As the ORFC moves into its second decade, it continues to be at the nexus of debates on the future of food and farming. Growing year on year, it’s starting to feel like the conference is about to overrun its capacity in Oxford Town Hall. When I arrived, rather late on the morning of the first day, getting up the stairs to the registration table was a slow, difficult navigation. This year attendance at the conference topped at over 1000 and tickets were gone by late October.

Things have moved on from last year, with the recent General Election finalising the course that Brexit now appears to be taking. There was no heartening talk hailing a sustainable future for farming from the Defra Secretary this year. The fear of what a trade deal with the US or Australia could do to British farming is in everyone’s bones – and those who went to the session on post-Brexit trade deals sensed the reality of the situation. Trade deals are already in the works, with closed-door discussions starting up. Despite Defra Secretary Theresa Villiers’ subsequent insistence that EU regulations would be enshrined in UK law, no one appears to believe her.

Social justice was a strong theme at the ORFC this year, kicked off by Leah Penniman, founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black, speaking with Samra Mariam of the Real Farming Trust in the Main Hall. Penniman is a passionate and compelling speaker and the work she has done at Soul Fire Farm is remarkable. She spoke of agroecological practices that came from Africa – sequestering carbon in the soil using palm oil residue, bone and other detritus, creating ‘dark earth’; and slash and burn techniques which were a means to rebuilding soils in the long term by leaving them fallow and allowing forests to regenerate. She told stories of how her ancestors wove seeds into their hair to bring crops with them as they made the Middle Passage. Her observations reveal the deep wisdom embedded in the agricultural heritage of African-Americans, commenting that, “We’re sick because we don’t give thanks to the soil. We treat the earth as a commodity rather than a relative.”

Further sessions offered perspectives on social justice issues. The provocatively titled Farming So White looked at the systemic structures of agricultural patronage and land ownership that have placed wealth, in the US and UK, with white people and considered how to overcome the barriers to farming that people of colour face. More practical sessions, such as the lunchtime talk, Social Justice at the Heart of Your Farm, considered radical models that up-end traditional farm economies in ways that both preserve economic viability and yet are able to make healthy food accessible to those on a low-income.

Alongside social justice, climate justice was an equally pressing topic. Gail Bradbrook of Extinction Rebellion led one of the first sessions of the conference, discussing how to create a food and farming system that is underpinned both by social justice and environmental sustainability in the face of the climate emergency. There is much change needed to realise this: how might we reconfigure our socio-economic system to be fairer and environmentally viable. In line with this, agroecological and regenerative practices were the subject of a wide array of sessions. The most significant of these was, arguably, Ten Years to Agroecology, that takes as its impetus the Ten Years for Agroecology in Europe report which premises a transition to agroecological methodologies across farming by reconnecting livestock and land with livestock extensification, pesticide-free farming, redeploying some grasslands, reducing animal production (predominantly intensive pigs and poultry) by half while increasing plant production and promoting healthy and sustainable diets. It’s an ambitious plan that the UK could adopt if the will is there.

The Sustainable Food Trust ran two sessions at the ORFC this year – Saving Small Abattoirs, which is a desperately important issue if access to local meat is to continue; and the brilliantly contentious debate on what to eat, Linking Healthy and Sustainable Diets with Farm Outputs. The Abattoirs session pointed out the critical need for funding from government to maintain existing small abattoirs and stop their closure. Investment in mobile abattoirs, which offer a possible alternative where small abattoirs are not available, was also discussed. The most important point made is that small abattoirs need support to keep going, as small abattoir owner from the Wirrel, Callum Edge, pointed out – the small abattoir sector must be attractive as an enterprise. It offers tremendous value to its customers in terms of quality and ethics, and this is important to preserve.

The partner to farming – food – took centre stage with Henry Dimbleby discussing his National Food Strategy with the Land Workers Alliance’s Jyoti Fernandes, Dee Woods of Granville Community Kitchen and others. His key message is simple – “We need a better food system for our children.” While the UK faces a variety of issues in relation to healthy eating and nutrition – not least the obesity epidemic – by far the most embarrassing issue is why food insecurity is so widespread in a country with the fifth largest global economy? The factors feeding into this may be many, but certainly the introduction of Universal Credit has had an incontrovertible impact. Jyoti argued strongly that it’s time to call out food insecurity in this country and create an accessible food system for all.

ORFC 2020 ended with a bang – the lively, passionate exchange of the SFT’s Healthy and Sustainable Diets panel. One has to appreciate George Monbiot for sitting on a panel where he was pretty obviously cast as the black sheep. Debate was heated on what essentially boiled down to a question of to eat or not eat meat. Monbiot’s argument, that we need to shut down animal farming and turn to lab-grown meat and fermented protein, was difficult to swallow in a room full of farmers and people who mostly think that ruminants and eating (some) meat have a role to play in farming and diets. Lab grown and fermented protein will likely be key ingredients in ultra-processed diets, something Joanna Blythman raised in her presentation. As Sarah Sands, Editor of the Today Programme and chair of the session, said, “What we eat and how we produce it, is one of the critical questions of our time,” an unquestionably astute observation.

Photograph: Hugh Warwick

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