What could food and farming look like post Brexit?

This week, some of the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) team were in Westminster, attending the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Agroecology for Sustainable Food and Farming‘s annual Farmers in Parliament event.

And this year it was, of course, taking on the subject that has been preoccupying our headlines for months: Brexit.

Whether you’re for or against it, there’s no doubt that triggering Article 50 and starting the process of leaving Europe will completely change all aspects of society, not least how we farm and produce food here in the UK.

There have been concerns voiced that perhaps Defra could be doing more to consult the wide patchwork of farm types that make up the industry here in the UK , along with the expert charities and NGOs who have become specialists on the environmental, health and social impacts of intensive and factory farming methods, as well as the usual suspects such as the National Farmers Union (NFU), whom we know cover many issues, but do not speak for everyone.

The APPG is working to get Brexit reactions and policy recommendations from these voices who might otherwise run the risk of going unheard at this critical time and is offering Ministers, MPs and Defra an opportunity to hear from them.

This is ultimately what the Farmers in Parliament event was about: putting the people who know their land, what is working, what isn’t working and their hopes for their future in front of the people who can do something about it as we start to get ready to create a whole new raft of policies to govern our food and farming as we detach ourselves from Europe.

The APPG has also worked to produce an opinion paper entitled Farming Post Brexit, which does a good job of starting the conversation in Westminster,  and lays out some policy recommendations for a healthy way forward that could deliver an inclusive food and farming infrastucture here in the UK.

Recent speeches and interviews with Defra Secretary Andrea Leadsom, have proven lighter on detail than probably most people would like, but in the interests of fairness, almost no UK Government department is clear yet on what Brexit will mean for them and the parts of society they preside over.

Hopefully soon we will get past ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and a little more into the detail of what that actually means for us all.

It was certainly heartening to see Lord Gardiner of Kimble, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Defra as he took his time going around the room, speaking in some depth with every single stallholder, charity and farm representative. In fact I’m quite sure he was in danger of being late for his next appointment!

Interestingly, a number of MPs from Scotland and Northern Ireland made the time to attend the event, even though they didn’t have any constituency farmers exhibiting and each one I spoke to said a variation of the same thing: “I’m worried about what will happen to the farmers in my area, and I’m worried our higher environmental standards could slip backwards post Brexit.”

The farmers and organisations who attended the APPG event had a fair range of points to make to the MPs in attendance which among others, covered the following issues, ideas and innovations:

  • Farm Practice: Pasture raised livestock: cutting down on input costs (fertiliser, pesticides) and vet bills, thereby also restoring soil fertility, raising livestock humanely, and producing healthy meat. Micro-dairies: introducing diversity on to the farm (and into the rotation, thereby adding fertility, etc); shortening the supply chain and selling directly to the customer/local shops and cafes so that a herd of 17/18 can provide a living for two or three farmers
  • Access to Market: Reducing the length of the food supply chain so that more money goes into the pocket of the farmer. Co-branding: this allows farmers to share the time spent on direct sales at farmers’ markets, etc; bee-keepers sharing equipment and selling under the one brand, directly to the customer.
  • Cross-subsidy: Adding processing enterprises on to the farm to add value to the produce, EG charcuterie, cheese-making, bread-making. Currently the farmer only receives 8-10% of the value-added. Diversifying into other income generating enterprises such as a business park.
  • Sharing the Risks of Farming: Community-supported agriculture where the customer becomes a part of the enterprise and shares the risks as well as the benefits of local food. A number of models are being developed in the UK. They can be producer-led, community-led, producer-community partnerships, or community owned farms.
  • Access to Farmland/New Entrants: Share farming, land partnerships for new entrants to start farming. Some are run as incubator projects whereby the new entrant moves on to set up their own enterprise after two-three years on the farm

Event host and APPG Co-Chair Jeremy Lefroy made an interesting point, saying the following: “The UK now has the opportunity to take an agenda setting approach to its food and farming legislation and governance. It can adopt policies that would make us more self-reliant: enhance biodiversity, mitigate climate change, support small and family farmers, and encourage much-needed new entrants. We must make the most of this chance to craft a better framework and be wary of simply reinventing what we know.”

It’s a hopeful take on our possible shared future, one that I hope is given every chance to become reality.

I do know that I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts on Defra’s proposals so far and if you plan to try and get involved in any consultations further down the line. You can find the ORFC at our Facebook page and our Twitter channel, and of course I imagine the conversation will be a lively one at #ORFC17!

In the meantime, if you want to read more about the APPG event and briefing paper, then you can find them online here and you can get involved in the twitter discussion using the hashtag #Farmersinparliament

Katharine Mansell, ORFC Marketing and Communications Coordinator, 22 October 2016


Posted in Uncategorized


At the 2017 Oxford Real Farming Conference we’ll be discussing what amounts to a paradigm shift in nutritional theory – a completely different worldview – based not least on a new appreciation of the gut microbiota: the bacteria and archaeans that live in all our guts.
The re-think is certainly needed since it’s obvious, as Professor Tim Spector points out in The Diet Myth, that present nutritional theories are deeply flawed. For out of those theories, some based on hard science, but others more-or-less top-of-the-head, has come a flurry of dietary recommendations that now feature in about 30,000 different books – and these pull in every conceivable direction. Some say eat more protein; some less. Some say fat is OK, while for others fat (and especially the saturated fats associated with red meat) is the great no-no. Some urge us to shun sugar while others condemn all carbohydrates including starch, which is the chief food store of plants and one of humanity’s principal sources of food energy. But if we don’t eat fat we must eat more carbs, or else starve.
Most people diet not to stay healthy but to lose weight and on most recommended diets most people do lose a few pounds – for a time. Then dieters generally grow bored (most diets reduce intake largely because they are dull and so reduce appetite) or else they begin to feel poorly, and give up, and may then grow even fatter than they were before.The whole process is full of inconsistencies. Any one diet may have markedly different effects on different people. Some even put on weight while dieting. Doctors faced with such anomalies have often suggested that the dieters must be cheating; perhaps sneaking down in the dead of night for a crafty Marmite sandwich. But now it seems that the ideas that lie behind orthodox nutritional theory, and indeed behind all orthodox biology, may be misguided.

René Descartes in the 17th century opined that bodies are really just machines, like the clockwork mannequins that were popular in his day, and that set the tone for the past 400 years. Accordingly, biologists and doctors of the strait-laced kind have seen nutrition as an exercise in chemistry and thermodynamics (energy in must equal energy expended, or else is stored as fat). The picture now seems far more complicated. How any one person (or animal) responds to any one component of diet depends on their own past history and experience and that of their ancestors, including their immediate ancestors, notably their mother. In particular, the microbes that live in the gut, once seen as spivs and hangers-on, bent on mischief, are now seen as essential players, helping us to process our food and largely determining what gets absorbed, or reabsorbed. So to be well nourished, says Professor Spector, we must nourish and cultivate our gut microbes just as organic gardeners cultivate bacteria in the soil: encourage greater variety by eating a greater variety of foods, and add directly to the microbial mix by eating bacteria-rich fermented food, such as real (as opposed to processed) cheese.
Even more broadly, the gut microbes in all their variety form an ecosystem and nutrition is emerging as an exercise in ecology as much as in traditional physiology. Ecology is endlessly complex so this means among other things that nutrition and the human body in general can never be exhaustively understood, and we should never trust anyone who claims to have the final answer to our ills and who recommends some new diet on the strength of it. All in all, although good science is essential, it seems hard to improve on folk wisdom, as in: “Moderation in all things”; “A little of what you fancy does you good”; and indeed, “Eat a peck of dirt before you die”. Science at its best is wonderful but we should have more respect for our grannies.
Colin Tudge, October 13 2016. These ideas are enlarged upon on the College for Real Farming and Food Culture website, http://collegeforrealfarming.org

Posted in Uncategorized


Radical thinking is vital, says Colin Tudge

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) began in 2010 as the antidote to the “official”, Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) at which the Establishment (Defra, the NFU, big industry, and their attendant intellectuals) tell the world that food and agriculture are well on course, despite appearances, and that the right people are in charge (because Britain is a meritocracy, and those in charge must be the best by definition. QED).

But food and agriculture are not on course. They are a disaster. A disgrace. The intellectuals who support the status quo should be thoroughly ashamed. The broad message from the ORFC both in overall philosophy and in detail is almost the precise opposite of the Establishment line. We must be radical, where “radical” literally means “getting to the roots”. Brexit gives us a chance to take matters into our own hands – or that at least was the promise. We must seize the moment to re-think from first principles.

The food and farming strategy (insofar as there is one) is awry. All the assumptions on which it is based are flawed, if not downright wrong. For governments of all parties in the past 35 years (once they’d got over the shock of World War II) have treated agriculture as “a business like any other”, and since neoliberalism became the economic norm they have taken it to be self-evident that the prime or the sole purpose of business is to maximize and concentrate wealth, in head-to- head competition with all other players in the global market. Accordingly, crops and livestock are treated as “commodities”, raw materials for the food industry, grist to the commercial mill. Thus in 2015 the Secretary of State for the Environment and Rural Affairs Owen Paterson told the official OFC that Britain’s farmers must produce more beef to sell the Chinese. In a dramatic switch of emphasis his successor, Liz Truss, told the OFC of 2016 that they must raise more pork, to sell to the Chinese. With suitable accountancy, and conveniently forgetting “externalities” (the enormous collateral damage, to societies and the biosphere) it has seemed that profits can be maximized by industrialization. So farmers and landowners have been encouraged with sticks and carrots to merge their farms to form estates on the largest possible scale with monocultures of rape or maize or whatever is most profitable at the time, plied to the hilt with insecticides (neonicotinoids) and herbicides (glyphosate), ploughed and harvested by machines as big as a cottage, though all intended mainly to feed livestock, housed in factories (there are million-head piggeries in the US and elsewhere).

All this is achieved with minimum and preferably zero labour (apart from the migrant gangs on which British farming now relies). The profits are enormous – for a few. Most of Britain’s farm-force these past few decades has gone by the board, taking their skills with them. Yet intellectuals and experts are on hand to tell us that this approach is vital. Humanity needs more and more food and only high-tech can supply it, they say; and a whole generation has grown up (we are now well into the second) who really believe that neoliberalism is the only game in town (“there is no alternative”, said Mrs Thatcher).

In truth, (though truth has been the first victim in this frenzy) the world already produces enough food for 14 billion people — twice as much as we need now and 50% more than we should ever need. The emphasis should switch from production to quality and to (horrible word) “sustainability”. The Food and Agriculture of the UN says that a third of the world’s soils are seriously eroded, and much of Britain’s most productive acres are likely to be unfarmable within about 30 years. The maximum profits we’re striving for are only for the short term.

What we need, in fact, is the precise opposite of what the powers-that- be are advocating. Farms that can really feed us all well, and go on doing so, without wrecking the world, must follow the guidelines of agroecology. This means they must be diverse: “polycultural”; as mixed as possible. They must be low-input – as organic as possible. Such farms are complex so they must be skills-intensive – not armies of bonded labour but a new generation of skilled farmers, about eight times as many as we have now; perhaps a million more to start with.

Intricate, skills-intensive enterprises work best when small to medium-sized – so we need massive land-reform. Small mixed farms need a network of local markets to feed into, and a true food culture: people who appreciate good food. Of course, the powers-that- be argue that food produced in such ways would be far too expensive – but this is another ghastly untruth. At least, the reason so many people can’t afford to eat well has nothing to do with the true cost of food and a very great deal to do with the hugely inflated cost of housing –which again, of course, is very profitable for a few.

Emphatically, we will not solve Britain’s and the world’s deep problems with more of the same ideas, as offered by the OFC. We really do need a cross-the- board-re- think, with a new suite of thinkers. The ORFC cannot provide all the answers in two days but at least it sets the ball rolling in the right directions.

Posted in Uncategorized

What’s in store for the ORFC 2017 ?

Tickets now on sale for ORFC 2017 !

Exciting news! Our tickets for the 2017 Oxford Real Farming Conference are now on sale and available via our Eventbrite page here.

Come join the debate in January next year and be part of creating a fairer and intelligent food system for people and planet.

We’ve been working hard with our partners, funders and advisory committee to put together a programme that builds on the great success of our previous conferences, and this year (our eighth!) will be our usual blend of practical sessions and latest thinking on a range of issues affecting farming in the UK.

What to expect from ORFC 2017

The ORFC keeps growing every year we hold it. We are expecting up to 750 delegates and this conference will see us once again in Oxford’s splendid Town Hall.

We will have the full programme finalised and ready to share with you in October, but in the meantime you can expect practical on-farm experiences, participatory workshops and talks from the UK’s leading sustainable food experts, as we once again offer a range of ways for delegates to explore agroecological solutions to common farming challenges.

Over two days of simultaneous sessions, delegates can explore issues from bees and neonicotinoids, to micro-biology and human and animal gut health, to food policy, organic farming, the benefits of adding trees on farms, to better jobs in better farming, and much more.

We have a number of speakers confirmed who we are really excited about, including Olivier De Schutter, the 2008-2014 UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. If you’d like to learn more about Olivier’s work, I highly recommend watching The right to food – An overview by Olivier De Schutter

We will also be coordinating farm visits ahead of the conference, so watch this space for more details and announcements!

Nessie Reid, ORFC Manager, nessie@orfc.org.uk


Posted in Uncategorized

Twas the day before ORFC15

Tracy Jones Tracy Jones is a FOAM EU Organic Leadership graduate, ex-smallholder, and self described farming & countryside anorak! She’s a UK Board member for the CSA Network, a Farm Committee member of Vana Trust Organic Farm. and is currently writing her MSc organic farming thesis. Twas the day before ORFC15. Programme in hand so much to choose from, decisions, decisions. Speakers from around the world to inspire, share experiences, discuss and bring together a community of people rooting for a revitalised & sustainable farming future. This conference does not settle for one, but three strands! If you’d like to think more outside the box about how to utilise your farms resources there is the ‘Farming Outside the Box’ strand. For those into politics, science & economics there is the ‘Digging Deep’ strand. Last but definitely not least ‘New Generation, New Ideas’ is for people thinking about succession, new entrants to farming and farmers as social entrepreneurs. But of course don’t forget to maximise the times spent in between structured sessions and workshops, as these are invaluable for that all important networking and catching up with people you haven’t seen in a while! In one way this conference is a cacophony of ideas and visions, but as the definition of cacophony is ‘not harmonious’ then maybe it is better to say that this conference is a blending of thought and theory. Even if you can’t make it to the conference in person there will be lots of tweeting using #ORFC15 which you can follow from the comfort of your arm chair or more likely your tractor (although I’m not suggesting anyone looks at their phone whilst driving). This really is such an animating way to start 2015, which also happens to be the International Year of Soils. So for those able to make it to Oxford for the 6th/7th January I wish you a ‘Happy New Year’ & a happy, positive time at ORFC15.

Posted in Uncategorized

Terra Madre and the Oxford Real Farming Conference

Rebecca Roberts is a freelancer in sustainable agriculture and food security, with her work ranging from international development consultancy, cooking skills training, and journalism. With a BA in Geography and a MA in Agriculture and Rural Development under her belt, she is specialised in agrarian politics, natural resource governance and livelihoods. You can check out her own personal blog here.

A global food revolution from local roots

Six years ago, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) was founded as a means to provide answers to questions surrounding farming as a vital, but currently neglected, part of our food culture, economy, environment and livelihoods. The ethos behind the ORFC resonates strongly with an event that also started six years ago: Terra Madre Day.

On the 10th December each year, Terra Madre Day celebrates local food around the world, particularly supporting traditional, artisan and small-scale producers. As part of Slow Food, an international campaign towards ‘good, clean and fair’ food systems, Terra Madre aims to realign our agri-food system and reconnect it with fundamental values such as diversity, culture, environment, health and wellbeing, ethics and welfare 

Holistic approach for compatible, meaningful change

Both the ORFC and Terra Madre Day are at the crest of a wave of local food and agricultural campaigns. They both exemplify the importance of holistic approaches and effective collaboration, involving multiple actors, insights and stances when tackling the challenges facing our food and farming systems today.

Diversity and tradition are intertwined with marketing, trade and policy. Young farmers meet with entrepreneurs, academics and chefs. Soils, water and bees are linked to consumer choice and nutrition. By incorporating these, knowledge and skills are brought together, using food as a binding and common value to create innovative and compatible progress.

This progress is particularly important in relation to a recent surge of policy interest in systemic approaches to food and agriculture, such as the FAO’s International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition and the Barilla Center’s ‘Milan Protocol’, tackling diet, diversity, agriculture and sustainability hand in hand . By having platforms such as the ORFC and Terra Madre which act as a voice for everyday citizens within farming and food sectors, we are one step closer to closing the divide between ‘top down’ and ‘grassroots’ initiatives and finding common, effective ground.

The importance of first-hand experience

Both events also indicate the significance of practical experience, rather than relying solely on rhetoric, when it comes to food and agricultural education. Terra Madre Day calls this ‘taste education’.In essence, provenance and knowing the story behind our food is of paramount importance, but to be part of the story we must combine reflection with personal emotions related to growing, cooking and tasting food.

In 2015, the ORFC is expecting 500 attendees: over half will be farmers, and all will be consumers. Their experience cooking and growing food, taking joy from eating, sharing food with friends and family is something that needs to be harnessed, and the ORFC provides a meal to do just this. Offering a seasonal, organic feast from local chefs and food producers, it will bring joy to attendees, but also stands for Oxford’s and a wider national commitment to providing good, sustainable food and supporting local agriculture.

Overall, and perhaps most importantly, both Terra Madre and the ORFC indicate the sheer power of food as a tool for positive change. Just a one or two day event each year can build vital nexus’ between sets of knowledge, encouraged experience and provenance, and have created sustainable and meaningful partnerships. All contribute to an optimistic future for our food and agricultural systems, in Britain and beyond, and here’s to another six years and more!







Posted in Uncategorized

A phoenix arising from the ashes: a new food economy is emerging

“This blog was co-written by Ilana Taub and Kathleen Cassidy, who have both been working to co-create the #newfoodeconomy for several years now in a range of capacities. They currently work for The Food Assembly, a disruptive retail model enabling direct trade between local producers and their local communities.  Ilana Taub is also the co-founder of Snact, a social enterprise that makes fruit snacks from surplus to tackle food waste, and prior
to working with The Food Assembly Kathleen founded an urban food growing space and the Incredible Edible Southwark network in London.”Ilana & Kathleen

The purpose of this conference (and the work we do at The Food Assembly) is to focus on solutions, look for inspiration and build networks that can help us create a food system that works for people and planet. The world needs a new food economy that reconnects people with food and its real value, strengthens understanding of where it comes from and brings power back to the people who create value within the system – the producers of real food. There’s no one single answer to how to fix our food system; in reality there are many answers. And so in terms of strengthening the momentum of the emerging new food economy, it is important to highlight these solutions and connect them together so that they make up a cohesive whole.

Understanding and appreciating the true value of food is one of the key enablers of building a new food economy. As people understand the true environmental, social, societal and health costs associated with cheap food, they realise that buying food isn’t just an act of consumption, it’s an investment for themselves, their communities and the planet. Changing culture around the value of food involves tackling some pretty meaty (pasture-fed, free range and organic please) challenges; from food poverty to subsidising of the industrial food system.

At the Food Assembly, we’re working to address issues associated with misunderstandings of the real cost of food. We’re launching a series on our blog about the real cost of food in the new year where we’ll look at different foods, the impacts associated with them when they’re worryingly cheap, and what we should really expect to pay for them. Through the nature of our model, we also encourage dialogue between producers and customers as they meet weekly at Assemblies. At the the same time, we’re also painfully aware that food poverty is a growing issue in this country and are looking for ways to address that by joining up with the living wage campaign.

In an economic system which favours big (unsustainable) producers (from the subsidising of industrial producers to the expense of organic certification), it is important to highlight methods and strategies for supporting agroecological farming. Initiatives such the pasture fed livestock association are championing environmentally friendly ways of rearing quality meat and Farmstart are pioneering new ways of bringing people back to farm the land in a sustainable way. The hot topic of waste within the conventional food system and ways to avoid it is also being tackled from a diversity of angles, from a burgeoning Gleaning Network, to the The Inglorious Fruit and Vegetable campaign and WRAP’s Love Food Hate Waste campaign. Organisations which enable direct local trade, through CSA’s like Growing Communities and organisations like FoodTrade or The Food Assembly bring power back to agroecological farmers by enabling them to set their own prices, minimum orders and distribution systems. At The Food Assembly, we also see real opportunities in direct trade for educating people about the real value of food, and for nourishing local communities by bringing people together around food – in our case through weekly pop up markets (Assemblies).

Connecting with other campaigns and networks is all part of building a movement that offers a holistic alternative to the current broken economic system. Networks like Food Sovereignty Now! play a key role in building “a movement for a democratic, sustainable and fair food system”. Our UK Food Assembly network is part of a larger international movement of autonomous yet interconnected Assemblies enabling direct trade between local producers and communities. Launched in France in September 2011, the network is growing daily and now connects over 400,000 members (customers) with 4,000 producers in over 700 Assemblies across France, Belgium, Germany, Spain, Italy and now the United Kingdom.

So in a nutshell (a locally sourced cobnut of course): in order to build a future where real farming can really thrive, we need to think outside our (local veg) box, and join up with other actors in the food system and beyond. Let’s show solidarity for each other’s hard work and together create fertile conditions in which the #newfoodeconomy can grow. One way of doing this is to get together to celebrate what is working well. So as a last note, you are warmly invited to celebrate the emerging new food economy at the upcoming Winter Feastival. 

Posted in Uncategorized

Can agro-ecological approaches contribute to sustainable intensification?

Wednesday 14 January 2015

Trevelyan Hall, St Matthew’s Conference Centre, St Matthew’s House
20 Great Peter Street
London SW1P 2BU

Dear Sir/Madam

On behalf of the inter-agency Land Use Policy Group (LUPG), I’d like to invite you to join us at a one-day seminar designed to explore the potential for agro-ecological approaches to contribute to the sustainable intensification of agriculture.

In parallel with the promotion of sustainable intensification, there is a growing interest in agro-ecology, as exemplified by a number of reports[1] [2]. Following the previous work we commissioned on sustainable intensification, LUPG has now asked the Organic Research Centre (ORC) to examine  the relationships between the sustainable intensification and agro-ecology concepts via a desk-based study. This project is intended  to explore the extent to which the two concepts are compatible as well as assessing whether agro-ecological systems and strategies are a valid and/or necessary path to sustainable intensification in both the UK and European contexts.

We would be delighted to see you at ORC’s forthcoming presentation of their findings at the St Matthew’s Conference Centre in London onWednesday 14 January 2015.  More information, including a location map is available at:  http://www.stmwvenue.co.uk/

We are planning for the event to start at 10.30 am and finish at around 15.30 in the afternoon. We are also intending for all of the feedback received to be taken into account in the preparation of the final report.

The agenda is likely to cover the following themes:

  • A review of agro-ecological systems and strategies;
  • Assessing the relative performance of agro-ecological systems/strategies against more conventional approaches to sustainable intensification;
  • Establishing whether and to what extent agro-ecological systems/strategies can contribute to sustainable intensification;
  • A discussion on barriers and opportunities to the uptake of agro-ecological systems/strategies.

In order that we can cater for your dietary needs, please let us know about any special requirements as soon as possible.

All responses should be sent to kelly.matheson@snh.gov.uk and please feel free to pass this invitation onto a colleague if you are unable to join us on the day.

The final programme will be circulated closer to the date – and we look forward to welcoming you on 14 January 2015.

Yours sincerely

Cécile Smith

Scottish Natural Heritage on behalf of the Land Use Policy Group

Posted in Uncategorized

To What Extent Should Organic Farming Be Consumer Driven?

Tracy Jones is a FOAM EU Organic Leadership graduate, ex-smallholder, and self described farming & countryside anorak! She’s a UK Board member for the CSA Network, a Farm Committee member of Vana Trust Organic Farm. and is currently writing her MSc organic farming thesis.
Tracy Jones
When discussing organic agriculture I usually find myself taking the viewpoint of the farmer. However, although organic farms provide many additional benefits to the environment and wider community, they’re essentially about producing food using a particular farming system.

Advocates of organic farming believe strongly in the methods used to produce organic food, and when standards are altered there can be either caution or a positive response.

At the end of the day it is about producing a product that consumers want to buy. Whether it‘s for health, animal welfare or environmental benefits, or all three, consumers buy organic food because they want to support this type of farming.

The trend appears to be strengthening and tightening standards to fulfil consumers’ expectations of what organic farming delivers, but the fact remains that organic farming practices are varied and sometimes complex, which can result in consumer confusion.

My point is this; consumers are not farmers, but without them there is no marketplace for organic produce. What, therefore, are the best ways to balance consumer needs with organic farming?

The recent news story of four Soil Association trustees resigning led to some very knee jerk reactions from members of the public who claimed that they will no longer be able to trust that the Soil Association logo on products means that it is truly organic. In reality nothing had changed regarding the standards or certification of farms as organic.

The principles of organic agriculture are ‘Health, Ecology, Fairness & Care. In my view these four principles are easily communicated to consumers and are perhaps a simpler message.

It is sometimes useful to remember the IFOAM (2008) definition which for me encompasses the essence of what organic agriculture is really about:

Organic Agriculture is a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems & people. It relies on ecological processes, biodiversity & cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects. Organic Agriculture combines tradition, innovation & science to benefit the shared environment & promote fair relationships & a good quality of life for all involved.”

Posted in Uncategorized

Contemporary food supply chains and sustainable agriculture


Oliver Maskrey is currently studying for a Masters in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Exeter. He hopes the course will give him a valuable and structured background knowledge in the subject, as well as facilitating the forming of his own opinions about the current food system, agricultural sustainability and food security issues faced on a more global scale.

The following is edited from an essay he wrote recently in response to the question “What is the relationship between the contemporary organisation of food supply chains and sustainable agriculture?”. In the essay he discusses the idea that current food supply chains and sustainable agriculture make uncomfortable bedfellows on economic, social and environmental levels. Additionally he argues that the present organisation of supply chains is fundamentally intertwined with intensive farming methods.

A number of factors are fuelling ideas in a move towards a more sustainable form of agriculture; founded on lost traditional skills, re-establishment of impaired natural resilience, highly advanced soil science, and also minimising artificial input and consequently adverse impacts on the environment and human health. In my opinion, integrated farm management (IFM) is the best farming system available to us on scale, allowing farmers to produce quality food whilst protecting the environment. The green revolution alongside post-war pressures to intensify food production directly contributed to the current organisation of the global food network.Reasons why current supply chains cannot coexist with a socio-environmentally sustainable agriculture are discussed below.

The current UK food retail system has largely co-developed with contemporary and intensive agriculture; economies of scale and favourable policy making enabling farmers to produce food at a disproportionately low price using modern chemicals and machinery. Although it is worth remembering that retailers also drive prices down to benefit customers, which affects all farmers as can be seen in recent milk prices. The ‘present food system serves best people in rich industrialised countries – 20% of humanity that uses about 80% of the world’s resources’(1). In this we can see just a hint of the scale of the externalised costs of production, imposed on the environment and the disadvantaged. When these are properly accounted for, it becomes clear that intensive farming in any form cannot be the most sustainable way of ensuring global food security.

Food security has a prominent role in any argument involving food supply chains. It ‘exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’ (World Food Summit, 1996). Consumer perception of food production and the incumbent food supply chain is likely to play a key role in individual food choices, however there remains a significant sense of public disempowerment; a ‘what difference can I make anyway’ attitude. Meanwhile, supermarkets and fast food restaurants can provide low cost, convenient access to calorifically rich, nutritionally empty foods as well as high levels of cheap animal protein. In schools, skills such as growing and domestic science are not taught, leading to an absence in ability to prepare wholesome food ultimately resulting in food related diseases such as obesity and diabetes. The preference for high protein diets also has the added effect of taking land used to grow food for human consumption and instead using it to grow livestock feed. In the face of global food insecurity, the ‘western’ diet, which is rapidly becoming more globally attainable, is not conducive to achieving food security. In a similar vein, tastes for tropical and out of season fruit and vegetables encourage high-energy consumption through transportation or heated greenhouses. A number of authors have calculated that global food production is already able to provide the whole human race with a sufficient diet(2,3), others arguing that this shows a lack of political will, rather than food scarcity, as a major cause of food insecurity(4).

Industrial agriculture and contemporary food supply chains have been the target of lost trust by consumers that have criticised the industry for disease outbreaks such as BSE and Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) and episodes such as the horse meat scandal. Government commissioned reports following the outbreak of FMD in 2001 and the global food price scare in 2008 encouraged farmers to ‘capitalise on emerging consumer trends [such as the localism agenda] towards a more environmental and sustainable purchasing preference’(5,6). Unfortunately, it is possible the local food agenda has not to date been as successful as hoped; consumer demand for local products may be lower due to trade-offs against price and convenience(7,8).

As I’ve mentioned, the environment is an important aspect of sustainable farming systems as they utilise biological methods and give something back to the environment rather than exploiting without consideration for long-term environmental degradation. Most sustainable systems therefore have a much lower environmental cost than intensive ones, consequently costing society less in protection of environmental services(4). As an example, one study calculated a £1.13 billion per year saving to the UK economy on negative environmental effects if UK farming was completely switched to organic production(9). If only it was that simple.

I consider sustainable agriculture as trying to feed the world’s human population using local ecosystems and biology as a starting point and caring for the environment and human health at the same time. I would argue that a farming system that fits this criteria is practice that should be adopted by farmers across the whole world, united in a common goal to feed every single living person to an equal standard and ensure that the environment is protected. Present food supply chains and systems do not fit this model, they bend to the whim of consumer demand, with additional pressure imposed by supermarkets, allowing us to live in a permanent dietary. The aspiration for high animal protein diets is additionally detrimental to global food security since land for pasture employs land that could be planted with food crops to feed our growing populations. Livestock are increasingly fed soya, and other cereals, and maize crops that could also mitigate food insecurity.

Considered in parallel, the drive for national and international economic growth in agriculture, ‘westernised’ or high-protein diets, and energy intensive global food transportation are not factors that are common with sustainable agriculture. Short food supply chains, involving fewer actors between farm and plate, lower amounts of animal protein and protection of the environment would be a more appropriate food system for sustainable agriculture to be a part of. The relationship between short food supply chains and sustainable agriculture is much more synergistic and allows consumers to have a greater appreciation of the provenance of their food and a feeling of contribution to rural and local economies.


  1. Tansley, G. and Worsley, T. (1995) The food system: a guide, Earthscan, London

  2. Pinstrup-Andersen, P., Pandya-Lorch, R. and Rosegrant, M. (1999) World Food Prospects: Critical Issues for the Early Twenty-First Century. International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, DC

  3. Tudge, C. (2011) Good food for everyone forever: a people’s takeover of the world’s food supply, Pari Publishing, Pari, Italy

  4. Horrigan, L., Lawrence, R. and Walker, P. (2002) How sustainable agriculture can address the environmental and human health harms of industrial agriculture. Environmental Health Perspectives. 110: 445-456

  5. Curry, D., Browning, H., Davis, P., Ferguson, I., Hutton, D., Julius, D., Reynolds, F., Tinsley, M., Varney, D., and Wynne, G. (2002) Farming and Food: A Sustainable Future, Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food, London.

  6. Baulcombe, D., Crute, I., Davies, B., Dunwell, J., Gale, M., Jones, J., Pretty, J., Sutherland, W. and Toulmin, C. (2009) Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture. The Royal Society, London.

  7. Ilbery, B. and Maye, D. (2006) Retailing local food in the Scottish-English borders: A supply chain perspective. Geoforum. 37: 352-367

  8. Weatherell, C., Tregear, A. and Allinson, J. (2003) In search of the concerned consumer: UK public perceptions of food, farming and buying local. Journal of Rural Studies19: 233-244

  9. Pretty, J., Ball, A., Lang, T. and Morison, J. (2005) Farm costs and food miles: An assessment of the full cost of the UK weekly food basket. Food Policy. 30: 1-19


Posted in Blog