Extinction Rebellion has taken up a picket outside Oxford’s Examination Schools this month to protest the Oxford Farming Conference. Environmentalists gathered outside the building on the High Street to express their concerns over the sponsors of the conference, which included a number of agrochemical companies.

The climate group also criticised Sainsbury’s and M&S for their sponsorship of the event, claiming the two retailers’ focus on profit margin and maximising sales would inevitably have a negative impact on the wellbeing of farmers, ecosystems and the public.

Jane King, arts coordinator of Extinction Rebellion, said: “The Oxford Farming Conference has been running since 1936 but today it seems to be less about farming and more about the interests of the UK’s multi-billion pound industries that control farming and therefore the land. Nature is our life support system. Restoring our ecosystems is the best chance we have of dealing with the Climate Emergency. Restoring nature and our natural carbon sinks (e.g. soil, woodlands, wetlands, grasslands, moorlands, peatlands and oceans) to capture carbon from the atmosphere, is at this time the only feasible solution to avoid climate catastrophe. No man-made means of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is currently working at sufficient scale.”

Protestors gathered outside the Examination Schools, on the High Street, carrying a number of placards which read “Save Our Soil”, “Bring Back Real Farming”, and “DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs] Do Your Job”. In another protest later in the day, activists posed reading a number of spoof newspapers titled after existing newspapers, such as “the Daily Denial” or “Evading Standards”.

A spokesperson for the Oxford Farming Conference told Cherwell: “OFC is a science-based conference which is put together by 10 volunteer directors who share the concerns highlighted by Extinction Rebellion (XR) about the climate crisis and the need for global agriculture to become truly sustainable and to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  

The purpose of OFC is to challenge entrenched views and provide a forum for discussion on new ways forward for agriculture. There is no question that some past government policies, many of which focused on food production alone, have come at environmental cost. Intense retail competition has delivered low food prices which fail to reflect the true cost of food production.

“We agree with XR that there is an urgent need for farming to change globally. Farmers in the UK are adapting faster than many other countries and are aware that they are part of the problem, but increasingly that they are an important part of the solution. 

In its long history, OFC has always discussed and evaluated the challenges of the day with a clear and open mind. The challenges have changed radically over the years – from food rationing to butter mountain; taking land out of production for wildlife to food affordability.

“This year the conference, which took place last week, focused specifically on healthy food and a healthy natural environment. 

“There was great engagement between the delegates attending the OFC, and recognition that the concerns raised by XR were shared by conference delegates.”

While Extinction Rebellion did not express any anger with the University for their hosting of the conference, they did question whether the high venue rental costs at the Examination Schools forced the conference to be unselective about the industry of the event’s sponsorship. Speaking to Cherwell, Till Weidner, who planned the event, said: “We wonder whether it is in the interest of the university to charge venue and catering costs which necessitate such [agrochemical and commercial] sponsoring.”

Extinction Rebellion are an international environmentalist group. They have become well known through their acts of “civil disobedience”, which involve nonviolent acts in contravention of laws to protest government inaction over climate change. In Oxford, the group have previously held events to raise public awareness of the scale of the climate crisis. The group have now aligned themselves with the “Oxford Real Farming Conference”, a conference established in response to the industrialised and globalised outlook of the OFC. The conference is hosted at the same time as the OFC, a few kilometres away in Oxford’s Town Hall.

A spokesperson for Sainsbury’s told Cherwell: “Sainsbury’s has been making changes to our sourcing to adapt to climate-friendly farming. We have been the market leader on vegan and vegetarian products for many years and our high welfare, integrated beef and dairy strategy is significantly reducing carbon emissions. We are also committed to be 100% ASC and MSC assured by the end of the year.”