Attending the Oxford Farming Conference 2020

Stephen Young ,
10 Jan 2020

This week Eleanor and myself were fortunate enough to attend the Oxford Farming Conference. This was a really useful opportunity to meet industry influencers, represent the interests of Scottish Land & Estates members, as well as hear from knowledgeable speakers on both policy and practical changes in the land-based sector.

The theme this year was “Growing Healthy Society”, very topical given the current focus on the impact farming has both on the health of the nation and on the health of the land. To add to significance of the topics being discussed, there was also a protest by Extinction Rebellion. I was initially wary of this, feeling they may be out of step with those of us with practical understanding of agriculture, but I was pleasantly surprised to hear that the issues they raise are not far removed from our views. Increased reliance on imported products, less power for multinational farm input and major retailers were among the issues they were protesting, while simultaneously promoting eating, more good quality UK produce. In fact, it was more the sponsors of the conference they took issue with than the delegates.

One of the most interesting speakers on day one was Craig Bennet, CEO of Friends of the Earth. He spoke passionately about the need for policy to link the needs of food production, environmental and biodiversity requirements, and this reduction in siloed thinking is almost word for word what SLE are calling for in #Route2050. This sort of cross-industry agreement will only help strengthen SLE’s arguments.

I attended a fringe event looking at capturing value from carbon sequestration, where a company from Ireland highlighted the work they carried out to deliver carbon neutral lamb and beef by 2025. Improvements in the ability to measure soil carbon has created an annual statement, which not only shows it can be done, but also shows it can be done without drastically reducing stocking densities. This really highlighted the need for proper metrics to understand the carbon balance sheets for individual businesses and allow sequestrated carbon to be sold for a proper economic return. This is something we are working on at SLE and it’s good to know we’re not alone.

DEFRA Secretary of State Theresa Villiers delivered the keynote speech, where she stated that the UK government would stand strong to ensure that imported food must meet the standards of UK produce. However, in a poll of attendees, precisely 0% of the audience had confidence in that statement.

Aside from the formal talks and seminars, the conference has been a great opportunity to meet and speak to a range of people from across the UK and beyond, the “can do” attitude ensures that there is a real positive and a buzz around the rooms. Hopefully we can keep that going throughout the year!