Why should everyone attend the Oxford Real Farming Conference?

I am not a farmer, but every year I go to the Oxford Real Farming Conference. The tickets always sell like hotcakes so sometimes I have to listen to the recordings afterwards. It is always worth it. This year the conference went digital for the first time and over 5000 people from around the world attended. Why should a city-dweller like myself want to go to a farming conference?

As is typical of many farmers, the conference massively undersells itself. This year more than any other it outdid its own name. It would be better described as the World Real Food Conference. Drawing on the expertise of speakers from around the world, including several from indigenous communities, the conference addressed topics as wide-ranging as:

  • farming for nutrition
  • the power of fungi to challenge our perception of nature and even ourselves
  • the role of local markets and community growing for farmer and consumer mental health
  • the hidden influence of industrial agriculture over our food choices

Food, good food, is of vital importance to all of us. And farming both depends and influences our food choices. Yet most people, city-dwellers in particular, live far removed and disconnected from the food they eat. This is a conference that everyone should attend to reconnect with what we eat and appreciate the work these passionate farmers do for us.

We all need to become food citizens – how does agribiz, big corps and big retail empower us to be food citizens (hint – perhaps they do something else – render us as passive consumers who have to take what we are given, and are not asked to question any of it!)

ORFC participant

If you missed it, you can find the recordings on the ORFC Youtube channel. Talks I particularly recommend are:

  • Sharing The Land With All Life
  • Agroecological, regenerative and organic: complementary or competing approaches to Food System Transformation
  • Spinning Food: the stealth PR tactics industry uses to shape the story of food
  • Entangled Lives: fungal networks, ecology and us

You can also listen to the organiser, some of the speakers and attendees discussing the conference on Ben Eagle’s Meet the Farmers podcast.

In this post I reflect on:

The key theme and debate for 2021

Each year I find that the conference, whether by design or serendipity, has both an overarching theme and a core debate. Last year the key theme seemed to be agroforestry (incorporating trees into agricultural practice) and the core debate was centered around the advantages and disadvantages of eating meat or meat alternatives.

This year the key theme was agroecology (explained below) and the core debate was around the power of industrial agriculture and the conflict between agroecology and capitalism.

Agroecology, regenerative, and organic – what’s the difference?

If you want the full answer to this question from the experts, you should watch the talk on Youtube when it goes live.


Agroecology builds on the knowledge of peasants and indigenous people to create farming practices that mimic the natural function of natural ecosystems. It also envisions the food system as a connected whole, recognising the need for sustainable practice across any added-value production and distribution as well as farming. It looks to connect biodiverse farms with local markets, incorporating local infrastructure such as small abattoirs, mills and microdairies. This approach transforms the dominant model of commodity capitalism and works towards food sovereignty.

According to Michel Pimbert “agroecology is a useful concept when talking to farmers to help them realise that they are using applied ecology to manage their farm and production.”

For those of you, like me, unsure of what ecology is exactly, Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Lives helpfully explains in the context of fungi why ecology is so fundamental to our understanding of the food system: “biology – the study of living organisms – had transformed into ecology – the study of the relationship between living organisms.”

Regenerative farming

Regenerative agriculture stems from the realisation during the shift from industrial to sustainable farming practices that we were working with already depleted soil health and fragile natural ecosystems. Sustainable farming is not enough. We need to regenerate that which we have already destroyed. Consequently, many of the techniques are focused on how to do this, for example the importance of livestock in fertilising the soil and dispersing beneficial microbes such as fungi that grow to form a dynamic soil network connecting plants together and transporting nutrients. Read Merlin Sheldrake’s book Entangled Lives if you want to know more about the enthralling “Wood Wide Web”! It is this aspect of regenerative farming that has recently pitted Regenuary against Veganuary on Twitter.

Regenerative farming incorporates elements of both agroecology and organic farming, but its origins and nomenclature suggest it is a transitional technique. Soil health is shown to increase dramatically after starting regenerative farming especially on particularly degraded soils, but after a few years of good practice, the improvements start to plateau as the ecosystem regains its natural healthy balance. In an ideal world we will only need “regenerative farming” for the next few decades as we transition to a more agroecological system that incorporates many regenerative practices.

Organic farming

Of all of them organic farming is the best known and understood among consumers. It is also the only practice that is enshrined in law and certified through bodies such as the Soil Association. According to the EU standards: “Organic farming is an agricultural method that aims to produce food using natural substances and processes.” This means reducing or eliminating the use of agrochemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides. It also means reducing the use of antibiotics in livestock and encouraging higher standards of animal welfare through practices such as free-range and pasture-fed. There are different standards set by different bodies, but the Soil Association is perhaps the best known and has stricter standards than the EU lays down in law.

One participating farmer explained in the chat the difference from her perspective of implementing both organic and regenerative practices on her farm:

“Difficult to get it all down here but we have been organic for 20 years but have been through a complete change as we have learnt about regenerative agriculture. My certification has never asked about successional state, infiltration rate, carbon storage in deep soil layers, break down of dung….

Maybe another example (at farm level) my organic head records where my animals have been, my regenerative head plans where they are going, building in buffers for flood and drought, increasing animal impact where needed and resting fields for longer where needed. Leading to a much more active soil which grows not just more grass but more diversity.”

ORFC participant

What should we focus on for the future?

In my mind agroecology is the most complete vision of what I would like our future food system to look like. In that respect it gets my vote as the ultimate goal. Organic and regenerative practices both fall within its guidance and should be encouraged. However, what became apparent through the conference was the need for a complete mindset shift across the population as a whole, not just farmers, if we are to achieve the transformation to a sustainable and healthy food system for everyone. Agroecology, with its clear and comprehensive vision for the future, is the framework I believe we can use to inspire the wider population.

Organic as a term already comes with baggage that isn’t always positive, such as accusations of elitism. We need to be careful to protect agroecology from the same fate. Food security and sustainability often seem at odds with each other, but they don’t have to be and importantly we must see them as separate challenges. If people can’t afford sustainable, healthy food, that is a social challenge we need to address, but not at the expense of sustainable farming practices.

Organic is useful in that it already has widespread recognition and understanding through the various accreditations in use. The accreditation standards also build trust and measure key aspects of a sustainable and healthy food system extending beyond farming to include food processing and sales. It is hard to see how agroecological practices could be measured without checking for organic and regenerative practices.

How should we certify good practice?

“Why should organic certification be an extra cost for farmers when those using glyphosate don’t pay anything towards a certification or even communicate the use of this chemical to consumers?” This was the provocative question Louise Luttikholt, Executive Director of IFOAM Organics International, posed to the panel at ORFC.  

We need to be making it easy for farmers to switch towards more agroecological farming methods and encouraging progress rather than setting minimum certification standards that may seem unachievable for many farmers without years of work and investment.

The Soil Association could build on its already well-established credibility to develop an accredited improvement programme. Government could stipulate that all farmers go through this programme, which would highlight to consumers where the food they are buying sits on the spectrum of sustainable production. The use of nutrient measuring tools such as that developed by the Bionutrient Food Association, which plans to identify toxins like glyphosate as well as nutritional information, could form part of a basic food safety process for all food, or a required measure for applying for subsidies under the new Environmental Land Management Scheme.

One of the key aspects of agroecology is that it is adapted for different places, taking into account different climates, soil types, farm aspects, and local markets. Whatever standards we look to implement, we need to ensure they are easily adaptable for local circumstances. One example of how a government policy has adapted for regional differences is the Swiss agriculture policy explored here.

A suggestion that kept emerging in the chat was Participatory Guarantee Schemes. These schemes are less costly for farmers and producers, but rely much more on trust. IFOAM – Organics International defines these schemes as:

“locally focused quality assurance systems. They certify producers based on active participation of stakeholders and are built on a foundation of trust, social networks and knowledge exchange.”

These schemes work well within a local food system, but the more distance there is between producers and consumers, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the level of trust upon which these schemes thrive.

Why do we need a local food system?

You may have noticed that agroecology focuses on connecting biodiverse farms with a local food system and market. There will always be demand for certain imported products from certain countries that cannot grow them: olive oil and citrus fruits in the UK, for example. However, agroecology necessitates a more localised primary market.  

It was great to see the Oxford Real Farming Conference for the first time featuring a workshop on supply chain and infrastructure. The workshop was run by Sustain and demonstrated the importance of getting the supply chain right in driving agroecological outcomes.

Agroecological supply chain workshop
Agroecological supply chain workshop with Sustain

Biodiverse farms mean a greater range of food products coming out of farms in smaller quantities at different times of the year. Logistically it is less cost-effective to transport smaller quantities of food large distances, so farmers will rely more heavily on their local market. Fortunately, their diverse crop range will mean they can more effectively cater for the nutritional needs of the local population. Local food systems also involve fewer intermediaries between the farmer and the customer, which enables the farmer to retain a much larger percentage of the retail price. This in turn means they can more easily charge the true cost of food, but still at an affordable price for the consumer.

Localised routes to market aren’t only commercially and logistically important for agroecology, they also have other “softer” benefits for both farmers and consumers. A separate talk presented the findings from a report by the New Economics Foundation due to be published soon, which assigns monetary values to these “softer” benefits to help illustrate their importance to policy makers.

NEF Consulting report on localised routes to market
NEF Consulting report on localised routes to market

Participation in local food systems is beneficial for our mental as well as our physical well-being. The mental health benefits are perhaps felt even more keenly by farmers who feel their work is more appreciated and they are better off financially, while consumers benefit from a greater sense of community.

How do we develop an agroecological mindset?

There were three talks at the ORFC this year that really stood out for me. None of them focused on farming, but between them they compose a strategy for reaching an agroecological mindset. These talks challenged the very fabric of Western language, culture and sense of self.

What is nature?

Rebecca Hosking’s talk was perhaps the highlight of the whole conference for me. She first described and illustrated how our relationship with nature was broken. She points out that if we were to see nature as a person, like her mother for example, being paid to do something nice for her, having to sign all kinds of documentation to prove to the government that we were protecting her, and otherwise mostly ignoring her, would all be signs of an abusive relationship. Next she imaginatively explains that if we had an abusive relationship with our mother, we would probably need counselling, so she takes us through the counselling process for our relationship with nature. She asks the typical questions that a therapist would ask such as “so how far back has all this gone?” and “so what are the stories you tell yourself to make it seem better?” And then she answers them very revealingly.

Indigenous cultures typically don’t have a word for nature. They refer to nature instead as “their ancestors” or “their home” or “other living beings”, but Western culture severed itself from nature very early on. Rebecca starts with Plato, but I think it goes even further back. Either way, our word for nature comes from the Latin natura. We have grown to see ourselves as separate from nature and our language reflects it. We “connect with nature”, “go into nature”, “surround ourselves with nature”, “farm with nature”. Our separation from nature causes problematic misunderstandings such as our concept of “wilderness”.

“If I had one term to ban it would be “wilderness” I think it’s the most despicable, denigrating racist term in the English language.”

Ecologist Dr Charles Kay

If you’re wondering why Dr Charles Kay is so denigrating about wilderness, you need to watch the talk. In short, we are calling indigenous managed land “wilderness” and assuming that they do nothing to it to keep it as healthy and beautiful as it is.

What is an individual?

I certainly didn’t think I would leave a farming conference questioning my own sense of self, but then the ORFC is no ordinary conference, and Merlin Sheldrake is no ordinary scientist. He’s been fascinated by fungi since he was a teenager and most incredibly has written a book about them that is flying off shelves. Already Entangled Lives was on my reading list, but listening to Merlin at ORFC made me prioritise reading it and I am now half way through and riveted! He’s turned me into a fungi nerd.

Most importantly he explains why and how fungi are relevant to us. From an agroecological perspective, understanding fungi help us to reconnect with nature and start to feel more part of it. You cannot help reading the book without being left with a sense of awe for what nature is capable of, but more than that you are forced to question who you really are. Do individuals truly exist when so many other organisms live inside them and influence their behaviour?

Our sense of individualism and ego seems to me to be intricately linked with our separation from nature. If we can let go of our selves as individuals and accept that we are living as one with millions of other organisms and connecting with millions of other organisms on a daily basis, then loving nature becomes the same as loving ourselves. Finally, we can appreciate the close and often mutually beneficial relationships we have with other living beings.

What if we imagined an agroecological food system?

The final talk I want to mention revolves around the power of our imagination. It was given by Rob Hopkins, author of From What is to What if: Unleashing the Power of Imagination to Create the Future We Want. He encourages us to ask “what if?” questions. Once you start asking those questions and imagining the positive outcomes you want, it becomes easier to see how to get there and you are motivated to reach the outcomes you have imagined. We are starting off so far from an agroecological food system that we are going to need all our powers of collective imagination and creativity to get there, but that vision shines there like a beacon of light joining people together in collaborative efforts.

Good examples of agroecological mindsets and incredible agroecological knowledge bases can be found within indigenous cultures, which in the past we have dismissed and almost destroyed. It was fantastic and encouraging to see numerous indigenous speakers contributing to the conference from around the world and generously sharing their knowledge with those that have threatened their existence.

Developing an agroecological mindset is going to be essential to create widespread change in the face of the power industrial agriculture holds over our purchasing decisions through hidden PR tactics. We need to start with the education of children and the re-education of adults.

Spinning Food PR talk at ORFC
Spinning Food PR talk at ORFC

Is agroecology incompatible with capitalism and how do we address the balance of power?

Underlying the whole conference was a power struggle between agroecology and capitalism. Industrial agriculture is the product of capitalism and a commodity food system combined with the need for chemical companies to find a new market following the end of the Second World War. Industrial agriculture is where the money is and that’s where the power is…currently. But all that could change if enough consumer hearts and minds were won over by the vision and need for an agroecological future. The problem is that most consumers are unaware that their hearts and minds are the subject of a hidden PR war.

One of the talks highlighted how concentrated power is within big agriculture to just a few firms. It also exposed the subtle PR tactics these corporations use to influence our opinions and purchasing decisions.

Spinning Food PR talk at ORFC
Spinning Food PR talk at ORFC

Advertising is the most obvious tactic, but as Anna Lappé, founder of Real Food Media says “Advertising is not just about selling products. It is also about shaping a halo of goodness and shaping a story around brand.”

This Monsanto message targets mums with growing families:

“let’s dig in”…“because growing enough food, for a growing world and doing it in a sustainable way requires a wide range of ideas and resources. That’s why we partner with farmers, non-profits and many others. It’s time for a bigger discussion about food.”

Monsanto advertising campaign targeting mums
Spinning Food PR talk at ORFC
Spinning Food PR talk at ORFC

For me the most worrying tactics are those that deceive consumers into thinking that what they are reading is independent when it is actually funded by industrial agriculture companies.

How can agroecology counter these messages when they are so well funded and represent a unified front of experienced PR professionals? Is agroecology trying to take on capitalism? Can we have both an agroecological food system and a capitalist economy and government?

Capitalism is an economic system in which private individuals or businesses own capital goods. The production of goods and services is based on supply and demand in the general market—known as a market economy—rather than through central planning—known as a planned economy or command economy.

The purest form of capitalism is free market or laissez-faire capitalism. Here, private individuals are unrestrained. They may determine where to invest, what to produce or sell, and at which prices to exchange goods and services. The laissez-faire marketplace operates without checks or controls.

Today, most countries practice a mixed capitalist system that includes some degree of government regulation of business and ownership of select industries.

Investopedia definition:

If agroecology aims to mimic a natural ecosystem and views the food system as a connected whole, it needs to create a balance between all connected stakeholders. Capitalism is not known for achieving balance, but then that is perhaps because it is combined with individualism and a culture that considers itself separate from nature. When I read the definition Investopedia provides of capitalism, I don’t see that it is wholly incompatible with agroecology, more that it needs adapting for an agroecological context and mindset. What if we had a market economy for public goods?

Currently there is a lot of money, power and interest concentrated in areas developed by our capitalist, individualist system. This is not going to be an easy transition and we need to remember that a very small percentage of our population are farmers and even fewer are able to be fully self-sufficient. Our economy has to work somehow. However, viewing food as just another commodity in a cash-driven market economy, isn’t working. We need to use our imaginations to break out of the mould we have created for ourselves and start the transition to an agroecological future.

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