Indigenous farming perspectives, land ownership, agroecological farming and how to enact change were some of the key themes from the seven-day Oxford Real Farming Conference, which took place between 8-13 January.
The alternative farming event, which this year went global and virtual for the first time, was attended by thousands of visitors from 75 countries, and was described as a “melting pot” of thinkers and change-makers.
The Wicked Leeks team attended sessions throughout the week, covering the launch of the ground-breaking report on how sustainable farming can feed the UK, interviewing speakers including seed guardian Javier Carrera, and reporting on sessions from our Twitter page. Below is a snapshot of some of our highlights, but look out for more coverage coming soon.
On land dispossession
Land dispossession, and the legacy of theft and corporate control, was the subject tackled by speakers including black sugarcane farmers, June and Angie Provost, from south Louisiana, who said: “The sustainability and regeneration movement needs to rename its ideas because it’s not truly sustainable and regenerative because it’s extremely exclusive.
“It doesn’t include the stories of black and brown farmers. Sustainability for us mean sustaining the existence of black and brown farmers. We need to be included in the conversation.”
Maasai activist Samwel Nangiria, and director of the Ngorongoro NGO network, said: “Knowledge can only truly be harnessed when you have control of your land. Land is life, land is justice. It is arrogance to say that you own the land, the land owns you, the land outlives you.”
Land was discussed in a different way in a session on the ‘Financialisaton of Land Sales’, by land agronomist Robert Levesque, who said: “Land has become a commodity, and so it has become interesting for financial actors, looking for a return on investment and not food production. This disconnects social and ecological services that allow a sustainable and dignified life and instead it becomes an instrument to extract wealth for those distant to the land.”
Alternative ownership and ethical values
In a session on how business ownership can help shape its values, founder of organic veg box company Riverford, Guy Singh-Watson, said: "As a species, I feel we are much more prone to cooperation than most economists would have us believe.
"I am becoming increasingly confident that co-owner engagement is prompting our financial performance. And I am very sure that our values are protected," he added.
Josiah Meldrum, co-founder of pulse pioneers Hodemod, discussed how traditional business structures are not suited to environmental or social values. "The corporate identity today is an extracted tool of empire," he said.
Food and stealthy PR tactics
In a session on ‘Spinning food: the stealth PR tactics industry uses to shape the story of food’, Anna Lappé, of agency Real Food Media, said: “The pesticide industry isn’t just using the playbook of big tobacco and oil, they helped to write it. As a tobacco executive famously said, ‘doubt is our product, since it is the best way of competing with the body of fact that exists in the mind of the general public.’”
Small farms and local food
A common theme across the conference was the potential in small farms and local food systems to solve many of the world’s challenges.
Researcher and community grower Elise Wach told delegates at a session called ‘A small farm future’, that: “We should be producing what society needs rather than what the market rewards and what farmers need to generate profit. I am incentivised to grow fancy salad leaves for restaurants rather than swede and potatoes."
Elsewhere, author Helena Norberg-Hodge highlighted the links between sustainable food systems and people, and said: “In our system, manipulated by the globalised markets, we haven’t produced more food, we’ve just produced it with less people, driving people from the land.”
Technology and sustainable food
Talking about the impact of technology on sustainable food networks in Latin America during Covid-19, Veronica Villa, of democracy and tech campaign group ETC Group, said: “We have become shackled to digital networks. They cover everything, food, health, and information. It’s like they are saying if you are not into digital platforms, you don’t exist. We still need to discuss the de-skilling of people due to this digitalisation.”
As well as deskilling, Villa said in Latin America the pandemic had also given a free pass to imports of pesticides, and weakened labour rights, while no support had been provided to small-scale family farming.
With a powerful focus not only on indigenous farmers but on workers’ rights in the food system, delegates heard from a range of activists and campaigners.
Carlos Marentes, from international coordinating committee of La Via Campesina, a global movement for peasant farming and food justice, pointed out that: “Agricultural workers are one of the most exploited groups across the world because the majority of them are migrants. They have low wages, poor working conditions, and they don’t always get the same rights as other workers for their contribution.
“Because of the covid crisis, farm workers were suddenly essential workers. But they failed, in the US, to provide the most basic protection to these workers. They were told to go back to the fields and carry on working.”
Nutrition and soil health
Elsewhere, nutrition was an area of focus for public health physician and advocate for agroecological food, Peter Ogera Mokaya, who said: “The world has simply forgotten that there is a role nutrition plays in preventing all diseases, including Covid-19; good nutrition strengthens immunity. Hippocrates said ‘all disease begins and ends with the gut’ and we now know that up to 80 per cent of the immune system is resident in the gut.”
“There is a high correlation between diversity in diets and improved nutrition. We need to promote diverse, local food grown without any of the harsh chemicals that ravage and destroy not just the soil but the ecosystem of the human gut.”
Reporting by Jack Thompson, Becky Blench, and Nina Pullman.