As I went through security at Aberdeen Airport at 8 am on 2 January 2019 I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of signing up for three days at the Oxford Farming Conference. However, as with every other year, it never fails to deliver with its broad view of UK and global agriculture. Brodies was delighted to be one of the Gold Sponsors of this year’s conference.
With Parliament, at the time, about to reconvene in the run-up to the meaningful vote, the political sessions featuring both DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove and DEFRA Minister George Eustice, and opposing voices, were hotly anticipated.
Inevitably, Brexit was the backdrop theme for the conference, with an informal straw polling indicating that most delegates were pessimistic in the short term, but felt positive in the longer term. However, there was also plenty of conversation to be had around other topics, including tenant farming and how New Zealand’s agriculture industry is setting an example to the UK. .
Tenant Farming – the English perspective
The conference opened with various fringe events and I attended the NFU (England & Wales) session on tenant farming. With three tenants, and one landlord’s agent speaking, the contrast to the same kind of session in Scotland was stark. Security of tenure only came up once in the entire session, and minimum duration hardly featured. The discussion was more about commercial relationships and how landlords and tenants could work together to unlock public benefit funding opportunities ahead. It was refreshing to hear a more positive tenancy discussion rather than the entrenched positions we have become used to in Scotland.
Keynote speech – heralding the fourth agricultural revolution
The first full day kicked off with the main political session and the keynote presentation from Gove. When he spoke to the conference a year ago, the focus was very much on natural capital, and environmental or public goods. During the course of the last year he launched his consultation “Health and Harmony” and subsequent Agriculture Bill, which, after an initial warm reception from farming representatives, has come under criticism from some for its lack of focus on farming and food. In recent speeches Gove has referred to natural capital far less frequently, and increased his focus on food and agriculture. At Oxford he struck an upbeat tone and heralded a fourth agricultural revolution based on technology, trade and the environment, and focused on the connection between good food and health. His thesis was essentially that good food saves the health service huge sums of money and is a public good in itself; points that are likely to arise again when DEFRA and the Treasury discuss farm support funding. about the devolved nations, Gove said that he wanted to maintain the UK internal market and the Agriculture Bill would allocate funding to each country, commenting that Wales had engaged well with the Bill, the Scottish Government less so. However, he qualified that by saying that day-to-day, he was working well with Scottish Government on a number of issues. The crunch of course, is how will the proportions be allocated, will Scotland get its fair share, and what indeed, can be deemed as fair? Gove asserted that the allocation would be based on ecology, geography, farm size, livestock etc – all of which are likely to provoke plenty of discussion.
Minette Batters, the President of NFU (England & Wales) pressed Gove to commit to enshrine welfare and food standards in legislation to prevent low cost imports. He declined to give such a commitment but repeated assurances on that front.
The topic of gene editing came up from a number of speakers. Gene editing, firstly, is not combining genes from different species; essentially it accelerates the natural mutation of genes which is going on in any organism all the time. Given the process is naturally occurring, and that gene editing simply accelerates that process by picking the ones to mutate (remove), the process is seen as more benign and therefore to be discussed in a different context from the anti-GMO “Frankenstein” food debate. When questioned on his position, Gove was supportive. Whether the Scottish Government will take the same line, it remains to be seen. Certainly among delegates there was widespread support for using this technology to tackle plant and animal diseases and to increase resource efficiency and yield.
There was also a discussion about the public image of farming and how the industry communicates with the public. Is it using the right language and images to communicate its messages? This is becoming increasingly important as the debate over veganism, environment and crop protection products intensifies.
The New Zealand experience
Perhaps one of the most well received and charismatic speakers was Sir Ian Lockwood Smith, former New Zealand High Commissioner. He spoke with passion about his country’s transition from a heavily supported agriculture industry, to the highly efficient one that it is today. When the opportunity to trade with China arose, they achieved more in a few months than they had expected in years. He pointed to huge efficiencies in the NZ sheep sector, where they produce the same amount of sheep meat from less than half the number of breeding ewes, using 23% less land. Touching on Brexit, he highlighted some steps that the UK could take immediately on its own, in terms of opening up trade, and also spoke of more complex, multilateral deals that take time. He cautioned against doing quick and “nasty” trade deals that might be regretted many years down the line and advised politicians to ensure that any deal struck with the EU doesn’t preclude free trade agreements the UK may wish to pursue elsewhere, such as the US. When asked how many NZ farm businesses failed during the time of abolition of subsidies and deregulation of agriculture in the 1980s, he responded with 3%, initially, increasing to approximately 5% over the first few years, but emphasised that a turnover of that level is healthy for any sector and should not be viewed as a negative.
While it would be wrong to say that Sir Lockwood Smith had the entire conference behind him, undoubtedly he challenged the UK to step up to whatever opportunities Gove’s fourth agricultural revolution may offer. Whether you agree with him or not, or indeed any of the speakers, the event provided plenty of stimulating thought and debate, which is what the Oxford Farming Conference is all about.
The conference covered a wide range of topics; most of the sessions are available online to watch from the Oxford Farming Conference website – select the video button at the top of the screen.