A couple of days after the 2018 Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), a neighbour – who is a conventional livestock farmer – rang me to ask about bees. She knew we had bee hives on our land, and wondered if beekeeping might be something that could help with the new public money for public benefit subsidies that were being called for. Word was obviously out after Michael Gove’s notable speech at the Oxford Farming Conference and his follow-up Q & A session at the ORFC, that “the times, they are a changing.”

It says something about the growing profile of the ORFC that Gove felt he had to address both conferences. Now in its 9th year, the conference has made itself a priority in the diaries of anyone and everyone engaged in sustainable food and agriculture – the ORFC is full of farmers, but it’s also full of policy-makers, NGO directors, academics, civil servants, journalists and students. For two days, it’s a bustling hub where you see old friends, meet people you’ve heard about, network and talk and talk and talk about the things that matter most to you, trying to map the way forward to a more sustainable food system.

Gove’s presence at the conference had a galvanising effect; to hear a Government minister foreground the principles that sustainable farmers and growers live by, as a matter of urgent concern, was heartening to say the least. Gove made the national news with what he had to say, starting with the need to stop paying farmers for how much land they have and start paying them for the public good they deliver. It’s an important and necessary change to incentivize better, more environmentally friendly farming practices. Gove has also taken on board the importance of our natural capital and the desperate need to care for it, recognising that we have finite planet; and he opposes the race to the bottom in environmental and animal welfare standards that post-Brexit trade deals may herald. Instead, he is calling for a unified set of metrics that would “establish a measure of farm and food quality which would be world-leading”.

SFT director Patrick Holden was excited by what Gove had to say, commenting that “This is an exciting and potentially transformative moment in British agricultural history. I have been seriously impressed with what Michael Gove has said since becoming Secretary of State for Farming and Environment. He spoke with clarity at the ORFC and expressed radical views that could bring about a positive shift towards more sustainable food and farming systems in the UK.”

Developing sustainability metrics is a key concern of the SFT and Patrick chaired a session, Measuring and Valuing Sustainability, that discusses work being done to create an integrated assessment system that can be used to measure ‘sustainability’ over different production systems in food and farming. The SFTs aim has been to facilitate the development of an assessment tool for this, providing common data which would allow farmers to monitor continuous environmental, social and economic performance year on year; governments to assess eligibility for public support payments; food companies to assess the sustainability of the products they source; and citizens to better understand the story behind their food. “Measuring and valuing sustainability is a critically important means with which to ensure our food system is sustainable in the long term,” Patrick stated.

SFT Policy Director Richard Young chaired an enlightening session on issues of slaughter, looking into the decline in the number of red meat abattoirs in the UK and the need for more on-farm slaughter. The session covered issues such potential new legislation to introduce a simplified form of mobile abattoir slaughtering and the creation of more local, smaller-scale abattoirs.

The final session convened by the SFT discussed the role of ‘harmony’ in food and farming, in response to the excitement generated by the SFT’s conference of the same name, this past July. Presentations from Bronwen Percival, the buyer at Neil’s Yard Dairy, Charlotte Russel from the Eden Project and Gaye Donaldson, director of the Centre for Systemic Constellations, highlighted the interconnectedness of nature and everything that happens in our world, with especial emphasis on farming and food production.

Other conference sessions covered a wide array of issues and practical concerns – the programme was full to the brim with the two days packed solid from 9 am – 5 pm, some taking place over lunch for those too eager to take a break. Brexit, inevitably and inescapably, was the subject of numerous sessions with focus on the labour issues it brings, the bonfire of regulations it could inflict, and the possibilities it opens up to rewrite agricultural policy. Leaving Brexit behind, however, there was still much to consider: how do new farmers access land? what’s happening to the world’s insects? does Scotland’s Good Food Nation bill constitute a meaningful commitment by government to feed its people and take a holistic approach to food and farming policy (fingers crossed!)

The conference concluded with a brief series of impressions from selected speakers that leant towards stream of consciousness. This was rounded out by songs from the British Pilgrimage Trust, and poems by Adam Horovitz from his time spent as poet-in-residence for the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association. He read The Farm Faces Forward as a fitting end, reminding us, as we prepared to dissipate, that “The pasture is a place of beginnings as much as endings.”

Look out for films of our sessions from ORFC, to be published soon!

Sign up to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news