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

Weaning Ourselves Off Nitrogen

Our current food systems are suffering from an addiction to nitrogen. Global use of nitrogen fertiliser has grown exponentially with projections that it will reach a total of 118 million tonnes by 2020. The UK’s addiction is significant, and this dependency is causing catastrophic damage to the environment and public health. Without serious corrective measures, nitrogen pollution could push the planet to breaking point.

While agriculture is not the only contributor to nitrogen pollution (transport and energy generation also produce substantial amounts), it is the primary source and is responsible for approximately two-thirds of reactive nitrogen emissions. The agricultural emissions of reactive nitrogen derive from two major sources: artificial fertiliser and animal waste. Of the 88% of ammonia emissions that agriculture is responsible for, nearly half are from cattle and a quarter are from fertiliser applications. The remaining 26% come from other livestock sources.

Over the last century, artificial nitrogen fertiliser has provided a straightforward and cost-effective method for farmers to boost productivity, fuelling agricultural intensification and the expansion of food production worldwide. As a result of these gains, governments have turned a blind eye to the significant negative impacts of the use of nitrogen fertiliser, choosing instead to prioritise the short-term goal of food security. However, it is becoming more and more obvious that we can no longer overlook the damage that our addiction is causing, particularly in connection to:

While regulation is essential to limit the damage caused by artificial nitrogen, measures like the Nitrite Vulnerable Zones might not go far enough to drastically curtail ammonia emissions. The Government might also consider the introduction of a tax on artificial nitrogen fertiliser to disincentivise the purchase and use of the product by farmers and create the necessary impetus to curb global addiction. By financially disincentivising the use of fertilisers, conventional farmers would have to consider how to build soil fertility through natural methods.

The use of forage legumes in rotations increase the soil’s natural nitrogen levels and help to reduce the use of artificial fertilisers, significantly lessening the amount of reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere. Encouraging farmers to adopt the practice of cover-cropping with nitrogen-fixing varieties will help to reduce the over-reliance on artificial fertilisers and the Government should use the new Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, as outlined in the Agriculture Bill, to financially incentivise the inclusion of nitrogen-fixing legumes in productive grasslands and as cover-crops. The Sustainable Food Trust has advocated that by using the ELM scheme to incentivise the use of legumes in rotation, Defra could help farmers to deliver the multiple public goods that it would deliver, including soil health, water and air quality and biodiversity.

To achieve the systemic shift towards more sustainable farming methods and reduce artificial nitrogen usage, society needs to unlock the barriers to change and, through the new Agriculture Bill framework, the Government can create the economic conditions where farmers are financially supported for adopting agroecological practices, which can then emerge as the most profitable and economically-viable way of producing food.

Join us for our session, ‘Nitrogen Pollution and How to Reduce It‘ on 4th January at 3pm in the Long Room. The session is organised by the Sustainable Food Trust and chaired by Patrick Holden, with speakers including Jenny Hawley (Senior Policy Officer at Plantlife), Helen Browning (Chief Executive of the Soil Association), Robert Craig (Cumbrian Dairy Farmer and Nuffield Scholar), Honor Eldridge (Head of Policy, Sustainable Food Trust) and Dinah Hillier (Catchment Control Manager at Thames Water).

By Honor Eldridge, Head of Policy, Sustainable Food Trust

Farm Practice for the Future at ORFC

The Oxford Real Farming Conference is fast approaching and on 3rd and 4th January 1,000 delegates, including more than 200 expert speakers, will take part in a record number of sessions for this year’s 10th anniversary event.

ORFC has always been geared towards providing a knowledge sharing platform for farmers and growers, and with 50% of the audience consisting of farmers this year, the practice-focused sessions are sure to be popular.

Below is a taster of what to expect:

As ever, sustainable soil management remains high on the agenda, and with good reason as we head towards critical levels of global soil degradation. This year we delve into this with speakers including soil scientists Jennifer Dungait, Felicity Crotty, Neil Fuller and Simon Parfey. While farmers Fidelity Weston, Hannah Steenbergen, Abby Rose and Fred Price lead a session on how farmers can become soil health experts.

We also learn lessons from farmers who suffered during this summer’s drought. Pasture-fed livestock farmers John Cherry, Sam Parsons and Rob Havard will look at how they fared and discuss how to be prepared for future extreme weather events.

Research suggests silvopasture – the agroforestry practice that combines trees, animals and forages – far outpaces any grassland technique for counteracting the methane emissions of livestock and sequestering carbon. This year we are lucky to have expert Steve Gabriel who will invite attendees to explore an approach to ecological farming that ranks among the best solutions to climate change, whilst providing an ethical and productive system for healthy livestock. We will also hear from farmers who have made a start creating this system, as well as a livestock researcher who will look at the nutritional and behavioural benefits of access to trees for livestock. And we’ll delve into the practicalities for those looking to get started too, answering questions on planning, marketing and business for wood products.

Another important topic, sessions will examine ‘intercropping in research and practices’ and how growing crops together presents opportunities for enhancing the resource use efficiency and resilience of cropping systems. Speakers will include Cereal Pathologist Dr. Adrian Newton (James Hutton Institute), Dr. Charlotte Bickler and Katie Bliss (ORC) and Andy Howard (Bockhanger Farm).

Many progressive farmers and growers are seeing the benefits of integrating leys into cropping systems for weed management and soil health. Senior soil scientist Dr. Lizzie Sagoo (ADAS), Dr. Lydia Smith (NIAB) and Joe Howard (Little Morton Farm) will together explore these benefits as well as the practical and financial implications from their research and experience in the field. 

Pests and weeds
Another session will look at ‘managing pests biologically’ through an integrated approach, including improving our knowledge of pest lifecycles and integrating habitat to encourage their enemies. During this session Charlotte Rowley (AHDB), Richard Pyell (CEH) and Julian Gold (Hendred Farm) will share experiences and tips from their scientific and practical understanding to help us look to design pest resilient farming systems for the future.

There will also be a session on ‘plants in the wrong place’ that focuses on Agroecological approaches to weed control – looking at including direct, cultural and biological control methods. Speakers include weed biologist, Lynn Tatnell (ADAS) and plant ecologist Jonathan Storkey (Rothamstead Research) who will outline agroecological approaches to managing weeds with examples of some of the most troublesome arable and horticultural weed species.

Finally, have you ever lamented the scant selection of tools on the market for small scale vegetable production in the UK? Many growers are already reinventing tools to maximise efficiency and make tough jobs less demanding. Learn from the experience and ingenuity of Eliot Coleman and Adam Payne, on how they have adapted and redesigned hand tools and tractor-mounted equipment to best suit their operations.

Oxford Real Farming Conference 2019 Highlights

The 2019 Oxford Real Farming Conference is set to be the biggest yet – with more sessions, delegates and an additional venue. Here are a few highlights to look out for:

Eliot Coleman
Long-time organic farmer and author of The New Organic Grower, Eliot Coleman will guide the audience through the journey that organic farming has been on and what he believes is in store for its future, as well as participating in a special session on tool customisation, another area in which he is a renowned pioneer.

Vivien Sansour 
Founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, Vivien Sansour, will be speaking about her work to recover ancient seeds and put them back into the hands of the people. While the seed library is an interactive art and science project that aims to provide a public space for people to exchange seeds and knowledge; it is also the subversive rebel who is of the people and is inspired by the nature of seeds that travel across borders and checkpoints, defying the violence of the landscape while reclaiming life and presence.

Steve Gabriel
Author Steve Gabriel will be speaking first thing on day one of the ORFC about his work in silvopasture – the agroforestry practice that combines trees, animals and forages. Steve will invite attendees to explore an approach to ecological farming that ranks among the best solutions to climate change, whilst providing an ethical and productive system for healthy livestock.

Barbara Hachipuka Banda 
Barbara Hachipuka Banda is the founder and director of the Natural Agriculture Development Program Zambia. Barbara advocates on behalf of small-scale women farmers, who are critical agents of change in the transformation to sustainable agriculture. Her presentation will provide an overview of how working with women farmers to promote sustainable agriculture also has a positive impact on gender equality, poverty reduction, education and community development.

Guy Shrubsole
Guy Shrubsole is a campaigner and writer whose forthcoming book Who Owns England? explores the hidden history of land ownership. He will be part of an interactive workshop exploring what campaigns, coalitions and research we need to protect County Farms, which are a traditionally important step for new entrants into our farming communities.

Speakers will be available for interview on request, please contact or speak to a volunteer or press officer on the day.

If you do not yet have a press pass and would like to attend, please get in touch to apply as soon as possible – we only have a few spaces remaining.

Local Abattoirs: Why they are closing and how we can save them



Small abattoirs are the unsung linchpins of our local food systems. Without them, we could not have local, traceable meat production. Small-scale, high welfare farming, rearing of rare breeds, organic or pasture fed and the success of local food businesses, including direct sales like meat boxes and farm shops, all depend on the services of small, local abattoirs.

Small abattoirs form one of the cornerstones of a strong rural economy, enabling farmers to add value to their products through the way meat is skillfully butchered and processed. Most large abattoirs do not provide this service and do not return meat to the farmer for them to sell directly to consumers. Small abattoirs also provide jobs and build trust in the local community between producer, processer, retailer and consumer. This is something that has been lost as we’ve become increasingly beholden to large supermarkets, losing our connection with where our food comes from.

And with shorter travel time for livestock, smaller numbers being slaughtered and smaller trailers with lower ramps for loading and unloading, animal welfare is as high as possible, with stress for the animal kept to a minimum during the crucial last stages of the animal’s life.

Yet, the UK’s smallest abattoirs are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. With high running costs and an industry increasingly geared towards centralised, industrial food systems, many of them are losing money and find it hard to see how this will change.

There are now only 56 small red meat abattoirs left in the UK, with a third having closed between 2007 and 2017 and a further seven closing this year.

The crisis is due in part to a collapse in the value of hides and skins, with small abattoirs currently being paid as little as £4.50 for cattle hides and 10p for sheep skins, compared with £35 and £6.50 respectively a few years ago.

At the same time, waste disposal costs for most small abattoirs have increased significantly due to consolidation in the rendering industry and higher minimum charges for small quantities. Small abattoirs also face a range of other costs which make it difficult for them to compete economically with large slaughterhouses.

This puts small abattoirs at a major disadvantage compared with the very large slaughterhouses which process animals for multiple retailers. Large slaughterhouses have received tens of millions of pounds of public money in grants and also benefit from economies of scale, but the animals they slaughter generally travel many hundreds of miles at the cost of their welfare and the environment.

The Sustainable Food Trust (SFT) launched a report at last year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference which exposed the critical situation for small abattoirs. This sparked the formation of the Campaign for Local Abattoirs which is a coalition between the SFT, National Craft Butchers, the National Sheep Association and other producers and abattoir owners. We have worked this past year to raise the issues facing small abattoirs with Defra and the FSA, as well as bringing them to media attention. We published a joint letter to Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove, signed by 34 organisations, which can be read here. We are now calling for small abattoirs to be recognised as a ‘public good’ and for grants to be made available to help with the cost of structural improvements and investment in equipment. At present, these are only available to the 15 smallest abattoirs in Wales, with the Welsh Government having provided £1.1 million in funding specifically for this purpose.

We have also been conducting a survey of small abattoirs, the results of which will be presented at our session at this year’s ORFC.

So please come along, join our session and hear from our expert panel, Chaired by Lady Parker of Fir Farm, Gloucestershire, and with John Mettrick, President of National Craft Butchers and small abattoir owner, Bob Kennard, SFT Policy advisor and joint author of our report, Nick Allen, CEO of the British Meat Processors Association, and Nick Palmer, Head of Policy at Compassion in World Farming.

The session takes place at 9am on Thursday 3rd January in the Christopher Room, St Aldate’s Conference Centre.

By Megan Perry, Sustainable Food Trust

The next generation: Connecting young farmers

The Sustainable Food Trust and New Food Entrepreneurs are hosting an evening session at the ORFC aimed at the next generation of food producers. How do we encourage more people to become “real farmers”? What are the problems young farmers and new entrants face? And how can we tackle these?

We know that the average age of farmers in the UK is 59 and that there are fewer young people coming forward to replace them, so how do we secure the future of sustainable food production in the UK? It seems clear that we need more people to see agriculture as a viable livelihood and to engage in “real farming”.

“Farming is too much hard work for not enough pay.” The economic burden on farmers is one of the main reasons many young people from farming families are choosing other career paths. Cost of land and housing and poor economic incentives drive people away from agriculture and are prohibitive to new entrants. County farms and starter farms, along with other models such as share farming, are important to enable the next generation.

Despite the difficulties, farming can provide a meaningful, healthy and rewarding occupation. But there is a need for clear information for young people – with so many choices to make, it can seem a daunting task. What to produce? How to sell it? Who can help find land, loans, expertise, training and so on? Who can help with business planning advice and support?

There is a lot of information and support for would-be food producers “out there”, but it can be immensely time-consuming to find it and, at times, bewildering to sift through to what’s relevant for the searcher. Too many websites are out of date. Too many programmes are no longer running. It’s enough to put off all but the most determined.

In our session we will hear from young people who have just started out, who have pursued innovative ideas and who are making a success of their ventures. We will also hear from farmers who have been in the business a long time and can offer some wisdom and perspective to people just beginning their journey. The session is for all those looking to get into farming and for young farmers to come along and feel a sense of community – it can often be a lonely business and one where likeminded young people are hard to meet. Now is your chance to come together, grab a drink and join the conversation. We hope to see you there!

Session details:

Secrets of Success: Young farmers and new entrants

7pm on 3rd January, upstairs in St Aldate’s Tavern

New Food Entrepreneurs is a project of the Conservation Farming Trust, which aims to bring together partners from across the sector to help answer these questions and create a facilitating environment for would-be producers. We have been collecting stories from successful enterprises to inspire a new community of entrants to the sector and will be working with partners to curate a programme of services and activities to support them in the coming months. If you’d like to share your story or lend your support, we’d love to hear from you.

The Sustainable Food Trust is a registered charity that works to accelerate the transition to more sustainable food systems. Founded in 2011 by Patrick Holden, we seek to work catalytically and collaboratively to bring about change. Some of our key areas of work include true cost accounting, our campaign for local abattoirs, our work on bringing about convergence in on-farm sustainability assessment and the role of livestock in sustainable systems.

By Megan Perry, Sustainable Food Trust

Press Release: Michael Gove to attend Oxford Real Farming Conference

Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affair, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP will be attending the 10th annual Oxford Real Farming Conference on 3rd January 2019, to take part in a Q&A session. This session will be hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Agroecology and chaired by Kerry McCarthy.

Following last year’s packed out plenary session with Michael Gove and Zach Goldsmith, the Secretary of State will return this year to answer questions about the future of farming in the UK.

Kerry McCarthy said: “I’m very pleased that the Secretary of State has accepted an invitation to speak at the ORFC for the second year running. It shows that agroecological approaches are entering the mainstream, and gaining in influence. This will be an ideal opportunity to quiz him on the Agriculture Bill currently going through Parliament, and of course, Brexit.”

This will compliment a raft of other sessions that dig deeper into the future of farming post-Brexit – with issues ranging from fishing policy to animal welfare regulation, and with debates exploring the value of natural capital, what constitutes a healthy diet and how to hold government to account for a ‘Green Brexit’. A full list of sessions can be found here.

Tickets for the ORFC have now sold out, with this year’s capacity larger than ever at 1,000 attendees. And with almost 100 sessions across the two days featuring more than 200 speakers, it is sure to be a memorable event.


For more information or to apply for press accreditation, please contact:


Kerry McCarthy is the Co-Chair of the APPG on Agroecology, member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Environmental Audit Select Committees, and was previously the Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

About the Oxford Real Farming Conference (

In 2009, agricultural writer Graham Harvey invited Colin Tudge and Ruth West 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 agroecology: a set of guiding principles to encourage whole farm systems that care for the biosphere and provide healthy nutritious food for all. 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.