This year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference is being held during what promises to be a dramatic year for British agriculture.
For better or worse, the Brexit die will be cast this month, and we will go straight into negotiations with the European Union and the United States. The outcome may have major implications for how and what terms we trade with both major partners, with potentially dramatic long-term effects on British farming. In parallel, the replacement of the Common Agricultural Policy will take firmer shape, and new policy opportunities will open up.
It is absolutely crucial that all of us who believe in sustainable, environmentally-friendly, higher-welfare farming work together as we enter this time of transition. The global wind of change is swinging behind us, with increasing recognition that farming based on intensification and low-quality mass production is an unsustainable option with very dangerous outcomes for climate change and the environment. Agroecology is becoming progressively mainstream, with a recognition that farming divorced from the environment around it – and the supply chain on which it depends – is not a solution that will survive. It is exactly the right time to rethink our food and farming systems and make Britain a world leader in moving towards a sustainable future.
But there are risks too.
Short-term thinking and political imperatives may drive Britain into compromises with sustainability and welfare in order to seal trade deals which sacrifice the longer term for the dangerous appeal of quick fixes. Deals which allow Britain to fall behind in quality and welfare standards in thrall, to the deceptive appeal of simple free-trade agreements, would ultimately undermine much of British farming. We must not present farmers with a stark choice between working in a shrinking niche or pressing for lower standards.
As a charity, Compassion in World Farming is party apolitical. But it is objectively true that outside the European Union we will have both greater opportunities and greater dangers. It will, for example, be possible to end the cruel live export trade, removing a stain on the reputation of British agriculture. Equally, it will be possible to deviate from European standards on antibiotic reduction, in the pursuit of the elusive charms of an open-market US trade deal.
The Oxford Real Farming Conference is a unique institution, bringing together so many diverse strands of creative, positive thinking about agriculture. Compassion in World Farming is proud to be a co-sponsor of the event, and we participate not merely to support the general message but also to learn from the sessions and draw conclusions on which approaches offer the most promising ways forward – not only for British farming but also from the other countries across the world where we work to raise standards. Environmentally supportive farming needs to be a global goal, so that British farming is in the forefront of a worldwide trend as it gathers speed.
What do we want? Sustainable farming, so we have a thriving industry into the future. High welfare, so we can ensure animals on British farms a decent life. Support for high-quality farming, for human health and environmental protection. Clear labelling of means of production, so consumers can choose the best.
These are the principles which ORFC participants share. In the coming days, let’s talk about how we make them the British reality.