The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2022 highlights!
Updated: 19 hours ago
This year's 2022 ORFC will be featuring regularly in the FarmShare's bi-weekly newsletter. This feature is kindly brought to you by long-term Farmshare member, and friend, Sabine.
17th May 2022: Local Food Futures
The lead story of this Saturday’s Guardian warned that “the golden era of cheap food is over”. In April, Farmers Weekly reported that the cost of farming inputs in the UK “increased by an ‘eye watering’ 24% in the six months to the end of March 2022.” Change is coming, big and fast. Of course, FarmShare is partially protected from these cost increases, as we don’t use fertilisers, whose prices have increased by an astonishing 108 per cent. But the comfort is slim. Where do these shocks leave us as a society, across the UK and globally?
I returned to the Oxford Real Farming Conference for some reassurance, where I found a session called Local Food Futures, in which a panel of three food activists, two of them farmers, chart a path to food security through global movement toward food localism, based on regenerative farming techniques.
André Leu starts by explaining how the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), founded by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Rockefeller Foundations, spent some US $1 billion over 15 years making problems worse. AGRA’s vision was to double agricultural yields and the incomes of 30 million small-scale food producer households, and to halve both hunger and poverty in 20 African countries by 2020. Instead, the number of people suffering from extreme hunger increased by 30 per cent in countries where AGRA intervened from 2005 to 2020, and 100 million extra people ended up being undernourished.
How did it go so terribly wrong? André says the money was spent on promoting industrial agriculture to supply distant commodity markets and on expensive GMOs, imported synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. The result was an increase of monocrops and a decrease in crop and food diversity, and thus a decrease in nutrition.
Meanwhile, other projects in Africa have prioritised putting food on the (local) table over exports, using agroecological methods to increase soil nutrition, water efficiency, biodiversity, etc. A 2008 UN review of 114 such projects found a 116 per cent increase in yields across all these projects.
Nelson Mudzingwa speaks next. A Zimbabwean farmer, Nelson is part of a traditional organic farming forum that acknowledges food as a basic right and places its local community and cultural practices at the heart of its work, which dates back 21 years to a land reform and resettlement programme. The forum's members were allocated land in a particularly dry region, so water harvesting has been essential to their success, along with protecting trees and using animal manures to revive the land. They have revived local seed systems, too: saving their own seed, creating local seed banks, and increasing seed diversity. They share learning locally through centres of excellence, and globally via La Via Campasina. Their focus on food sovereignty has enabled them to flourish in a prolonged period of national political unrest and hyperinflation.
Finally we hear from Helena Norberg-Hodge, who works tirelessly to create a world movement for local food. She urges us to see the trajectory and impact of giving too much power to global traders, and she argues that “it’s industrial farming – monocropping for exports and traders – that makes farming a drudgery.” We stand at a crossroads, Helena says, and it’s time to shorten the distance between farm and table. Aside from FarmShare, how else can we do that?
3rd May 2022: exploring the human and environmental costs of pesticides
At the beautiful Rights of the River ceremony in Wensum Park last weekend, we were reminded about the impacts of pesticide use on the wellbeing of our waterways. So I felt inspired this week to highlight two ORFC sessions about pesticides. One focuses on direct exposure to farm workers, the other on more diffuse exposure to the rest of us. The first session is called Silent Pandemic: the human and environmental costs of pesticides. Here we learn that the global pesticide market has doubled in the last 20 years, while in Argentina, use has increased by 40% in just the last five years. We also learn about the pesticide paraquat, one of the world’s deadliest chemicals: just a teaspoon can kill you, it can poison you via skin contact and there’s no antidote. It’s banned in the UK and EU, yet in Asia it is sold to farmers in flimsy polythene bags. There are some 385 million recorded cases annually of unintentional acute pesticide poisoning, mainly occupational, including 11,000 deaths. Some 108 million children work in agriculture globally, and they absorb 4-5 times as much toxins as adults. In India, child labourers are sent into flower fields to pick after they’ve been sprayed. In Cambodia, pesticide packaging has been reused to package children’s cakes and carry water for domestic use. All this is before we learn about the biodiversity and wider environmental impacts of pesticides, many of which are also detailed in this presentation. The second session is called The Pesticides Perception: What Consumers Do, Don’t and Should Know about Pesticides. We are reminded that pesticides are toxic chemicals designed to kill and interrupt life systems. It’s that simple. And we are reminded of the chronic nature of pesticide accumulation in the environment and our bodies, a toxic load that persists and is heritable. One panellist notes that many pesticides mess with human hormones, affecting thyroid function, fertility and brain development. She also points out that food is only one source of pesticide exposure: clothing, bedding and other furnishings also pose a risk. There is reason for hope, however. One panellist mentions a UN report which states that food contaminated by pesticides cannot be considered adequate food. (This sounded so forward-thinking and encouraging, I had to look it up. It actually calls for the elimination of pesticide subsidies and the creation of pesticide taxes! See report here.) We also learn that in France, no local authorities use pesticides any more. If the Wensum River could talk, I imagine it would imploring us all to wake up, take note and start phasing out pesticides now.
19th April 2022 - it's all about the bugs!
This week’s ORFC highlight is a delightful ode to bugs in general, and the dung beetle in particular. Springwatch’s Gillian Burke hosts this session with Vicki Hurd, author of Rebugging the Planet, and Sally-Ann Spence, a farmer, campaigner and dung beetle expert.
Vicki reminds us of the past, when our car windscreens would be spattered with bugs after a drive – a rare event these days as our bug populations have been decimated. Yet bugs are central to various natural life systems (like water and soil) on which we depend. She suggests that we rely on invertebrates not just for our food, but also for our clothes and furniture. So restoring their populations is essential. She implores us to rebug all areas of our lives, from our homes, gardens, schools, and workplaces to our food, politics, and most fundamentally, our attitudes. And she encourages us to talk to children about insects and worms in ways that conveys their importance to the web of life.
Sally-Ann enthuses about dung beetles and explains how they are highly specialised, each with its particular niche, and all of which are important. Some species can only be found in the top crust of a dung pat, while others can only be found between the soil and the dung pats, but not where the pats sit on grass. She explains that dung beetles are in fact a keystone species. This became evident when cattle and sheep were rapidly introduced in large numbers to Australia and New Zealand. With no dung beetles in these countries that had evolved for cattle and sheep dung, a parasite problem developed that threatened the entire industry. Farmers worked with universities and governments to bring in dung beetles from around the world to find suitable ones for the job.
Like a proper bug lover, Sally-Ann also welcomes bugs into her house. Her family tracks the now rare cellar beetles by Tippexing a number on their backs. Number 13 has been in their house for eight years. They also have a rare species of slug in their damp cellar, and her children know that the bottom toilet roll on the toilet roll holder belongs to the slugs.
The speakers remind us that bugs populations can bounce back rather quickly, if we give them suitable habitats. And they remind us of the importance of a rich mosaic of diverse habitats with connecting corridors. I’m all on board, but think I’ll be concentrating my efforts outside of my house.
5th April 2022 - 'Exploring the Soil Food Web through Science and Traditional Knowledge'
This week, I’m sharing an ORFC session with both excitement and some trepidation, though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. The session is called Exploring the Soil Food Web through Science and Traditional Knowledge. The headline speaker is Dr Elaine Ingham, considered the world’s foremost soil biologist, whose 2015 ORFC talk remains the most popular ever ORFC session. She is president and founder of Soil Foodweb Inc and former chief scientist for the Rodale Institute.
As the host says, Dr Ingham’s concept that “agriculture should be an art – the art of nurturing soil life – has developed over four decades. If you get the soil biology right, then the rest follows.”
Dr Ingham explains the difference between dirt and soil. Simply put, it’s biology: a mixture of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes, all invisible to the naked eye, along with larger soil dwellers and mycorrhizal filaments. She’s unequivocal that “when we start to till, we kill the biology in the soil.” Tilling equates to “slicing and dicing and wiping out at least 50% of fungal population,” leading to the need for pesticides and inorganic fertilisers. (Handy if you’re Monsanto, perhaps.) She warns equally against agrochemicals, which are expensive and toxic. “With the right microorganisms, she claims, we can make any soil behave as a rich wonderful loam.”
She outlines seven benefits of soil biology, one of which is carbon sequestration. After her overview, Dr Ingham is followed by four of her former students. First is Daniel Tyrkiel, director of Soil Ecology Laboratory in Hampshire. He’s passionate about climate change and references some research that suggests farmers could sequester 36-37 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year, given an optimal ratio of bacteria and fungi in soil. On this basis, he claims we could sequester 100% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions on half of our agricultural land (8 million hectares). It’s his mission to make this happen. Of course, the global potential could be game changing.
And there’s the rub. Next up is Glyn Mitchell, who has come up with an innovative approach to help farmers fund the transition away from tilling and chemical inputs. It’s all based on carbon trading and block chain technology, allowing farmers to get paid for carbon sequestration, that is independently verified, paid for by the polluters and supported by major banks and insurers. Given my concerns around the climate crisis, perhaps I should be overjoyed. But rather than game changing, this feels like reinforcing the path to business-as-usual, the same path that gives us “the haves and have-nots”, in all its many destructive guises.
So I’m relieved to hear the final speakers, two growers in Aotearoa (New Zealand), who place both soil heath and community at the heart of their work. One notes that “Farming hope, purpose and enthusiasm is just as important as farming produce.” And I feel hope again.
22 March 2022 - 'Feeding Britain: for Nature, Climate and Health'
The war in Ukraine confronts us daily with immediate human tragedies, the effects of which are reverberating around the world. And longer-term tragedies are brewing in that war, not least around food insecurity: Russia and Ukraine jointly supply 25 per cent of global wheat exports, and Russia is the world’s largest exporter of fertilisers. The war is exacerbating already steep price increases for fossil fuels, which the current global food system relies on heavily for farm chemicals and machinery, and for transporting food and animal feed around the planet. Food prices are already rising steeply, a trend expected to continue. This bleak picture sends me back again to the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) for alternatives to the insanity.
Although this year's ORFC took place before this war began, agroecological farming by its nature offers solutions to the issues above. This week, we’re looking at a session on ‘Feeding Britain: For Nature, Climate and Health’. The three panellists are all active farmers who also campaign and work to reshape policy, with interesting insights into issues of yield, nutrient density, the health benefits of diets linked to the land we live on, farmers reconnecting with place and embracing complexity, and the good and ugly of animal farming. All while weaning ourselves off agrochemicals.
It’s a rich and complex conversation, and I can’t possibly do it justice in this short blog. So instead, as we all grapple with the cost of living crisis, I want to share some powerful words from panellist Sue Pritchard, head of the Food, Farming & Countryside Commission, about the prevailing focus on cheap food:
“Let me be blunt,” she says. “I think it’s an absolute travesty and… outrage that the need for cheap food has become in effect a marketing strap line for a particular business model that has commodified and financialised food systems, so that the needs of the poor and vulnerable have become an excuse for a business that provides eye-watering profits for a small number of large global agrifood businesses.
“And I think that we need to start confronting that particular challenge. So the work we’re starting to do this year is to talk about issues of affordability, dignity, reducing inequality, with our colleagues working in food banks and working on food insecurity across the UK. We’ll be working up an alternative policy position that stops making cheap food the answer to those big economic questions.”
To hear more from Sue and her fellow panelists, click here.
8th March 2022 - Nnimmo Bassey's perspective
'To mark UN Anti Racism Day (19 March), this week’s ORFC highlight gives an African perspective, from human rights and climate activist legend Nnimmo Bassey, on agroecology and the failures of COP26. Also an architect, poet, author and Laureate of the Right Livelihood Award (the list goes on), Nnimmo comes from Nigeria and offers global insights from many decades of national and international leadership.
We all know that COP26 failed to reach agreements to limit global warming to 1.5°C; at best, commitments will limit us to an increase of 2.4°C. What Nnimmo clarifies is that these are global average figures and the impact on Africa is typically 50 per cent higher, leading to devastating impacts. Already, Lake Chad – formerly the breadbasket of Nigeria – has lost 90 per cent of its water since the early 1960s. This has disrupted the way of life of pastoral people, whose cattle depend on the water, and of fisher folk, often leading to violent conflict. This gets depicted in the media as religious conflict, a convenient cover story to hide how climate change is already aggressively displacing whole communities in the region. Further temperatures rises will be catastrophic here and across the continent.
Nnimmo sounds the alarm about proposed ‘solutions’ from agribusiness and philanthrocapitalists: digitalising agriculture, with systems to measure carbon and nutrients in soil, dispensing almost entirely with farmers. This so-called ‘climate smart agriculture’ will be anything but. It will futher entrench dependence on multinationals, petrochemicals, GM crops and drone technology while wiping out land-based livelihoods and communities. It’s a continuation and expansion of the dystopian trajectory we so desperately need to reverse. Meanwhile, the regenerative powers of agroecology are sidelined and ignored.
And the climate talks are not the only threat. The 2021 Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) agreed a new target to put at least 30 per cent of the Earth’s surface under conservation status by 2030. Another genius move by PR departments, this ‘30 x 30’ target sounds like welcome medicine, yet Nnimmo warns it could be the biggest landgrab in human history, leading to mass dispossession and dislocation of indigenous peoples from the land they have historically protected.
The COP institutions are rigged. By the corporates, for the corporates. Nnimmo reminds those of us in the global north that we have the power and the responsibility to stop the madness. We can start by listening to stories of indigenous, earth-centred practices, by learning from them and magnifying their stories and wisdom while exposing false solutions for what they are. A great place to start is listening to Nnimmo here.'
22nd February 2022 - Getting back to herbal medicine
'Before the winter disappears and we’ve missed the best time to harvest our dandelion roots, I’m sharing this entertaining ORFC session featuring a couple of trained herbalists who want to put herbal medicine back where it belongs: in your hands. Dressed up as Hedge Plum and Apple, Fiona and Karen – aka the Seed Sistas – share how they came to use only medicinal plants that they can grow. This is no debate about native versus foreign – rather, they are committed to only using plants they’ve had the chance to really get to know, throughout the seasons and growing cycles, using all their senses. (And possibly in costume.) It’s about reconnecting to plants, in both essence and detail, and awakening an intuitive relationship with the plants’ healing properties.
In response to the amount of anxiety and stress everywhere, their talk emphasises herbs for nerve health. The Seed Sistas explain the difference between nervine tonics (like borage), relaxants (lavender, say, or chamomile) and stimulants (hello caffeine!), and how you might choose which to use (or avoid). They talk about the many liquids you can use to extract and preserve the healing powers of herbs, from alcohol to vinegar, honey and glycerine. And they give a brief overview of how the different plant parts relate to the seasons and the elements, and what this has to do with harvesting your own.
To prepare you to go gathering, they talk about harvesting herbs as a ritual, and as a way of empowering yourself by connecting with the plants. Your ritual might include asking the plant’s permission to harvest it; picking with patience, awareness and gratitude; and knowing when you’ve taken enough. Being clear about your intention for harvesting is also part of the ritual. Karen and Fiona say the more intention you put into making a remedy, the more powerful that remedy is.
Recognising the limits of how many people they can support in one-to-one clinical care, they also offer apprenticeships in Dorset. Participants are required to set up their own community herbal medical gardens, which are popping up around schools, libraries and so forth. These community gardens are an antidote to loneliness, and help people learn the basics of herbalism from each other and through direct contact with the plants.
The Seeds Sistas describe themselves as ‘passionately potty about plants’. They believe nature is both medicine and magic. To catch a bit of their magic, click here.'
8th February 2022 - A trip to Wakelyns farm in Suffolk
'This week with ORFC, we’re headed to Wakelyns, a self-described “oasis in the generally bleak farmlands of Suffolk in a distant corner of the time-space continuum”. If you’re a fan of agroforestry (and Star Wars, perhaps!), you won’t want to miss this one.
What is now an inspiring collective of earthy enterprises started in 1992, when Ann and Martin Wolfe – pioneers in agroforestry – bought 56 acres near Southwold to begin their experimental rebellion against the modern food system. In single and double rows, they planted tree whips into the stubble of the previous farmer’s wheat fields. They included willow and hazel for coppicing, and all manner of fruit trees. Collaborating with the Organic Research Centre (ORC), they ran trials of different approaches to agroforestry for over 20 years.
One result of these trials is ‘YQ’ ORC Wakelyns Population Wheat. In conventional wheat fields, every plant is genetically identical, and thus equally vulnerable to weather, pests, pathogens and more. A field of population wheat, by contrast, has diversity built in: YQ was bred by making 190 crosses between 20 different parent wheat varieties, leading to more resilient crops with excellent yield and quality (hence, YQ). I bake with it myself, and it’s delicious.
After Martin died in 2019 – Ann had already passed – the next generation held a memorial symposium to consider how to carry the legacy forward. Friends, neighbours and scientists pooled their ideas, and it was agreed the farm should continue as a hub and inspiration, both locally and globally. But how, exactly?
In the short period since, they have focussed on developing short supply chains and working collaboratively with micro starts-ups that add value on site: a bakery that makes 100% whole YQ wheat sourdough, fruit tarts and more; an organic CSA that grows veg between rows of trees; and the Woodland Haberdasher, who makes all manner of delights from scrips and scraps.
These businesses are young and don’t make much dosh, but the creative contracts they have with Wakelyns are mutually supportive, inspiring and cash-free. It seems the revolutionary spirit of the founders is literally and figuratively in the soil. Find out more here.'
25th January 2022 - ...'it's all about mushrooms!...'
'Once again, the Oxford Real Farming Conference kicked off the new year with an inspiring smorgasbord of delights from the agroecology world. Many sessions have been uploaded onto YouTube now, so I’m thrilled to be back with my biweekly blog, to share some of my favourites with the Norwich FarmShare community.
This week’s is all about mushrooms, including a live, outdoor demo with Tasha Stevens of 42 Acres. But first we hear from Patrick Mallery of Upcycled. Mushrooms. Patrick has grown mushrooms for restaurants, and he now teaches, runs a consultancy for indoor and outdoor commercial growing and sells mushroom spawn. He’s deeply passionate about changing the food system, in part through an increase in peri-urban growing. So I’m all ears.
Patrick talks us through how to grow wine cap mushrooms outdoors on wood chips. He once harvested a single wine cap – also known as the “garden giant” – that weighed in at half a kilo. And he claims the yields are “insane”. Mushrooms famously grow in deep shade, but he also recommends growing them under soft fruit bushes, where the two crops metaphorically scratch each other’s backs. It looks like wine caps could be of interest to both commercial and home growers. And he speaks briefly about how mushrooms can be used to recharge spent soil.
And now to Tasha, who learned to work the land with no fossil fuels at Tinkers Bubble before becoming production manager at 42 Acres. Standing there out in the rain, Tasha demonstrates growing shitake mushrooms on logs, which she’s doing on a commercial basis. She shares tricks of the trade, like the pros and cons of different woods, a specialist drill bit from Japan and the colour-coded cheese wax for keeping predators out while indicating the inoculation year.
Tasha and Patrick are also collaborating to cultivate some of the wild edible and medicinal strains from 42 Acres in Patrick’s lab, including turkey tail and birch polypore, with which Tasha’s developing products from tinctures to gravy in her “Willy Wonka factory”. Inspiring stuff! If your interest is piqued, have a peek here.'