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Crops, Commoning and Colonialism: Lessons from the Oxford Real Farming Conference

As the dark days of January set in, delegates from all over the world met in and around Oxford for the Oxford Real Farming Conference; the largest gathering of the agroecological movement on the planet. Rufus Hall reveals all.

For anyone strolling around Oxford over the 4th to 5th of January, make no mistake: the abundance of tweed-clad range-roverists had nothing to do with the Oxford Real Farming Conference, but rather its more conservative brethren event the Oxford Farming Conference, dismissed by co-founder of the ORFC Ruth West as “a bastion of industrial agriculture that was sponsored by corporates and attended by Ministers”. Then again, I would not know how OFC’s attendees were dressed: I was not in the city at the time, instead attending some of the 400 events at the ORFC via my computer. 

The ORFC is a symposium of progressive agricultural voices looking to reform the world’s broken food system. By uniting journalists investigating the inflated influence of agricultural big business on policy makers, and activists addressing the systemic racial injustices that pervade modern industrial agriculture, the conference painted  a bold picture of what the future of farming must look like  for the survival of humanity.

The conference went entirely online during Covid years, and ORFC’s continued commitment to live streaming speaks primarily to a desire to motivate representation and participation of people living in Majority World countries – anywhere outside Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand and Japan – who were entitled to free tickets. 

This commitment to engaging an ever-wider audience permeated the conference’s Opening Plenary session, broadcasted from the City of Oxford’s impressive town hall at St Aldates. “We need to bring people along with us. We can’t just be farmers and academics,” one opening speaker said: “we all eat food, we all drink water.” This was a piercing reminder of our constant engagement with industrial agriculture at a consumer level, at which its deadly procedures are always obscured from view. 

Beyond evangelising food system change, a wealth of speakers also underlined the spiritual imperatives of reconnecting with both the land and ourselves. In what would seem more fitting of a church service than an agricultural conference, speaker Charlotte Dufour of the Conscious Food Systems Alliance requested a few minutes of silent reflection: “For all of you online, I invite you to imagine a golden threat that is weaving between you and everyone in Oxford,” Dufour soothed, before calls of “Globalise the struggle! Globalise the hope!” erupted from the town hall, unsettling agro-business execs in Oxfordshire and beyond. 

Whilst unsure whether to hoist the red flag or settle in for a morning’s meditation, I was left certain that the ensuing sessions would entail exciting interactions from across a spectrum of voices in progressive farming, from the radical neo-socialist, to the spiritual, to those who support environmental and food system change within a state-market framework. 

Before considering the conference itself, one question remains: why, you may ask, is our food system in need of change? Well, in the first instance, it fails the 9 million people who die from hunger or related causes every year. Moreover, 11.3% of the world’s population go undernourished every day, 98% of whom live in underdeveloped countries. Perhaps, then, the solution to hunger is international development. But no, not at least if international development means industrialisation and increased fossil fuel supply, both of which would entail greater greenhouse gas emissions, leading to more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, further threatening harvest cycles and food security, especially in developing countries.The global food production system is also staggeringly inefficient: an outstanding 62% of all cereal crops, 88% of soy and 53% of pulses were used to feed, not people, but livestock in 2018/19. This constitutes a vast loss in biomass (which would otherwise feed people), most worryingly in the form of greenhouse gases produced by livestock, such as methane. 

A possible solution to the failures of industrial agriculture is an alternative system of farming called agroecology. This applies ecological concepts to farming, with the aim of mitigating climate change, putting communities and farmers first, and incorporating biodiversity into agricultural methods. Ripe and ready to quash any sceptics, founder and member of IPES-Food (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems) Emile Frison set out to sing the praises of agroecology at the session entitled: ‘Agri-Spin: How Big Industry Influences Food and Farming.’ The premise of the talk was to challenge the narrative propagated by the European industrial agriculture lobby that it is only industrial agriculture that can guarantee food security (food security, that is, for – most – Europeans, not the 904 million people who go to bed hungry each day). 

This narrative was dismantled by Frison, who spoke at length about Andhra Pradesh’s community-managed natural farming programme in India, an initiative of AP’s state government. 6 million farmers are part of the programme, who stick to agroecological principles such as only cultivating only those crops indigenous to the region, and forgoing synthetic pesticides for natural alternatives, growing food for a population larger than England’s. A study from the University of Reading found that participant farmers reported higher yields than in other Indian states where conventional or organic farming methods reign supreme. Frison reported that farmers reported 50% higher net income, as well as a 30% reduction in health costs and sick days taken. One wonders whether the apparent success of the programme in Andhra Pradesh (known as the rice bowl of India) has had to do with its particular agricultural conditions. In fact, the state is home to six different agro-climatic zones, and five different soil types. The sensitive-to-nature tenets of agroecology make the system, if anything, more equipped to deal with variable farming conditions. 

One outstanding factor present in the Andhra Pradesh success is the willingness of state government to implement policy that pushes for positive change. The Government of AP established Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, a state-owned not-for-profit that offers “hand-holding” support to smallholders. This support consists in part in the deployment of agroecology experts or “Community Resource Persons” to small agricultural communities attempting to undergo the transition in farming methods. 

Such direct state involvement suggests a pushback against the influence of big capital on farm ownership and agricultural timescales. The short-termism of investment fund stakeholders in large agricultural businesses, working to 10-year cycles to generate returns, has led consistently to more intensive chemical and monocultural practices, undercutting the need for soil replenishment and crop diversity. Individual smallholders, who own between 80% and 90% of farms worldwide, but under 30% of farmland, are increasingly in thrall to the cycles of these investment funds, and the conglomerates and retailers in which they are invested. It makes sense then, that it is only through state intervention, challenging the hegemony of agricultural free-market structures, that a global shift to agroecology will ever be possible.

‘Land as Reparations and How To Get There’, chaired by Naomi Terry of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, was the second session I attended. Moving away from farming policy, this talk at the Justice Hub drew connections between colonial accumulation and environmental extraction. The panel argued that reforming the latter approach in agriculture would help to address the former’s legacy of systemic racial inequity. 

The case for land restitution for colonised peoples is well-known: in India, South-East Asia, the Americas and Africa, European imperialists violently appropriated land, enslaved and expelled peoples, deforested, exhausted capital resources, and forbade indigenous subsistence farming and fire management practices. Native people in colonised countries and in the diaspora are therefore owed a debt in land and resources on account of this historical wrongdoing. Yet, Esther Stanford-Xosei of the Pan-Afrikan Reparations Coalition in Europe argued that land restitution is not just a retrospective phenomenon: “People are experiencing that ethnocide, that genocide, that ecocide right now.”

Climate change poses a threat first and foremost to people in the Global South, and particularly women. Stanford-Xosei argued that it can and should be seen in the continued, destructive legacy of the colonial ravages of the Western markets. As formerly colonised communities are the ones with generations of experience in extraction and land dispossession, they are best equipped to lead during a climate emergency. “The movement has moved beyond concern with the extinction of particular groups, to the extinction of all of us. Let us lead, let us take the reins!”

Besides advocating for “re-matriation” – a return to mother earth, involving a restitution of the African borders predating the 1884 Berlin Conference, any concrete idea of the panel’s vision for a post-colonial and climate secure future was, for the uninitiated, thin on the ground. Yet such a criticism misses the point; the discussion was not there to trade in on policy, but to remind of the significance of colonialism in the history of the modern, global agricultural system. Much as the community farm management programme in Andhra Pradesh runs contrary to spirit of the programmatic commercialisation of Indian agriculture undertaken by British rule in the 19th century, the talk served as a polite reminder that any attempt at reform will have to look outside the framework of trade, commerce and capital that was a hallmark of European colonial domination. 

Overall, the session spoke to a wider – if contentious and largely sidelined – discourse on the horrors and injustices of colonial extraction, and the need for some form of reparations for colonised peoples. In the session entitled, ‘Commons and Commoning: Progressive Visions of a Good Society,’  economist Prof. Guy Standing of SOAS and the Basic Income Earth Network argued that the “commoners” of England have suffered the effects of a more subtle theft of common resources over the last millenia. Standing’s contention was that a sustainable future must involve a reversion from the predominance of societies built around private ownership, to these more inclusive and equitable systems of self-governance and common production. 

Standing made the historical case for the ‘commons’, a term which denotes places or resources under common ownership and to which we all have a right.  In England, the historical and legal precedent for the commons can be traced back to the signing of the Charter of the Forest in 1217, the first statute of its kind to award rights to common people to access, inhabit and cultivate the “forests” – which in its historical meaning extended beyond woodland to all undeveloped landscapes. Standing noted that the 1623 Statute of limitations determined that anything that has been a commons for twenty years must stay that way. “The national health service, which was set up as a commons in 1948 became a commons in 1968. So legally, we have a right to sue governments that have been privatising it over the last thirty years, because they have been taking away our commons,” Standing said. 

From the 1773 Enclosure Act to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, where “138 million square kilometres of sea was converted into state property,” Standing argued that much of the history of the last 800 years has been defined by the piecemeal erosion of the commons, and the commoner’s access to it. Notably, there are modern precedents for protecting the commons: whilst Margaret Thatcher was busy overseeing the privatisation of Britain’s North Sea oil, the windfall from which she used to slash the top rate of income tax by 20%, the Norwegians established their own state-owned oil company Equinor, whose surplus profits were invested in what is now the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world. Thus, last year, while British politicians argued whether to impose a windfall tax on British oil and gas companies during the cost-of-living crisis, Norway’s Government Pension Fund-Global, which is worth around 200,000 USD per Norwegian citizen, has conversely protected common Norwegian resources, future-proofing the country’s welfare and pension provision for years to come.

The genius of Standing’s argument was to present common ownership not as a radical alternative to the sanctity of private property, but as an aspect of the status quo eroded by political radicals keen to line the pockets of companies and venture capitalists. Standing made the case for land restitution extending beyond the formerly colonised, to all common citizens of the United Kingdom and beyond. Overcome by the helpless moral rage of a lone witness to this injustice, he even broke into tears towards the end of his speech: a reminder that the discourse of appropriation on British soil is not nearly as well-established as it should be. He was nevertheless able to compose himself enough  to suggest that a replenishment of the commons would begin with a “progressive land tax, starting on large holdings,” followed by a tax on pollution, which constitutes a depletion of a further commons, the air we breathe. 

“What we need for today is a new charter of the commons, for the 21st century,” Standing concluded. “It is the charter of freedom; it is our charter and today we need to revive that spirit. Because only if we revive our commons will we have a good society.” Yet what was so striking about the ORFC was not its “spirit,” but how speakers were committed to real policy in order to enact real change. When political progressives are too often accused of being idealists with no grounding in reality, concrete visions of land taxes, common ownership and government support for smallholders transitioning to sustainable farming methods could not have been more refreshing. 

Only time will tell whether our leaders will heed such suggestions made by the ORFC’s diverse array of speakers and keep pace with the reality of climate change and food insecurity. In the meantime, it is comforting to know that some dreamers have their feet planted firmly on the ground.

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