The opening plenary of the ORFC made an unmistakable statement – the ORFC is going global. Opened by Colin Tudge calling for a radical change in agriculture, based on morality and ecology, Sam Lee followed with a beautiful rendition of ‘Godspeed the Plough’ and then commentary and more performances from a diverse range of people all over the world: Nnimmo Bassey, a Nigerian environmental justice advocate; Te Kahurere, from New Zealand, singing and playing a nose flute; Nury Martinez of the National Unitary Union, a peasant based organisation in Colombia; Anna Lappé, author and advocate for sustainability, based in the US. While the ORFC has always made a point not to be too overly focused on UK issues, always including perspectives from other parts of the world, its current expansion online has truly allowed it to realise this – one wonders if it might transcend into the virtual world forever, giving up actual face to face encounters in favour of the breadth and reach it offers?

It is an ambitious step to take, but the Conference has been growing apace over the years, getting larger and larger – last year, there were more than a thousand people filling the Oxford Town Hall to capacity. And the pandemic certainly pushed all of us through the virtual door, without choice, as face to face contact became limited to the people you were living with.

So, with a programme that sprawled across a week, 10 hours a day, there was an exciting array of speakers to hear and topics to debate. Online, the frustration of what to attend dissolved because the Crowdcast platform allows you to re-watch sessions after they’ve happened, giving you very much more for your money.

Vandana Shiva spoke early in the Conference in a session on neo-colonial economies and ecologies and the impact on smallholder farmers in Africa. She was an apt voice, speaking as an ongoing blockade of smallholder farmers in Delhi were protesting the de-regulation of internal markets which would lead to their demise: ‘Real farming has to be the revolution of our time’. Shiva laid the groundwork for the panel’s discussion – that smallholder farmers are at profound risk of being swept up in the overwhelming power of neoliberal capitalism. This was driven home by Mariam Mayet who followed Shiva with a dark and depressing overview of the impact on smallholder farmers and food systems across Africa of climate change, deforestation, industrial agriculture and extractive development – problems which extend globally. The issues facing the African continent in terms of its vulnerability to exploitative development are unquestionably part and parcel of a financialisation facilitated by the World Bank for powerful private industry interests, to be more accurately described as ‘rogue capitalism’. But the tale she tells, though particularly acute on the African continent, can be played out widely across the world.

The wider question that underlies these African concerns, is how to move away on a global scale from the extractive, damaging model of industrialised farming which is pervasive around the world, supported by the worst forms of global capitalism? Discussions of agroecological policy and practice arguably dominated the Conference. As a broad encompassing principle which embraces regenerative, organic, biodynamic and ‘nature-friendly’ practices, agroecology was constantly foregrounded in diverse places around the world with panels such as Agroecology Across Three Continents, Growing Agroecology in China, African Women, Agroecology, Food Sovereignty and Community Forestry, Investing in Agroecology in the Global South and many others. An early panel on the first day of the Conference, Farming for Change in UK Nations, chaired by Sue Pritchard of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, looked at the potential of moving the nation’s agriculture over to agroecology – it is entirely possible, as evidenced in a specially commissioned report from IDDRI, which was also represented on the panel. So, there is hope for the future of British agriculture, if we, as a country, have the will to reimagine it.

The SFT hosted a panel on Making Small Abattoirs Sustainable, an issue that the organisation has fought to bring into public view for many years now with ongoing and active involvement in the Campaign for Local Abattoirs. This year the focus of the panel was on what is needed for small abattoirs to survive and thrive. Notable US livestock farmer, Will Harris, spoke about the issues faced in the States in relation to slaughter and the importance of on-farm slaughter, so animals live and die in one place, which led him to build his own abattoirs at White Oak Pastures. Other speakers included Emily Miles of the Food Standards Agency, Marisa Heath of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare and Sarah Grady and Alice Robinson, who have formed Grady + Robinson, to produce the first supply of leather traceable to British pastured livestock farms.

SFT CEO Patrick Holden, also spoke on the provocatively title panel The Economy of Love: Associative Economics as a Model for the Future. The panel, organised by Helmy Abouleish, examines the potential of economic activity to be conducted in accordance with ‘ecological and ethical principles’ and Helmy discusses how his company has mapped each farmers’ outputs, aiming to give a ‘true cost’ account of production. But he is also interested in the more intangible aspects of this, exploring how human capital and even spiritual capital might be mapped within this.

The SFT has been deeply involved in the metrics of sustainability and how it can be mapped and evaluated. What is perhaps most important in this, is the harmonisation of these metrics – how to bring together different measures into a consistent framework that can be used broadly. Patrick has long argued that ‘we need a common language’ for these metrics that is unified and global in nature, allowing communication and agreement across nations. Resolving this would be a big step towards a global evaluation of what constitutes sustainability.

This has once again been a great conference and one could wallow in the wide diversity of what was on offer, so much of it was really interesting. The ORFC is so much about bringing together the many of us that sit on the righteous side of change – but, ultimately, we are still the few against the many. Is it time to step outside of our internalised discussions, so important and pressing though they are. How can we, as a movement, move beyond ourselves and be more inclusive? With increasing pressure on our planet, our habitats and our health, we have to talk about the issues we face as much with people in the mainstream agriculture and food production as within ourselves, sharing our thoughts and listening to theirs.

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