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A Tale of Two Conferences

13/01/2014 10:50 | Updated 12 March 2014

One city (Oxford). Two conferences on opposite sides of the road, both on agriculture - yet with two quite different world views. The Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) for the past 60-plus years has presented the Establishment view. It acknowledges that Britain and the world face deep problems - food supply, environment, a collapsed economy - yet exudes an air of confidence. Despite appearances the powers-that-be are in control and we just need more of the same. Farming must be more and more industrialized: monocultural and high tech, with fewer farmers in bigger units, capital-intensive with plenty of scope for profit, supported by government with taxpayers' money, and justified by a growing slice of academe that relies on the corporates for research grants.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), launched in 2010 by Graham Harvey, Ruth Tudge, and me (Colin Tudge) argues that money and high tech are not what's lacking. A billion people out of the seven billion are chronically hungry, and a billion live in urban slums, while the rich grow steadily richer and the poor grow poorer. Half our fellow creatures are in imminent danger of extinction and we could face ecological collapse as the climate goes into turbulence. Farming is at the heart of all this.

The farms that demonstrably can provide us all with good food without wrecking the world are not the high-tech, energy-intensive, capital-intensive mega-estates. Farms that are truly productive, sustainable, and resilient must be guided not by short-term profit but by agroecology: each farm an ecosystem, agriculture as a whole conceived as a key component of the global biosphere. Farms should be polycultural to resist pests and make best use of nutrients - like nature itself. They should be low input - basically organic. Such farms are complex and so must be skills-intensive - plenty of good employment. Britain could do with a million more farmers - about eight times the present number; enough to soak up all the under-employed under-25s. When farms are complex and skills-intensive there is little advantage in scale-up so the default should be small to medium-sized.

Yet conventional wisdom holds that small, mixed, skills-intensive farms are "unrealistic": an anachronism. The government's 2011 "Foresight" report on The Future of Food and Farming tells us we'll need 50% more food by 2050 just to keep pace with rising human numbers - and only industrialization with high tech can supply this; driven by the maximally competitive neoliberal "free" global market and dominated by corporates. Small mixed farms could not supply all we need and at best would put up the price of food. All this has become the dogma.

But the dogma is untrue. UN demographers tell us that the world population should level out by 2050 at around 9.5 billion so if we can feed that many, we've cracked it. Professor Hans Herren, president of the Millennium Institute and co-chair of the truly authoritative IAASTD report of 2009, tells us that we already produce enough to feed 14 billion - 50% more than we should ever need. Problems arise because the wrong crops are grown in the wrong places - and at least 50% is then wasted.

IAASTD tells us too that half the world's food is still produced from small, mixed, low-input farms and most of these could readily double their output with simple logistic support (like guaranteed prices and passable roads). Only 30% comes from the industrial high-tech farms that soak up almost all the investment -- and they are now hard up against the theoretical maximum. As for price: 80% of supermarket spend goes to the middle men (including bankers). Only 20% goes to the farmer and his workers, though they are the ones who are targeted to keep the prices down. Farmers who sell through farmers' markets get 60% of the proceeds - three times more for the same output. Farmers' markets are not the whole answer but they do show that the best way to keep prices in check is to shorten the food chains.

All this is the focus of the ORFC: how to make small farms work; set up appropriate markets; and enable more people, especially young people, to get back on to the land and make farming - real farming - their career.

Since this is the precise opposite of what the powers-that-be are offering, it follows that if we care about the future then we have to do what needs doing for ourselves. We do not recommend revolution, but Renaissance -- helping individuals and communities to set up enough of the enterprises we really need in situ to provide a true alternative. Then we can rely on market forces to turn the alternative into the norm. After all, no sane person given a real choice would opt for the status quo.