Oxford Real Farming Conference: Inviting Real Ideas for Real Sustainability

Tomorrow morning – well, in a few hours! – sees the beginning of the 6th annual Oxford Real Farming Conference (1), a two-day event packed with talks, seminars and hands-on workshops to bring together a diverse range of people; from seed savers to dairy farmers, permaculture researchers to biodynamic enthusiasts, and keen academics to keen revolutionaries; to talk about how we can change our farming methods to create more sustainable and possibly even regenerative food systems.

Why such a diverse range of people to talk about just one subject: farming? For those of you who may think that farming is just something which happens in fields far away from you, it might be beneficial to broaden your viewpoint. Farming, indeed, can be seen as one of the key aspects of our society: for it is how we source the vast majority of our food, and so the way in which the land is farmed should be something in which we all have an interest and input.

Farming and feeding

In spite of its vast global importance in terms of preserving the human population, many farming practices which are very common today are highly detrimental to the earth, wildlife, and indeed humans as well. The criticisms and concerns are myriad (see for example 2, 3); but the conference is not really focussed on the negative. Rather, the four-stranded two-day programme aims to provide insight into how farming can be done sustainably, and show “who, right now, in Britain and the world at large, is truly farming and marketing and cooking in ways that the world really needs, and others can emulate” (1).

As farming is such a fundamental part of our society it affects every other part. In high-external-input, high-yield intensive farming, this almost inevitably means the comingling of chemicals and petroleum products with the production of food and other use-crops (see for example 4). So interlinked are the two that four of the largest seed companies in the world, who control 49% of the global seed production market, are also chemical companies: Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Bayer (5). Bayer and Syngenta are also pharmaceutical businesses, showing how the linking of food and drugs, an ancient practice which goes back to the first times we began noticing how different herbs have different effects (6, 7) are now both synonymous, in much big business, with chemicals.

The way in which we farm reflects upon the whole of society and the ideas being hinted at in tomorrow and Wednesday’s programme suggest a shift not only in how we grow things, but how we interact as a culture. There are many alternatives to those propagated by the seed-chemical-pharmaceutical companies, so much so, indeed, that it feels only a matter of people becoming aware of them.

Learning

The Conference promises to be a fantastic opportunity for learning, with academic presentations from representatives from educational institutions the Schumacher College (8) and the Centre for Agro-ecology, Water and Resilience (9), as well as the Permaculture Association (10), who run the UK Permaculture Diploma Programme (11) and whose director, Andy Goldring, shall be giving a presentation on Wednesday on permaculture research in the UK, along with Julia Wright, Jay Abrahams and Federico Filipi.

For those perhaps not so interested in academic pursuits there will be interactive workshops on soil evaluation by Bruce Balls and on a number of different market optimisation strategies by various inspirational speakers.

Then if all of this is just not quite enough for the vehement enthusiasm which you have managed to cultivate by now, there are also some fairly radical or hands-on sessions, including an interactive discussion on the rural-urban divide led by Ed Hamer of the Landworkers’ Alliance (12), a planning meeting for the Food Sovereignty UK 2015 Gathering (13) and, perhaps most intriguingly of all if you are interested in these issues but are wondering how, as a landless person, you can become practically involved, a session on how to work with local UK authorities to gain access to land for community use, chaired by Rachel Harries of the Soil Association (14).

Real farming, real people!

The abovementioned are just a fraction of the intriguing and, I fully expect, inspiring talks and sessions which are on offer over the next two days. The networking opportunities are also quite inspirational; as the more we connect and create networks with like-minded people at events such as these, the stronger we can become. To this end the Gaia Foundation (15) and numerous seed organisations from around the UK shall be supporting the coming together of any interested delegates and attendees at another meeting in February (in time for this year’s growing season) expIoring which groups exist in this country who are engaged in seed saving, education and sharing.

For the next forty-eight hours I shall be reporting from the conference: watch this space for updates.

References

  1. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2014. ‘About’. http://orfc.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  2. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘The Meat Industry and Ideas for What We Can Do About It’. Permaculture News, 15/04/2014. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/04/15/meat-industry-ideas-can/ -retrieved 4/01/15
  3. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Scientific Research Condemns Neonicotinoid Chemicals: What More Will It Take?’ Permaculture News, 17/7/2014. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/07/17/scientific-research-condemns-neonicotinoid-pesticides-will-take/ – retrieved 6/01/15
  4. UNCTAD, 2013. Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/publicationslibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf – retrieved 04/1/15
  5. GM Watch, 2014. ‘The world’s top 10 seed companies: who owns Nature?’ http://www.gmwatch.org/gm-firms/10558-the-worlds-top-ten-seed-companies-who-owns-nature – retrieved 05/1/15
  6. Nunn, John (2002). Ancient Egyptian Medicine. University of Oklahoma Press. p. 151. ISBN978-0-8061-3504-5
  7. Robson, Barry & Baek, O.K. (2009). The Engines of Hippocrates: From the Dawn of Medicine to Medical and Pharmaceutical Informatics. John Wiley & Sons.
  8. Schumacher College, 2014. ‘About Us’. https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/about – retrieved 04/01/15
  9. Coventry University, 2014. ‘Centre for Agro-Ecology, Water and Resilience’. http://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/agroecology-water-resilience/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  10. Permaculture Association, 2014. ‘Our Work’. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/our-work -retrieved 04/01/15
  11. Permaculture Association, 2014. ‘Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design’. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/diploma – retrieved 06/01/15
  12. Land Workers Alliance, 2014. ‘Who We Are’. http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/organisation/ – retrieved 06/01/15
  13. Food Sovereignty Now, 2014. ‘National Gathering 2015’. http://foodsovereigntynow.org.uk/ukfoodsov/national-gathering-2015/ – retrieved 06/01/15
  14. Soil Association, 2014. ‘What Is Organic?’ http://www.soilassociation.org/whatisorganic – retrieved 06/01/15
  15. Gaia Foundation, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/about-us – retrieved 06/01/15
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