REFLECTIONS ON OXFORD FARMING CONFERENCE 2020
by JAMES DEL MAR
With the general election behind us and greater certainty regarding Brexit (at least in concept terms) there has undoubtedly been a wave of renewed and new interest in taking rural projects forward. The Oxford Farming Conference again shone – we noticed only a peaceful and polite presence from members of Extinction Rebellion, imploring attendees to address the issues facing us all regarding climate change. The speaker line-up gave plenty of food for thought, although the lack of clarity regarding the intended transition from BPS (basic payment scheme) to ELMS (environmental land management scheme) remains a major concern and there was an alarming lack of support for and/or belief in DEFRA having farmers’ and landowners’ backs in the upcoming negotiations with the EU.
It is hard to imagine a scene 10 years ago when Friends of the Earth might peacefully and constructively share the stage with the NFU and DEFRA – but the world is in a different place now and there is an unmistakeable new wind of change blowing through. Professor Alice Stanton gave an outstanding evidence-based presentation on the importance of a (meat-containing) balanced diet and there was plenty of further evidence to support the exceptional quality of meat produced responsibly and sustainably on British farms. Henry Dimbleby gave an update on the National Food Strategy and, again, the evidence available to support British farming is beyond compelling. Other presentations demonstrated the health and wellness benefits of rural areas and how farming can engage with and deliver more of that. Something that we are integrating into client’s diversifications more and more. It is encouraging to see this increasing recognition and focus of the significant benefits that the natural landscape offers.
With the Agriculture Bill now before Parliament and a clearly stated intention to bring the Environment Bill back shortly, the imminence of change is increasingly proximate. We maintain that the retention of the amazing British countryside relies upon many facets – a healthy, mixed and balanced economy, the availability of a range of jobs and leisure opportunities, 21st century communications and infrastructure, a range of quality housing to suit all needs and the continued passion and effort of all those who strive to deliver an enhanced environment. Legislation appears to be moving towards supporting these essential ingredients. Some landowners and farmers remain sceptical, but many are acting on this approaching wave of change with optimism to develop their businesses and to incorporate new initiatives around housing, Natural Capital, leisure, tourism and retail.
We believe that 2020 could be the beginning of a glorious re-birth for rural Britain as it adapts in the face of these new policies and priorities – there is much to do and plenty of opportunity.