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Why we need an agrarian renaissance

Cows in field

Bryan Ledgard under a Creative Commons Licence

Almost every year for the past 60 years or so the people in charge of Britain’s farming – which nowadays means the corporates, the National Farmers’ Union, and the government – have been running the Oxford Farming Conference, telling farmers and whoever else cares to listen what’s new in agriculture, what the powers-that-be have in mind, and, in general, how well they are doing and why we should not stray from the path that they have laid down.

So why, in 2010, did a group of upstarts set up the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), in the same town (in fact just a few hundred yards away) and at the same time? How come they apparently succeeded – so the 2015 ORFC, to be held in the Town Hall on 6-7 January, is expected to have more visitors than the official version?

Because, in reality, the powers-that-be have not been doing a good job. Though Liz Truss, our new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (the word ‘agriculture’ went missing some years ago) tells us we should produce more of our own food, we in practice produce only about 60 per cent. Though Britain is unprecedentedly rich (or so we are told, now that the recession is passing, though perhaps it isn’t) 900,000 Britons have recently had to resort to food banks – and it wasn’t like that 60 years ago when I was a lad and the country, immediately post-war, was on its knees. Our dairy industry in particular, in this rainy and grassy country once the jewel in our farming crown, is in a terrible state.

Meanwhile the collateral damage is enormous: most of our native wild species are in realistic danger of extinction and today’s industrial farming contributed significantly to the floods and droughts that now beset our country, both by adding to global warming and by creating treeless landscapes and low-organic soils that simply cannot contain water (never mind Somerset – look at Berkshire). On the world scene the position is far worse, with a billion undernourished (according to the UN); a world population of diabetics that’s twice the population – not of Wales, or even France, but of Russia; a billion in urban slums – almost a third of all the people who live in cities, largely dispossessed farmers; and half our fellow species in imminent danger of extinction, with the oceans wrecked too by agricultural run-off.

None of this is inevitable. Britain for example could easily be self-reliant in food – and so could almost all countries, including most of those presented on Channel 4 News as basket cases. Self-reliance plus fair trade would solve our problems – but seems furthest from the minds of them-in-charge. But then, them-in-charge are hopelessly muddled. Thus Liz Truss told us recently that we in Britain should produce more of our own food, but then told farmers that the way ahead was to sell more pork to Chinese billionaires. (The previous Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, told farmers to export more beef to Chinese billionaires. So there has been a slight shift.)

At the heart of all this disaster is unswerving dedication to the neoliberal global market. These days it is assumed that all business enterprises (and farming should be a business – when business is properly conceived!) should simply make as much money as possible in competition with everybody else, everywhere. African farmers compete on the world market (or the corporates do this for them) with sunshine and disposable labour while we compete with high tech and banking. Lost is the notion that we embrace at the ORFC: that the point of agriculture (perfectly compatible with its status as a business if the economy is appropriately designed) is to provide us all – everyone, everywhere – with good food, and to do so without wrecking the rest of the world, and with kindness and justice.

Good food for everyone in a flourishing biosphere is not pie-in-the-sky. It is eminently achievable. But the imperatives of the global market will not and cannot do what’s needed. We need to found our farming on quite different principles: specifically those of agroecology, food sovereignty, and economic democracy; supported by truly modern science as opposed to gung-ho high tech, and underpinned not by the desire to come out on top but by compassion.  

The farming we need requires quite different practices. It also requires people in charge who actually know something about agriculture and care about it, including the world’s working farmers who are routinely sidelined, and a great many scientists and economists who also embrace the ideas of agroecology and food sovereignty but are also mostly sidelined, even though some of them have Nobel Prizes.

The ORFC explores all of these ideas – the necessary theory and the practice. It is certainly needed. Indeed, worldwide we need nothing less than an Agrarian Renaissance – and the ORFC is very much a part of it.

For more on The Oxford Real Farming Conference visit the website.

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