Michael Wale reports here on some of the most hotly contested topics at this year’s ‘alternative’ Oxford Real Farming Conference

Oxford’s Real Farming Conference (ORFC) sold out as usual, and now seeks to spread its message across the country.

For the first time its influence over its establishment rival, the historic Oxford Farming Conference, could really be seen with speakers like Henry Dimbleby and Helen Browning sharing their insights at both conferences. There were break out sessions for the first time too, and an overall event theme of ‘Growing a Healthy Society’.

Colin Tudge, who co-founded ORFC 11 years ago, says he does not intend to enlarge it, but would like to see it extend its reach: “We’re developing the College of Real Farming and Food, that takes up ideas created in Oxford, and also feeds ideas into the conference. I’d like to see equivalents in Wales and the North of England”.

One session dominated this year’s ‘Real’ conference, while ironically contributing very little to it. It encompassed the ego of George Monbiot, the knowledge of the writer and food campaigner Joanna Blythman, legendary Wales-based organic farmer Pete Segger and Patrick Holden, dairy farmer, and founder and chief executive of the Sustainable Food Trust.

In the chair was the editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, Sarah Sands, tasked with controlling a discussion linking sustainable and healthy diets of farming outputs. Strangely, apart from Blythman’s contribution, this subject never seemed to be explored as it should have been. The panel was too large, which didn’t help Sands – with Monbiot dominating matters from the start. So it soon turned into a platform for the views of Monbiot, who had not endeared himself to the farming community with a documentary on Channel 4 the previous week – Apocalypse Cow: How Meat Killed The Planet.

In the film, Monbiot argues that the biggest problem driving the planet, and humanity, towards global disaster is how we feed ourselves, particularly on meat.

Sands’ introduction suggested we faced a choice between keeping Wordsworthian vision of countryside, or faced up to a new type of landscape such as re-wilding. Monbiot (pictured speaking), who is now a vegan, acknowledged at the outset: “I don’t think I’m going to make many friends here today. We are on the cusp of seeing one of the greatest technological advancements for years.  We’re about to see a shift of food production from farm to factories. Farming to fermentation. Farming as we practice it today is not resilient. The shift from the farm to factory, much as you may hate it, comes in the nick of time. The only sector to be unaffected will be fruit and veg. The environment will be absolutely minimal. The best news humanity has had for a long time. I want there to be a way out for farmers, and a massive restoration of nature”. He added that money saved with this policy could be put towards a re-wilding of the British landscape.

Monbiot is keen on food being biologically created in factories. A view diametrically opposed by Joanna Blythman. Blythman who has spent a lifetime as an investigative writer about food displayed an obvious disdain for Monbiot’s view of a techno-farming future. 

Blythman argued that “what we put on our plate must reflect the production of our land,” not laboratory-resembling food factories. That direct connection with the soil and land was vital to deliver a diet that “keeps people healthy”. 

Turning to veganism, Blythman insisted that unless “you take supplements  you will not get enough vitamin B12 – an essential vitamin.”. She believes  plant-based diets lacks several minerals, pointed out that spinach contains just 5% of calcium requirements,while  whole milk provides 35%.

Blythman added that margarine was one of the most processed  foods of all, adding: “Give me some locally produced butter any day.” And she ended with a rallying cry, and appeal to the farming audience, when she said (as a response to Monbiot’s blunt attack on livestock): “For 30 years I’ve campaigned against factory farmed foods. Don’t smear all livestock farming”.

Patrick Holden said that he had long been a supporter of George Monbiot, but as he had turned his attention to food he felt he was losing faith in him., pointing out that he lacked any direct experience in farming.

A much more all rounded discussion, embracing this largely farming audience, involved the highly topical subject of contentious inputs such as copper and plastic. It was chaired by Paul Flynn, the Soil Association’s Crops and Soils advisor.

There has long been controversy over organic farming’s use of copper, especially from pesticide-using conventional farmers who seize on it to attack organic farming. Flynn underlined the role of one panellist, Joe Rolfe, who ‘stole the show’. Rolfe supplied organic potatoes to Waitrose and Tesco, grown without any copper input. Copper is largely used to control blight, but Rolfe argued that it was better addressed by focusing on the quality of the seed, where the blight problem began.

The Soil Association backed Innovative Farmers prohect, which encourages farmers from both the organic and conventional backgrounds to study problems based on meetings on their farms is already majoring on the plastics problem. The panel also covered this subject and Flynn said that the widespread practice of using to block out light to prevent weeds on bare ground, could be easily replaced by using a thin layer of compost, “ If you don’t have enough of your own produced compost you can, like we do, buy in green waste compost made by the local council”. 

At the close of the day, I asked Colin Tudge about his current views of the established conference known by ‘Real’ followers as ‘that one up the road’. He said: “They are what I like to call uncritical technophiliacs. They immediately assume the best  solution to anything is high tech. They are still fully subscribed up to industrialised agriculture.

“What we are talking about at the ORFC is based on agroecology, an approach that values food sovereignty – very diverse farming, low input farming, practically organic, and which needs to be skills intensive where each farm is treated as an eco system”.

The contest of ideas and values, between two opposite-minded conferences, continues. I just wish they would avoid the clashing dates. Why not agree on separate dates, and stage a whole week of agriculture debate in Oxford? 

Photos, Hugh Warwick for ORFC


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