What the Oxford Real Farming Conference is really all about

The absolute importance of being radical

By Colin Tudge

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) has become more popular than anyone could reasonably have expected, or indeed hoped. Eight-hundred-and-fifty different delegates, about half of them farmers, came to this year’s version – the eighth — over two days in early January.

The ORFC is different from most other farming conferences. First, it has a very broad agenda. And secondly, it is radical — in the proper sense. Radicals don’t necessary wear torn jeans or cloaks with big black hats – some of them even wear suits with collars and ties. But “radical” means “root” and whatever radicals may look like and whatever they wear, they are united by a true desire to get to the roots of things. They seek to find the real reasons why the world is not as we would like it to be, and what we really need to do to put things right, and how we can go about it.

Our thinking must be broad because farming sits right at the heart of all the world’s affairs, human and otherwise. Like everything else, only more so, it affects everything else and is affected by everything else – and clearly, right now, in most countries worldwide and in the world as a whole, it leaves a great deal to be desired. In Britain, our soils are collapsing, at least a third of all wild species are in decline and many are disappearing, a million people at any one time must resort to food banks, and most farmers are poorly rewarded, seriously under siege and going out of business by the hour. Indeed, as Felicity Lawrence pointed out at the 2016 ORFC, British farming now depends to a large extent on labour gangs bussed in from the world’s most beleaguered countries and controlled by international crime. In the world as a whole a billion go hungry and half our fellow creatures are in imminent danger of extinction. It’s a horrendous litany of disaster wherever we look although it would be  technically easy (relatively speaking) to ensure that everyone, everywhere, has control over their own food supply and is well fed (to the highest standards of nutrition and gastronomy).

But to put things right is not just a matter of husbandry. A mass transition into organic farming, as some are advocating, is necessary but not sufficient – and it cannot come about at all if we simply talk about organic farming. We must also explore the underlying economic structure which, at present, forces farmers down the industrial route, even though the industrial route can be so obviously destructive and can be so cruel and unjust. Then we must ask what kind of government is needed to install the necessary economy; and what kind of law is needed to help ensure that the right things are done (and does not, as is so often the case at present, encourage bad practice and prevent good things from happening); and what kind of science is really needed and who should control it; and what kind of moral principles we are seeking to uphold.

But to tackle any of these issues in ways that might actually bring about permanent and worthwhile change we need to probe as deeply as we can: never reaching a bedrock of truth and certainty, because there is no bedrock, but at least to provide an account that is “robust”, and stands up to scrutiny, and could, if its conclusions were applied, bring worthwhile change.

The economics of organic farming provide a key example. Of course it’s extremely hard to make a living as a working farmer these days whatever you do, and usually even harder to earn a decent crust if you stray ever so slightly from the tramlines laid down by government and big business; in particular, if you fail to focus all your efforts on short-term profit, with maximum production and minimum labour. So no farmer can be blamed, organic or otherwise, if he or she is content (more or less) to cling to whatever life-raft may come their way: an offer from Tesco, say, to stock some of their produce. Farmers have enough to think about without stopping to ask if Tesco is really a good thing.

Out of such expediency grows moral justification: that if Tesco starts to support local (organic) farmers and if this proves profitable then Tesco might perceive – for financial reasons alone – that they should change their whole ethos; and if the really powerful players in the commercial world did change their ethos, then perhaps the world’s problems would be solved. Macdonalds, bete noire of the green left, have smartened up their act considerably of late, with free-range chickens and saladings and all kinds of cheerful things. Other organic or otherwise out-of-the-mainstream farmers find niche markets, and heave a sigh of relief, and leave it at that, and who can blame them? Certainly not me, aloft in my cozy room-with-a-view.

So it is that many an advocate of organic farming feels that the principal task before us is to show “mainstream” (which in reality tends to mean industrial, high-input) farmers how they can make a living by being more eco-friendly – which, in the short term, can sometimes be achieved by selling to Tesco or establishing niche markets. Do that, they are wont to suggest, and the job is done.

Beyond doubt, this approach is worthwhile, and as things are, may often be necessary. The more farmers turn away from industrial inputs and adopt the methods of agroecology (with organic farming at its core), the stronger the agroecological lobby will become and the better it should be for the world.

Yet this is not enough. To persuade industrial, “mainstream” farmers to become organic – or, more to the point, to show that it is possible to make a living if they do so – is necessary, but taken alone will not do the trick. The tension will remain. Industrial farming goes hand in hand with an economy that is geared to short-term profit, achieved by competition on the global market, and if we probe beneath the surface (the odd shelf of organic produce in Tesco’s) we soon find that the perceived need to maximize short term profit is at odds with what should be the grand goal: to create systems of farming that can supply everyone in the country and in the world with good food, and to keep the biosphere in good heart, for many thousands of years to come. So however convenient and even agreeable it may seem in the short term to do a deal with the status quo, the present powers-that-be, we still need to ask what kind of marketing strategy, and what kind of economic structure, do we really need if we are to put farming, and the whole world, on to a secure basis? Almost certainly, the corporate-driven oligarchy we have now, won’t do. The point is not that the people who run Tesco or Macdonald or Cargill or any of the rest are nasty people (some are, but that’s true of all walks of life). In my experience, some of them are very nice. The point is rather that by getting involved in corporate farming the nice people have simply backed the wrong horse. But then, in the modern world, in which education too is mainstream, that simply means they have gone with the flow (and it’s very hard to do otherwise).

In short, although the desperate need in the immediate term must be to make a living in a harsh and largely hostile world; and although that in itself is exhausting; yet we must, if we really care about our children and grandchildren, and about the world as a whole, dig deeper, and ask what kind of economy we really need, and how we can bring it into being. That is what it really means to be radical.

So the task for people who really want to make the world a better place is twofold. First, obviously, they have to make a living. That is the sine qua non. If they don’t then they fall by wayside which is bad for them and their families – and also bad for the world because it means there is one less right-thinking person to show what ought to be done.

But secondly, and in the long term just as importantly, they must if they really care about the world, help to define and to create a different kind of economy, one that really could provide the basis for an agreeable and stable world: good jobs, reasonable incomes, good food, and a flourishing biosphere. The kind of approach that is already well-known seems well up to the task – an agriculture based primarily on small-to-medium-sized, low input (primarily organic), polycultural (mixed) farms that deliver mainly (though not necessarily exclusively) to markets that are as local as possible, all supported by government intervention of a sensible kind (the free market won’t do but neither will crude, one-size-fits-all subsidies). Some farmers and communities the world over are already showing that such systems can work and although some new thinking is always needed, the prime task right now seems to be to identify those who are doing good things, and emulate.

We must, if we really care about the future, apply the same kind of approach across the board: to governance, the law, science, and so on. This is what the ORFC aspires to do – and, as far as we are able, is indeed doing. We collaborate with some specialist groups who obviously know a thing or two but absolutely not will we allow any particular lobby to call the shots. Most don’t try, but some do, and need to be kept at arm’s length.  Our new College for Real Farming and Food Culture (http://collegeforrealfarming.org/) has the same broad agenda, but aspires to probe all the key questions at greater depth and length, in extended seminars throughout the year, carried out in partnership with academic and other institutions.

A great many people, including a great many farmers, some of them new to the game and some very well established, some in torn jeans and some in collars and ties, support our general approach. In the end, all big ideas – including or especially those of science and morality – end in unknowns; and so they find their denouement in the much-neglected, virtually abandoned discipline of metaphysics. We held a session at the 2017 ORFC on this very issue — “Farming and Metaphysics”, with a rabbi, a priest, and a sufi. It proved to be one of the most popular, a lock-out indeed. Very encouraging!

Colin Tudge, May 30 2017

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