The year always gets off to a good start with the Oxford Real Farming Conference. If you aren’t a farmer, you can be forgiven for not knowing about it, but in my view this is a missed opportunity. The conference is one of the most thought-provoking conferences I know and is the UK’s biggest gathering of thought leaders in sustainable agriculture. The ORFC is extremely well-organised and hosts a wide range of differing viewpoints to encourage discussion. Both the audience and the organisers are respectful of all perspectives and are keen to listen to them even when they seem to be an attack on themselves as farmers.
It’s almost impossible to get tickets as they sell out the day they are released. I’ve tried for the last two years, but if you wait a few weeks, ORFC releases the audio recordings in their website archives and it’s well worth listening in. Farmers lives are so different to the vast majority of us living or at least working in towns and cities. Even listening to a few recordings to get a sense of what their lives are like is fascinating and makes you realise how much they do to make sure we have food on the table and to look after the environment we so often take for granted.
I didn’t want you to miss out on the ORFC and there is so much to listen to that I decided to write a post highlighting some of the key discussion points during the two days:
- How is the obesity epidemic linked to industrial farming and food supply chains and what we can do about it?
- Will we choose technology (factory farms) or nature (regenerative agriculture) as our solution for a sustainable food system?
- Which agroecological farming methods have been successful from around the world?
- Could reductionist science be hindering our progress in sustainable agriculture?
- How can we make land something people want to manage?
Linking obesity to industrial farming and food supply chains
Henry Dimbleby has taken on the unenviable task of drawing up a National Food Strategy. Over the last year he analysed data and spoke to people throughout the industry. He shared his findings so far at both the Oxford Farming Conference (the original one) and the Oxford Real Farming Conference (the one focused on more sustainable farming). The speech he gave at the OFC can be found here. He gave a very similar speech at the ORFC. In it he explains that after the second world war scientists predicted huge population growth. This caused agricultural experts to focus on how to increase yields quickly to cater for this predicted rapid growth in demand and prevent mass starvation. The botanist Norman Borlaug dedicated his life to solving this problem and succeeded in developing a high-yielding, short-stemmed, rust-resistant strain of wheat, which enabled Mexico to go from importing around 60% of the wheat they consumed in 1944 to being fully self-sufficient in wheat by 1956. He was then able to export his success to other countries around the world.
This means that we now have enough food to feed the world, but unfortunately poor distribution means that in many places food is overabundant and in other places too scarce. Innovative food processing and packaging sprang up to market the abundance of food, typically calorie-dense foods such as refined wheat, sugar and vegetable fats, which in times of scarcity humans had evolved to find irresistible. The result has been an obesity epidemic the growth of which can be seen below.
Beyond obesity the use of pesticides on crops and antibiotics in animals has been linked to other health problems such as deteriorating gut health, the rise of food allergies, an increased antibiotic resistance, and an increased risk of cancer especially in cases of prolonged exposure to pesticides for farmworkers. And, as we know, it wasn’t just humans that suffered from the industrial transformation of farming. While wheat production doubles from 1970, the number of farmland birds decreases by 54%. The impact of industrial farming has had a catastrophic impact on biodiversity.
Dealing with the cause not the consequences
In a separate discussion on how to achieve zero carbon in the UK, Tim Benton of Chatham House and the IPCC (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) points out that annually ill health from poor diets costs us over five times what the whole farming economy generates. He suggests that shifting investment into creating a healthier food system would be more cost-effective than spending the same money managing the results of unhealthy diets. We need to be dealing with the cause not the consequences.
Fixing farming isn’t the whole solution, we must also tackle our processed food addiction
Healthy farming methods are not the complete solution, however. It is worth noting that the steepest part of the curve in obesity levels comes between 1980 and 1990 which was when supermarkets in the UK started to overtake independents and Co-op in terms of market share.
Joanna Blythman points out in the ORFC discussion on Linking Sustainable and Healthy Diets with Farming Outputs that the difference in our diets which correlates most directly with the rise of obesity and diabetes is the consumption of ultra-processed foods. Yet it isn’t as if we don’t have access to fresh vegetables in the supermarkets. We are just more drawn towards the processed foods. They are an easier sell and a more interesting commercial proposition. 18 of the largest food and drink companies rely on portfolios of food and drink of which 85% are so unhealthy as to be regarded unsuitable for marketing to children under World Health Organisation guidelines.
Just improving the way we grow our food isn’t going to affect the food we choose to eat. We need to put money into campaigns like Vegpower which introduces vegetables to children in a way that captures their imagination and makes them cool. Already they have seen positive impact on vegetable sales and a significant increase in children asking to buy new vegetables. Growing your own vegetables or being more closely connected with the farm where they are grown has also been shown to increase the number of vegetables we eat. There have been a number of Community Supported Agriculture schemes that have seen lots of local interest.
Can healthy, sustainable food by affordable?
When it comes to the National Food Strategy, the concern for many is that the cost of producing food sustainably would make food unaffordable to those already struggling to get by on a low income. The sad irony being that many of those producing food in the UK are among those who struggle to afford it. Critically, though, Henry Dimbleby notes that sustainable production and the affordability of food are two separate issues. In his words:
We need to work out what the true cost of food is and separately understand why some people struggle to afford sufficient food. I am not saying that food prices should or will rise; only that environmental degradation or widespread ill health is not a viable long-term solution to the problem of poverty.
Will we choose technology (factory farms) or nature (regenerative agriculture) as our solution for a sustainable food system?
For me one of the highlights of the 2020 ORFC was hearing the largely opposing views of influential environmentalist, George Monbiot, who recently produced the documentary Apocalypse Cow suggesting that all farmers would soon be redundant and replaced more sustainably and effectively by factory farms, and the other members of the panel, investigative journalist Joanna Blythman, Patrick Holden, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Food Trust, Richard Young, Chairman of the Soil Association Committee, and Peter Segger, one of Britain’s organic pioneers farming in West Wales. So often the debate about sustainable diets becomes very heated and while there were some very strong words said and accusations made, I was impressed by the way the panel managed to remain respectful of each other’s views. Peter, as a vegetarian organic farmer in Wales, provided an interesting balance to the whole debate. He was able to straddle both sides.
Normally what we hear is an over-simplistic meat no meat argument, but in this debate the one clear divide, massive gulf you might even say, between George and pretty much everyone else in the room, audience included, went deeper. A separate session discussed the impact of eating ruminant meat in more detail and presented new research from Oxford University showing that the short life of methane means that its impact on climate change was much less than originally thought. However, this debate was all to do with our relationship to nature and the role that technology would play in a sustainable food future.
Does the future lie with factory farms?
George suggested that soon all the food we eat aside from fruit and vegetables would be produced in factories via precision fermentation. In his view this would benefit the environment because it would enable us to produce enough food for everyone on just a fraction of the land we currently use for agriculture: just 0.001% compared to 40% today. Today’s farmland could be rewilded and the factories could take on producing food for the world’s population more reliably – not a particularly popular message for a room full of farmers! George was at pains to explain that he had no commercial interest in the development of these factory farms, but that he was observing this shift already happening and was here to give advance warning to farmers, who were currently at the bottom of what he described as the S curve of a trend about to take off. As so often happens, people at this point in the trend are unable to see it happening or believe it could be possible.
The rebuttal was fierce. Joanna Blythman pointed out that in this scenario pretty much our entire diet would be ultra-processed foods, which we know to be a primary cause of so many dietary related diseases today. A member of the audience later raised the concern that we would likely be passing our entire food security into the hands of just a few major food production companies. Richard Young had researched George’s statistical sources and accused him of quoting them incorrectly. George refuted this point, but the panel moderator, Sarah, carefully guided the conversation away from what would clearly have been a point impossible to resolve effectively on stage.
Nature or technology: which do you choose?
But what struck me most was that nearly all the other discussions at the conferences had focused on how we could work more closely with nature, how we could learn more by observing nature and trying to let nature run its course as far as possible, while maintaining or even increasing productivity. Here was a prospective future that would effectively replace nature completely. Rather than working more closely with nature, the future George envisages sees human beings enveloping themselves yet further in technology, using it like a comfort blanket of control and knowledge. We would cordon ourselves off in cities with factory farms and rewild everywhere else. As an environmentalist, it seems strange for George to be keen on this future. Surely an environmentalist would want to get closer to nature not further from it? After all we are also part of nature, a form of wild animal ourselves. Or have we forgotten this? Shouldn’t we be a part of this rewilding, not completely separated from it?
The practicalities of rewilding
Equally what would happen to the land that we rewilded? George suggested that farmers who currently own the land could be paid to rewild the land and leave it alone, but what would they do with their lives? If they were paid enough to do nothing, they could perhaps sit there enjoying a life of leisure, but then who wouldn’t want to be a farmer? Wouldn’t this cause significant inequality for those that owned land and those that didn’t? How would city dwellers feel about earning money and paying taxes to support a countryside full of idle farmers? There are also question marks over the idyllic nature of rewilding projects. A rewilding project in the Netherlands led to disaster.
Successful agroecological farming methods from around the world
The majority of the 2020 ORFC was dedicated to discussing what sustainable farming methods looked like and how best to implement them. A number of terms were used for this type of farming with varying degrees of specificity: agroecology, natural farming, agroforestry, silvopasture. I’m not sure I fully understand the differences between them, but they all had in common an acknowledgement that if you observed carefully enough, you could find that nature held most of the answers. What was interesting was hearing how these methods had worked well for farms around the world.
The ORFC case study of Alfredo Sendim from Freixo do Meio in Portugal – diversification and vertical integration
Alfredo tells his story much better than I will, so if you’re interested in listening to him click on the ORFC archives here. He switched his farm over to a method that strives for diversity and welcomes complexity. It looks towards nature to understand how trees and other plants provide the necessary soil structure to allow water to follow its natural cycle of slow absorption and eventual flow into the water ways through springs. It employs animals on the farms on the basis of their functions within the ecosystem rather than on the basis of the profit they can make out of their meat or dairy products. Alfredo explains in his talk at the ORFC that when temperatures rise in summer the microorganisms in the soil stop decomposing matter, but the animals continue to do this through their digestive systems so they become much needed walking soil matter.
However, the most incredible statistic about Alfredo’s system compared to the monocultures of industrial farming, is that on a farm of 600 hectares Alfredo produces over 300 different products covering a range of animal products, fruits, vegetables, and conserves. His farm currently feeds 200 families, but could feed many more. He admits that 30% of his income comes from EU subsidies, but explains that he has increased income from the farm by vertically integrating the whole chain from growing to selling, even setting up his own bakery and charcuterie, and opening a shop in Lisbon. He also says that he makes money out of the experiences he provides by opening up the farm to visitors.
Shumei Natural Agriculture – fostering a relationship between plant and soil
Shumei Natural Agriculture was born in Japan where it was practised first by Mokichi Okada and Fukuoka. The theory is that plants grow accustomed to their environment and this helps them become more resilient. Practitioners of Shumei don’t rotate crops because they want the plants to establish a relationship with the soil in which they are grown. They also don’t till, because this would disrupt the natural structure of the soil. Pesticides and fertilisers are also not used. Alice Cunningham, the Executive Director of International Affairs at Shumei, says they have even seen that fertiliser attracts insects.
In the process of farming this way, they realised that the seeds they sowed had a memory that enabled them to adapt better to the environment in which their parent plant had grown. This is similar to how a baby inherits to some extent the gut health of its mother, conditioning it to the food environment it will be born into. The seed memory and increased resilience that goes with it relies on the seed being planted in roughly the same conditions as the parent plant. This is easy to do as a farmer if you are saving your own seeds, but in most places with industrial farming, the seeds are bought from specialised hybrid seed sellers.
Can we turn around industrial agriculture in Africa before it’s too late?
Barbara Hachipuka Banda introduced Shumei’s methods to Zambia in 2004, but she discovered she wasn’t teaching the farmers anything new. They recognised the methods as how their parents had farmed and even how they themselves had farmed earlier on. Industrial farming practices had only been brought in relatively recently under the multi-party democracy in 1991. The President at the time wanted to open the country up to the international community and bring more industry to Africa. What in fact he achieved was the destruction of the small-holder farmer, by introducing fertilisers, pesticides and hybrid seed.
Farmers were made to feel as if what they had been doing previously was a waste of time. They were sold the dream that with modern technology they would produce more yield and were encouraged to burn everything and cut down trees to make way for the new farming practices and machinery. In some African countries governments even put up statements saying that farmers were not allowed to save seed and if they were caught, they would be arrested. Barbara remarked that with 80% of the population in farming this didn’t just cause desertification of the landscape, but also desertification of African communities replacing them with individualism. Barbara persuaded them to switch at least some of their crops back to Shumei practices and in 2018 when Zambia was hit badly by Army Worm, farmers were able to see for themselves how much more resilient their Shumei crops were compared to the conventional crops. The conventional crops were wiped out, while the Shumei crops survived. This stark contrast and the resurgence of farming communities has allowed Shumei to take a greater hold in Zambia. Hopefully this quick reversal of industrial agriculture has come in time to prevent the levels of soil degradation seen in countries that adopted it earlier.
You can listen to the whole session on Shumei Natural Agriculture here.
The Dartington Estate – an experiment in agroforestry and tenancy agreements
The Dartington estate has allocated one field in their tenancy agreement over to agroforestry. This is a fairly unusual arrangement and put off a number of tenants, but eventually they found one who was willing to take on the tenancy with the commitment to agroforestry. It seems to be working quite well. The estate has agreed to help upfront the capital required to set up the field for agroforestry and the tenant has sublet the field to a range of different producers. Luscombe Drinks grows elderflower, Huxcombe Cross Farm grows apples and pears and Salthouse & Peppermongers are growing the UK’s first pepper trees. This model of subletting could work well for small-scale agroforestry projects. To listen to the whole session, click here.
Could reductionist science be hindering our progress in sustainable agriculture?
Several of the speakers and members of the ORFC audience made mention of Allan Savory, apparently a legend familiar to everyone else at the conference. While clearly respected by the farming community, some ORFC speakers were hesitant to pass public judgement on the validity of his methods. I was intrigued, so I looked him up. There were a series of articles vehemently debunking and defending his methods pretty much in equal measure. These are the two I found most helpful on each side:
- Article criticising Allan Savory by Sierra Club – you need to read the comments at the bottom
- Article defending Allan Savory by Regenerate Land
There is clearly a lot of different opinions on the effectiveness of his suggestions aired in the TED talk he gave in 2013. I am not going to add to the arguments, except to point out one thing. Allan Savory is a farmer not a scientist. He has arrived at his conclusion through practise and observation, but his conclusion is more of an art than a science. His method is based on the principle that grasslands thrive on the constant unpredictable movement of large grazing animals as they run in herds to escape predators. The farmer therefore has to mimic this movement, but to achieve maximum effect he/she needs to observe the land carefully to know how and when to move the herd on. His methods have been heavily criticised by scientists due to a lack of evidence from experimental trials which try to replicate his methods. These trials appear to replicate the science of moving the herd around in a relatively rigid fashion as in rotational grazing without fully understanding the art of observation needed to determine the movement. I was interested by Savory’s comment about reductionist scientists.
Holistic management does not permit replication. This point is critical to understanding the great difficulty reductionist scientists are experiencing trying to comprehend holistic planned grazing—because no two plans are ever the same even on the same property two years running…Every study of holistic planned grazing that has been done has provided results that are rejected by range scientists because there was no replication!
In his speech at OFC Henry Dimbleby mentioned a book called Linked by physicist Albert-László Barabási that looks at how we won’t be able to understand the complex web of our ecosystem if we continue to take a reductionist approach. For me the best indicator that Savory’s method works when applied by other farmers rather than scientists, are the comments at the bottom of the Sierra article from practitioners around the world and the rapid uptake of Savory’s methods despite the lack of scientific evidence: 40 million acres in roughly 30 years. One of the reasons nature is so resilient is because of its diversity. If we want to work with nature (and that is clearly up for debate), we will need to accept that our methods must be adapted to what we find and observe in situ. Our current system is broken precisely because we have taken the same method and replicated it at scale throughout the globe destroying the complex web of biodiversity in the process. Perhaps it’s time for a degree of humility and an open-minded approach to searching for answers in nature and running with them even if we don’t fully understand them from a reductionist perspective. We don’t have time to prove everything in detail.
An ORFC challenge: How can we make land something people want to manage? ORFC
Running throughout the ORFC programme were a series of discussions around land use and land ownership, which rather surprised me. Land use I expected, but land ownership I guess I had always taken for granted. Land is bought, sold and transferred like any other possession, so I thought it would be fairly clear cut, but there were several quite radical alternative visions for land ownership proposed throughout the ORFC. Even more surprising was that in the more theoretical discussions about how land should or shouldn’t be owned, the question was always how do we bring land into the right control, yet in the more practical discussions about owning and transferring land it appeared that no-one seemed to want to control the land. Aristocratic landlords often saw their land as a burden, while county farms were selling their land off because it had become too much work to manage, yet some communities when offered ownership of land that had previously been privately owned, were resistant to taking on the responsibility. Just reallocating land is unlikely to help much unless managing the land was also turned into a more attractive and profitable proposition. If we can incentivise the right land uses, encourage suitable tenancy agreements, and structure the supply chain in a way that makes small-scale regenerative agriculture profitable, I don’t think the land ownership will matter so much. If we can’t do this, it seems no-one will want the land for farming anyway.
Why bother farming? Encouraging new entrants and protecting mental health
A key challenge noted in the ORFC is encouraging new entrants into conventional farming. Young people don’t want to get involved in a business they know is damaging the environment. They are more interested in the agroecological farms where they can connect more closely with nature and learn to nurture it. Yet often the ownership or long-term tenancies that would enable them to see the fruits of their labour were not available to them.
One session in this year’s ORFC was titled “Why bother farming?” and addressed the spiritual aspect of why people still farmed despite the economic difficulties of the job. Among the reasons cited by farmers was:
We need to be careful of wrapping ourselves too completely in technology. The ORFC might have made the connection now between an industrial food system and obesity, but one of the trends I think we haven’t fully understood yet is the impact of digital technology on our mental health. Digital technology destroys that connection to place and it wouldn’t surprise me if come 2030 or even earlier we can plot a graph correlating digital technology and mental health. The economic impact of a mental health epidemic has yet to be seen, but the decision by some countries to measure population wellbeing instead of GDP as their primary success factor appears increasingly relevant and even economically sensible.
Farming: a lifestyle business?
In a separate ORFC session about how to make a living out of farming a farmer in Devon talked about how he made a livelihood rather than a good wage.
It’s taken me 10 years for my farming business to pay me a living wage…however the intrinsic value of a job that allows me to work in a landscape that I love producing good food for people that I know personally can’t be measured with economics. I think it’s fair to say that these models of farming are never going to make you rich, but with any luck they can be guaranteed to make you happy.
He explained to the ORFC that agroecology was only possible commercially on a small-scale if the farmer received close to 100% the retail price of the produce by supplying the market directly rather than the 8-10% they receive currently through supplying wholesalers and supermarkets. This by default means that they have to supply the local market and supports the way that Alfredo works in terms of complete vertical integration and the growing trend in Community Supported Agriculture schemes, which work as a cooperative to supply the market directly.
A massive land grab: ensuring a future for regenerative agriculture
With so many farmers retiring without a succession plan, the ORFC sees a big opportunity for a shuffle in land use and ownership. It will need government intervention if we want to ensure a decent chunk is secured for regenerative agriculture. A recent report from Deloitte suggests that large food and beverage consumer goods companies with lots of capital behind them will also be looking to vertically integrate from farm to fork and unless we are careful this will come at the expense of our health, our farmers and the environment.