Highlights from the Land Workers’ Alliance at the Oxford Real Farming Conference 2016

The Oxford Real Farming Conference is a highlight of the agricultural calendar to farmers, campaigners and activists working for agroecology and Food Sovereignty in the UK. This years conference, January 6th and 7th, was no exception, with delegates joining from across the globe to join the revolutionary discussions.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference started seven years ago as an alternative to the decades old Oxford Farming Conference, an annual meeting of large agribusiness, unions and policy makers discussing the future of the agro-industrial complex. The event is now much larger than it’s uninspiring original, receiving an increasingly higher profile and attracting a high calibre of speakers in panels and discussions. As in previous years the Land Workers Alliance hosted the Old Library space ensuring that the voices of La Via Campesina and global peasant struggles are central to discussions about the future of UK farming.

Day one began with a session titled “How to Build a Movement that Works” bringing together a variety of organisations working on food and farming issues, to ensure radical change for the better in the UK food system. We heard from OrganicLea on creating grassroots food production married with education for broader impact. Nourish Scotland spoke of building positive political relations with the Scottish Nationalist Party. And Andrea Ferrante shared how social movement La Via Campesina is working in Brussels to make change at the European level.

Rural Manifesto picLunch of day one saw press and participants feast on the release of “Equality in the Countryside”, a Rural Manifesto for Parliamentary Opposition collaboratively developed by The Land Magazine and The Land Workers’ Alliance. The paper outlines a progressive set of recommendations to challenge the ‘elitism’ which dominates countryside policy. The manifesto includes 46 action points, on matters such a housing, land ownership, agriculture and rural employment. These all have the common aim of making Britain’s rural land and resources more accessible to a wider constituency of people. The document received overwhelming praise with the Family Farmers Association, Green MEP Molly Scott Cato and Shadow Secretary for Environment Farming and Rural Affairs Kerry McCarthy all expressing support.

Wednesday evening provided the unique opportunity for four members of the Land Workers Alliance to attend a debate hosted by the Oxford Farming Conference on the topic of ‘Farming is an Equal Opportunities Industry”. The formal debate was not wholly undermined by the fact that the vast majority of the room was white, British, middle class, middle aged and male, with arguments from the opposition referring to key issues in modern agriculture such as the ageing farming population and global inequalities in farm labour. Two representatives of the Land Workers Alliance were given the opportunity to speak from the floor, with Rebecca Laughton making a strong argument for the Common Agricultural Policy being a cause of unequal opportunity by encouraging land conglomeration. Jyoti Fernandes made a passionate speech declaring herself as one of the majority of the worlds farmers who are ‘little brown women’ that do all the work but never sit within the corridors of power that shape the direction of their own livelihood. The Land Workers Alliance was very well received within this setting with Guy Smith, Vice President of the NFU congratulating efforts with a bottle of champaign.

The first session of Day Two opened with an exploration of the crisis of the dairy industry. In this session Kannaiyan Subramaniyam, a small scale dairy farmer visiting from India, gave a first hand account of how Europe’s agricultural and export subsidies are creating cheap imports of milk in India that undercut peasant farmers. He recounted how many people lose their food security for themselves and their families when they can no longer afford to keep their family cows as milk prices are pushed artificially low, and the resulting poverty and food insecurity that arises off the back of these policies. It was a real privilege to have Kannaiyan Subramaniyam join the Land Workers Alliance for this session and a real testimony to the power of La Via Campesina to join the struggles of peasant farmers around the world and allow our voices to grow increasingly loud.

The second day also held a panel discussion on ‘The Future of Big Estates’ This session saw four speakers representing Dutchy of Cornwall, The National Trust, Country Land and Business Association and Clinton Devon Estates four of the biggest land owners and shapers in the country, make the case for large land ownership. Although some points raised were not without merit, particularly that this scale of ownership provides opportunities for large scale research and experimentation, the questions from the floor painted an entirely different picture. The floor raised questions about the importance of a public land registry, the overwhelming evidence that small scale agroecology is more productive than large scale land stewardship and the damage caused by the inherent inequality of the tenant – owner relationship. Each of the speakers left the room with a copy of the Rural Manifesto to take to their respective organisations, and Alastair Martin representative for Duchy of Cornwall agreed to engage in dialogue exploring the small scale agroecology the conference would like to see.

In the closing plenary Rebecca Laughton of the Land Workers’ Alliance gave an inspiring speech that highlighted the need to build bridges between all parts of the farming conversation, the imperative we have to join together to create models of farming that work for people and planet, not for profit. This year, more than any before it, the conference has opened doors of dialogue. The number of attendees taking time out from the conventional Oxford Farming Conference stood testimony to the fact that this movement is real and it has the answers.