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