January kicks off once again with the event that pretty much everyone involved with sustainable food and farming signs up for: the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

This year, it was off to a bit of bumpy start – with the pandemic continuing to linger far longer than had been planned on, the ORFC had to do a quick last-minute move online. Perhaps next year, we can move back to something not too far from normal!

Because of the shift to online (perhaps), the conference felt somewhat dispersed over a wide and sometimes closely overlapping array of topics. What the ORFC always does particularly well is to provide something for everyone, and they certainly delivered on that. But it felt at times that the topics could have been honed and more clearly delineated – mostly around the broad topics of agroecology and land access and justice.

This year the ORFC introduced a few ‘deep dive’ sessions to take place on the Wednesday before the proper start of the conference. These two hour panels gave time and space to really investigate and debate the topics at hand. While the ORFC sessions are quite ample as is, it was still nice to have those more in depth panels, especially in a session like Developing a Shared Theory of Change for the Land Justice Movement which was given a full three hours to explore and develop ideas and to move those ideas into action.

One of these ‘deep dives’ was Understanding and Assessing the Impact of Food and Farming Enterprises, which looked at the importance of data and the need to robustly quantify environmental, social and economic benefits and impacts. The Sustainable Food Trust discussed the development of the Global Farm Metric (GFM) in this session, arguing the importance of having a harmonised metric with which to measure on-farm sustainability, developed by farmers for farmers. At the root of the panel discussion, which also had the involvement of the Better Food Traders, was the potential of data to shape change in our food system. The phrase ‘you can’t manage, what you can’t measure’ is critical in realising how we might more accurately understand and define ‘sustainability’.

The discussion of the ELMs roll-out that took place first thing on Thursday morning at the start of the ORFC raised many questions. This is an area of concern for farmers, especially because of the impending withdrawal of the BPS which could be significantly impactful on small- and medium-scale farmers. The panel included Sustain, the Soil Association, RSPB and several farmers along with a Defra representative and raised more questions than could be answered. Vicki Hird at Sustain queried whether the budget would really be adequate to realise the gains for the environment and biodiversity? She also asked if ELMs would impact the diversity of farms and would holdings under 5 hectares be included? Adrian Steele stressed the importance of farmers need to develop more agroecological practices to realise the environmental and biodiversity gains. Alice Groom at the RSPB similarly asked how deliverable the schemes were – how practical were they for farmers to incorporate into their business? The questions that surround ELMs still need some clear and defined answers.

There were a number of really inspiring stand-out sessions that should not be missed (and you can see them all on Youtube): Raj Patel and Rupa Marya discussing their recently published book Inflamed which explores the embedded structural racism and uneven health outcomes that black, indigenous and people of colour experience, through the lens of internal and external inflammation; Silent Pandemic was unquestionably the most depressing and devastating account of the impact of pesticides, but so necessary to understand what we are facing if significant change isn’t made in pesticide use imminently; Nicolette Hahn Niman’s talk The Real Food Solution: Why Animals Matter was fantastically literate and thoughtful, focusing on what’s happened to the way we eat and why being an omnivorous eater of real food is critical – animals have an important role not just as a source of food but also for the relationship that they have with the land and our food systems.

Another of these stand-out sessions was Feeding Britain: For Nature, Climate and Health, chaired by SFT CEO Patrick Holden with Sue Pritchard, Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) and journalist and farmer Nicolette Niman. Both the SFT and the FFCC are in the midst of generating reports on how we might most sustainably feed ourselves as a country and what food production systems will feed us best and most fairly.

Sue Pritchard brilliantly identified one of the key issues we face in building a better food system: cheap food. She commented that, ‘…the need for cheap food has become in effect a marketing strapline for a particular business model that has commodified and financialised food systems so that the needs of the poor and the vulnerable…have become an excuse to provide eye-watering profits for a small number of large global food agri-businesses.’ Nicolette Niman stressed the importance of vibrant adaptive ecological systems that respond to specificity of site, of the particular piece of land that food is grown on. Niman argues for Charles Massey’s phrase of ‘listening to the land’. Our diets should have some connection to the ‘true landscape function’ of a place. She disparages the globalised food system which has taught us to all eat the same food instead of eating the diverse real foods our cultures have given to us.

Our conversations at the ORFC are so valuable, especially as we move forward in a world that sits on a tipping point. We need to share these conversations with people outside our relatively small circle of believers. We need our movement to grow and that won’t happen if we only talk to ourselves. So, next year, reach out, bring the neighbourly farmer who wonders why you farm the way you do and share your thoughts and listen to theirs.

The majority of the ORFC 2022 sessions can be replayed here