Come the agricultural revolution, whose side will you be on?

By Louisa Dodd, Senior Project Manager, Sustainable Restaurant Association

“We need a pretty spectacular agricultural revolution” prescribed Iain Holhurst, organic vegetable farmer forerunner at the closing of the 2023 Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) last week. 

I attended the ORFC in the hope of hearing practical ways to bring about that revolution, in which farmers and chefs can work more closely together. 

ORFC has officially become the largest agroecological gathering in the world, with nearly 4,000 people across 19 locations online and in person, absorbed in back-to-back panels, workshops, seminars and film viewings, all deep-diving and discussing the challenges and solutions to “Real Farming”.  

By this, I mean a transition towards agroecology (applying ecological principles to agriculture); a food system which operates the way a well-functioning ecosystem would. One which is self-sustaining and immune to damaging externalities, prioritises soil health, “connects growers to the eaters”, as summarised by the incomparable activist and campaigner Vandana Shiva.  

In practical terms, that means making supply chains more farmer focused, said Danny Fisher from Better Food Shed. This would mean: 

  • Farmers are valued themost in the chain 
  • There is more connection between farmer and consumer, meaning more money for the farmer 
  • Buying what you order to minimise farm waste and saving everyone money 
  • Crop planning between farmer and buyer  

What struck me on this my first in-person visit to ORFC, was the age profile of my fellow delegates. It was a young crowd, filling me with confidence that not only is the movement growing, but its future is in good hands with change on the horizon.   

Fundamentally ORFC is about connection, knowledge sharing and relationship building within agroecology. To take farmers away from their fields for a few days shows how special this occasion is. We need to “champion collaboration over competition” to push forward the movement. said Sophie Paterson of the Food Data Collaboration. 

If I had to pick one buzz word which could have linked into every session, it would be diversity. “Diversity really does matter,” as author and broadcaster Dan Saladino put it. We need farming systems which cherish diversity in the soil, build healthy habitats for fauna, protect and procure species-specific ingredients, all of which cultivates a diverse microbiome in our guts which we increasingly know is integral to our brain and immune health. 

There was much conversation on, and agreement that, animals can be part of a sustainable farming system; ‘not the cow but the how’, being the go-to phrase. As outlined in Patrick Holden and the Sustainable Food Trust’s Feeding Britain Report, if we stopped feeding 60% of cereal grain to animals, especially in the UK, and allowed animals to graze the two thirds of the UK which is grass, we could, along with a plethora of other changes, maintain current levels of food production in the UK through agroecology. Animal health and welfare were described as being two sides of the same coin, if we humans get stressed, we get ill, and it’s the same for animals. Rebecca Mayhew of Old Hall Farm represented Pasture for Life at a few sessions, providing attendees with the inspiration that it is possible to convert from conventional farming to agroecology. At Old Hall Farm cows keep their calves for the first six months of life, and beef and dairy herds graze strictly on fresh grass, hay or haylage, in place of arable grains or imported feed.  

The final session explored what the future looks and tastes like, a tantalising panel of gurus in the sustainable food world. Throughout the conference, the lack of growing and cooking in the school curriculum was blamed for our societal under-engagement in food. Taking aim at Prime Minister Rish Sunak, Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Organic Cooking School, said: “You can’t eat a flippin’ maths book!” 

Bringing it back to the industry we here at the SRA represent, there were precious few hospitality delegates and even fewer sessions aimed at our sector. Other than Grassroots Farming’s work sourcing regenerative beef for Honest Burgers, there was little mention of hospitality across the two-day programme. Not to fault the organisers, but concerningly it felt like hospitality is being left behind in the narrative. When there are so many crises facing the industry, it can be hard to push the need for shorter supply chains, and more agroecological procurement to the top of the agenda.  

If we are to see the agricultural revolution Iain Tolhurst proposes, the whole hospitality and foodservice sector must be an essential element, creating demand for food produced the ‘right way’ opening the eyes of the dining public to what good food looks, smells and tastes like. 

Things to do today: 

Things to do this month: 

  • Know your hoof health: “you can drive down the cost and welfare goes down with it” chimed Rebecca Mayhew of Old Hall Farm. Ask your suppliers what welfare standards your meat sourcing aligns to, and what feed they use. Soy and grain fed livestock will contribute considerably to your carbon footprint. Starting to build a more transparent understanding of your meat supply is key. 

Things to do this year: 

  • Focus on impact: what ingredients do you procure the most? Make a plan for (even a percentage) of this supply to come more directly from farmers, and ideally from farms transitioning to fertiliser free, and soil friendly farming. Start by requiring Leaf Marque for UK sourcing. For example, if you’re a pizza business look at your wheat, a QSR, look at your oil. 

Vive la revolution! 

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