Themes and questions relevant to sustainable food partnerships that we pulled together from our experience of being at the ORFC 2023.
A huge boost of inspiration and stimulation
The Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) this year was bigger than ever before. The agenda was jam-packed, with over 155 in-person sessions and many more online. It was, therefore, a real challenge to decide what to attend. Consequently, we can only offer reflections based on the sessions that we went to, and a bit of reading around what we missed. We hope that what we do share, and the resulting questions that we ask, will stimulate conversation and debate around the topics that were buzzing about Oxford and their relevance to your local food partnership.
Each year the ORFC creates an incredible boost of inspiration, motivation, and stimulation for those working in the food system. This year was no different. There was a magical, tantalising atmosphere created by being surrounded by so many kindred folk who campaign, grow, research, and fight for sustainable and regenerative food around the world. This year was the largest gathering to date with over 1800 attendees in person, and more than 2000 online – it has now become the largest agroecological gathering in the world, and we felt so privileged to be a part of it. Sessions ranged from talks and panel discussions to poetry readings and personal workshops, and the topics spanned from contemporary spirituality and nature to more tangible discussions of the state of UK food security and of course the food partnership approach!
Diversity, inclusion and giving space to marginalised voices
One of the themes running through the ORFC was the active consideration and inclusion of diverse backgrounds, identities, ethnicities, religions, and peoples on UK land – particularly about making space for them in more rural areas. This we thought was a relevant topic to bring back to the network, especially by asking how representative your partnership is of the communities in your local area? Is there more that you could do to reach out to those who are not already involved? Have you used the REDI (Race, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) tool from the SFP toolbox and how this might help reflect your partnership and community better?
One session that was recorded and may be of interest was titled “Cultivating Belonging: Exploring diasporic relationships to land” and it was hosted by the Landworkers’ Alliance.
Other interesting groups to look up:
Buying local, shortening supply-chains, and growing more
An overriding message from many different sessions was the generally agreed-upon principle to try to buy local and seasonal food. This sounds like a simple mandate, but many sessions around this topic proved how complex this can be in the UK. One session, chaired by Tim Benton of Think Tank Chatham House, asked “Should the UK grow more food?”, given the large proportion of food that is currently being imported. According to government figures currently just under half of food consumed in the UK is produced here. So, even though there was a lot of talk about shortening supply chains, needing more local processing infrastructure (such as abattoirs – see our session: “Farmer Connections”), and access to local markets, there was also an underlying question of how UK land is being used, what is in production, and how that could change?
In more than one session, we were reminded of the importance of the economic viability of farming produce and where farmers take their products to market. In some cases, as illustrated by our very own Pete Richie of Nourish Scotland, large swathes of agricultural land are used to produce livestock feed and high-value alcoholic drinks instead of food for people. One such example is Scotland; where 80% of arable land is used to produce barley that goes into the production of feed and whiskey. Another session in this vein was the “Future Nut Production in the UK” session (which was recorded), that talked about how the changing climate will allow for different produce to be grown as seasons get warmer. Moreover, at Sustain’s “Bridging the Gap Between Sustainable Farming and Low-Income Communities” session the topic of people’s personal connection to food and the farmer was raised. The audience discussion brought up how positively people’s well-being is enhanced by having a sense of personal connection to the food that they eat, where it was grown, and the people who produced it. That is, even if that connection is made by a proxy visit to a local market or chatting to the person who delivers your vegbox.
The affordability of healthy and sustainable food in the UK and partnering across sectors for maximum social impact
Talking amongst ourselves at the end of the conference, we wondered what sort of power there could be in collaborating across sectors to simultaneously raise the interdependent issues of cost of living, housing, energy prices, and household income to spend on good food. The conference highlighted for us that farmers, processors and retailers being paid a fair price generally doesn’t leave much room for good food to become cheaper in the UK, rather, in order to build an agroecological food system, we need to be able to spend more money on food. Furthermore, we need to invest in connections between producers and consumers and combine forces to fill-in fresh-food deserts across the UK. We feel that food partnerships are uniquely placed to raise these issues and trial different systems at a local level, and we wondered how you feel about raising these seemingly separate, but interrelated, topics in your local political spheres?
On a more practical level, there were also discussions about the roles of community food businesses and better food traders in bringing about changes. Sessions by the Real Farming Trust and Sustain asked how do we built alternatives to supermarkets and how do community food enterprises bring about positive social change? We ask you; how do you see your role as a food partnership in facilitating these alternatives in your area, and what are the barriers that prevent these alternatives becoming successful? What fundamental changes need to happen for people to have access to locally and sustainably produced food in your area?
A thought on food culture
A final thought from our overall reflections at the ORFC was the lack of an active conversation about food culture in the UK beyond education in schools. Although the conference is most certainly a farming conference, it seemed a missed opportunity to openly talk about food culture, and what kind of learning, practices, and habits might make for an agroecological diet to be in high demand in the UK. Dan Saladino presented his book Eating to Extinction, and Friday the 13th of January was celebrated as Food Diversity Day. This presentation provoked the questions; what kind of food cultures are present in your area, and how to they connect to what is produced locally? Could this be a conversation to start? What would a bioregional diet look like in your sustainable food place?
We need more examples show-casing how food partnerships work in practice
What was very clear to us was that Sustainable Food Partnerships have a unique approach to these complex issues, and that they hold real power in building, holding, and facilitating cross-sector connections within communities. This is also what made our session so interesting in the context of the conference. It showed, by way of powerful case-studies, how local communities can connect to local farmers and shorten supply chains in their own locality. It also showed the power of a grassroots movement in the absence of clear government strategies on food. It also reminded us of the need to share more of these positive and powerful stories of what is possible on the ground, especially when it is attuned to local needs.
Other recorded ORFC sessions that might be of interest
Let us know what you think
If there are responses to any of these thoughts and questions that you would like to publicly share with the network, please feel free to email us (firstname.lastname@example.org), or to connect with us on social media. You will find us on Twitter: @FoodPlacesUK, on Instagram: @sustainablefoodplaces, and on LinkedIn: Sustainable Food Places.
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