I spent seven days in early January dipping in and out of the presentations and seminars offered by the Oxford Real Farming Conference. I was one of more than 5000 delegates from across the world who attended this on-line event where all aspects of farming were discussed by around 500 presenters in 150 sessions. Although this was a farming conference, many of the topics under discussion were about food and how we can make food production more secure, more sustainable, more nutritious and more socially acceptable.
There were three key messages I took away from the conference:
* Complexity is vital. Our current farming systems favour simplicity. We need to encourage communities of plants and animals rather than mono crops. This mimics nature and promotes soil health, avoids the build-up of pests and diseases in crops and animals and yields greater quantities of food than conventional systems. Complex food systems are also important for animals, contributing to their overall health.
* Trees should form part of that complexity. Trees in an agricultural system provide shelter for animals and crops, are browsed by grazing animals and, contrary to perceived wisdom, they do not necessarily compete heavily for moisture or nutrients. In some systems, yields under tree cover were higher than elsewhere. Planting the right trees can also increase overall food supply by providing fruit and nuts for direct consumption.
* Regeneration must be our aim. It is no longer enough to make sure our food and farming systems do no harm; they must actively contribute to the regeneration of our soils, our ecosystems, our physical health and the health of our societies.
What was reassuring for me was the number of young farmers from across the world who were involved in the conference, both presenting and as delegates. Many of them are only farming on small holdings and what we would consider marginal areas but their enthusiasm for their task is infectious. I am sure many good networks were formed which will lead to more regenerative farming and food production in coming years.
I am looking forward to catching up with some of the talks I missed on the ORFC YouTube channel, where all the sessions from the conference can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCgidjvH_QvTzZqsJa7sOr_Q