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The Oxford Real Farming Conference & post-Brexit farming policy

The Oxford Real Farming Conference & post-Brexit farming policy Mark Seton / Flickr

Oxford was truly the hub of the farming world last week, hosting the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) and the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) – both a chance for the agricultural world to get together and share ideas for the future. While DEFRA Secretary Andrea Leadsom gave the keynote speech on the government’s priorities for post-Brexit agriculture at the OFC, CPRE staff were up the road at the ORFC, debating the future of agriculture with a wide range of farmers, other NGOs and some of the UK’s leading thinkers.

Although this was my first time at the ORFC – now in its eighth year – I felt immediately at home. The watchwords of the conference might well be inclusivity and pluralism; it was a rich melting-pot of ideas with the basic ingredient of healthy, sustainably-produced food for all, but spiced with insights from philosophy, theology, geopolitics and many other fields. Practical talks on companion cropping and cutting edge agri-tech took place alongside more general discussions about the future of farming. The range of ideas on offer was almost overwhelming but, for me, there are some that should be taken particularly seriously as we start thinking about how to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with a new British Agricultural Policy (BAP).

Ideas and discussions

As part of a panel jointly organised by CPRE and the Country Land and Business Association, Professor Tim Benton – until recently Government’s lead adviser on food security – gave stark warnings about our failure to build a resilient agri-food system. He traced the origins of the Arab Spring and recent spikes in refugee numbers to the effects of climate change on agriculture in the Middle East and North Africa, driving up food prices and prompting the displacement of local populations. He also expressed grave concerns over the impact of intensive techniques on parts of the UK, arguing that a 1930s-style Dust Bowl is now a serious possibility across East Anglia. Resilience to both climate change and local environmental degradation must be at the centre of our thinking.

The warnings did not stop there. While ORFC founder, writer and biologist Colin Tudge lay out his vision for an agri-food system that produces good food while sustaining the planet, PhD student and theorist Camilla Royle discussed the concept of the Anthropocene: the Earth’s latest geological epoch, defined by decisive human impact on planetary systems. With evidence now showing a transformative change in human societies since the mid-20th century, Royle nonetheless emphasised the window of opportunity we still have to avert the coming crisis. With the global population set to hit almost 10 billion by 2050, it is vital that we reconcile the demands of food production and environmental regeneration.

Perhaps the most wide-reaching discussion of all took place under the intriguing title of ‘Farming and Metaphysics’. In what sounds like the first lines of an old joke, a Christian theologian, a Sufi mystic and a rabbi shared a platform to reflect on the underlying relationship between humanity, farming and nature. Despite their different perspectives, all agreed that if approached in the right way, farming is a spiritual activity that both sustains people and stewards the environment for future generations. Many of us entered the room with a degree of secular scepticism, but left inspired by the idea of a society more in touch with the wonders of the natural world.

Looking to the future

If all of these viewpoints could be boiled down to one message, it is that the very breadth of thinking across the ORFC should not be ignored. Leadsom is right: we now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink our approach to agriculture in this country. However, that opportunity be missed if government listens to the lobbying of large agribusiness to the exclusion of all other voices. Making the most of the extensive knowledge in all corners of UK farming, it is clear that there are many more ingredients to be added to this BAP before it is complete – to produce good food, benefit the environment and guarantee farmers’ livelihoods for years to come.


Find out more

CPRE work on agriculture

Report: New model farming - Resiliance through diversity


We now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink our approach to agriculture in this country

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