Guest blog – Dead Zone: Where the wild things were

Guest blog from Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive, Compassion in World Farming

Philip Lymbery, CIWF Chief Exec

Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive, Compassion in World Farming

Today, many wild animals face extinction. However, it’s not just the usual suspects – climate change and poaching – which are to blame. In fact, one of the biggest drivers of species loss worldwide is cheap meat from factory farms.

Wildlife is now disappearing 1,000 times faster than what scientists consider to be ‘normal’.

Indeed, there are two sides to factory farming. On the one, animals suffer as they are caged and confined on factory farms. On the other, wild animals are squeezed out of their homes as more and more land and water is given over to the production of cheap animal feed.

Take the Sumatran elephant. Down to their last 2,500, their forest homes are being destroyed to make way for intensive palm plantations. It’s not just about the palm oil ending up in so many biscuits, cosmetics and other products. It’s about the palm kernel, which is being used as cheap animal feed, fuelling factory farming and driving further deforestation.

Penguins are being pushed to the brink of extinction too, because we feed our factory-farmed animals the very same fish which make up the penguin’s diet. And jaguars in Brazil are left with nowhere to live and little to eat as monocultures of soya take over the land, once again destined to feed animals suffering on intensive farms.

Over the course of writing Dead Zone: Where the Wild Things Were, I’ve discovered that when we restore animals to the land in the right way – in well-managed, mixed rotational farms – amazing things can happen. Free-ranging animals on pasture can feel fresh air and sunshine, and carry out natural behaviours essential for their welfare. Soils start to regenerate. Wildlife can thrive again.

The planet is now at a dangerous tipping point where nearly half the world’s meat comes from industrial rather than mixed, extensive farms.

Helping to revive a living countryside can be as easy as choosing to eat less and better meat, milk, and eggs from pasture-fed, free-range or organic animals – with a cascade of positive benefits for the environment, wildlife, farm animals, and us.

Posted in Blog, Environment

Why have we raised the ticket price this year and why speakers need to buy tickets…

Ticket prices

Thanks to our sponsors and funders we have over the years been able to subsidise the cost of the conference tickets to delegates. This is a very important part of what ORFC is all about. We do not want anyone to be excluded because of the price. However, this year despite huge fundraising efforts by the ORFC team we will be unable to subsidise the ticket price by as much as last year.

The conference costs over £70,000 to organise.

Our fundraising will still enable us to subsidise the cost of the ticket by 45 percent but in order to cover our costs we have had to raise the ticket price by £10. This is something we have not done lightly and you can be sure that next year we will be looking again to do our best to raise more funds to secure the highest possible subsidy.

Speakers buying tickets

In order for the conference to go ahead, we need everyone – including speakers – to buy tickets. Some conferences are hundreds of pounds per head to attend, however we feel that if everyone buys a ticket, then it means more people – from varying income backgrounds – can come. We also feel that by speakers buying tickets, it moves away from an us-and-them approach of speaker and listener; but rather everyone is equally part of the conference, helping to create a sense of collective participation and camaraderie.

That said, we are always open to suggestions, particularly intelligent alternative-finance ones, so feel free to get in touch!

Nessie Reid

Posted in Uncategorized

ORFC’s Manager Nessie Reid gives us a peek into next years conference…

Conference Manager Nessie Reid fills us in on how the programme is shaping up in this sneak-peek video! Don’t forget, ORFC 2018 Tickets available here

Posted in Uncategorized

ART, FOOD AND FARMING: Call for artist in residence at ORFC 2018

Closing date: 7 November

Calling to all artists/musicians/poets/dancers interested in food, farming and the environment.

John Berger, the great art critic and writer allegedly said “The strange power of art is sometimes it can show that what people have in common is more urgent than what differentiates them”. I believe art, in its broadest sense, can be an extremely powerful tool for conveying and sharing ideas and complexities that sometimes words cannot.

For ORFC 2018, the ORFC 218 team and I would like to invite an artist to be in residence over the conference period (4-5 January 2017). By ‘artist’ ,this can be anything from musician, poet, dancer, snake charmer (although not advised)… you name it. The successful applicant(s) will know by 07 November so you may wish to start your piece(s) in the lead up to the conference I.e. interview some farmers, the ORFC team members etc or just create something over the 2 days, to be presented at the closing plenary.

I am cautious to be too prescriptive about what we are looking for (as this is a piece of art, and not a policy document!) but we do ask that the central focus of the piece revolves around farming, food or broadly the environment.

Please send your application to me at: (Nessie Reid) by 7 November.

Your application can be anything you wish it to be – from a covering letter, to a video, to a phone call, to a dance (whatever your style). It just needs to clearly convey your idea/vision.

Unfortunately, we are not able to offer an official salary (although I wish we could) but we can offer a nominal fee of £200 to cover travel and expenses.

I look forward to hearing from you!


Posted in Uncategorized

We’re back! Announcing the Call for Contributions for the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference

With only 6 months until the ORFC 2018 (how time flies!) we’ve begun pulling together an exciting programme for 2018… 
When we asked for your ideas this time last year, the UK had recently voted to leave the European Union. This time the Queen’s speech has informed us that a specific Agriculture Brexit Bill will be created, lobbied and debated during the coming parliament. We also know that Brexit will bring further uncertainty around issues including farm support, GM crops and agricultural imports.

Such troubled times call for new ideas and new thinking. And that is just what ORFC has and always will be about.
This year, we are looking for ideas for sessions around the following themes:

  • Farm Practice – new ideas and best practice in agroecological farming methods
  • The Big Ideas - what truly needs to be changed to bring about the Agrarian Renaissance
  • Growing and Supporting – ideas and initiatives to better support what we’ve got and grow the sector
  • The Brexit Room –we have a once in a generation chance to influence and shape food and farming policy
  • Food Sovereignty– ideas and best practice for building food sovereignty both in the UK and globally
  • Funding – ideas and best practice on finance that works for food and farming
  • Good Science, Good Research: What kind of science does “real farming” really need? What is actually being done?

If you have an idea for a session you would like to run along one or more of these themes then please send us the following information :

  1. A brief description of the session
  2. Who will chair it and other contributors that you hope to involve
  3. How you will engage the audience in your session

Session structure

This year we are really keen to move away from the lecture and panel discussion approach and engage all participants more in the discussions and debates. So, we are asking you not only to propose a session but to say how you will structure itNot in detail at this stage, but we want to know how you will engage your audience in your event.

Some subjects require a lecture/Q&A approach; but others don’t. We’d like to have a diversity of approaches and a diversity of speakers and chairs.

The deadline for submissions is Friday 4th August, 2017

Please send your ideas by email to me at: your session has been selected for inclusion you will hear from us in early September. Please note the ORFC is very popular and we get around 3 applications for each slot available. 

If you have not heard from us by the 15th September then unfortunately your session has not been selected.  

We really look forward to hearing from you,


Nessie Reid, ORFC Manager




Posted in Uncategorized

ORFC 2017 content is now live

If you would like to relive the ORFC 2017, take a look at our photos here.

I am pleased to announce that all the PowerPoints and audio recordings from this year’s conference can be found in our 2017 Archive.

Nessie Reid, ORFC Manager

ORFC 2017 | Olivier De Schutter at our Opening Plenary

ORFC 2017 | Resilient food systems and climate change: the UK’s international role panel session

Posted in Uncategorized

The ORFC poet in residence

“Go into the towns and cities laden with produce and stories… too much fact runs off busy people like water from compacted soil. Learn how to open them to the seeds of ideas…” 

The French writer, designer and playwright Jean Cocteau said “the poet doesn’t invent. He listens” and no poet does this better than Adam Horovitz, our ORFC poet in residence. Throughout the ORFC 2017 Adam listened: he heard stories of people’s hope, of their fears and challenges, of visions of necessary systemic change, of stories of regeneration and possibility, of resilience and determination, of desperation and calls for help… the whole gambit of human experience. And from this place he wrote us two poems The Soil Never Sleeps and Where to go from here?

We feel these poems so beautifully capture the essence of the conference and thus decided to make them available to delegates and those that did not get the chance to attend. You can listen to Adam below…

We have decided to offer signed, limited editions of 150 letterpress posters measuring 297mm by 500mm (just longer than A3). The poems will be set in 20pt Gill Sans on beautiful 300gsm card, perfect for framing. These are being prepared for print at the moment, but the posters (which come as a pack of two) are available now for pre-order for £25 (including p&p in the UK). All proceeds from the posters will go towards Adam’s ongoing lyrical celebration of pasture farming as the PfLA’s poet in residence. If you would like to purchase a set of posters, click here

Posted in Uncategorized

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

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

Posted in Uncategorized

For Britain’s and the world’s agriculture, Brexit is much bigger than Brexit

In the spirit of John McEnroe, Colin Tudge urges our leaders to “Be serious!”

The discussions that have followed Brexit – “Ooh Crikey! What shall we do now?” – are, if anything, even less edifying than those that led us to the present fiasco.

In this, as in all things, agriculture is in the firing line, and here the general level of conversation (as alas is true of farming in general) has perhaps been worst of all – not least because the implications are so serious.

Thus, newcomers might be forgiven for thinking that all that’s at stake is the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies.

Will they continue? Will the British government substitute something similar? If it does, will it continue to ensure that the lion’s share goes to the biggest landowners, more or less irrespective of merit, or the lack of it? Or will it simply be assumed, in Mrs May’s promised meritocracy, that the rich are the most meritorious, for otherwise they wouldn’t be rich?


Subsidies are not the end of the discussion

The much bigger question, though, which successive governments of all parties have never apparently realized was a question at all, is the extent to which governments should – must – involve themselves in agriculture.

Or – an even bigger issue – to what extent they should seek to control the economy as a whole, and for whose benefit; or whether they can safely leave farming, and hence the nation’s food supply, and the general state of the biosphere, to the market, as is becoming the norm in all things.

In particular, since the ‘free’ market in truth is dominated by the biggest players, governments – and indeed all of us – should be asking whether it is really safe to leave our and the world’s affairs to corporates and banks.

About 200 years ago the USA was founded on the idea that commerce should be as free as possible, but the early US governments nonetheless took it to be obvious that the market on its own could not be relied on to deliver justice. So they took it to be obvious that a prime task for government must be to control the market and the economy as a whole, insofar as this was necessary to ensure the wellbeing of the people.

This philosophy persisted until the neoliberals declared in the 1960s the market would serve the people much better if it was unrestrained – and this somewhat wild piece of speculation has increasingly become the global norm ever since Margaret Thatcher and then Ronald Reagan released it on the world circa 1980.

Suddenly farming became “a business like any other” and business itself was stripped of its moral content. It was no longer to be seen as the essential prop of a free and democratic society, but simply as a machine for maximizing wealth, by whatever means, for whatever purposes.

Businesses were reconceived as in-house rottweilers, focused on making their shareholders rich.

In general, this has proved disastrous – it’s the main reason for the growing gap between rich and poor, which in turn is at the root of all the world’s injustices and unrest.

And for agriculture it is particularly damaging. Governments are wont these days to use words like ‘sustainable’ with a great air of gravitas but it they were really serious about the future they would see that agriculture must be conceived along agroecological lines; each farm designed as an ecosystem, and farming as a whole treated as a positive contributor to the biosphere.

The ultra-high-input monocultures favoured by neolib agribusiness are the precise antithesis of what’s required – if, that is, we really take grand words like ‘sustainable’ seriously, and are really serious about the future.


Protecting our interests

Farmers and farming are particularly in need of government protection even in a non-neolib world for a whole list of reasons of which the most obvious is the weather. It varies. Even the tropics are thrown off course by El Nino. So output swings between troughs and peaks – from zero, to can’t-give-the-stuff-away.

Crop failure and gluts can both be disastrous for farmers, and so, eventually, for the people who rely on them, which is all of us.

Therefore, governments who take their responsibilities seriously must try to see that agriculture does not collapse when the sun decides not to shine or – in this modern age – is able to cope with increasingly volatile oil prices in this turbulent world market.

In short, they should keep control of the economy in general for social and ecological reasons – and above all should regulate the economy of farming.

In the years after World War II until the 1970s, British governments of both major parties took pains to do just that.

There were subsidies, grants, intervention buying, quotas, guaranteed prices, tariffs – whatever was needed to ensure that the ship stayed afloat come what may, and that food remained affordable (and was of high quality), and that farmers could make a fair living.

But the neolib business-like-any-other mentality of the 1980s onwards put paid to all that.

Governments, both Tory and ‘New Labour’ were content to let big business rip, fired by cheap loans and the white heat of technology. Even they, however, were forced to admit the obvious: that it simply is not safe to leave the nation’s or the world’s food supply entirely to big business and bankers.

So as a compromise, the EU introduced its subsidies which evolved in the interests of bureaucratic simplification into the single farm payments – massive hand-outs which Britain, in the true tradition of banking, are paid mainly to those who are already rich.

Meanwhile, in Britain, the soils collapse and the wildlife disappears and a million people rely on food banks and farmers go broke by the bus-load, and of course the gap continues to grow between rich and poor. But nothing dents the neoliberals’ confidence in their economic dogma.


Taking control of our economy and ecology

The EU to some extent has managed to maintain social and ecological standards even in the face of neoliberalism, which is one reason why the Brexiteers wanted to leave.

But it has itself become more neoliberal with the passing years. Brexit is probably a disaster but it has given Britain the chance, if it chooses to take it, to take some control of its own economy in general, and in particular to make the economic adjustments needed to ensure that British farming can thrive again, and also can provide us all with good food without wrecking the rest of the biosphere.

That at least is the opportunity.

But the government and the NFU and the corporates will probably, instead, continue to focus on the perceived ‘need’ of British farming to compete for wealth in the world market, and on the role (or not) of subsidies in helping this to happen.

The idea that farming in general and British farming in particular ought to be about producing good food, and looking after the biosphere, and creating convivial rural economies, and that elected governments ought to use their power and our money to intervene in the economy where necessary to bring all this about, will continue to be labelled ‘unrealistic’.

When the College for Real Farming and Food Culture gets fully into its stride, these issues will be discussed in proper depth.

In the meantime, we expect these issues to be raised at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on January 4-5 2017.

Importantly, they will be raised by a fascinating mix of farmers and food producers that represent real sustainability and innovation.

These are the voices that face being left out of the discussion as Britain veers wildly off into its new, post-Europe future, and crucially, could be some of the most vital voices to listen to if we are to grab this agricultural opportunity with both hands.


Colin Tudge, December 18 2016. 

Posted in Uncategorized

The NFU, Glyphosate and statistics

In its December edition of British Farmer and Grower the National Farmers Union (NFU) is urging its readers to lobby their MPs and MEPs to ensure the long-term future of glyphosate, the central ingredient in Monsanto’s herbicide Round-Up.

In June 2016 the EU extended the license to market glyphosate for another 18 months, which means it’s up for review by the end of 2017, when – theoretically – the European Chemical Agency by could ban it.

But, says the NFU’s senior health plant health adviser Emma Hamer, glyphosate is “a vital tool for weed control” which allows “a number of conservation tillage techniques such as min-till.” The anti-glyphosate lobby argues among other things that glyphosate is carcinogenic but such “scare stories promoted by NGOs have no factual basis.”

Many farmers and growers have indeed found Round-Up to be useful in all kinds of situations, although it always dangerous to argue as Ms Hamer does that there is “no factual basis” for alarm. Such claims have been made in medicine as well as agriculture and all too often have proved hubristic.

More to the point, the statistics that the NFU offers in support of glyphosate are deeply suspect. And if these are the best it can do, then we must at least declare their case “not proven”.

So they tell us that min or zero tillage, made possible with glyphosate, increases the earthworm population by 53 per cent. To control weeds by cultivation rather than with herbicide would require 49 per cent more labour. Its use “allows 15 per cent more rapeseed and 17per cent more wheat to be produced”.

Losing glyphosate would mean we would need 546,000 ha more land to produce the same amount of food – which is 3.4 times bigger than London.

If weeds were controlled mechanically then greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the production of arable crops would increase by 25 per cent. This would include 12 million tonnes of extra CO2 per year – the equivalent of 2.5 million cars.  QED, the busy reader might conclude.

But what’s lacking in all such polemics is context. Increase in earthworms and reduction in CO2 – compared with what?

No-one over the age of 40 or so can doubt that there were far more earthworms in the past, well before glyphosate came on the scene. It surely isn’t a lack of glyphosate that’s killed them off but the rise and rise of industrial agriculture in general – including the over-use of fertilizers and the decline of rotations which has (demonstrably) reduced the soil organic content and so robbed worms of their food supply. What, in short, is the baseline, from which the hypothetical 53 per cent increase is judged?

Twenty-five per cent less GHGs with glyphosate – but again, compared to what? Glyphosate may well improve on the hyper-industrialized status quo which depends on machines and agrochemicals which all depend on oil, which eventually, by one route or another, is reduced to GHGs.

But well-managed low-input farming, exemplified by organic farming, already produces far less GHG than the industrial kind. Does industrial-plus-glyphosate farming improve on that? More broadly, to what extent do modern high technologies of all kinds – including glyphosate – serve primarily to make good the damage done by earlier technologies that in their day were introduced with similar hype and razzmatazz?

Increase in labour of 49 per cent – but is that necessarily a bad thing? More and more evidence shows that small mixed farms which perforce are skills-intensive can be far more productive per hectare than the vast monocultures of industrial farming, which in the interests of centralizing profit veer towards zero-labour (with ultra-cheap immigrant labour in the interim).

Even more to the point, as more and more people in all areas worldwide are displaced by high tech, unemployment and all the misery and discontent that go with it have become prime concerns for all humankind.

Farming worldwide is still the biggest employer so far, offering billons of real jobs (as opposed to car-cleaning and call-centres). Even if – and it’s a big “if” — the industrial kind is “efficient” in financial terms, it is also, beyond all doubt, a social disaster.

To make a sensible judgment on glyphosate, or on agrichemicals in general, or on any aspect of agriculture, requires broad and integrated, holistic thinking, taking everything into account; with a proper sense of history and indeed of science, and an educated feel for what “evidence” really means.

That is not what we get from the NFU or, in general, from Defra. With luck we will get it from the European Chemical Agency.

However, you will certainly find such thinking at next year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference to be held in Oxford Town Hall on January 4th and 5th and throughout the year on the website of the College for Real Farming and Food Culture (CRFFC).

For the antidote to the shoot-from-the-hip stereotyped polemic that rains down on us from high, the ORFC and the CRFFC are the best places to be.

Colin Tudge, December 4, 2016

Posted in Uncategorized