ORFC 2024: Highlights from this year’s conference

  • 17.01.2024
  • article
  • Abattoirs
  • Environmental Issues
  • Events
  • Food Education
  • Food Security
  • UK Farming Policy
  • Alicia Miller and Alice Frost

Attending this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference earlier this month, SFT Content Editor, Alicia Miller, shares more on the sessions that took place, in her round-up article on this year’s event.

After the excess of Christmas and New Year, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) is always a good place to come back down to earth, contemplate the coming year and think deeply about what it might hold. With COP28 taking a big step forward in recognising food and farming as a critical part of the issues we face as a planet, it left much food for thought to pick over at the ORFC.

Attendees at this year's Oxford Real Farming Conference
Attendees at this year’s Oxford Real Farming Conference


The headline sessions in the Main Hall at the ORFC this year, covered a diverse array of key topics, starting with ‘From Corporations to Communities’, which looked in-depth at the critical question of ‘Who controls the food we eat and grow?’. The answer isn’t the root of the matter as, really, we all know who controls our food – corporate enterprise. The larger question here is how do we redistribute this power away from corporations and democratise food in a way that better serves the global public? The last four decades has mapped the rising power of corporations over our food supply, with civil society more and more unable to significantly shift the agenda – “market power translates into political power”, says Nick Jacobs of IPES-Food. But is the tide finally changing? With a public that is increasingly frustrated with the rising cost of food – especially when price gouging is clearly going on – will people finally have had enough?

There does seem to be a turning tide that is seeking more open and cooperative ways of working. The ideas of the common are being reinvigorated, as exemplified in a number of sessions – ‘On Common Land: Managing Commons in the Lake District’; ‘Opening Up Land Holding’; ‘Commons and Commoning: A Progressive Vision of a Good Society’; ‘Commoning of the City’. The need for greater access to land, so that younger generations can have a role in equitable and accessible food production – most particularly in agroecological food production – is critical and demands that we find new pathways beyond ownership to invite their participation. The commons offer the most obvious route – if we can meaningfully reactivate it. There is still a long way to go towards its return.

What was strangely notable at the ORFC this year, was the almost total absence of the term ‘regenerative’ at the conference; for the past two years, at least, it has been the ‘go-to’ descriptor for farmers and growers of almost any ilk. The term has further been absorbed into the vocabulary of multi-national food companies and other groups concerned with issues around food and farming. Is it possible that it’s worn itself out? Has it been undermined by a lack of agreement over its definition? In its place, ‘agroecology’ was more explicitly recognised as a broad moniker for a range of practices that are grounded in biological / ecological farming; this has made the term more distinct in its definition. The differences between the two terms, ‘regenerative’ and ‘agroecological’, map a potentially controversial divide, but perhaps next year’s conference will see a further shift in language – the jury is out.

ORFC offers a great way for individuals from across the world of food and farming to connect and engage with one another
ORFC offers a great way for individuals from across the world of food and farming to connect and engage in discussion with one another


The potential of agroecological farming as a literal way of ‘Feeding Britain from the Ground Up’, was most hotly discussed in a session titled ‘Joining Forces to Shift the Narrative for Food and Farming’. The panel brought together an interesting mix of speakers – Dustin Benton at the Green Alliance, Katy-Jo Luxton at the RSPB, Farmer Helen Keys and the SFT’s Executive Director, Adele Jones and chair Gareth Morgan at the Soil Association.

What made the session particularly lively was that it was somewhat contentious – something that doesn’t often happen at the ORFC where people are mostly in agreement about what’s being said. Benton’s assertion of the need to include some ‘high-yield’ (i.e. chemically based) farmland in the Green Alliance modelling got some strong push-back from the audience. Luxton, from the RSPB, spoke strongly about the value of nature-friendly farming and agroecology, commenting that “this is the multiple output land that can deliver for nature and for food”. Jones’ discussion of the ‘Feeding Britain’ report was eloquent and convincing – it takes a ‘back to the future’ approach to how we might farm sustainably in the UK and what that would look like. Agroecological biologically based farming was the model and the question was, ‘can we feed ourselves this way?’. The broad answer to this is yes – but it does require that we change how we eat, especially in relation to chicken and pork which would be reduced by around 75%, removing the vast amounts of imported grain that these animals are fed on. It’s a radical proposition that is climate-friendly and better in terms of animal welfare. And because we are a grassland nation, ruminants would remain on the land.

As well as a compelling session on ‘Local Abattoirs: Funding, Future Models and Next Steps’, the SFT was the instigator of the immensely popular session, ‘What Role for Grazing Livestock in a Warming World?’ It is a topic that demands deep and thoughtful discussion about the role of grazing livestock as part of extensive, agroecological farming systems. Such livestock can make an important contribution, as the SFT’s Senior Researcher Robert Barbour pointed out, in the production of nutrient-dense food and fibre, particularly on land that is unsuitable for cropping, increasing food security for the nation. Barbour also pointed out that grazing, “when done appropriately, is hugely important for a wide range of habitat and species”. While recognising the criticisms of pasture-based systems, particularly around land-use and climate, Barbour explained how grazing livestock can play a key role in reducing GHG emissions within the food system and argued that we need to look at the climate impact of ruminants in a more rounded way.

SFT CEO, Patrick Holden, highlights our Feeding Britain report during our session 'What role for grazing livestock in a warming world?'
SFT CEO, Patrick Holden, highlights our Feeding Britain report during our session ‘What role for grazing livestock in a warming world?’


Michael Lee discussed the role of methane and differences between biogenic methane and methane that is generated by fossil fuels. His detailed discussion on methane was not for the faint of heart – its role is complicated and needs to be considered in relation to “a whole load of other gases in the atmosphere which interact”. Methane’s natural cycle has been broken and the impact of that needs to be seriously considered.

There was an array of interesting panels across the conference on wool, fibre and clothing, that spoke to a growing interest in innovation and restoration of what to wear. Fashion isn’t something that you would expect at the ORFC, but arguably, it should really garner the same attention as food and farming given its impact on people and planet. Its importance was evidenced by a panellist that was moved as she explained the mammoth task of transforming fast fashion into slow fashion. The rise of second-hand fashion apps like Vinted and Depop that are popular among a generation of young people who now have a concern for sustainability built into their DNA is significant. They are rejecting power houses like Shein, PrettyLittleThing and BooHoo and questioning the quality and ethics of the clothes that fast fashion produces.

Alongside this discussion were several sessions on fibre and wool which are both eliciting interest. Again, this loops back into concern around the sustainability of where our clothing comes from and what its environmental impact is on a global basis.

Saving the best for last, was Satish Kumar’s session on soil, soul and society. Kumar calls for “a new trinity for an age of ecology which has wholeness, integrity and cohesion”. His delightful presence, at once funny, wise and deeply kind, reminded everyone of the importance of soil and of life: “The word human comes from humus – we are soil beings.”

You can watch a full recording of the SFT’s session on grazing livestock here and read more about the local abattoirs session here. You can also listen to a podcast recording from this year’s event featuring a conversation between SFT CEO, Patrick Holden, and Ian Wilkinson who is co-founder of FarmEd and Managing Director of Cotswold Seeds.

All featured images courtesy of Hugh Warwick.

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