At the start of January, several members of the Good Food Oxfordshire team attended the Oxford Real Farming Conference; a gathering of almost 2000 farmers and growers, policy makers, community activists, local food partnerships, and many others interested in agroecology, nature friendly food production, and transforming our food and farming system.
The 2024 conference did not disappoint, with over 150 in-person sessions, and many more online, ranging from land justice, soil health and strategies for climate resilience, youth activism and farmer to farmer knowledge exchange.
Here is a summary of some key themes from the sessions we were able to attend:
Deeply entrenched power asymmetries exist in the food system. A small handful of companies control the food system, therefore, to reign in the influence of these agri-business and large corporations we need alternate spaces of decision making for the public interest, by restructuring existing governance structures, democratising decision making and redistributing power to grassroots organisations.
The transition to agroecological farming is crucial in our transition to net-zero and in our reconnection with nature. The impact of our current agricultural practices on carbon emissions and biodiversity loss is evident, however the market dependency on “outputs” can create financial constraints for agroecological farmers. Alongside financial and policy support for climate-friendly food production, we need alternative ways of distributing and selling food through new business models which prioritise local economies and adhere to paying farmers a fair wage. In one session, Lord Debon noted “regenerative farming is absolutely central to the battle against climate change”.
Regenerative supply chains are vital for agroecological resilience and there are many innovators who are leading the way (see GFO’s own OxFarmtoFork platform) via new tech and innovative partnerships and networks. Public procurement is one potential lever for change, and Local Authorities have huge purchasing power via public procurement contracts, with the potential to transform supply chains, support local agroecological farmers, and increase access to healthy and sustainable food. We enjoyed hearing from Food Sense Wales on their innovative Courgette Pilot, one of the motivations for setting up our own short supply chain initiative.
There is a connection between food, health and poverty. The entrenched control of our food system by supermarkets and those at the “top of the supply chain” will ensure that food inequality remains. Partnership models (see LUSH) that look at how to provide high quality food from agroecological farmers to those on the lowest incomes, whilst also paying the suppliers full price, can help to address issues of food inequality and bring different communities together. One panellist, a regenerative farmer from Kent who supplies directly to schools, commented that we need a systemic approach to food systems change "We have a food system that pays no attention to health and a health system that pays no attention to food".
Britain has a hugely unequal system of land ownership, which is one of many barriers for new entrant farmers, especially those from diverse backgrounds. Unequal access to land ownership is a cross-cutting issue, which impacts communities, housing, food, and the environment. Expanding the amount of land for public growing, cooperative ownership and for the community would help create resilient localised food systems with short supply chains and a shared common good.
And finally, our key takeaway in addressing the complex and thorny issues of our current food system; collaboration over competition!
Lastly a huge thank you to the local caterers who all excelled at supplying attendees with delicious food and coffee throughout the conference!