respondents who were concerned about disease control and the perception of the pork industry supported relegalisation less, while people who were concerned with farm financial performance and efficiency or who thought that swill would benefit the environment and reduce trade-deficits, were more supportive. Our results provide a baseline estimate of support amongst the large-scale pig industry for the relegalisation of swill, and suggest that proponents for its relegalisation must address concerns about disease control and the consumer acceptance of swill-fed pork.

Citation: zu Ermgassen EKHJ, Kelly M, Bladon E, Salemdeeb R, Balmford A (2018) Support amongst UK pig farmers and agricultural stakeholders for the use of food losses in animal feed. PLoS ONE 13(4): e0196288. https://doi.org/10.1371

Toxicity of glyphosate-based herbicides and other pesticides

The long-awaited research report is out!  Seralini et al the authors.  And the news is as has been rumoured:  It’s not the glyphosate that’s the main problem; it’s the formulants.

Authors: N Defarge, J. Spiroux de Vendomois, G.E. Seralini

Abstract: The major pesticides of the world are glyphosate-based herbicides (GBH), and their toxicity is highly debated. To understand their mode of action, the comparative herbicidal and toxicological effects of glyphosate (G) alone and 14 of its formulations were studied in this work, as a model for pesticides. GBH are mixtures of water, with commonly 36–48% G claimed as the active principle. As with other pesticides, 10–20% of GBH consist of chemical formulants. We previously identified these by mass spectrometry and found them to be mainly families of petroleum-based oxidized molecules, such as POEA, and other contaminants. We exposed plants and human cells to the components of formulations, both mixed and separately, and measured toxicity and human cellular endocrine disruption below the direct toxicity experimentally measured threshold. G was only slightly toxic on plants at the recommended dilutions in agriculture, in contrast with the general belief. In the short term, the strong herbicidal and toxic properties of its formulations were exerted by the POEA formulant family alone. The toxic effects and endocrine disrupting properties of the formulations were mostly due to the formulants and not to G. In this work, we also identified by mass spectrometry the heavy metals arsenic, chromium, cobalt, lead and nickel, which are known to be toxic and endocrine disruptors, as contaminants in 22 pesticides, including 11 G-based ones. This could also explain some of the adverse effects of the pesticides. In in vivo chronic regulatory experiments that are used to establish the acceptable daily intakes of pesticides, G or other declared active ingredients in pesticides are assessed alone, without the formulants. Considering these new data, this assessment method appears insufficient to ensure safety. These results, taken together, shed a new light on the toxicity of these major herbicides and of pesticides in general.