The ORFC 2020 programme is out

We’re delighted at last to release the programme for the 11th Oxford Real Farming Conference which will take place on 8th and 9th January 2020. Thank you all for your patience as we’ve confirmed speakers, juggled rooms, and generally got all the details finalised.

We have some incredible sessions lined up including discussions and workshops exploring:

  • Climate and how a food system based on agroecological or regenerative techniques can help stabilise our changing planet and feed its population;
  • The production and consumption of meat and dairy and whether recent claims regarding the merit of an all-plant diet are justified (including new research from Oxford University into methane emissions);
  • The vast inequality of land ownership in the UK and how we can challenge and change this, with radical estate owners, campaigners and politicians;
  • Diversity in farming in the UK and what we can learn from the way other cultures approach and produce food.

As always ORFC has attracted an incredible array of speakers. This year we are particularly pleased to welcome international speakers:

  • Leah Penniman, Farmer and Founder of Soul Fire Farm in New York;
  • Ben Hartman from Clay Bottom Farm in Indiana, author of The Lean Farm;
  • Alfredo Cunhal, Agricultural Scientist and Silvopasture farmer from Portugal;
  • Nelson Mudzingwa from Zimsoff and the Shashe Agroecological School in Zimbabwe;
  • and Nicolas Supiot, one of the most well-respected peasant bakers in France.

There will of course be the usual line-up of dinners, entertainment and general revelry – we very much look forward to seeing you there.

For all those who missed out on tickets, our Waitlist is still open but we are sorry to say that it looks very unlikely that we will be able to release any more tickets. As ever we will be recording sessions; and even more will be filmed than in previous years.

Please note the programme may be subject to change. The deadline for ticket refunds is 1st December 2019. Please do get in touch if you have any further questions.

ORFC 2020 tickets go on sale today – buy yours now

This year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference will take place on 8th and 9th January at the Oxford Town Hall, St Aldates Church and Parish Centre. The programme for 2020 will be one you won’t want to miss, with discussions and workshops hosted by an incredible range of speakers and organisations from across the UK, Europe, Africa and the United States.

Tickets for the two-day conference cost £60 for farmers and £80 for everyone else. There are also bursary places available.

Among the many speakers and presenters, we will be welcoming:

  • Leah Penniman – farmer, author and activist based at Soul Fire Farm in New York
  • Alfredo Cunhal – silvopasture farmer and agricultural scientist from Portugal
  • Gail Bradbrook – co-founder of Extinction Rebellion
  • Nelson Mudzingwa – founder of the Shashe Agroecological School in Zimbabwe
  • Ben Hartman – no-till expert and founder of the Lean Farm School in Indiana
  • Henry Dimbleby – Leader of the National Food Strategy

Having received over 250 session proposals this year, we are slowly putting together an impactful programme and will contact everyone involved in the next few weeks. We hope this will offer you all plenty of opportunities to learn from practical on-farm solutions, take part in critical discussions about the food and farming system, and take some time to be inspired by new and radical ideas.

Standby for discussions around the future of agroecology, achieving the UK’s net zero carbon target, how to influence food policy, radical ways to access land, increasing diversity in farming, and advice on making food and farming businesses more efficient. Alongside these broader discussions, there will be plenty of hands-on sessions covering everything from compost to weed control to agroforestry.

In addition to our usual bursary places – which you can apply for here – we are delighted to announce that we will also be offering diversity bursaries, thanks to a grant from the Lush Foundation. These can be applied for here and are to encourage farmers and those involved in food production from a wide range of diverse backgrounds to attend. Please apply by 29th September.

Also, to help parents and carers of young children, we will be offering a limited number of childcare spaces. Babies and crawlers are still welcome in the talks but for older children you now have an option if it is difficult to find childcare cover at home. Childcare facilities will be situated in the main Town Hall – not far from the majority of sessions. You will need to book places in advance – we may need to prioritise if these are very popular. Please email us by 29th September if you are interested.

Once again, we are very much looking forward to welcoming all our delegates to what has become, for many, a highlight in their year. ORFC 2020 promises plenty of opportunities to network with old friends as well as make new contacts; but most of all, it is committed to providing a space for the UK’s food and farming movement to gather and set a radical agenda for the year to come!

Don’t miss out on your tickets – book them now!

ORFC 2020 Call for Ideas

The call for ideas and session proposals for ORFC 2020 is now closed. Tickets will go on sale on 16th September 2019.

Now is the time to submit your ideas and session proposals for ORFC 2020 [now closed]

As usual, ORFC 2020 will bring together farmers and growers with scientists, economists, activists, and anyone else with a keen interest in agroecology, food sovereignty, economic democracy and everything in between. We will be offering a mix of practical and on-farm advice, new techniques for best practice in agroecological farming, discussions around our global food system and the economic and trade policies that affect British farming and much more. As always, the success of the conference is down to those who attend and we want to continue to put our delegates and supporters at the heart of everything we do.

Therefore, we are looking to you for the following:

1. Proposals for sessions
By proposing a session you are committing to taking on the bulk of its organising; we will want you to suggest who the speakers could be, any possible chairs and how the audience will be engaged and encouraged to participate in the session.

2. Ideas for speakers / topics / themes you’d like to feature at ORFC 2020
Perhaps you don’t feel able to organise a session but would still like to let us know about someone you’ve heard speak who has inspired you, or suggest a particular topic that you would like to explore at ORFC 2020. Whatever you would like to feature at ORFC 2020, please get in touch and let us know.

3. Thoughts on how we can run sessions with new formats at ORFC 2020
We are still looking to move outwards from the usual panel discussion or keynote speaker format (whilst recognising the value that these sessions can bring). If you have an idea for a different format, and/or you are willing to run sessions which use different formats, please share the details with us.

We are hugely thankful to everyone who gets back to us about the conference. Unfortunately, we receive many more proposals and ideas than we are able to honour. We also receive many similar ideas and may suggest ways in which you can join together with other delegates to host a session.

The deadline for submissions is Friday 16th August 2019 and we look forward to hearing from you.  Please complete this online form.

If you have any questions or would like to discuss your idea with us before making a submission then please do not hesitate to get in touch.

ORFC 2019 Highlights

Thank you to our incredible speakers, delegates, funders, sponsors and partners for making our tenth annual conference so wonderful! Here’s our #ORFC19 highlights video, and we look forward to creating next year’s conference with you all.

We would also like to thank Tim Bearder for once again putting together this brilliant film!

Gove continues to lack clarity on Agriculture Bill

While the organisers of the Oxford Real Farming Conference welcome the Rt. Honorable Michael Gove MP and thank him for his forthright session at ORFC 2019, there is some frustration on the continued lack of clarity on the role of agroecology (including organic) within the Agriculture Bill.

The session – entitled “The future of farming: Brexit and Beyond” was held on Thursday 3 January, and chaired by Kerry McCarthy MP for Bristol East and Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology – saw frank questioning from the attendees and upfront responses from the Defra Secretary.

Colin Tudge, ORFC co-founder said: “While Mr Gove says all the right things and is enthusiastically knowledgeable on a wide variety of issues that are important to the ORFC, he remains difficult to pin down on vital details, such as why agroecology and organic farming continue to be omitted from the Agriculture Bill, despite widespread support for its inclusion and his personal support for the environmental protections whole-farm systems bring.”

During the session, Kerry McCarthy MP asked the question on everyone’s minds: What assurances do farmers have that Mr Gove’s commitments to sustainable farming will be upheld if there are no references within the Bill?

The Environment Secretary responded: “One of the ways we think it’s possible to get the Bill on the statute book relatively rapidly is by making it clear we are not attempting – in this government – to dictate what every future government should do in terms of agricultural support.”

There was a recent amendment tabled in November 2018 which, among other linked issues, called for an overt reference to agroecology, particularly with regards to the idea of whole farm agroecological systems.

For conference participants, the question remains – does Defra see the mere mention of agroecology or organic farming as a barrier to passing the Agriculture Bill quickly?

Agroecology and organic farming provides the type of sustainability and resilience vital for a safer future. Mr. Gove offered assurances that initiatives such as the 25 Year Environment Plan and the Climate Change Act will champion these practices. However, participants do not believe these assurances offer enough clarity on the incentives, support and enforcement required.


For more information and interviewees, please contact: or

Katharine Mansell – 07814 455639 / Megan Perry – 07761 80434


  1. You can access the full session on our YouTube livestream archive, it starts at the 1:34:00 mark:
  2. and
  3. Agroecology definition per the UN FAO:

Conference quick links:

ORFC funders, sponsors and partners:

The ORFC would like to thank the following funders, sponsors and partner organisations, without whose support this event would not be possible: Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Riverford, Compassion in World Farming, Lush, A-Team Foundation, the Soil Association, Agricology, Cotswold Seeds, Triodos Bank, Landworkers’ Alliance, the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and Sustain.

About the Oxford Real Farming Conference (

In 2009, agricultural writer Graham Harvey (now of Pasture Promise TV) invited Colin Tudge and Ruth West (founders of the Campaign for Real Farming) to help establish a new kind of farming conference. The conference, first held in 2010 as a much-needed alternative to the concurrently-running Oxford Farming Conference, provides an innovative environment for some radical discussions on some of the biggest issues facing our society today. ORFC delegates are those from across food and farming, with an interest in new agricultural models. They represent those who are interested in meeting global food system challenges in original, environmentally sustainable ways. The point of the ORFC is not simply to challenge the status quo but to look ahead — to ask what the world really needs, and what really can be done.

Photograph: Hugh Warwick 

Has ‘alternative farming’ become the mainstream?

As the Oxford Real Farming Conference gears up for its tenth year, the very values that set it apart from the Oxford Farming Conference, have also seen it soar in popularity over the last decade.

Taking place on 3-4 January 2019 in the Oxford Town Hall and St Aldate’s Parish Centre and Church, the 2019 Oxford Real Farming Conference will be the biggest yet. The conference – which had to take on additional venues this year to accommodate demand and long waiting lists over the last two years – sold out of tickets in December, and is set to welcome 1000 delegates, with hundreds more on the waiting list.

Tom Simpson, ORFC Conference Manager said: “We’re so delighted to see that enthusiasm for the Oxford Real Farming Conference growing year after year, and believe it reflects the changing mindset in what good farming, food production and land stewardship looks like. The status quo is rightly being challenged.”

This year’s programme tackles key issues that have dominated news headlines over the past year, such as the Agriculture Bill and life after Brexit, rewilding and problems of pollution – from chemicals to plastics – and how farmers can become more resilient in the face of climate change.

ORFC co-founder Ruth West, said: “During these uncertain times, we find that agroecology increasingly offers some certainty in how you manage your land and business. Its power lies in the ability to tackle problems holistically and proactively, as well as providing some vital resilience in the face of shocks like extreme weather or Brexit-related impacts on supply chains.”

Practical sessions are always a key part of the conference and this year some timely skills are being explored, including agroforestry, soil management, pasture regeneration, mulching, drought resilience, business advice and more.

Tom added: “We have our usual diverse crowd of delegates, which is made up of around 50% mud on the boots farmers, and a mix of activists, food producers, and new entrants. We have 240 speakers – of whom more than half are women – and over 100 sessions. We’re celebrating our tenth birthday in style.”

The conference is open to all who are interested in working towards a more sustainable food and agricultural system, from farmers and growers to scientists and policy-makers.


For more information and interviewees, please contact: or

Katharine Mansell – 07814 455639 / Megan Perry – 07761 80434



  • Simon Crichton, Food, Farming and Trade Team Manager, Triodos Bank UK: “2019 could herald landmark progress on the journey to put sustainability at the heart of food and agricultural policy. We hope to see more pioneering work across the organic, biodynamic and sustainable sectors in terms of continuous improvement, innovation and diversity – all work that Triodos Bank will be proud to support. The Oxford Real Farming Conference brings us all together to explore these ideas across a varied and inspiring line-up of sessions and debates.”
  • Robert Reed, Project Manager, A Team Foundation: “The energy of the Oxford Real Farming Conference carries you through the year. It galvanises the movement and therefore, plays an important part as we change the food system for good”.
  • Liz Bowles, Head of Farming, Soil Association: “The Oxford Real Farming Conference is always a fantastic and inspiring way to start the year, a coming together of likeminded people interested in working towards a more sustainable food and agricultural system. But with continued uncertainties over the impact of Brexit on food and farming and the ever-looming crisis of climate change, this year’s conference feels more urgent—and necessary—than ever. The Soil Association is proud to support the 10th Oxford Real Farming Conference and to help make this important event happen.”
  • Caroline Mason, CEO, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation: “The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation is very proud to support the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2019, and it seems important that we do so at a time of heightened interest in the future of food and farming in the UK.  We’re delighted that the conference attracts such expert speakers and session leaders from across the spectrum of sustainable food and farming interests, and we’re confident that the conference offers something for everyone in terms of learning. But,  as importantly, we recognise the value of the conference as a unique convening and networking event, bringing committed and inspiring people together to consider and debate some of the most important issues of our time.”
  • Jim Twine, Managing Director, Organic Herb Trading Company: “We volunteered to sponsor the Oxford Real Farming Conference for three fundamental reasons. Firstly, unlike many other conferences it is not a talking shop – it is a conference of tangible outcomes and the art of the possible. Secondly, everyone is made to feel very welcome – which must be vital at a time when we need unity more than ever. And lastly, the conference is now leading the policy debate in terms of the future of food and farming the UK and beyond.”

Conference quick links:

ORFC funders, sponsors and partners:

The ORFC would like to thank the following funders, sponsors and partner organisations, without whose support this event would not be possible: Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, Riverford, Compassion in World Farming, Lush, A-Team Foundation, the Soil Association, Agricology, Cotswold Seeds, Triodos Bank, Landworkers’ Alliance, the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and Sustain.

About the Oxford Real Farming Conference (

In 2009, agricultural writer Graham Harvey (now of Pasture Promise TV) invited Colin Tudge and Ruth West (founders of the Campaign for Real Farming) to help establish a new kind of farming conference. The conference, first held in 2010 as a much-needed alternative to the concurrently-running Oxford Farming Conference, provides an innovative environment for some radical discussions on some of the biggest issues facing our society today. ORFC delegates are those from across food and farming, with an interest in new agricultural models. They represent those who are interested in meeting global food system challenges in original, environmentally sustainable ways. The point of the ORFC is not simply to challenge the status quo but to look ahead — to ask what the world really needs, and what really can be done.

The research agenda we really need

16th December 2018

Colin Tudge argues that the British government is spending agricultural research money on the wrong things and not tackling the issues that really matter. What are they really trying to do?

At this stage of history, agricultural research should not at this stage be focused on productivity. The world already produces enough food for 14 billion people – almost twice the present number and 40 per cent more than the UN says should ever be needed – which is easy to check from figures available on the web. (i.e: the world produces 2.5 billion tonnes of cereal per year which is enough for 7.5 billion people (with some leeway), which is roughly equal to the present world population; and cereal accounts for only half our total production of calories and protein).

We, or rather them-in-charge, also need to reconsider the much-vaunted concept of “efficiency”. It should not as now mean “cash efficiency” because cash in reality is a very poor measure of wellbeing, whether of human beings or of the biosphere. Even worse: efficiency in practice commonly translates as calories or cash produced per employee, meaning the fewer workers the better – whereas the priority now in a crowded and over-stressed world should be not be simply to create “jobs” (as in shelf-fillers on zero-hour contracts) but to provide satisfying careers; and farming when properly conceived is among the most satisfying of all, up there with medicine and teaching, or painting and science.

The overall priority now as the natural world dies around us is to create agriculture that is as far as possible in harmony with nature, and enhances human contentment. In other words we should be focused on the components of Enlightened Agriculture (real farming) — Agroecology, Food Sovereignty, and Economic Democracy; plus, specifically, on the elusive but all-important quality of human happiness.

Agroecology requires scientific research into, for example:

  • Organic farming in general – which nowadays receives a derisorily small portion of the government research budget. The research that is done is mostly by private organisations.
  • Agroforestry in particular – which so far as I know does not now feature at all in Defra or BBSRC thinking.
  • Soil – and particularly soil microbiota: microbes (bacteria and archaeans); “protists”; invertebrates; and fungi – including and perhaps especially the all-important but much neglected mycorrhizae!
  • Grazing (and browse); i.e, pasture-fed livestock. In particular, does well-managed grazing lead to loss of CH4 or to net carbon sequestration? General biological principles suggest the latter. e.g: during the Miocene and Pliocene when there were many billions of grazing animals the world grew steadily cooler. The present, almost hysterical attack on cattle is most inappropriate. True, intensive cattle (of the kind the government now favours) must be massive CH4 generators but cattle judiciously grazed are surely good for the biosphere.
  • Mixed populations of cereals and other crops. Inter alia, genetic diversity offers more long-term protection against pests and diseases than specific resistance genes.
  • Pollinators other than honeybees. Flies for example are among the most important pollinators but only a few biologists are taking them seriously.
  • Animal welfare in all its aspects.

None of the above, I venture, is receiving anything like the attention it deserves – and certainly not from government. Taxpayers’ money is spent elsewhere (basically on making life easy for corporates).

Food Sovereignty implies that people (generally meaning communities or societies) should have control of their own food supply – and we should be asking what this means in practice. We can learn in particular from the world peasant movement, La Via Campesina, which first formulated the food sovereignty idea in the 1990s. Britain’s Landworkers’ Alliance is allied to La Via Campesina (and to the Oxford Real Farming Conference).

Economic Democracy implies, in similar vein, that we, humanity, should have control of the economy, and run the economy in ways that enhance our own lives. The concept should be extended to become Green Economic Democracy – meaning that the economy should be geared to the wellbeing both of humanity and of the biosphere. There are plenty of economic models out there and in the history of the world – and indeed in the history of Britain – which suggest ways of achieving Economic Democracy, although green thinking for the most part has lagged woefully behind. It is absurd that we should now be expected to live our whole lives, and to re-shape the biosphere, to fit in with the economic dogma of the day, as if economic dogma had the weight of scientific law or indeed of divine edict. It is doubly absurd not to say suicidal to gear our lives and the biosphere to the demands of the simplistic, brutalist formula of neoliberalism, which simply decrees that if we all compete on the world market with whatever it takes to maximize our own wealth then everything will turn out OK. How can governments and intellectuals who claim to be “evidence-led” support such an idea when the evidence shows so clearly that it is not true? Inequality, hunger, war, mass extinction, global warming – what more evidence is needed? (OK: all of these existed before neoliberalism but the materialism and competitiveness that are the drivers of neoliberalism add fuel to the flames).

To this list of desiderata I would add one more line of inquiry of a social nature – bringing together studies in human ecology, sociology, and mental health (and indeed physical health) to ask: “What forms of farming contribute most directly to happiness”? Is rural life in a thriving rural economy – viable villages, communities – really as good as or better than life in than the city? How much do we really gain from contact with nature and from handling animals and plants? Some would doubtless find such studies whimsical but actually they’re about human values as opposed merely to short-term wealth; and those who think that short-term wealth is all that matters should, I suggest, be kicked into touch or otherwise banished to the naughty step and certainly should not, as now, be put in charge.

In fact, the research priorities listed by Michael Gove in recent talks to Theos and the CLA and pursued so eagerly by BBSRC – gene editing, synthetic protein and all the rest – are all, in the grand scheme of things, marginal. They are trendy and flashy and “challenging” and for those who are good at them (including Britain) they are potentially lucrative. But they do not go to the heart of the world’s problems and the research that would go to the heart of the world’s problems is neglected. In truth we – and especially government with access to all the taxpayers’ money — need to re-think agriculture (and therefore everything else) from first principles. For starters we need to ask: “What are we really trying to achieve? What do we really think is important? Should ‘economic growth’ really be the limit of our ambitions?”

Given that our government along with most other governments seems to be pushing us in quite the wrong directions we might also ask — “Whose side does the government think it’s on?”

by Colin Tudge

The Oxford Real Farming Conference, The Oxford Farming Conference – and the ambiguous Mr Gove

18th December 2018

Colin Tudge explains that… ‘Though there’s overlap, the 10th ORFC and the old established OFC represent two fundamentally different views of Agriculture. In January 2019 Michael Gove, Secretary of State for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, is scheduled to speak at both. Where do his sympathies lie?’

The 2019 ORFC, due to take place in a few weeks’ time (January 3-4) will be the 10th – and the biggest ever: 1000 delegates (about half of them farmers) are booked in and we have added another venue to the now traditional town-hall – in St Aldates Church, just opposite. The ORFC was Graham Harvey’s idea; and Ruth West, (aka Ruth Tudge), has kept it going – with tremendous help along the way from an honourable list of people too numerous to mention. I (Colin Tudge) was involved in the initial conversations a decade ago and so can claim to be a co-founder.

The ORFC was founded as the antidote to the Establishment’s OFC – and so it has proved: different philosophy, different content, different recommendations. Yet still, after a decade, some people including some in positions of influence claim there is no real difference between the two. Both are about farming, after all. In broad terms both have the same concerns – about the state of the world, the future of British agriculture and indeed of Britain, and, these past few years, the huge threat of climate change and the minor, by comparison (because everything is minor by comparison), yet still potentially decisive, threat of Brexit. Some have even suggested that the two conferences should merge – imagining in emollient vein that there must be some “middle way”. Both conferences attract intelligent people, after all, so surely an amalgamation would produce the best of all possible solutions?

Well, I like to think that there is no hostility between the two. Certainly the organisers of the two conferences have had some amicable chats in recent months not least about inter-conference discussions – though ORFC has insisted that these should be topics that really get to the heart of things, like “Is the kind of farming the world really needs compatible with the neoliberal economy?”; or, more specifically, “Who needs corporates?”; or even, more broadly, “What really should be the role of high tech?”; and “Who should be calling the shots?”. There is little point, after all, in discussing bland matters on which we can all agree – like, for example, that farmers should be better paid and have more say.

But still the fundamental differences are huge – which, since there still is confusion, are worth spelling out again. Thus:

The essence of the ORFC is contained in the phrase “Real Farming”. This is shorthand for “Enlightened Agriculture” which is informally but adequately defined as –

“Agriculture that is expressly designed to provide everyone, everywhere, with food of the highest standard, nutritionally and gastronomically, without injustice or cruelty and without wrecking the rest of the world.”

Fantastical as this may seem in the present state of the world, this is eminently possible, if only we did things properly. The keys to enlightened agriculture (real farming) are Agroecology, with particular emphasis on organic farming; plus the key concepts of Food Sovereignty and Economic Democracy.

All this is in absolute contrast to the adage that I first heard in the 1970s:

“Agriculture is just a business like any other”.

Worse: business itself has been reconceived since the 1970s – thanks to the rise and rise of neoliberalism, first formally introduced into Britain by Mrs Thatcher and via Ronald Reagan into the US and hence into the rest of the world. Business in Britain before the ’80s was widely if somewhat over-optimistically perceived as the natural underpinning of democracy and fair play, with financial dealings constrained by morality. But neoliberalism is simply the attempt to maximise wealth by competing as ruthlessly as necessary in the global market, all against all: British farmer vs African farmer vs American and Russian farmer and all farming against all other industries – motor cars, arms, hair-dressing. Whatever is most profitable is OK. Whatever is less profitable falls by the wayside. But then, traders and producers can survive only if they can provide what people want – and that’s democracy, isn’t it? In practice of course the market is dominated by those with the most clout which means by those with the most money which means that the rich must grow richer while the poor grow poorer – which indeed has been the inexorable trend of the past 40 years. Worse still: all other considerations apart from money are ignored – social life, personal happiness, aesthetics, morality, spirituality. They are deemed not to be “realistic”. After all, those who indulge in such romances are easily swept aside by whoever is wealthier – so they cannot be realistic, can they?

The key difference between the two conferences, I suggest, lies just here. The OFC – like the NFU, like Defra, like successive Secretaries of State – contrive, above all, to be “realistic” in the conventional sense, meaning hard-headed. Everyone after all has bills to pay and families to feed. Farmers in this competitive world cannot afford to waste too much time and effort on lapwings and turtle doves or indeed on traditional ways of life, however agreeable. So they ask:

“How can we devise forms of farming that can be plugged in to the neoliberal economy?”

— which in practice means:

“How can we best devise and introduce a system of farming that can compete financially in the global market?”

How, in short, can we devise forms of agriculture that on the one hand can compete economically with the farmers of Africa who have endless sunshine and work for very little money, and the subsidized farmers of the US with sunshine, wealth, and endless technology? It’s difficult going on impossible — given that Britain is crowded and cold and young people don’t seem to find farming attractive and farmland costs £25K a hectare, unless it’s next to a town when the sky’s the limit. So this keeps the OFC (and NFU and Defra and successive ministers) scratching their heads for year after year – and the possibility, right now, following the neoliberal logic, especially after Brexit, is that Britain’s farmers will go the way of its coalminers and for the same reason; that in the short term (which is all that is really deemed to matter) it is more economical to buy what we need from people with cheaper labour and lower standards and/or with bigger machines.

But those who prefer the Enlightened approach are asking quite different questions. Not “How can we plug farming into the neoliberal economy?” but –

“What kind of economy do we need to support Enlightened Agriculture (aka Real Farming)?”

— and

“What kind of governance will provide such an economy?”

– and

“What kind of science and technology is needed to support Enlightened Agriculture?”

– and these are the questions we focus on at the ORFC.

In practice the logic of Enlightened Agriculture (agroecology, food sovereignty, economic democracy) leads us to favour low-input farms (which mostly means organic) that are as diverse as possible, which means they are complex, which means they need plenty of skilled farmers and growers, which means there is little or no advantage in scale-up (though there is endless scope for cooperation), which means that we should be favouring farms that are small-to-medium sized. Overall control (insofar as overall control is necessary) should reside as far as possible with people at large – with emphasis on community control.

All of this is the complete antithesis of present strategy, which favours high-input, high-tech, monocultural units with minimal to zero-labour on the largest possible scale and controlled by corporates and financiers, who may or may not live on or near the land they are deemed to own, with noises off from Westminster and the WTO.

Overall we surely need a semi-autonomous body of true experts and other people who give a damn to oversee the whole operation – a giant Quango, in short, though not one run by the great and the good. We should certainly reinstate the old AFRC (Agricultural and Food Research Council) and the Experimental Husbandry Farms which were dismantled or sold off in the neoliberal privatization feeding frenzy of the 1980s onwards. AFRC is now replaced by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and since the old Ministry of Agriculture is now superseded by the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs this means the word “agriculture” has been air-brushed out of top government echelons altogether, perhaps in anticipation of the day when we won’t have any. It will save re-printing the stationery. But we need as a matter of growing urgency to start taking agriculture seriously again. It cannot be treated simply as another (not very efficient and very messy) contributor to GDP and/or as a branch of biotech (and hence as a potentially lucrative export).

The kind of agriculture that is now becoming the norm and is so eagerly supported by governments like ours and the other powers that be leaves a billion people undernourished and is a prime cause of mass extinction and global warming and is threatening to kill us all. It seems a great irony that this should be considered “realistic” while Enlightened Agriculture aka Real Farming is still seen as pie in the sky. Apparently it is more realistic to maximize and concentrate wealth than it is to put the world back on to a reasonable, equitable, and – much-abused word — “sustainable” footing.

In January 2018 Secretary of State Michael Gove spoke both at the ORFC and at the OFC and is scheduled to do so again in 2019. Last year he charmed both conferences. He had encouraging words for both. He stressed up front when I interviewed him afterwards that we could not simply continue with “business as usual”. All the signs were that he was taking Real Farming seriously. But the Agriculture Bill that had its first reading in the Commons in September makes no mention of agroecology.

In his recent (November 22) talk to the Christian think-tank Theos, held at London’s Institute of Directors, Mr Gove was similarly ambivalent. He seemed to say all the right things. He drew attention to ecological decline – and very properly stressed the need for a balanced approach in putting the world to rights. On the one hand, he said, we need excellent science. But we also need a spiritual underpinning to all our endeavours – and he cited the contributions of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama to the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, and referred a great deal to Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment of May 2015. Spot on.

But again, he did not mention agroecology. The science he cited was all of the high-tech type. High tech can of course be highly “appropriate” – various ultra-high technologies including remote sensing and IT in all its forms can be immensely helpful, and so too can molecular biology not least to help us identify what’s out there – but we really must decide what it is we are trying to achieve and what is really helpful and what is not. The technologies Mr Gove mentioned were all of the fashionable kind, very much in line with business as usual: precision farming (hmm); robotics (it depends); genetic manipulation (the science and technologies are in many ways useful but GMOs are a ghastly diversion); vertical farming (good in context – which mainly means big cities – but not as a prime focus of endeavour); synthetic protein (really just another diversion); aquaculture (high-tech and trendy but again, not what’s really needed).

A week later (November 29), at Harper Adams University Mr Gove spoke at the Country Landowners’ Association Rural Business Conference. Again he made some encouraging points – that by improving food and farming we would surely improve health (and reduce the health bill), and he promised that Britain would be planting 30 million more trees. But also stressed that –

“Defra is above all an economic department”

Food and drink are our biggest manufacturing industry, he said, and the rural economy as a whole provides 16 per cent of GDP – £250 billion a year. But we “can and must do better” – for agriculture lags behind other sections of the economy. Above all we need to raise productivity – with (you’ve guessed it) precision agriculture, vertical farming, and gene editing (though we do still need to “overcome the ethical problems”).

In truth, Mr Gove is a vast improvement on his predecessors, Owen Paterson (raise more beef to sell to the Chinese), Liz Truss (make more cheese), and Angela Leadsom (raise more pigs to sell to the Chinese) and he does give the impression that he takes some of the most serious issues seriously, including the state of the biosphere. Yet when it comes to the crunch, le plus ca change, le plus c’est la meme chose. It seems that he cannot and surely will not break out of the conventional mould – the mould that says we must be guided by the economic norms of the day and in particular, nowadays, must plug whatever we do, including agriculture, into the global market; coupled it seems with uncritical faith in science and high tech. May the Lord save us from scientists who have no knowledge of philosophy or metaphysics, and have no sense of the limits of science; and politicians educated in “the humanities” who discover the wonders of science late in life and become uncritical technophiles –Tony Blair (law, Oxford); and Lord (Dick) Taverne (philosophy and ancient history, Oxford); and, it seems, Mr Gove (English, Oxford).

Anyway, to go back to the beginning: Agriculture worldwide and not least in Britain needs radical re-thinking across the board. A few people in high places are apparently cottoning on to the main issues – and Michael Grove might perhaps be numbered among them – but the mindset, I would say the madness, continues. It is considered “realistic” and necessary to treat agriculture not simply as a business like any other which is bad enough, but as an exercize in neoliberalism and high tech, which is potentially fatal, and for a great many people and a very large slice of wildlife, already is. Neoliberal high-tech agriculture is geared not to the wellbeing of humanity and of the biosphere but to the machinations of money. The ORFC sets out to challenge this approach and as far as I can see, the government, the NFU, and indeed the OFC do not.

The ORFC needs to continue. It needs to remain true to its ideals and vive la difference. Of course we want to talk seriously to anyone who seriously wants to talk. But serious is the word. Present-day agricultural strategy is based on a whole series of misconceptions and misrepresentations as I outlined recently in an article in Ecological Citizen and to put things right we really do need to be radical in the proper sense – get down to the roots of things. This is what the ORFC tries to do, in as big and public a space as possible.

by Colin Tudge

Measuring Sustainability for Fairer Future Policy

At this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference the Sustainable Food Trust will be convening a session delving into one of the most important issues for future farming policy in the UK – how do we measure on-farm sustainability and bring about convergence in the multitude of conflicting and overlapping assessment and certification systems currently being used? If we are to achieve fairness in any future policy or subsidy system we need to accurately record farm sustainability in order to ensure those farming in a sustainable way and delivering public goods are rewarded financially, while those using practices that are damaging to the environment and public health are made accountable.

In 2016, the Sustainable Food Trust convened a small group of farmers and land managers to begin developing a harmonised framework and common language for assessing the sustainability of all farming systems.

At present, most farmers and land managers participate in multiple and overlapping sustainability assessment schemes, required to satisfy several different stakeholders including government, certification bodies and food companies. It has been estimated that worldwide there are more than 100 different on-farm sustainability assessment tools in existence, and consequently, food producers are subjected to unnecessary expenses and time-consuming bureaucracy in meeting these compliance requirements.

A harmonised framework could take the form of a tailored whole farm management plan with a suite of categories and measures, aligned and compatible with existing initiatives such as the TEEBAgriFood valuation framework, Natural Capital Protocol and FAO’s SAFA framework. With this in place, the enabling conditions will exist for both government and market intervention, the combination of which will accelerate the transition towards more sustainable food systems.

Since convening the working group the SFT commissioned the Organic Research Centre to undertake a gap analysis and pilot studies, with the aim of evaluating the effectiveness of assessment schemes currently in use. The study also included a review of where data required by sustainability assessment schemes is already collected by farmers, such as for government grant applications and certification audits. It was found that, of the 1000 data points required, over half were already collected, therefore overlapping hugely and creating a significant time burden for farmers. A link to this report can be found here.

Following this study, a draft framework was created by the farmer working-group, the effectiveness of which was tested by Dr Harpinder Sandhu, Senior Research Fellow at Flinders University, who visited the UK in March 2018 to undertake six pilot studies using the framework as a basis for his assessment. We will be presenting the findings from these studies at ORFC.

Defra have taken a keen interest in this work. In leaving the EU, and subsequently the Common Agriculture Policy, they are now designing the key features of a new national agriculture policy under the mantra of ‘public money for public goods’. Going forward, the Government will need to be accountable to the taxpayer, demonstrating the public money distributed to farmers provides successful sustainable outcomes, which could be evidenced by requiring participant farmers to report on their sustainability each year.

To achieve this, we are suggesting that farmers should have to complete an annual farm sustainability assessment based on the harmonised framework of categories and metrics. This could be used to assess the baseline sustainability of the farming system in addition to improvements year on year.

At last year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference, Michael Gove, Secretary of State for DEFRA said:

“There are already a number of ways in which farmers can secure recognition for high animal welfare or environmental standards. But while they’re all impressive and outstanding, there’s still no single, scaled, measure of how a farmer or food producer performs against a sensible basket of indicators, taking into account such things as soil health, control of pollution, contribution to water quality as well as animal welfare. We’ve been in discussion with a number of farmers and food producers about how we might advance such a scheme and I think that, outside the EU, we could establish a measure of farm and food quality which would be world-leading”

Since then, the SFT has been working with the Secretary of State and his team by sharing our research and thinking around these sustainability metrics. But what’s next for 2019? What are your thoughts on how we should measure sustainability?

Join us at 10:30am on 4th January in the Long Room for our session, ‘The Harmonisation of On-Farm Sustainability Assessment,’ where we will hear from Adele Jones and Patrick Holden about the SFT project, as well as expert opinion from Garth Clarke from Waddesdon Estate and Emily Norton from Savills.

By Megan Perry, Sustainable Food Trust

2019 Programme Corrections and Additions

Please find below corrections and additions to the 2019 programme that were made after the programme had gone to print. Changes are in italics…


3rd 0900 – 1000, Council Chamber

Farm-scale rewilding and the launch of a UK rewilding network

Speakers: Chris Clark and Joe Hope

3rd 14:30 – 15:30, Long Room

Plastics after Blue Planet II

Speakers: Stuart Roberts (NFU), Erica Davies, Robyn Copley-Wilkins, Guy Singh-Watson, Patrick Holden


3rd 1015 – 1115, Court Room

Food hubs: an introduction

Speakers: Alice Guillaume, Danny Fisher, Julie Brown, Christian Reynolds


3rd 1130 – 1230, Main Hall

Opportunities and challenges for building regenerative supply chains

Speakers: Jyoti Fernandes, Nick Gumery, Nick Saltmarsh


3rd 1130 – 1230, Old Library

Planning policy and food growing: bridging the gap

Speakers: Simon Ruston, Jacqui Banks, Oli Rodker


3rd 1600 – 1700, Old Library

CSA in the UK: the cutting edge of direct sales; innovative models for local food distribution

Speakers: Ed Hamer, Rupert Dunn, Kees Fredriks


4th 10:30 – 11:30, Long Room

The Harmonisation of on-farm sustainability assessment

Speakers: Garth Clarke, Caroline Drummond, Emily Norton, Adele Jone, Patrick Holden