Conference calls for re-think of agriculture

While the heads of the agricultural industry and government officials met to discuss policy at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, an alternative event took place

The Oxford Real Farming Conference, which is in its fourth year, was held at Magdalen College on 5-6 January and hosted more than 50 speakers proposing a total re-think of agriculture.

Biologist Colin Tudge of the Campaign for Real Farming, who co-founded the conference, believes the current agricultural system is designed to make rich people richer while causing environmental damage and he is calling instead for a system that is truly intended to feed people, serve communities and support wildlife.

“The present economy is at odds with what might be called biological reality,” said Colin. His vision is for an ‘agrarian renaissance,’ whereby there are more small and diverse farms that need fewer chemical inputs or are organic, and which make greater use of human skills rather than being technology intensive.

The conference included talks and debates on topics ranging from GM food to creating local markets. The opening plenary, chaired by climate change expert Sir Crispin Tickell, considered how to finance a new kind of farming and food chain through ethical investment. It was suggested that money could be invested broadly by citizens with values in mind rather than just short-term profit.

In a session titled Farm Scale Polyculture, Andy Goldring from the Permaculture Association talked passionately about applying diversity to farms. He asked the audience to re-imagine farms as sophisticated settlements, deriving food from a healthy ecosystem within a wilder wooded landscape.

Chris Smaje, market gardener at Vallis Veg in Frome emphasised the need for ‘human polycultures’ in the landscape, illustrating how his smallholding encourages human interaction with the land through forest schools activities and farm visits.

Other sessions covered the power and place of corporations, the role of mapping local food networks online, and opportunities for developing agroecology – sustainable agriculture based on ecological science.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at the City of London University, closed the final plenary controversially with a call for the abandonment of conventional agricultural ideas and the embracement of commercial small-scale horticulture.

“The task is huge and it’s all waiting to be done,” said Colin Tudge. “But as the many excellent speakers and delegates at the 2012 Oxford Real Farming Conference are demonstrating, it’s all do-able.”