Oxford Real Farming Conference – Part One

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) 2018 was held in Oxford Town Hall on January 4th and 5th and brought together farmers, growers, conservationists and more (basically anyone interested in sustainability and organic food developments) under one massively ornate roof. The sold out event (which the organisers informed had a waiting list of 350 people for places) offered a fantastic opportunity to learn from, and network with, some of the sharpest minds in their fields. A total of over 50 talks were held throughout the two days and Oxford Town Hall was buzzing with chatter and enthusiasm throughout the event.

It was my first trip to this conference and I made sure to study the programme before the day as I tried to plan my time to take in as much as possible. I think I chose my talks well and I definitely came away from ORFC with pages of notes, my brain full of information, and lots of talking points to ponder. I would not attempt to cover everything in one blog post, and that would turn quickly into a huge thesis, but I just wanted to outline some of my highlights and key memories I have come away from Oxford with.

Permaculture was a topic I went into the conference wanting to really learn more about and so my first talk was on ‘Permaculture and International Development’. Learning about how permaculture struggles to find its place among global policies, despite its obvious advantages and with qualitative results from projects around the world, was eye-opening. Key issues outlined included the fact that permaculture/organic farming is going on under lots of different names globally, and that there is a struggle in some people’s eyes about what comes under the ‘banner’ of permaculture. I came away with the message that a three-facet strategy of resources, training and demonstration is needed to ensure permaculture is at the forefront of thinking globally.

Next up was the main attraction for the first day and Oxford Town Hall’s main hall was standing-room-only for a question-and-answer session with Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, the Environment Secretary. It was a more informal session and the Secretary spoke confidently and positively in front of a packed house, who were thankfully willing to give him the chance to exchange in dialogue. I wouldn’t say everyone went away happy as his words sound good in principle but there remains doubt how they will turn into practice. A main point of note was the massive cheers when the Secretary was questioned about labelling rules, as under the current system organic farmers have to pay more for labelling than those using chemicals in their processes.

The rest of day one saw me listen to talks about how growing helps a person’s well-being, but the real highlight of this was Tim Lang from City University talking about how people need to ‘recalibrate their food culture’ to create a more sustainable system, and highlighting how good food behaviour needs to move from the margins to being mass thinking. The day finished with Philip Lymbrey from Compassion in World Farming talking passionately about how consumer demand for cheap meat means huge sums of crops are cultivated just to feed caged or farmed animals, whereas if these animals were reared outdoors naturally and fed on grass then those grown crops could go some way to feeding the starving populations of the world.

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