Oxford Real Farming Conference: Lessons for Foodservice

By Louisa Dodd, Project Manager, Sustainable Restaurant Association

As with almost all events since March 2020, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) saw the annual gathering of the food industry’s leading agroecological pioneers come together virtually. Understandable, but also particularly incongruous, for a group of people many of whom spend the vast majority of their time in the great outdoors, cultivating our food. The week’s calendar was jam-packed with workshops, panels, film screenings and keynote speeches about the thing we’re all most passionate about – food production. It was certainly a much-needed plateful of inspiration to kick start 2021 and there are some key messages for foodservice (read to the end!).

“Climate change today is a problem that is not ours,” voiced Benki Piyako, the leader of an indigenous community in the Amazonian state of Acre, who delivered an impassioned speech on his efforts to reforest his community’s land. “It is for all human beings on Earth who have to take on this responsibility.” Perhaps a silver lining of the ORFC’s shift online was the ability to connect live with Benki for his powerful message direct from the Amazon.

Benki’s speech set a core theme for the conference, how can we listen and learn from indigenous communities and traditional farming cultures to fix the pathway Western solutions have led our global farming systems on? Instead of debating terminology like ‘organic’, ‘agroecology’, ‘regenerative’ or ‘farmer-focused’, we should turn our attention to these pockets of the world where communities are managing the land using traditional methods, avoiding the pitfalls of Western mass production.

Solutions at the double

Solutions are at the core to ORFC, with experts highlighting successful trials of more progressive food system methods – from insect and duckweed animal feed alternatives, opportunities around Eastern European soy supply, chemical free processes to the primary potato pests – cyst nematodes – or the growing research correlating good soil to good gut health. Whilst regenerative agriculture encroaches into public spheres year on year, these are the folk who have been banging the drum for decades. Attending just a handful of the events at the conference is a salutary reminder that we should have been listening to them and taking more widespread action much earlier.

If ORFC was a drinking game, the buzz word would be soil, and we would have been floored in the first hour. The excitement around this growing area of research, which is central to more restorative farming principles, spilled across seminars. Perhaps the most telling quote came from microbiologist Andy Neal who said: “We know more about the moon than we do about the soil.”

There were some key messages and questions plated up for hospitality. With the COP26 climate conference in November 2021, we need to see foodservice now more than ever committing to their role in supporting sustainable food producers. That means asking yourself a few key questions about your sourcing policies:

For independent restaurants

How can you build direct relationships with as many producers as possible?

How can you increase farmer visibility to diners?

How can your menus flex with the seasons to better support British farmers?

For chains

How can you provide better routes to market for sustainable farmers?

How can your food policies commit to certifications which support alternative farming practices, such as Soil Association Organic or LEAF Marque?

How could each site support local food suppliers, or at least one regenerative farmer?

For caterers

How can you apply pressure on your wholesalers to offer more organic produce?

How can you tempt your diners to buy your most sustainable dishes?

If you need help in tackling any of the above? Get in touch at [email protected]

Keep up to date for when lecture recordings go live via the ORFC’s website, and in the meantime, catch up on Farmerama’s daily briefings from the conference over on their Instagram.

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