The two faces of farming in Oxford


12 January 2017

Every January two big farming conferences take place at the same time - the Oxford Farming Conference was set up 80 years ago and has come to represent the establishment view of farming. Farming is seen as a business like any other, where priorities are economies of scale, the key drivers are profits and the pre-eminent markets are global. This is the dominant view of global agribusiness as well as rich governments the world over, where food is seen primarily as a commodity to profit from rather than a source of culture and nutrition. And this model of food has brought devastation in its wake. Not only is this model responsible for up to a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, it also depletes biodiversity, damages soils and ultimately takes control of the food system away from small-scale food producers and local communities and into the hands of corporations.

But this is not the only way to approach food and farming. The Oxford Real Farming Conference started eight years ago with a similar name but was set up to promote a completely different approach to food and farming. One where the priority lies in producing diverse nutritious food for local communities and local markets while valuing farmers' knowledge, working with natural processes and protecting the environment. So even though the two conferences have a similar name, take place in the same city, at the same time - this is where the similarities end.

Farmers make up over half the delegates at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (compared to reports of hardly any at the Oxford Farming Conference) and so discussions were based around practical sessions sharing the latest farming techniques but also sessions exploring the wider political context. At the beginning of 2017, delegates at the Oxford Real Farming Conference were acutely aware of the challenges and opportunities that this year brings. With Brexit negotiations beginning in just a few months time, there were discussions around what could replace the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

Since 1973, the UK farming sector has been shaped by EU subsidies from CAP. In recent years it has received sustained criticism for handing wealthy landowners millions of pounds from public funds, while smaller farmers receive little or nothing. Our new report proposes an alternative to CAP that could help struggling farmers, improve the environmental sustainability of farming – and save the taxpayer £1.1 billion. Instead of propping up the coffers of wealthy landowners, public money could be used to fund the public goods that small-scale farming delivers for example delivering local employment opportunities, providing natural flood protection or tackling climate change.

Supporting small-scale farmers in the UK supports farmers globally. If the UK government abandons support for domestic small-scale production and instead turns to the global markets for our food supplies then the real beneficiaries are global agribusiness who control global trade in key crops. Meanwhile, small-scale producers are finding themselves evicted from their land and losing their livelihoods through land grabs as agribusiness expand this model.

Small-scale food producers are already feeding 70% of the world’s population and most of this is traded in local, regional and national markets. These are the markets that need to be supported to build food security for communities around the world and not relegated to the demands of global markets. Our proposal ensures that public funding isn't directly supporting increased production in the UK which risks subsidised-exports that undermines local markets in the global south.

While we were launching this report at the Oxford Real Farming Conference, Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom was down the road giving a key note speech at the Oxford Farming Conference where she announced her intention to scrap 'the rules that hold us back'. However her free-market approach to farming and the UK government's focus on exports will leave British small-scale producers with no support while further entrenching the corporate-dominated model of agriculture that is destroying the livlihoods of small-scale food producers across the world and wrecking the environment. 

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