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Organic and small-scale: An alternative vision for the future

Organic and small-scale: An alternative vision for the future of farming
The Oxford Real Farming Conference has rapidly outgrown its decades-old establishment counterpart and is calling for radical reforms to the industrialised intensive model they respresent

The ORFC calls for agricultural subsidies to be capped at €150,000 per farmer so that taxpayers’ money is redirected to smaller farmers and away from richer landowners. Photograph: David Levene for the Guardian
Felicity Lawrence
Thursday 7 January 2016 16.04 GMT Last modified on Saturday 9 January 2016 15.24 GMT
Two visions of the future of farming played out in Oxford this week.

The five-year-old Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) at the town hall, sponsored by organic farming company Sheepdrove and dominated by small-scale farmers, food campaigners, and the agro-ecology movement, has now outgrown the establishment conference, the decades-old Oxford Farming Conference.

While the latter’s delegates – predominantly larger-scale landowners and the agrifood industry’s corporate representatives – were enjoying morning prayers in University College chapel, before a Barclays Bank breakfast, followed by a political session sponsored by agriculture equipment manufacturer Massey Ferguson with environment secretary, Liz Truss, and her labour shadow, Kerry McCarthy, and then dinner in Christ Church college, the alternative conference was debating proposals to radically reform the industrialised intensive model of agriculture they represent.

The current agroindustrial food system is “serving the world so badly it needs to wither on the vine,” said Colin Tudge, founder of the ORFC.

Calling for a complete rethink of the way we farm and cook, he said step by step reform of the status quo would not address the crisis in the global food system, which currently leaves a billion people worldwide chronically hungry, another billion suffering from food that is not fit for purpose but makes them ill, and endangers many species and wild habitats.

A new rural manifesto to tackle inequality in the countryside was launched at the alternative conference by the Land Workers’ Alliance and The Land magazine. The alliance said there was a crisis of housing in rural areas with many young people being driven out of their native villages by a lack of affordable accommodation and public transport. It outlined government action needed on rural housing, transport, energy, employment and land reform, to prevent the countryside becoming the “preserve of the affluent” who live but do not work there.

“Family farms are declining in numbers, commercial farms are becoming larger and increasingly corporate, entry into the industry is increasingly difficult and the average age of farmers is worryingly high,” said land campaigner, Simon Fairlie .

The manifesto calls for agricultural subsidies to be capped at €150,000 per individual farmer so that taxpayers’ money is redirected to smaller and active farmers and away from richer landowners. It also calls for the break up of oligopolies of processors and retailers to protect famers from aggressive pricing.

Farming as currently structured has become economically unsustainable, as well as socially and environmentally destructive, according to Tom Lines, expert in commodities pricing at University of London’s Goldsmiths college, told the conference.

Over the last four decades the cost of inputs had risen far more than the value of agricultural commodities, meaning the money farmers could make from food production was inadequate to keep people on the land in many countries including the UK, Lines warned.