A tale of two conferences

Why run the Oxford Real Farming Conference when the ‘official’ Oxford Farming Conference already says all that needs saying?

Because, says Colin Tudge, they represent two quite different world views.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) and the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) represent two totally different views of farming, indeed two different philosophies of life. And they lead us towards completely different, and in many ways opposing, strategies.

The ‘official’ or ‘conventional’ view, represented at the OFC by corporates and the Secretary of State of the day, is that agriculture is “a business like any other”.

According to the accepted norms of the neoliberal economy its prime task is to contribute to GDP and hence to economic growth and it must do this by competing on the global market, head-to-head, with the subsidized high-tech of the US on the one hand and the vast sunny acres of the Ukraine, Brazil, Africa, and Spain on the other. So long as oil is cheap (or at least is still available and just about affordable) British farming is most profitable when labour is replaced by high tech – big machines and industrial chemistry.

There’s a caveat here though, for as economist Paul Mason points out, when there’s enough dispossessed and desperate labour in the world it can be cheaper to employ itinerants than to gear up; and as Felicity Lawrence told the ORFC last year, some key areas of British farming now rely on virtually bonded gangs of Chinese and East Europeans, largely run by organized crime. In general, though, it’s cheaper just to get rid of people.

In the absence of skilled labour husbandry must be simplified so mixed farms are replaced by monocultures and animals are raised in factories. Machines and buildings are most cost-effective when they’re big, so ‘farms’ become bigger and bigger.

Fifty years ago in Britain 100 acres was big. Now 1000 hectares, 2500 acres-plus, is commonplace; and the many thousands of dairy farms that once made a fair living with 20 cows – as is still common in much of Europe – are mostly replaced by herds of several hundreds, while some high-tech zealots now dream of units of 30,000.  The milk is then homogenized and commonly powdered for export not least (guess where!) to India, where with clever marketing, tens of millions of traditional farmers with no other means of subsistence can be undercut. After all, business is business.

The cost of doing business

The collateral damage in Britain and worldwide is enormous: the countryside strictly for commuters, the few remaining farm workers banished to low-cost suburbs, food demonstrably degraded nutritionally and certainly gastronomically, with all too obvious consequences for health. Add to his the horrendous and indeed frightening destruction of the biosphere – the diversity of creatures, the fertility of soil, and the stability of climate.

Worldwide, for all the razzmatazz, a billion still go hungry although everyone could easily be well fed, if only we did things properly. A billion displaced farmers and their families now live in urban slums, and the world population of diabetics is twice that of Russia. But what the hell! It’s profitable! It’s the bottom line!  It makes us ‘competitive’! That’s progress! That’s ‘realistic’!

And with a little creative accountancy and judiciously chosen graphs it is possible to show at least to those who want to be convinced that the status quo is ticking along nicely, or would be if only people at large weren’t so ignorant, and bolshie, and didn’t breed so much.

Why we need the Oxford Real Farming Conference

‘Real Farming’ is short for ‘Enlightened Agriculture’ and its point is to ensure that everyone who is ever likely to be born on to this Earth can be well fed, and to do this without cruelty or injustice and without wrecking the rest of the world.

All this is eminently achievable with modest technologies that already exist and with an economy which, though not neoliberal, need not frighten the horses.

Observation, simple science and common sense tell us that the farms we really need are the complete opposite of the Neoliberal-Industrial kind that are now imposed upon us: mixed, low-input (organic is the default position), therefore skills-intensive (plenty of farmers) and therefore (since there is no advantage in scale-up) small to medium-sized.

Marketing should be as local as is reasonable, complemented by fair trade – and not designed expressly to provide commodities for the global market, as now. Enlightened Agriculture must be matched by true food culture. Wall-to-wall burgers won’t do. Believe it or not, if things were done properly, food produced in such ways and to such standards could be more affordable than now (see http://collegeforrealfarming.org/)

Agenda setting in a changed world

All this cannot be achieved by ad hoc fiddling with the status quo. It needs a new mindset. We need to re-define what we really care about in life: good food, good health, a beautiful and flourishing countryside, or massive profits for a few large (and growing) corporates?

We need to re-think the kind of economy we need to support enlightened farming (some variation on a theme of social democracy would do the trick); and what kind of governance we need to ensure that good things are done (people in positions of influence who know something and give a damn would be a great step forward!). Alongside this an understanding of what kind of science could deliver what’s needed and who should control it, for science has become the handmaiden of big business.

Then we need to dig deeper still, and explore the moral and indeed the metaphysical bases and implications of all our ideas.

The ORFC cannot explore all these issues in depth but it can and does set the agenda. It defines the kind of things we really need to think about, and why, and to some extent how.

By contrast, the discussions at the ‘conventional’, original, Oxford Farming Conference – how to sell more pigs to China; how to sell more biotech to the world at large – are an exercise in rearranging deckchairs, as the entire world, with us and our fellow creatures, sinks beneath the waves and perhaps, as global warming bites, almost literally.


Colin Tudge, January 4 2017