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The Oxford Real Farming Conference is the annual gathering of the agroecological farming movement in the UK, bringing together practising farmers and growers with scientists, economists, activists and policy-makers in a two-day event every January. It delves deep into farming practices and techniques as well addressing the bigger questions relating to our food and farming system.
The radical and inclusive programme became even more so this year as it went online and spanned a whole week, bringing together voices from the real food and farming movement across six continents. Our director Julie Brown gave two talks this year, and Tash and Kate from the Better Food Traders ran a workshop about their behaviour change project.
With such a vast array of fascinating talks, panel discussion and workshops to attend, we couldn't possibly even begin to summarise it all for you, or even choose what we felt were the highlights. So we'll share reflections on some of the events we attended which we feel are most relevant to the work we do.
Spinning Food: the stealth PR tactics industry uses to shape the story of food
Anna Lappe, American author, founder of Real Food Media and renowned advocate for sustainability and justice in the food chain, led this talk where she explained the key strategies the pesticide industry uses to shape government policy and convince the public that pesticides are safe and that we need them to feed the world.
Their approach is akin to the oil and tobacco industry's of weaponising the web to sow seeds of doubt, manipulating the scientific research and discrediting individuals or campaigns that speak up about the reality of pesticides, that they are causing an insect Armageddon, devastating soils and wildlife as well as damaging human health. You'd have to be living under a rock to not suspect the agri-chemical industry holds huge amounts of wealth and power to control policy and shape public perceptions, but it was still alarming to learn that they spend billions of dollars annually on their spin campaigns.
One of their tactics is to create “Astroturf” groups. They appear to be grassroots groups representing farmers, environmental groups or concerned citizens who are campaigning to protect their rights to use pesticides. But these groups are actually set up and run by agri-chem PR companies to push the agenda of the industry. They have their sticky fingers in education as well, financing universities and farming colleges to ensure their methods are given primacy. They provide free advice and consultancy to farmers to further promote their chemical doctrine.
This David and Goliath situation may lead you to wonder, how can we ever overcome this huge stranglehold? But Anna ended on a positive note. While we can't fight them at their own game, we must recognise that we are narrative weavers too, and we know the truth - that pesticides aren't safe and we really don't need them. Whats more, they're not even effective. There's increasing evidence that pesticide use leads to resistance; for instance, super weeds resistant to glyphosate now plague 60million acres globally. Farmers are coming to discover this themselves the hard way. But there has also been a big shift in the last decade in popular understanding. A sea change in awareness of food and sustainability - the agroecology narrative is spreading. Anna explained the best way to counteract the corporate stranglehold on the industry is to use popular education. Informing and empowering consumers and supporting farmer-to-farmer knowledge building to help them move away from input-intensive farming towards knowledge-intensive farming. Conferences like this, initiatives like the Agroecology Fund and forums like Regenerative Farming UK are critical ways to disrupt the pesticide industry. As farmers and consumers become more informed, the big firms have less power.
Getting used to drought and deluge: what new pastures can we plant to adapt? led by the Soil Association.
This was a very different kind of talk, going into the details of farming practice, but was a perfect example of farmer-to-farmer knowledge building in action.
They talked about their programme called FABulous Farming that works to reduce reliance on external inputs, like chemical fertilisers and pesticides, by encouraging the use of methods and interventions that increase a farm’s Functional AgroBiodiversity (FAB).
We heard livestock and arable farmer David Cross in Norfolk talk about the support he got to experiment with herbal lays instead of the conventional rye grass lays, which are not coping well with the excessive rainfall or the droughts that are becoming the new normal. Using diverse range of herbal lays can provide resilience to extreme weather. Their deep roots allow them to tap into deep water sources to withstand droughts, and they also improve soil structure, making it more absorbent in times of heavy rain.