The Oxford Real Farming Conference rolling blog by Sabine Virani
Updated: Jul 5, 2022
FarmShare has been celebrating the wonderful contents of the 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) by sharing snippets of some of the most relevant and 'groundbreaking' talks through our weekly newsletter. Sabine, FarmShare's member, attended the ORFC and wanted to share the talks she felt the FarmShare community would enjoy, so after a quick chat about it with the FarmShare team, that's exactly what she began to do! We're ever so grateful for the time and effort Sabine has been putting into this, and we're looking forward to the coming weeks of this knowledge-share. If you're a newsletter subscriber, we hope you have been enjoying the ORFC features (we definitely have!). Over the coming weeks, as well as being able to access the content in the newsletter, we're going to be posting them on here so that you can revisit them at your leisure. This page will will be a rolling blog of the ORFC snippets Sabine has been sharing.
We always welcome contributions to the newsletter, so if you have any interesting articles, videos, films or something you think the FarmShare community would enjoy, please get in touch with us - we'd love to hear about it! Simply email email@example.com.
The 2021 ORFC rolling blog
19th January 2021
'I had the privilege of attending the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) earlier this month. In this – its twelfth – year, ORFC grew from a weekend to a whole week, going online and global for the first time, with some 500 speakers and over 5,000 participants from 80 countries learning the latest about agroecology, food sovereignty, fungi and microbes and so much more. I was inspired by so many sessions, and over the coming weeks and months, I’m going to share some of my favourites with the FarmShare community in this email.
As well as being a FarmShare member, I’m also a volunteer with Green New Deal Norwich, a local hub of Green New Deal UK, where we're working toward an economy that puts people and planet first. Some of us in the Norwich hub are exploring how to establish a food strategy for Norwich, one with social, environmental and economic justice at its core. The conference was full of ideas and people who can help us create such a strategy. As more of the conference sessions get uploaded to YouTube, I’ll be sharing links to sessions with interesting nuggets, visionary practices and messages of hope and possibility. There are some real gems to come. Watch this space!
26th January 2021 As promised last week, I’m back to share an inspiring session from the 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference. In “How Farms Can Soak up the Rain, author and educator Didi Pershouse focuses on the importance and power of the soil as a sponge. Though I thoroughly recommend putting on the kettle and settling down for the whole hour and a half, I’ll share where you can find some of the highlights.
Formerly a healthcare professional, Pershouse turned her attention to climate change after flooding near her Vermont home destroyed hundreds of miles of roads and hundreds of bridges (watch from about 7 minutes). The damage occurred primarily where there was no vegetation. Around 13 minutes in, she gives three different simulations of rain falling onto dirt versus onto living soil. Well worth watching, for the novice and those in the know.
She explains how the soil sponge relates directly to transpiration, which has a cooling effect on the land. From 26-30 minutes in, she builds the case for the soil sponge’s ability to reverse climate change, arguing that a 23% increase in transpiration on agricultural land (in the USA, achievable by the addition of winter cover crops alone) could offset the 0.6°C degrees increase we’ve had over the past 70 years.
For those interested in creating change, the framework she shares from about 42 minutes in is great food for thought. Overall, it’s a gem-packed session, and I could say much more. But I hope instead I’ve whet your appetite to watch it yourself.
p.s. Worth noting that Pershouse offers a free-to-download manual for teaching these concepts.
9th February 2021
I’m back with another highlight from the 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference: musician, activist and scholar Lyla June. Speaking from the US, Lyla June gave a moving and eye-opening talk about Indigenous Food Systems from pre-Colombian times. In it, she asks the question: how can we procure food that is not intensive or domesticated, but rather in ways that invite the life of the planet to thrive?
One answer is from the Heiltsuk nation on island of Bella Bella, British Columbia, who hand plant kelp forests on the shoreline. This expands the habitat for herring, who come to lay eggs in these forests. The eggs provide food not just for humans, but for salmon, killer whales, wolves, bears, and others, thus supporting the whole food web of the entire island. “We create a home and our food comes to us.”
She gives other examples, like ancient clam gardens and forest gardens, illustrating her argument that indigenous peoples didn’t so much farm the land as tend it. Through managed fires that increase soil nutrients and microbes, they built and cared for living soil systems thus feeding the buffalo and cultivating biodiversity. Lyla June describes the relationship as not so much taking from the earth, but receiving. “By the time we are fed, the system actually is not at a loss. In many cases, we’ve actually increased the caloric base by feeding ourselves. It’s not extractive… it’s actually additive.” And above all, she speaks of not breaking what the creator has made, but facilitating life.
In short, Lyla June suggests that humanity is meant to be a keystone species, and she lays out principles for being good stewards of the earth. After the Q&A, she ends with a powerful, beautiful song, calling us to rise up to this challenge.
23rd February 2021
This week’s highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference is Rebecca Hosking’s talk Sharing the Land with All Life. Hoskins is a former BBC camerawoman who inspired her Devon market town to ditch plastic bags in 2007, before she became an agro-ecological farmer.
In her talk, Hosking explores how the dominant world view – that humans and nature are separate – came to be. She gives a wry overview of western thought, highlighting the dualism of Plato and Descartes, before suggesting this world view twisted what colonialist explorers thought they saw: in the Amazon, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand, what Europeans interpreted as ‘pristine wilderness’ was in fact highly managed by indigenous peoples.
Hosking also looks at how this dualistic mindset shapes our language, which in turn shapes the how we relate to the rest of life. The impact is clear with this one statistic: globally, we have lost 68% of biodiversity since 1970. She also notes that 70% of the UK landmass is farmland, underscoring just how dependent UK wildlife is on the way we farm. The good news is that there’s enormous potential for restorative agricultural practices.
Hosking makes the case for rethinking our language and embracing a different world view, one in which humans are not dominant over the earth, but rather part of the ecological web of life. It’s well worth a watch.
9th March 2021
I’m back with another highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference: Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Town movement, gave a talk on the power of imagination and storytelling for our food future. Entitled From What If to What Next: why we need to cultivate imagination alongside agricultural produce, his talk takes us on a tour of cities that have developed bold and creative new ways of working.
The city of Bologne has created a Civic Imagination Office that links the local authority’s resources and decision making powers to the energy and ideas of its residents, communities and businesses. In Barcelona, they’re converting one-third of city centre streets into forests and play areas. In Liége, Belgium, the Transition group asked ‘what if the majority of the city’s food came from the land closest to the city?’ They invited everyone who cared about food and farming to a series of events designed to answer this question, and within a few short years, they have created 25 cooperatives and raised €5 million of investment from local people, not from banks. They started a store called Le Petite Producteurs that sells local produce, which now has four branches. They believe that by the time have twelve, they will start to destabilise the hold of supermarkets in the city.
In fact, Norwich and our very own FarmShare feature in his talk, along with Hodmedods, whose East Anglian-grown pulses you may have tried. But we know there’s so much more we can do locally. Have a watch of Rob’s talk, and if you’re inspired to take action, you’re welcome to join the food group of Green New Deal Norwich, which is already starting to imagine a new food system for Norwich, rooted in justice and ready to meet the social and ecological challenges we all face.
24th March 2021
This week’s 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference highlight takes us to India, where change is happening at a scale that’s hard to get my head around. Vijay Kumar presents the story of regenerative agriculture in Andhra Pradesh, a large state on India’s east coast, where over a million farmers and land workers – yes, one million – have ditched the chemicals of Big Ag for natural farming.
Vijay explains his programme’s nine principles of natural farming, which include making homemade microbial soil enhancements and seed coatings using cow dung and urine. I can see how this could hamper enthusiasm in the UK, but the independently verified results would make you think twice. The reduction in costs, the increase in yields and profits and the savings to government – an essential partner in this project – would make fund managers and politicians drool. And I won’t even begin to detail the myriad environmental, human health and social justice benefits.
There are enormous challenges, including mindset, vested interests and the ambition to include every farmer. But working in their favour, Vijay explains, are two essential factors: a vast network of women’s groups and a peer-to-peer extension service. Ninety percent of women in the state’s rural areas are organised into self-help organisations. These groups have been central to teaching and spreading natural farming principles and techniques. And mentoring from champion farmers in the community provides the personal and ongoing support needed for new practices to be adopted.
Vijay’s ambition is to include all of the state’s six million farmers by 2027. Meanwhile, at least seven other Indian states are looking at how to roll out similar programmes, as are Rwanda, Kenya and Mexico. I smell a real green revolution coming! So if you’re in need of a good news story, make yourself a cup of chai and treat yourself to an hour with Vijay.
6th April 2021
The 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference is a lovely reminder of Norwich FarmShare’s proud place in the UK alternative food system. I mentioned last month that we featured in Rob Hopkin’s talk. Today, I’m writing about the session on the Open Food Network, of which FarmShare is a member.
The Open Food Network (OFN) is a world-wide network of food activists working to put the needs of people and planet at the heart of the global food system. Its flagship project is an open-source software platform that connects independent food producers, distributors and customers. Founded in Australia eight years ago, OFN now operates in 20 countries, with 15 more in the pipeline. Their nine core values include transparency, empowerment, global commons, ecosystems and systemic change. Sounds like the kind of world I want to live in.
OFN co-founder Kirsten Larsen's goal as a farmer was to be a price setter, not a price taker. A tall order in the current system. So she set out to create new food supply networks. She recognised that the tools and systems available at the time were inadequate, fragmented and expensive. She also recognised that building better infrastructure needed to be a collaborative effort.
So the collaborate effort began, and today is helping to create food sovereignty, flexibly addressing local problems. In Nigeria, OFN is helping rural people grow food for their own consumption, rather than for export. In Jordan, OFN is working to change laws that make it illegal for farmers to sell directly to consumers. In Northern Ireland, OFN is developing sociocratic principles.
As the Norwich hub of Green New Deal UK thinks about how to develop a food strategy for Norwich, it will be interesting to see if there’s a role for OFN in this process. And if you’re interested in helping with a local food strategy, please get in touch here.
21st April 2021
Time for another 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference gem. This week we’re learning the answer to a thorny question: could the UK get rid of farming chemicals and still feed the nation? The Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC) hosted a session to launch their latest report, which sets out to answer that question.
Studies about feeding the world with organic farming are typically based on rather lazy assumptions, like growing all the same food, just without synthetic pesticides and fertilisers. So in a supply and demand equation, only supply is considered. This study is different: as one panellist notes, it explicitly sets out to join the dots between climate change, nature and health, while also accounting for other issues such as animal welfare and microbial resistance.
The starting point was rethinking demand: first by reducing food waste, then by changing national eating habits to address diet-related ill health and malnutrition. The modelling thus assumes we cut our meat and dairy consumption in half, cut sugar by 80%, increase fruit and veg by 1.6 times and treble our intake of pulses. The knock-on impacts are interesting: despite that three-fold increase in pulse consumption, we could reduce pulse production by almost 80%, because so much less would be needed to feed livestock.
Another interesting feature of the study is that it refers not to organic farming or regenerative agriculture, but to agroecology. FFCC Chief Exec Sue Pritchard explains that this choice was made to align with the definition used by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, in which agroecology “sets as much store by a just and fair food and farming system as it does to agro-economic practices.”
The results of the study are heartening. Not only could we feed the nation, but we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture by 38%, with the potential to offset at least 60% of the remaining emissions. We could also double the amount of farmland for nature – hedgerows, trees and ponds. There are numerous other benefits, and I leave it to you to find out more by watching this session or having a read of the report itself.
18th May 2021
Many Farmshare supporters will be aware that the next UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) is scheduled for this November in Glasgow, and people all over the world are working to ensure that some tangible, urgently needed results come from these talks. And yet hopes are not high. Since the inception of the United Nations COP summits, these talks have been dominated by national governments, who’s views and interests are too often divorced from those of the people they represent.
This week’s Oxford Real Farming Conference highlight looks at Using COP26 to Build Momentum for Integrated and Just Food Policies. This ORFC session focusses on two international initiatives seeking to ensure that diverse, bottom-up voices at the heart of local food systems have an opportunity to shape agreements from COP26: the Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration and the Fork to Farm Dialogues.
The Glasgow Food and Climate Declaration offers local authorities from all subnational levels of government around the world a chance “to speak with a unified voice in renewing their commitments to develop sustainable food policies, promote mechanisms for joined-up action and call on national governments to put food and farming at the heart of the global response to the climate emergency”. It points out that food systems account for 21-37% of total greenhouse gasses, while being intricately linked to biodiversity loss, enduring hunger and malnutrition, an escalating public health crisis and economic injustice for farm and food workers. I for one would be very pleased to see Norwich City Council sign the declaration.
Fork to Farm Dialogues is a project that is working in communities to build trust and lasting relationships between farmers, citizens and policy makers. There are 20 dialogues happening globally right now, each lasting six months, and the learning from these will feed into the main dialogue at COP26, giving a much-needed voice to those who tend the land and feed us.
There’s much we can do as individuals to address climate breakdown, but we need system-level changes to meet the scale and pace of the challenge. I’m grateful for the activists around the world who are taking to COP26 the kind of leadership, insight and innovation that has been sorely lacking at national and international levels.
1st June 2021
This week’s ORFC highlight focusses on some of the key messages from the recently published book Transformation of our Food Systems: the making of a paradigm shift. The session’s international panel includes four of the authors. Their work is firmly rooted in agroecology, and their frustrations with the status quo and their sense of urgency for a transition are palpable. Their arguments are also powerful.
Ivette Perfecto (University of Michigan) contrasts the predominant chemical agriculture system, which has taken us well beyond planetary boundaries, with diverse agricultural and indigenous farming methods that offer promising pathways toward both climate change mitigation and adaptation.
Lim Li Ching (Third World Network) discusses intensified corporate consolidation in the food sector and how the resulting monopolies create a powerful barrier to change. Reflecting on this last year, she notes “We’ve seen transnational agrarian food corporations continuing to make obscene profits in this time of crisis, while their supply chains have become hotspots for Covid-19 infections and transmission.” Of course, we’ve seen such outbreaks locally at Bernard Matthews.
Molly Anderson (IPES-Food) warns about the Food Systems Summit taking place this year. It has been organised by the UN along with the World Economic Forum, which represents the thousand wealthiest corporations in the world. She notes “a society that worships wealth sees these companies as leaders, instead of questioning how and at whose expense that wealth was obtained.” The summit largely bypasses the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), the main international forum for discussing and negotiating issues regarding food security. Anderson notes that the CFS is unique among UN organisations in that it gives civil society an equal voice in discussions along with the private sector and national governments. She suggests that the Food Systems Summit is a cynical attempt to bypass the CFS, which published a powerful report in 2019 that clearly documented the advantages of agroecology over various forms of industrialised agriculture.
I’ve just skimmed across the surface to give you a flavour of this session’s content. If you’re interested in knowing more, you can watch it here.
15th June 2021
The 2021 Oxford Real Farming Conference was a mammoth event this January, full of ideas to help us chart a path to sanity in the food and farming world. The climate talks in Glasgow this November are getting ever nearer, and this week we’re tuning in to an ORFC session on the role of trees in future-proofing farms against climate change.
Prof Jenni Dungait kicks off the session with a great overview on her perspective as a soil scientist. Next up is farmer Stephen Briggs, who gives some gritty detail on how he has implemented agroforestry on 52 hectares of farmland. He planted 13 apple varieties in rows, underplanted with pollen- and nectar-rich plants, between wide strips of cereal crops. This system showed its resilience in the 2019 storms: while open fields suffered 20% grain loss, the agroforestry areas suffered only 10% grain loss. Then in the dry 2020 spring, with zero rain from April to June, the grains growing nearest the trees were much taller and higher-yielding than the rest.
Stephen explains how it makes financial sense: growing crop trees makes use of vertical place on the land, and three-dimensional farming equals a bigger farm. He also calls agroforestry a “climate-smart breakthrough for agriculture”. The UK’s Committee on Climate Change recommends an increase in tree canopy cover of 13% to 17% to meet our 2050 net zero emissions target. That’s 30,000 hectares of new woodland per year. With farmland accounting for 72% of the UK’s land area, we could meet that target if farmers adopted agroforestry on at least 20% of their land. The session is well worth a watch to find out more.
Meanwhile, the Norfolk Climate Summit starts tomorrow, 6–7pm, with a session on drought and flood, and another session on food and farming, 7–8pm. To register, and for full details of the programme that finishes on Saturday, click here.
29th June 2021
This week we’re looking at two sessions from the Oxford Real Farming Conference that together take us from soil health to crop health to gut health. First, in The Soil Bugs That Sustain Us, we learn about the 1990s famine in North Korea that killed some 3 million people, roughly 15 per cent of its population. Speaker Tom Morrison, who was part of the international response effort, concluded that the famine resulted from an agriculture system that had turned its back on nature, relying instead on intensive chemical farming practices, while abandoning crop rotation and most ruminant livestock. The result? The bugs in their soils died off completely, and the soils physically collapsed.
For this reason, financial aid to North Korea was contingent on the adoption of regenerative agriculture principles, particularly restoring crop rotation and increasing the number of ruminants. Some 25 years on, the country is well on the road to recovery, but even in a favourable year, rice yields are still only at 75 per cent of pre-famine levels. Worryingly, Tom points out that the UN’s Global Land Outlook estimates that one-third of the world’s soils are severely degraded already, and few people are taking notice.
Biologist Joel Williams takes the mic next, and he gives a clear, detailed overview of the soil food web – from bacteria to beetles to birds – before explaining how elements of regenerative agriculture (crop diversity, cover crops, no-till, etc) support a living soil.
In our second session this week, From Soil Health to Gut Health, we learn how farmer Jonty Brunyee has seen the benefits of regenerative agriculture impact the health of his cattle and sheep. Using similar farming principles on his mixed farm to those above, he finds his livestock have very few of the standard health issues (foot diseases, prolapses, gut worms, etc), and his vet bills are significantly reduced. We then hear from nutritionist Alexis Sinclair and GP Sally Bell, who make the link between eating food grown in rich soils and a healthier human gut biome. Together, these two sessions are a reminder of the value of FarmShare.
13th July 2021
Welcome to this week’s highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference, featuring journalist and author Naomi Klein and Nnimmo Bassey, director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation. They present their 8-minute animated film Message from the Future II: the Years of Repair, which is followed by a Q&A.
Set in the future, this film is a counter to the typical dystopian fare. It looks back onto 2023, “when dinosaurs roamed the halls of power” and multiple injustices crescendoed under the strain of Covid and climate chaos, until people around the world took to the streets and took back their power. In this future world, economies have been rebuilt around essential work. A Community Care Corps ensures everyone’s basic needs are met, and there’s no more need for bloated police, prison and war budgets. The Right to Repair means that stuff gets fixed, while Truth and Reparations Commissions mean that relationships get fixed. In a clear message to current political leaders, the film ends with a slogan from this future world: “no one is sacrificed and everyone is essential”.
Food and farming have a vital role to play in creating this repaired world. Bassey notes that food is culture, hence agriculture, where food is central to celebration and life – as opposed to agribusiness, where food is a reduced to a commodity. But all social movements have a role to play, whether workers’ rights or racial justice or mental health, and collaboration between them all will be essential. Reflecting on the possibility of achieving the kind of future the film depicts, Naomi Klein says, “We can do this. [But] it’s really hard work [and] we won’t achieve it unless we come together as movements.”
27th July 2021
Less than two weeks ago, extreme floods in Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands reminded us again that the climate crisis is here, now. The death toll has reached 215, with some 150 people still missing, and the German insurance association estimates costs at €4.5bn-€5.5bn. I am reminded of previous ORFC highlights, when Didi Pershouse demonstrated the power of the ‘soil sponge’ to reduce both flooding and droughts, when another session showed how agroforestry can help with climate change mitigation and adaptation, and when Vijay Kumar showed similar benefits of the regenerative agriculture program he runs in India with over one million peasant farmers. The evidence of what can be achieved is clear. It is high time for such measures to be rolled out at scale, globally.
This week’s highlight, though, takes us in a different direction. This session’s title is “Subtle Agroecologies: Farming with the Hidden Half of Nature”. Led by Dr Julia Wright of Coventry University, the session explores the non-material dimension of farming that is found in indigenous land practices and also supported by modern physics. She compares indigenous paradigms to the modernist agricultural paradigm: striving for balance and harmony versus striving for increased productivity; oneness with nature versus domination over nature; life as holistic and complex, versus life reduced to component parts. These differences matter, she suggests, because if we want to transform our food system, we need to transform the worldview it came from.
Panellist Patrick MacManaway says “Quantum and other physics give us an understanding that our intelligence, consciousness, spirit is fundamentally vibrational by nature… so the hidden half of nature is looking at this vibrational aspect.” In farming practice, he says, this calls for “the full engagement of the creative and perceptual powers of our imaginations, intuitions and instincts, manifest through practical, rational and common-sense application”.
There are some magical sounding examples of results he’s had with clients. Do watch if you’re intrigued. For now, I leave you with one more thought from MacManaway: “Human love is rocket fuel for living systems. Anything we love, we energise, we bring to life. We give power wherever we place our attention. Often that’s all that’s needed.” I’m off to serenade my veg patch!
10th August 2021
This week’s highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference takes us into the magical world of mycorrhiza, or fungi. It’s a Q&A with Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change our Minds and Shape our Futures, a surprise international bestseller that was named Book of the Year 2020 by seven publications.
Until the 1960s, fungi were considered a subset of plants, but they have since been granted their own kingdom, in the realm of scientific taxonomy. After an overview of the symbiotic relationship between fungi and plants that predates the existence of land-based plants, Sheldrake’s discussion with his friend Charles Foster is part practical and part philosophical.
In the practical sense, we explore the relationship between fungi and agriculture, and what we need to do to heal the planet. In terms of farming, Sheldrake warns us to stop killing fungi with fungicides and inorganic fertilizers, to stop disturbing the soil and to stop breeding plants that can’t function symbiotically with fungi. He also touches on the some of the incredible ways fungi can be used to detoxify the earth.
In a philosophical sense, we explore how fungi are both a metaphor and a practical example of the interconnectedness of all things. We muse on how fungi seemingly make decisions, with no brain or central controller, leading Sheldrake to rather gleefully paint them as riddles and “corrosive to dogma”.
It’s an engaging session. And with his curly dark mop, dimples and sweet disposition, Sheldrake triggered a swoonfest in the chat during the live session. You have been warned!
24th August 2021
With the international climate talks in Glasgow getting ever nearer, and Covid continuing to dominate our news and shape our daily lives, this week’s ORFC highlight delves into the links between climate change and pandemics, with a particular focus on biodiversity.
The first panellist is Sir Bob Watson, Emeritus Professor at the UEA’s Tyndall Centre. After first reminding us of the many ways we rely on the natural world, he then spells out how our interaction with nature can also harm human health via zoonotic diseases – infectious diseases transmitted between humans and animals. He notes that the vast majority of emerging diseases, some 70%, are all zoonoses (Ebola, Zika, influenza, HIV AIDS, Covid 19, etc) and that “transmission is driven by the unsustainable exploitation of nature, due to land use change, agricultural expansion and intensification, deforestation, human settlements and crop and livestock production in wildlife areas, urbanisation, wildlife trade and meat consumption, both legal and illegal trade in wild animals.” All of these disrupt the natural interactions between wildlife and their microbes, and they increase human contact with wildlife and by definition their pathogens.
The next panellist, Debal Deb, is introduced as a seed warrior from India. Focusing on heritage seeds, he grows 25 varieties of rice that need zero irrigation, and another 27 varieties that can grow in 12-feet deep water. No modern varieties have such resilience. Debal likens the current path of humanity to that of a kamakazi pilot, with industrialisation serving as our aircraft. He argues that “agroecology is the only and last option for us to stop this rapid march toward self-destruction. A mountain of evidence exists to show that agroecology rebuilds soil fertility, effectively controls pest and diseases, enhances food productivity, improves human health, restores equity in food distribution and reinstates communitarian ethos.”
The final panellist, John Letts, also focusses on the genetic diversity of seeds, as well as diversity within his arable crop fields. His fields look part crop, part wildflower meadow. But they are productive and profitable, requiring no crop rotation, fallow periods or manure. They are the polar opposite to those of the National Institute of Agriculture Botany in Cambridge, whose fields are considered the holy grail and gold standard of agriculture, but which John sees crops that are destroying the planet.
There’s so much more worth sharing. I highly recommend watching it here.
21st September 2021
This week’s highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference is with Frances Moore Lappé, author of the classic Diet for a Small Planet. And today is the publication date for the book’s 50th anniversary edition. Having written or contributed to 19 other books, received the Right Livelihood Award and 20 honorary degrees, Lappé is one of the world’s leading lights of the healthy food movement – healthy for people and planet.
Lappé’s lively presentation, Food and Democracy, was given the day after the US capital was stormed in January. Remaining optimistic, she asks a poignant question: why are we collectively creating a world that we as individuals would never choose? For her, the answer lies in a dominant cultural narrative of scarcity. She demonstrates how a scarcity mindset reinforces an ever-increasing concentration of wealth and power, while democracy is actively eroded by corporate interests. And she shares some sobering facts. You may already know that, worldwide, the richest 1% people control almost half the world’s wealth. But did you know that agribusiness now spends more lobbying Washington DC than the defence industry? Lappé goes on to explain how we can reverse this scarcity mindset with her ‘spiral of empowerment and possibility’. Drawing on our capacities for cooperation, empathy and fairness, this spiral leads to transparency, mutual accountability and a continuing dispersion of power.
Lappé also reminds us that democracy is not something we have, it is something we do. And that to address the scarcity narrative head on, we need to become storytellers of the growing ecological revolution and the art of the possible. She shares several stories, and many more have been covered in previous ORFC highlights.
Finally, Lappé implores us to be courageous. We are social creatures: we want approval from others and breaking away from the dominant narrative and cultural norms can be scary. But she reminds us that “Courage is our birth right and our power. In our planet’s do-or-die moment, let us glory in it.”
5th October 2021
October is Black History Month in the UK, and in this week's highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference, we're looking at how colonialism lives on, deeply ingrained in our food and farming systems, our medical system and in our philanthropy.
The speakers are Raj Patel and Rupa Mayra, authors of Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice. Raj is an author, film maker, academic and podcaster. He has worked for the World Bank and the IMF, and has been teargassed on four continents protesting against them. Rupa is an activist, musician and practising and teaching physician of internal medicine. She is a co-founder of the Do No Harm Coalition, a group of healthworkers commited to addressing disease through structural change. At the inviation of Lakota tribe leaders, Rupa's helping to set up a health clinic and farm on the Standing Rock reservation.
Their session is an empassioned, illuminating romp through philanthrocapitalism. Raj points out that, despite the injustices of feudal India, the peasants only suffered famine perhaps once every 120 years. Come the British Empire, famine occured one year in four. Why? Any possible 'surplus' was taken to England, to prevent insurrection among the jobless and working poor, who had already been stripped of dignity, land and agency. In the words of Cecil Rhodes, "The empire is a bread and butter question. If you want to avoid civil war, you must become imperialists."
Rupa and Raj go on to describe philanthropy as an arm of industrial, corporate power, and beyond that – and perhaps more importantly – they explain how it shapes narratives and extinguishes alternative ways to understand and solve problems. Their aim is nothing less than a radical transformation of the systems through which "certain kinds of people are exploited, while others get to be wealthy and write cheques and feel good about themselves at the gala".
If this sounds interesting to you, have a watch here.
19th October 2021
The ORFC highlight for this week takes us to the heart of racial justice and solidarity within the food system. The session is run by Dee Woods and Jocina Calliste, founders of Land In Our Names (LION). Rather than provding a synopsis this week, I simply want to share some of Dee's powerful words in this extract.
"I always ask: Can you see us? Can you see that we are living in two worlds? Can you see that we have become the most marginalised in this world? Can you see that the structural inequalities, the oppression and violence of hundreds if not thousands of years are impacting us deeply? I carry within my genes, as so many of us do, the remnants of that violence, the violence of slavery, the violence of indentureship, and the current violence that our peoples experience across the world. We belong, but then we do not belong. We feed people, yet we go hungry. Our children are immortalised as the face of hunger – potbellied, crying, flies around them, with empty bowls. And our food ways and cultures are eroticised or relegated to the realm of unworthiness. Can you see us? Can you hear us?
"With Black Lives Matter earlier this year, a black light was shone on everything. Centuries of our pain and our anger just spewed across the world. And it was like sleeping eyes were suddenly opened. We have roots of oppression buried deep in legacies of colonialism and empire. And these are replicated in modern day institutions of the police and the prison industrial complex, the hunger industrial complex. All these are designed to oppress and dehumanise us. To extract from us. To feed what can only be described as greed, and to prop up whiteness as supreme.
"And this session is not about making anyone feel guilty. This is about the systems of oppression that we need to uproot, disrupt, dismantle, so that we can create new. This is not about building back better. No. This is about justice. This is about healing and repair. This is about us going forward from a place of heart, with joy and love and respect and honour for each other, for the earth, for the elements. This is what this session is about."
For more from these two remarkable women, I encourage you to watch the full session here.
2nd November 2021
The COP26 climate talks have now begun in Glasgow, perhaps fittingly just as rail links to the city were wiped out by floods. Few people believe that the assembled elected politicians and corporate insiders have either the collective vision or will to take the bold measures needed to avert climate catastrophe. Perhaps this is because they are trying to fix the problem from the same mindset that created it. So as a gesture of hope, I bring you this week’s ORFC highlight: Protecting the Lives and Livelihoods of Future Generations: The Ultimate Challenge?
This session features former Welsh minister Jane Davidson and Lyla June Johnston, an indigenous musician, scholar and community organiser from Turtle Island (aka USA – you may remember her from the 9 February ORFC highlight).
Jane Davidson is creator of the Well-being of Future Generations Act of Wales 2015. The act lays out seven principles for Wales: prosperity, resilience, health, equality, cohesive communities, a thriving Welsh language and culture and global responsibility. It requires public bodies to ensure the well-being of future generations by taking account of the long term, preventing problems occurring or getting worse, taking an integrated and collaborative approach, and considering and involving people of all ages and diversity.
In 2020, Lyla ran for state legislature on a Seven Generations New Deal platform, a climate policy she helped develop through a grassroots, collaborative process. It centres on indigenous science and environmental justice. It aims for deep systems change, taking the money out of politics and structurally shifting the economy so that everyone benefits, while restoring ecology, creating equity and implementing a climate curriculum. Although she didn't win the election, Lyla fundamentally changed the political conversation.
Jane’s Act and Lyla’s platform have many points in common. Perhaps the greatest similarity is that both embed and foster a set of values which are in stark contrast to the extractive mindset that underpins conventional Western economics and politics. Jane says that the 2015 Act has begun to changed people's behaviours and ways of thinking in Wales. People are often not ready for change until we hit rock bottom. But when we create new operating models and new ways of thinking, change comes easier and sooner. I'm grateful to those like Jane and Lyla who are showing true leadership.
16th November 2021
It’s mid November, so I’ll only be writing a few more highlights from the ORFC 2021. But there are still so many fabulous sessions I’d like to share with you. Today, I bring you one with Naima Penniman, programme director of Soul Fire Farm, an American healer, grower, educator, artist and powerful performance poet. Not to be missed.
Naima’s spoken poetry reminds me of Amanda Gorman’s at President Biden’s inauguration. Equally gripping, challenging and uplifting, but instead all about soil and soul, and the deep, entwined roots of capitalism, colonialism and racism in our food systems. There’s one poem near the beginning, another near the end of her talk.
In between, she’s equally on fire. She honours her maternal ancestors, who had the foresight to weave seeds into their hair before being taken away on slave ships, an insight beautifully depicted in one of her paintings. She tells of how, post-slavery era, Blacks eventually gained ownership of 15 per cent of US land, but after decades of USDA discrimination and racial terror, the figure is now less than 1%. While the specifics in her talk are US-based, our food system shares the same dynamics. Her entire session is designed to bear witness our collective journey of separation from the land – equally applicable to the UK, where class and race both play a role – and to "help compost trauma and relationship to land as well as to provide fertility for the dreams that each of us is carrying”.
But history aside, the real focus of her work at Soul Fire Farm is what to do about it all. Naima talks about their three ‘solidarity’ strategies. First, they are feeding their community and stewarding the land, where they have regenerated over 80 acres, restoring the soil to pre-colonial levels of carbon and producing an abundance of food, medicinal herbs and mushrooms. During the pandemic, they actually gave away 100% of their food for free to their community. Not sure how the managed that, but wow!
Second, they are committed to passing on the knowledge of growing. To this end, they offer a one-week farming immersion courses six times each year, specifically for the BIPOC community, and their graduates go on to do incredible work in their own communities. Third, they work to build the movement for food & land sovereignty, what she calls a mycelial network of support.
I hope you take the time to enjoy Naima’s session, which takes the name from one of her poems: The Seeds of Justice.
30th November 2021
COP26 is now well and truly over, and the governments of the world failed to meet the challenges we all face. So more than ever, it is time for us – as individuals and communities – to step forward into our power. Food is one area of our lives where we can each make a significant difference to the climate and wider ecological breakdown: waste less food, eat less meat, eat seasonally and locally, grow our own, etc. But it is when we collaborate as communities that we can really begin to make a difference.
FarmShare, ten years old this year, is one of the leading examples in Norwich. But what if we were part of something bigger in the city? This week’s highlight from the Oxford Real Farming Conference shows us what Hackney’s Growing Communities has achieved. This social enterprise began in 1996 to transform food and farming through community-led trade in organic or agroecologically grown produce. Led by Julie Brown, Growing Communities aims to put farmers first, buy ensuring farmers get more, or indeed most, of the value in the supply chain. "We pay farmers 80p/kg for potatoes, while the farm gate price is 15p or less per kilo”, Julie says.
Their aim is to provide decent, healthy food for all from climate- and nature-friendly food production. With 32 part-time staff (18 full-time equivalents) and an annual turnover £2.5 million, they work with 30 sustainable farmers and processors, selling weekly to 1400 box scheme members and 1500 farmers market customers. And between their own nine micro sites in Hackney and a covered site in Dagenham, they themselves grow six tonnes of salad and veg annually.
From 2010-2015, Growing Communities also ran a start-up programme which helped to launch eleven other similar trading groups, now collectively known as the Better Food Traders, a mutually supportive peer-to-peer network. And recently, they set up their own wholesale operation – or a “collaborative distributor" – called the Better Food Shed, to help small farmers distribute their food and to aggregate their own buying power.
Quoting James Rebanks, Julie says our diets should be shaped by what works for the land. And while some might moan about how this limits what we eat, Julie reminds us that we can flourish, and indeed become more creative, in the face of limits. And eating this way would certainly help our planet to recover.
This session also features Christian Jaccarini, a senior consultant with the New Economics Foundation who recently completed a cost-benefit analysis of Growing Communities. His research found that for every £1 of cost, the project generates £3.73 of positive social, environmental and economic value. That's a healthy return on investment, especially if you consider the 2017 Sustainable Food Trust report, which finds that for every pound UK consumers spend on food, an additional hidden cost of 97p is incurred. These costs are passed on to the public through taxation, lost income due to ill health, and the price of mitigating and adapting to climate change and environmental degradation.
To find out more, you can watch this ORFC session here, and you can read the study here. And if you want to be part of a wider food conversation in Norwich, get in touch with Green New Deal Norwich (NorwichGND@gmail.com).
14th December 2021
This is the last 2021 ORFC feature for the year. There are still so many fantastic sessions I’d love to share, but in honour of the holiday season, I’ve chosen one called the Economy of Love.
This session focusses on the Sekem initiative in Egypt, the host country for the next COP. We hear from CEO Helmy Abouleish, whose father started it all in 1977 with the mad idea to bring biodymamic farming to the desert. This had never been done before, never mind as part of a regional project where everyone could live and work together in an ‘economy of love’, with respect and dignity while producing ethically and environmentally sound products. As if that wasn’t enough, he also wanted to include the entire supply chain in his ‘economy of love’. He was originally written off as a hopeless dreamer by his own family and friends.
Yet by the time he died 40 years later, he had succeeded in all the above, in the process setting up holistic schools, a university for sustainable development, an integrated health centre and a regular cultural programme of theatre and music. Sekem holds 78% of the market share of herbal tea bags in Egypt, outselling by far the likes of Unilever and Twinings. Their success is in part due to superior taste, and in part to informing consumers about how much better their products are for people and planet.
At the loss of their visionary founder, Sekem wanted to think ahead to the next 40 years. They could have simply continued to expand. But instead they paused to reflect, “what does the future want from us”. And so another bold vision was born: Sekem now has a 2057 vision for the whole country, in which Egyptian farming will be 100% organic and all schools and universities will offer holistic education. And that’s just for starters.
Sekem are now also partnering with the Biodynamic Association and leaders in organic farming in Europe and the UK, to explore how a global version of Sekem’s approach could be rolled out. I think that’s all I want for Christmas.
If you’re curious about the sessions I haven’t covered, check out their channel. Meanwhile, I wish you all a wonderful end of year, however you celebrate. I hope to be back next year with ORFC 2022.