For UK food system watchers, these are strange times. Huge challenges are already present – war, disease, ecosystems threats, unmet social needs, recession and much more. Yet the food system is largely being left to its own devices. Not even mighty transnational corporations can do more than tweak bits here or there. They cite fear of infringing competition laws, if they get together to act, but in truth they are locked into a particular economic model whose premises are fraying: cheap money, low inflation, fossil fuel as energy, value-adding, rampant consumerism. The UK Government might have dropped any pretence of having a national food strategy yet the case for one could not be more clear or urgent.
How has this policy failure come about? What can be done about it?
I mulled this last week at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC), dodging rail strikes to get there in time. The ORFC was set up 13 years ago by excellent people such as writer Colin Tudge and former publisher, now green entrepreneur, Peter Kindersley. It was a cri-de-coeur against the complacency of the more traditional and Big Farm oriented Oxford Farming Conference (OFC), first held in 1936. There is another way to farm than with agrichemicals and technology, was the ORFC rallying cry.
This year the OFC had 560 attendees, far exceeded by the upstart ORFC’s 1800 people with a further 2500 online. It grows and grows. Whereas suits are worn at the OFC, the dress code at ORFC is decidedly relaxed. If the OFC has spreadsheets in mind, at the ORFC agri-food is a matter for poetry, music and literature, not just land skills. One could portray OFC as celebrating large farming and ORFC the small-scale, but in both conferences culture jostles with soil science, land management with social science, and the giant food corporations are the elephants in the room.
The OFC has changed in response to the ORFC. Organic food people are now on OFC committees, not just rare invited speakers as in the past. The OFC today has sessions on the environment, speaks eco-speak, worries about climate change and has more of a mix of radical but reasonable inputs. Ministers and state officials might now go to both events – albeit only junior ones this year, the Defra Secretary of State being in Brazil (one wonders what trade deals lie ahead) – but it’s the OFC which is sponsored by McDonald’s.
It was the ORFC, interestingly, which the Conservatives wooed hardest in the late 2010s under Michael Gove as Secretary of State. This was to ‘sell’ the repurposing of farming as for the environment not food. It was a canny move to buy a mix of silence and support for the regrettable Agriculture Act 2020. Why regrettable? Because it severed multi-functional land use into different interests. The ‘public funds for public goods’ mantra somehow marginalized food as a public good! We await the Royal Society land use report to see if it takes food seriously.
At Oxford this year, I mulled with many people whether the two conferences ought formally to merge – whether sufficient overlap is emerging. Also, I asked people: is the ORFC missing a trick in steadfastly not pulling together concluding statements or resolutions? I wish it did; effective political interventions are more likely if oppositions are focused and organized. Others disagree, countering that the delicious ‘messiness’ and diversity are the ORFC’s strengths. I half agree. Most people I talked with thought it’s good to keep them separate. The cultural differences are both edgy and real.
One cannot imagine the OFC, which dines at posh Oxford colleges, having thunderous Japanese drummers or shamans perform, as did the ORFC. ORFC is definitely alternative, radical, questioning. But it is edging into the mainstream, too, capturing hearts and minds, as the UK food system drifts. Big funders were present at both gatherings.
History is one reason they remain different gatherings. It’s not just tribal. Beginning in the 1930s, the OFC’s life-blood was always the pursuit of financial viability as the route to farm survival. The 1930s were dire times for not just UK but also world farming. The 1929 Wall Street Crash had eroded confidence in capitalism. Economic growth, then as today a mantra of the unthoughtful and reductionists, was in fact being resuscitated by militarism and rearmament. In 1936 Beveridge had advised the British Government to sort out its food policy but was ignored. Farming was in recession but seeds of intervention were sprouting: Marketing Boards such as for potatoes and milk were being created to bring order to market chaos. US observers thought these smacked of socialism and undue state interference. Hunger Campaigns were demanding workers receive better wages, not just food handouts. The demands for welfare were growing.
Arguments familiar again today raged about trade, vested interests, state powers, responsibilities and labour. It took war and mass loss of life to inject some rationality into post-war food planning. Much that the OFC wanted began to emerge in wartime farm strategy. Farmers need stability. (So do consumers!) Growing more food became a priority. Semi-conscripted labour such as the Women’s Land Army was provided. Nutrition goals were set. And post-war, a central state commitment to rebuild farm capacity was enshrined in the 1947 Agriculture Act. It assumed farming would feed people, also that it was folly not to produce food if you could.
Seventy-five years on, farming again doesn’t know what it is for and is frozen in the glare of ideological headlights. Government says it’s for ecosystems management. While the word ‘food’ features in various documents, there’s little emphasis on it in what Government actually does. If pressed, one could characterize the OFC as the conference of bemused commodity production, big farmers, and the muddied mainstream. The ORFC meanwhile has a mix of back-to-the-land, celebration of small-scale producers, and cultural bridges between town and rurality.
In truth, land use politics is now what connects these two gatherings. What’s missing is a systems perspective from farm to fork. If they got together, that might come, because they’d realise neither has sufficient power to change food dynamics when divided. But I suspect attendance would drop. Away from the farm, there’s no equivalent tussle of food consumer conferences. Arguably, Sustain’s increasingly punchy conference already articulates the consumer-as-citizen interest. But the agri-food terrain has been reformed by 13 years of conservative governments, not least constraining campaigning. The policy integration that emerged across the EU after the 2007-8 financial crisis shook the rich G8 economies into taking agri-food policy more seriously. In the UK, alas, that integration has been systematically broken up by roller-coaster, fast-changing governments. Ministers don’t lead. They aren’t in office long enough to make a progressive difference. Disruption rules. The EU meanwhile in its inimitable, slow, crab-like way is making progress under the Green Deal. Britain needs a Green Deal, not just a few bolt-on projects. Either it’s serious about tackling climate change and public health through food or it’s not. At present, it’s not.
Footloose capital, meanwhile, is constantly looking for new opportunities to invest in ‘solutions’ for the land-food-health crisis. If you haven’t already read it, take a look at the cool study by the Stockholm Resilience Centre of four types of hi-tech ‘solutions’: vertical farming, plant-based alternatives, food delivery schemes, and the application of blockchain to make complex supply chains more responsive. We see here the application of a sensible multi-criteria framework. A good food system is not likely to be created by following single-issue fixations. The challenge is how to put the jigsaw of the food system together. That requires better policy-making. There’s no sign of that yet, but an election looms in which it must feature.