Oxford Real Farming Conference synopsis and FAI’s thoughts
For the past eleven years the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) has brought together farmers, policy-makers, academics and more, to discuss sustainable solutions to common food and farming issues. Due to COVID-19, this year’s conference was held virtually, enabling 500 speakers from more than 80 countries to take part.
Here are some of FAI’s key highlights from this year’s conference, including talks and speakers that FAI found particularly inspirational.
For those that did not purchase a ticket to the event, some of the talks are accessible for free on ORFC’s YouTube channel, with more to be uploaded in future.
An agroecological future
Agroecology was the central, recurring theme throughout the conference. A refreshingly optimistic talk was presented by the Food and Farming Countryside Commission (FFCC) demonstrating that through utilising agroecology, we can grow enough healthy food to support the population in the UK in 2050. This can be achieved whilst simultaneously decreasing reliance on imports, eliminating synthetic agrochemicals, supporting mixed farming, freeing up land for nature or social needs and reducing GHG emissions by at least 38%. See here for the report: Farming for Change - Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (ffcc.co.uk).
Adopting agroforestry practises on land requires careful planning but the potential benefits include increasing water infiltration, amongst a range of soil health benefits. Livestock can be major beneficiaries (e.g. in silvo-pasture systems) via shelter from weather and added nutritional and health benefits from trees such as willow. Precious Phiri, Regeneration International’s Africa co-ordinator, gave some great examples of agroecological and regenerative practices in Zimbabwe. However, challenges are present which include: access to funding, managing competition with crops and the use of plastic tree guards (although non-plastic are now available).
Microbes in both our soil and gut
Living networks within soil are crucial - this was highlighted by Dr Andy Neal and Dr Felicity Crotty. Farm-yard manure stimulates microbial activity which increases soil pore connectedness enabling soil to hold more water and oxygen, generating ideal conditions for microbial life. More microbial life leads to greater resilience in the soil – particularly key for future extreme weather events (Climate Vision predicts 57% direr summers and 33% wetter winters over the next few years).
The importance of complexity with regards to the range of microbes both within the soil and human gut has been highlighted by not only farmers but also health professionals. Boosting our soil biology through farming regeneratively leads to more nutrient dense food which in turn improves complexity and thus resilience in our own gut microbiomes. GP and functional medicine practitioner, Dr Sally Bell, stated that 10% of our dietary health is determined by genes, the other 90% is down to our lifestyle choices.
Agriculture should be aiming for sub-zero targets, not just net-zero. Food producers have a key role to play in removing CO2 through better land management. Because of this, carbon is becoming a key metric for producers. When calculating farm carbon emissions, not having one standardised method is leading to confusion. For example, when using GWP* vs GWP100 (currently GWP100 is still most widely used). A ‘carbon passport’ to track individual animal emissions and land valued in relation to its soil carbon stocks were some new ideas discussed.
Craig Livingstone, Farm and Estate Manager at Lockerley Estate in Hampshire:
"We need to understand how to farm carbon now".
The set up and structure of farm sites can be a major blocker for adopting new systems such as regenerative agriculture. This is something not often considered by land and farm managers. Additionally, a more decentralized local abattoir model can provide increased resilience and better utilization of waste via heat -treatment and composting. White Oak Pastures in the US have an on-farm slaughterhouse for red meat and poultry and the Sustainable Food Trust are also launching a small abattoir.
Patrick Holden, the founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust:
“You can’t have local food without local abattoirs.”
Regenerative ocean farms in Alaska (run by Native Conservancy) and Wales (run by Câr-y-Môr) are exploring seaweed, scallop, mussel, oyster and clam production as carbon sinks whilst restoring marine habitats. Dune Lankard, an Eyak Elder, longtime activist, and Founder of Native Conservancy stated that seaweed has the potential to sequester up to 5x more carbon than terrestrial plants. Additionally, the introduction of beavers as part of the Beaver Trust project in Cornwall has demonstrated potential flood management benefits to farmers.
The overall food system
According to the Food Standards Agency, the proportion of consumers buying local food is increasing; however there are still 1 in 5 adults that are struggling to put food on the table. Sustain highlighted that just 10 supermarkets control 90% of the food we buy and that farmers receive 8% of what consumers pay for food. Throughout many panel discussions, there was an overall call for farmers to gain more control over the whole food system and for increased collaboration amongst them.
Overall, a range of different land management systems - regenerative, agroecological or organic, continue to be explored and applied globally with momentum hastily growing. All methods have the common goal of moving towards a more climate-positive, biodiverse system, whilst improving producer and community livelihoods in a profitable way. However, an element of polarization between certain groups of exactly how to achieve this common goal is emerging. The pro-meat vs less meat debate is still strongly present, as well as in other debates too with themes cropping up such as organic vs regenerative, land-sparing vs land-sharing and till vs no-till. This polarisation is observed with not a lot of middle ground – most people are one way or the other.
It is key that food producers need to focus on a set of agreed principles and systemic outcomes, not set practises. Most of the ORFC attendees share a common goal and share similar principles, the exact on-farm practises may look different but the desired outcomes are the same.
“A system of land stewardship, rooted in centuries old indigenous wisdom, that provides healthy, nutrient rich food for all people, while continuously restoring and nourishing the ecological, social, and cultural systems unique to every place.” O’Connor 2020 - Barriers For Farmers & Ranchers to Adopt Regenerative Ag Practices In The US
The key barriers to adopting regenerative principles are clear and at FAI Farms we want to provide the tools for food producers and industry professionals to make the transition. FAI’s current focus is based on these key barriers, which are:
- Farmer education and mindset change: As regenerative agriculture builds momentum, demand for regenerative transition managers will grow. We want to provide the leaders of tomorrow with a full grasp of the core principles and the correct tools to fully transition their system.
- Supply chain mindset change: Regenerative transition relies on all the people and forces surrounding farming understanding what it is, and what they should do differently. We want to train them, helping to kickstart a collaborative movement within the industry.
- Finance is a blocker and lever for change: We need regenerative capital that breaks farmers' current chains of loans and locked-in single commodity contracts. Capital that can provide incentives for farmers and rewards the outcomes of regeneration. In a recent episode of Farm Gate, our partnership podcast with Farmwel, ffinlo Costain talks to Robyn O’Brien about how her new investment fund, RePlant Capital, is supporting regenerative agriculture in the US.
The ORFC was a fantastic event that reached many people across the world. It has inspired us, and undoubtably many others, to continue working towards a more resilient food system, reinforcing that it really is possible. We are very excited for the future ahead!