Reflections on the Oxford Farming Conference
“I attended the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) for the first time in 2018. A fellow 2017 Nuffield Farming Scholar and good friend from Brazil was invited to speak and I went to support her. On arrival, I realised that it wasn’t just another conference. The timetabling of the event in January means that it sets the tone for what the industry will be discussing for the year, facilitated by the strong media presence from broadsheet journalists to trade press. From the moment I set foot in Oxford, I felt the passion from the delegates attending both the OFC and the neighbouring Oxford Real Farming Conference. The vibrant discussions and sense of urgency to start the year with new objectives, is an amazing feeling which I have happily embraced.
The OFC is the UK’s leading international conference for farming and agri-business and has taken place almost every year since 1936 in the beautiful and historic surroundings of Oxford University.
Its mission is to inform, challenge and inspire the 560 or so delegates who attend, to resonate and be a force for positive change throughout the industry.
“The conference provides independent thought leadership and challenge of the highest calibre, a highly regarded cross-industry networking opportunity of key influencers and a progressive and forward-looking outlook with an international dimension and the inspiration and encouragement for positive change.
The conference has 12 honorary directors, nine of whom are on a three-year rotation. We plan the conference theme, content and speakers as well as run two programmes. The Scholarship Programme for people aged approximately 22 to 30 and the Emerging Leaders Programme for the over 30s and mid-career individuals. There is an orientation day, hosted by a food industry or agrifood supply chain sponsor, ahead of the conference where participants can meet each other. Previous years have seen visits to FERA Science in York, a day with the agrochemical company BASF and tours of McDonalds UK burger bun, meat patties supply chain and franchise restaurants.
“What I love about both programmes is the opportunity to engage with a generation of people who are entering the sector with new ideas and belief systems. I ran the Scholars programme this year and together with Sarah Mukherjee who ran the Emerging Leaders programme we proposed that we needed to cast the net wider to bring in a diverse group of candidates. The purpose was to introduce a different conversation than in previous years. I would like to say that I was fully confident about this approach but in the back of my mind I did wonder if was ambitious to do this at the same time as bringing a health and nutrition theme to the conference. Thankfully these fears were unfounded.”
“The debate and wide-ranging views that OFC encourages, is a fantastic opportunity for young leaders to challenge their perceptions, to grow through debate and to learn. Talking to the Scholars about sustainable food production this year was fascinating as different perceptions of what sustainability means and how it can be achieved, were hotly debated during the 3 days of the ‘Growing a healthy society’ conference.”
“Some of the past speakers (such as George Monbiot) aren’t palatable, but young leaders in the agrifood sector need to be exposed to these views and articulate their responses and personal position on challenging topics. The questions from the audience add to the debate. The conversation in the press and on social media continues long after the conference is over.”
“Our speakers propose new innovations, science and approaches in business and farming which challenge the status quo. A stand-out memory for me this year was the presentation by Professor Alice Stanton when she talked about the importance of red meat in a balanced diet. It was information that had not been widely discussed until that point and it got people’s attention and made them think why we produce meat and the benefit we get from eating it. She talked about the drop in micronutrients in fruit and vegetables over the years, which for me, detracted from the argument, as there is no evidence of a drop that would significantly impact human health.
“The bigger issue is that our diet has moved away from whole foods and that the poorest in society are the ones who have the least ability to buy fruit and vegetables. It was incredibly interesting this year to see how the audience reacted to Henry Dimbleby and his panel speaking about the National Food Strategy, poverty and access to food. I genuinely felt from the conference feedback that delegates had learnt something new from the experience.”
“Agriculture is changing and over its 75 years the conference has reflected that. We have had talks on the use of small robots to replace heavy equipment in field, a floating dairy in the Netherlands, a shift in marketing to connect with consumers and artificial intelligence on farm, to name a few.
“These ideas may be innovative and yet to be adopted in mainstream agriculture, but it highlights the need to recruit people from a wide range of backgrounds and skills. Diversity will make our industry stronger as we tackle new challenges that require a different approach and knowledge base. Traditionally, people in the sector have come from farming backgrounds or via agricultural college. These innovations require multidisciplinary teams including specialists in engineering, data analysis and consumer behaviour for example.
“Recruitment into the sector is becoming harder, as young people are enticed into more obvious career paths which have a clear link to their goals and aspirations. The agrifood sector is also able to meet these needs and will have to look outside of the traditional agricultural colleges as the pool of students becomes smaller. This year, encouraged by initiatives seen elsewhere, OFC successfully opened the Scholar programme to people outside of the sector with an interest in food and farming. It was inspiring to see how the group worked together and freely and openly discussed the topics that they will be responsible for implementing in their future careers.
“The arrival of COVID-19 has presented an opportunity for many new people to discover what the agri-food sector has to offer and I am optimistic that the diversity this brings will be a catalyst for positive change.
“OFC will be 75 years old in 2021 and on reflection of the last 75 years, the focus will be on what we can do better.”
Barbara Bray runs her own consultancy business in the UK, Alo Solutions Ltd, driving and delivering food safety in food supply chains and advising agri-food businesses on nutrition strategy.
With a passion for educating people about food and nutrition, Barbara is a trustee with portfolio of International Affairs for The Nutrition Society in the UK. She is on the Food Science and Nutrition committee for the Institute of Food Science and Technology and is a director of the Oxford Farming Conference, the leading international conference held in the UK for farming and agribusiness.