Last week, we went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), the annual food and farming event set up in 2010 as an alternative to the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), which is often seen as failing to put forward a sustainable future for farming in its discussions. The SFT regularly contributes to the conference and this year we were involved in two sessions and one fringe meeting, with wide ranging discussions on some vitally important topics.

Nurturing nature within farming

Our Chief Executive Patrick Holden chaired this session, which was organised by the Pasture-fed Livestock Association. It featured Jenny Phelps from the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (FWAG), Ian Dillon, manager of the RSPB’s Hope Farm, and Cotswold farmer Ian Boyd.

Nature conservation policy in agriculture is divided by two main approaches. The first is ‘sustainable intensification’, also known as ‘land sparing’, where farmers are encouraged to take small areas of land out of agriculture for nature conservation while continuing to farm intensively on the rest of the land. Ian Dillon, from the RSPB’s Hope Farm, explained how they are following this strategy and are making great improvements in biodiversity while still keeping the farm profitable. This is despite the use of nitrogen fertiliser, pesticides and limited crop rotations – all practices of intensive industrial farming that have been linked to biodiversity decline.

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Photograph by Ian Boyd of his farm in the Cotswolds

Cotswold farmer, Ian Boyd, made a strong case for ‘land sharing’, the second approach to conservation. He showed how he has integrated farming with nature, to the mutual benefit of people and wildlife. As an avid photographer, he had noticed there was not enough biodiversity on his farm and decided to do something about it. Realising that continuous arable production was not sustainable, he began to introduce cattle, and now raises an organic pedigree Pasture for Life herd of Herefords. After making this change, the farm’s grassland soon became rich in wildflowers, birds and small mammals. His farm illustrates how mixed farming, with integrated crop and livestock production, can see significant improvements in biodiversity at the same time as producing nutritious food, without the use of chemical inputs.

Jenny Phelps, Senior Conservation Advisor with FWAG South West, provided a comprehensive overview of UK agri-environment schemes, past and present. She showed how the schemes have improved over time and how it is now possible to use these more constructively to integrate farming and nature. Jenny also supports the concept of public money for public goods, whereby subsidies and other funding are linked to ecologically sound farming practices. The important thing, however, is to not lose sight of the farm’s role as a food producer and to incorporate that role fully in future conservation strategy.

The session covered a really key topic in light of the impending Brexit and the question of future farming policy. Will conservationists and policymakers continue to pursue a problematic strategy that gives small areas to nature conservation in an attempt to make up for the damage caused by intensive farming? Or will there be a fundamental rethink where, in the words of Patrick Holden, “If you farm with the grain of nature then wildlife and biodiversity will come as an intrinsic and integrated part of your farming practice”?

Understanding fats

John Meadley, Chair of the Pasture-fed Livestock Association, introduced this session with the observation that government dietary recommendations to replace animal fats with vegetable oils has seriously influenced what farmers produce.

The issue of fat in diet, and particularly the health issues of saturated fats, has stirred a debate that’s been raging for decades. As dietary guidelines persist in pushing people away from animal-derived fats and towards plant-based oils, we must consider the wider impact – both on people’s health and on the environment.

Our policy director, Richard Young, gave an utterly engaging presentation that explored the history behind the theory that animal fats are bad for us. It turns out that this theory dates back to 1952, when the epidemiologist Ancel Keys published a study which showed an apparent link between fat intake, cholesterol and coronary heart disease. However, a study by other scientists published shortly afterwards, which discredited his research, was sadly overlooked. Keys’ theory persisted for more than half a century and is still influential today.

Richard presented data indicating that the consumption of saturated fat per person during the 20th century did not increase, and pointed out in relation to this that it is, therefore, difficult to see how this could have been responsible for the dramatic rise in heart attacks. What does appear to correlate with the rise in heart attacks, however, is the sharp increase in sugar consumption, which took place about 40 years before coronary heart disease started to rise. The introduction of hydrogenated vegetable oils into the diet from the 1930s, also correlates with this.

While vegetable oils have been promoted because they lower blood cholesterol levels, emerging evidence strongly indicates that they are high in damaging omega-6 fatty acids and low in healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and consequently promote the inflammation which is believed to be a primary cause of many degenerative diseases, including dementia.

While animal fats have been widely derided on both health and environmental grounds, the amazing conclusion of Richard’s presentation is that they are actually far better for us and for the environment than vegetable oils, which increasingly provide the bulk of dietary fats but are a major contributor to deforestation across the globe.

Durwin Banks, a UK farmer producing linseed as part of a mixed farming system, built on Richard’s talk, adding further insights to the importance of fats in our diets for health. He encouraged us all to go away with information from this session and become a ‘key person of influence’ in the world.

A film of this session and the powerpoint slides will be available soon, look out for it in our newsletter which you can sign up to here.

Young farmers bridge the divide

In the run up to the ORFC, we began to think about the divide between the two conferences, with the commercially sponsored – and expensive to attend – Oxford Farming Conference in sharp contrast to the occasionally off-the-wall and alternative ORFC. There is little in between for the ordinary farmer, and little way of bringing the two sides together. We had also met recently with Abby Rose and Nigel Akehurst of Farmerama, who opened up a discussion about the need to communicate with young farmers.

img_2558So our answer was to convene a small, informal meeting for young farmers from all backgrounds. This took place in St Aldates Tavern, just across from the town hall where the ORFC was taking place. We were lucky to have Ben Robinson of the Hampshire Federation of Young Farmers Clubs, as well as Lawry Taylor and Caroline Nixey of Henley Young Farmers, in the session. Other attendees ranged from a microdairy owner to an inner-city grower, as well as those from more traditional family farms. We were also delighted to have Peter Lundgren, a ‘young at heart’ conventional arable farmer, and Russ Carrington of the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association.

The session began by exploring the strengths and weaknesses in the group, and it was apparent that, despite some significant differences in backgrounds and views, those assembled shared a lot of common ground. Many young farmers felt they were trying to take on too much, while others were not very good at budgeting and business. Strengths lay in communication skills, open-mindedness and a willingness to try new things.

The discussion inevitably moved to Brexit and the future of agriculture. There was a consensus that farming must be a priority for government. Some argued that deregulation was not the answer and that British farmers should be protected from cheap imports, while others called for a new initiative that would support young farmers by providing them with grants and help in starting their businesses.

The passion of all those who attended the meeting was fantastic, and we hope to continue the conversation, bringing farmers from all backgrounds together to share ideas and experiences. We will be publishing blogs and podcasts featuring young farmers in the near future. If you are a young farmer and would like to share your story, please get in touch by emailing: megan@sustainablefoodtrust.org.

Photographs: Ian Boyd and the Sustainable Food Trust

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