Food for thought at the Oxford Farming Conference 2020

The theme of this year’s conference was Growing a Healthy Society, and sessions included debates on mental health, inclusivity and the relationship between farming and faith.

The first day included several fringe events, with talks by Map of Ag, Syngenta, Soil Essentials and Ag Space, along with UKRI Innovation Hub sessions.

The Politics session, which included talks from the Secretary of State for for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Theresa Villiers and NFU President Minette Batters, drew huge interest, filling both the main hall and overflow room to capacity.

Minette Batters gave a rousing speech in support of British farming and the advances made to become more sustainable. She said: “UK agriculture can and is ready to help lead and provide the solutions that are needed.”

Ms Villiers told the assembled delegates: “…we will start to reduce Direct Payments in England, but we will do that in a fair and progressive way. We will use the money withdrawn from the Direct Payments system to launch the national pilot for our Environmental Land Management … and, also I want to emphasise, to provide targeted financial assistance to improve agricultural productivity … and increase the resilience of farm businesses.”

A highlight of the conference was Henry Dimbleby’s speech on the UK’s Food Strategy, along with the subsequent debate, moderated by BBC presenter Evan Davis. Mr Dimbleby told delegates: “Farmers saved billions of people from starvation in the Green Revolution. Modern day problems of hunger are about distribution, not production.… We can pivot the system to restore and enhance our environment, sequester carbon and stop making us sick, but we cannot only consider the environmental impact of food we produce in the UK but must also apply the same standards to food imports. If Britain can lead the world in this transition, we will be able to benefit from exporting that knowledge abroad.”

In the Science debate, Professor Alice Stanton,  Professor of Cardiovascular Pharmacology at the Royal College of Surgeons and Director of Human Health at Devenish Nutrition, highlighted the decreasing nutrition content of a range of foods, and argued – against the current trend – that eating meat was not only beneficial, but vital for our health.

The Frank Parkinson Lecture, Farming Needs To Rebrand, delivered by Poran Malani, contained some sharp observations: “Society doesn’t want to be educated, they want to be engaged,” he said, adding that farming should begin to work towards presenting a “sexy” image, not a worthy one. He advised the assembled farmers and food producers to find the narrative in their industry, the stories that would capture people’s attention: “As farmers you need to engage outside periphery of food – tell the stories of the science, data, the contribution you make to fuels, to materials. What farmers do infiltrates every aspect of our lives. So, it becomes about everything else in the world and then bring food in.” Above all, he concluded: “Collaboration – different to cooperation – is key to business.”

On the final day, the stand-out event for the team, was the Inspiring Farmers Session. Soil Association Chief Executive Helen Browning, Powered Pasture director Alex Brewster, herb farmer, author and garden designer Jekka McVicar and Finnebrogue Artisan Communications Director Jago Pearson spoke passionately about their work, with family support often being cited as key to success. All four lived up to the title of the session and left the audience feeling very inspired that farming was definitely worth the effort and hard work.

The Oxford Farming Conference is a truly whirlwind event, packed not only with overwhelming amounts of information, but also with crowds of well-informed, innovative speakers and delegates. It offered plenty of networking opportunities for the CHAP team, reconnecting with old friends and making many new connections that we plan to build on over the coming year.

If you have any questions about working with CHAP on a specific project or event, please contact us at enquiries@chap-solutions.co.uk