Friday, January 6, 2017

Oxford Real Farming Conference 2017

This post is written as in immediate response to the 2017 Oxford Real Farming Conference without repeating previous posts relating to previous ORFCs which can be found on this Blog.

The context is a meeting of about 850 of the most intelligent, thoughtful, likeable, sociable, concerned, able, etc etc people – with a very even gender split and an average age below 50.  This year was described as taking place in a “crisis” leading to a belief that there might be opportunities to be found in the process of ‘creative destruction’.

The interventions made by DanthePlan are shared here.  Firstly, repeating the message that the land use planning system must be seen to have significant potential for positive change; dependent on the delegates individually and collectively engaging in all the ways which are available in plan-making and decision-taking to educate public authorities of the ways in which agro-ecology should be supported and privileged in the public interest.  Under the heading ‘planning authorities’ should be included the Treasury, DCLG, Defra and BEIS.  The hierarchical nature of the system has the advantage that any Government Minister (Health is also involved) can change Government policy with almost immediate effect.

The ways in which the food supply system is already being addressed is set out in the National Planning Policy Framework were described in the post of 9 December 2016.  The law relating to planning applications (ss 70 and 38(6)) relies on the concept of “material considerations” of which there are a formidable number implied by the concept of ‘agro-ecology’ and already being taken into account by planners..

Carbon emission – possibly the most important if the sequestration of carbon in ecologically farmed soils is the best way of reducing concentrations from 400ppm to 350ppm.
Climate change adaptation – agro-ecology implies a diversity of farming/growing systems relying on relatively high levels of manual labour which in turn implies greater resilience than the industrialised  farming systems dependent on fossil fuels for growing large acres of monocultures.
Bio-diversity – smaller scale organic farming would be more conducive to diversity of flora and fauna.
Soil health – already implied by the weight being given to the protection (or not) of Best and Most Versatile Land (BMV).
Transport – Local or regional food systems should reduce ‘food miles’ arising from production, processing and distribution.
Employment – there are examples of livelihoods being made from  very small acreages indicating the potential for local jobs from small scale farming/growing.
Physical and mental health – This is where town and country planning started (eg Garden Cities) and there are moves in and close to Government to raise the profile of health benefits from food growing.  A Natural Health Service would imply a significant increase in opportunities for local growing. Care farming is also gaining recognition.
Housing – Land worker housing is by definition meeting the need for local and affordable housing.
Viability – applied to test the economic sustainability of new rural enterprises in the countryside and to the affordability of contributions being made through planning agreements/obligations under s106.  Given the dependency of most existing farms on subsidies this measure should be applied with very great care.
Food distribution – as well as the transport impacts, the issue of the ready availability of relatively unhealthy foods (ie fast food outlets near schools) is working its way into planning policy and decisions.
Flooding – concentrating on the absorbency of soils through pasture, swales, tree/bush planting, and mulching, agro-ecology and forest farming could have an important role to play in reducing flooding.
Landscape impacts – By increasing planting of trees and hedges the landscape od small scale farming will be materially different to that of industrial agriculture.
Rural Building – Ideally, the centre (housing and buildings) of most agro-ecological enterprises would take place close to existing settlements which would minimize the visual impact of what would be smaller buildings than those of large scale farms.
Recreation – opportunities for play and recreation are already given significant  weight on plan-making and decision –taking.  The role being played by community farms/woodland and orchards is already being recognized.
Localism – high up on the Government’s agenda and reflected in the neighbourhood planning taking place under the 2011 Localism Act.  Small scale farming is mostly relying on local labour, local housing and local markets.
Community development – similar and complementary to localism. Community farms (inc community supported agriculture – CSAs) could actually demonstrate real elements of community involvement beyond the prevalent rhetoric.
Waste reduction – waste recycling is intrinsic to agro-ecology from the growing, processing, distribution (and even the consumption) of animal and vegetable produce.
Heritage landscapes – small scale growing can be more sensitive to the protection of ancient hedges, trees and archaeological remains than industrial scale operations with heavy plant and machinery and windblown chemicals.
Access to land – the opportunity to start or develop an agricultural enterprise will often depend on the affordability of both the land and housing.  If the public benefits of agro-ecology have been established, then planners should assist with the availability of affordable housing and land through development plans and in deciding applications (see use of s106 in previous posts).
Sustainable development – lastly but probably the most important.  The presumption in favour of sustainable development (implying a presumption against unsustainable development) is the golden thread running through plan-making and decision-taking. 

These are 20 matters that must be taken into account and given appropriate weight (ie in what ways would the public interest be advantaged or damaged?) if brought to the attention of decision-makers when considering the merits of applications for agro-ecological developments.   More importantly, if these are significant public benefits (what other ways are there to reduce carbon concentrations?) then agro-ecology should encouraged at ministerial level and  promoted through local plans and neighbourhood plans. Given the significance of the differences between different farming regimes (carbon again) the Government should look at changing the law to require permission to be required to change farming operations.

The extent to which these benefits are being recognized is work being carried out by Luke Owen at Coventry University and at the Elm Farm Research Centre.

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