The Oxford Real Farming Conference 2015
The Oxford Real Farming Conference is now in its sixth year and 2015 saw the highest delegate numbers so far. The conference popped up on my radar through the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, an organisation that is doing a brilliant job in the promotion of 100% pasture fed meat and that has a big input to the event. As speakers also included Andrea Malmberg of the Savory Institute, and Carrie Balkcom of the American Grassfed Association, I purchased my ticket as soon as possible and looked forward to two days of lively debate.
Click on the links as I mention each talk to access my notes and photos, or scroll down for a list of talks at the bottom of this page.
It was my first time at the conference which is held in Oxford Town Hall; a new venue for the event which I thought worked well. There were four simultaneous strands: Farming Outside the Box, Digging Deep, Nuts and Bolts and New Generation New Ideas. As is always the case with such events, I inevitably had to make tough decisions about which talk to attend. I missed Elaine Ingham, whose wonderful talk I attended at the Savory Institute Conference 2014, the talk Farmageddon vs the Power of Pasture, many of the community-based agriculture talks, and those on encouraging young people into farming. Hopefully I can catch up with some of those speakers at future conferences but what I did see over the course of the two days was fantastic. Even those talks that left me feeling slightly frustrated were essential to building up a picture of what is happening in food and farming.
I attended the conference as a consumer and one that is passionate about nutrition and health, but also as someone that has always been interested in farming and rural issues. I have no experience at all in farming so I was daunted by some of the talks but needn’t have worried. Although most of the delegates seemed to be either farmers or involved in food and countryside-related organisations, the subjects discussed were pertinent to anyone who cares about the source of their food and how it is produced.
I did expect to see more chefs, people who write about food or people involved in the service industry (and in fact another delegate mentioned this in one of the talks) but hopefully as the conference becomes even more popular the audience will widen. It serves as a reminder that people have become disconnected from food and farming, yet consumers wield enormous power and should be at the heart of decision-making about how their food is produced.
We are surrounded on all sides by cookery programmes (although we don’t have a tv), cookery books, columns in newspapers and all manner of food festivals and assorted events. Yet we are still remote from the work that goes into bringing food to our plate. Until finding Paleo, I thought that I knew and cared about how my food was produced (and I did to a certain extent) but since finding Paleo I have become passionate on a completely different level; especially about the animal sources of the food I eat. Meat and offal (along with fish) and animal fats and other healthy fats form a considerable part of the Paleo diet so going to lengths to find meat that is ethically raised seems a natural thing to do. In supporting those producers (such as those farmers who produce 100% pasture fed meat via the PFLA) we are accessing quality food that tastes amazing, but also making consumer choices that benefit the environment, the animals and ultimately our health. The Oxford Real Farming Conference gave an insight into how we can support these producers that are leading the way forward.
This was a subject that reared its head in many of the talks and also in audience questions. There were strong calls for more government intervention and centralised decision making as an attempt to educate the public and influence food buying habits. This was most prevalent in the debates What Do We Really Want Our Farming to Do for Us? How Should We Measure Success? (discussing the New Economics Foundation’s True Cost of Food report) and also in the Square Meal Report session. Organisations writing big reports about what big governments should do concerns me. Leaving it to governments and organisations to decide what we should be eating is actually what has led us to this mess in the first place (especially in the US – Ancel Keys and the McGovern Report springs to mind). I believe that the advice dished out so far, for instance in the case of avoiding healthy high fats and eating margarines and vegetable oils, has been erroneous and downright detrimental to the nation’s health (and to those dairy farmers that produce wonderful full-fat products such as butter and yoghurt). Yes, the production of healthy food should be supported by governments (although I believe that they cannot be trusted to decide what is healthy for us due to the massive influence of various food industries) but when it comes to finding out what I should eat for my health I’m afraid the government is the last place I would look for advice. Trouble is there are an awful lot of organisations paid to produce very big reports that ultimately provide no answers – other than calls for more regulation and more reports.
I felt this to be the case with some of the NEF debate, What Do We Really Want Our Farming to Do for Us. I did agree that there are obviously huge problems with the food industry in terms of security and access to ‘healthy’ food and the speakers highlighted this well. The photograph showing the dominance of wheat and barley in our farming system was worrying. An excellent point was made about the supply chain needing to be simplified and I agree this is crucial for people to have better access to their food and to ensure farmers receive a good share of profit. Overall I felt that no solid answers to the dilemma were offered but the guys from NEF stressed that this is a starting point for further discussion…
There was another ‘top-down’ approach with the Square Meal Report debate: ‘the problem is the public…’, ‘there is a lack of leadership and policy…’ I do feel a slight condescension in the way that some of these people talk and I’m sure they don’t mean it. I feel very uncomfortable when governments and organisations attempt to tell people what to eat and I get a little bit tetchy at the slightest whiff of this. It is a very fine line to tread between genuinely wanting to offer people better options and coming across as patronising. I have much admiration for some of the great initiatives springing up but I believe it is best to keep it local, in control of the people and out of the hands of the government. This stuff is too important for governments and large NGOs to wade in. There is too much vested interest, food industry lobbying and various political and ideological agendas that get in the way. Again I am not sure what concrete answers this report gave but admittedly it was acknowledged that it marked ‘the beginning of the conversation’…
There is also the problem of conflicting advice that causes frustration and resignation with many people. Groups such as ‘Eating Better’ advocate a low fat diet (‘…go easy on the cheese though, as its high in fat’), advises eating less meat (it makes no distinction between red meat and processed meat) and encourages substitutes such as quorn (!), although it does give a nod to pasture fed meat. With ever-increasing numbers of people undertaking their own research, turning to organisations like this to get advice on so-called healthy eating is looking increasingly tired.
There is also the issue of personal responsibility for one’s health. I have a long way to go on this one but I try my best and realise that this is best kept out of the hands of governments and big organisations. I believe there is nothing as important to our health as what we put in our mouths, how we sleep and how we handle stress. We cannot hand over responsibility for the things that are so important to us. Yes, there is obviously some degree of cooperation, interaction and reliance with our health services and other groups but when it comes to health we have to take ultimate responsibility for the long-term. Part of that responsibility is the priority we give to our food choices. There was an extremely interesting comment from Anya at the Sustainable Food Trust concerning the decisions we make when choosing food: ‘the assumption is that people make rational choices in terms of food, but actually they are often emotional choices’. A greater understanding of the way food is produced and the effects of that upon our health and environment can contribute to these choices but most of all, consumers need to feel empowered.
One of the key themes at this conference was the health of the soil and the importance of this for our survival. In fact it is not an exaggeration to say that soil health is one of the most important issues facing our species. Soil degradation leads to reduced nutrients in our food and the associated effects on our health, a reliance upon artificial fertilizers and chemicals that perpetuate problems and that find their way into our food chain, environmental impacts such as droughts and flooding, loss of biodiversity and food security issues as we find it hard to grow the food in the amounts we need. In the excellent discussion Soil, Stomachs and Livestock, Richard Young from the Sustainable Food Trust made the point that throughout history civilizations have collapsed due to soil degradation and yet we are making the very same mistakes. We ignore the soil at our peril, and soon we will run out of time.
The problem of population growth seems to be (as ever) the elephant in the room when it comes to dealing with a changing climate and food security. Mark Eisler in his talk Living with Livestock was the only speaker to really get to grips with the projected figures and they are truly startling. There is an argument that people will naturally limit the number of children they have as their living standards improve and in particular as women have greater access to education. This may – or may not – be the case but what is clear is that human beings will almost certainly run out of resources unless significant change takes place. Is eating less red meat the answer?
Red meat: the villain?
The issue of eating meat (especially beef) and the impact this has on the environment cropped up in nearly every discussion across the two days. It really was a major theme of the conference and is an issue that I am particularly interested in (see my previous reviews of Should I Eat Meat? here and here). It should be no surprise that I take issue with the advice to eat less red meat per se, but it was a fairly common assumption that this argument has been done and dusted. Red meat should be limited (or even struck off the menu) and the reasons seemed to be because: a) its production harms the environment and b) although not explicitly stated, there is an underlying assumption that red meat is bad for us.
Red meat and health
Since finding Paleo, my meat consumption (including bones and offal) has risen. Nutrient density is the key here. We strive to eat the most nutrient-dense food available to us and some of that is pasture raised meat – just check out the vitamins and minerals in beef liver for instance. Although it took time to find a supplier of pasture raised beef (see here), we also eat other meat from our local butcher from animals that are raised from nearby farms and slaughtered on the premises.
It is interesting to note that the consumption of meat in general has fallen slightly since 1974. We are eating less carcass meat and offal, while eating more processed meat products.* This is a bad thing as it means we are depriving ourselves the nutrient dense food that we have been eating for millennia and replacing it with processed rubbish (and increasing amounts of carbohydrates). The effects on our health are nothing short of disastrous, yet red meat is blamed repeatedly for everything from cancer to obesity. Red meat – beef, lamb, pork, wild boar, wild venison, bison, and offal – liver, kidneys, heart, oxtail, and tongue are some of the foods that sustained human beings throughout their prehistory, along with fish, shellfish, vegetables, nuts, fruits, seeds and liberal quantities of fats (including animal fats). They are the foods that we should build our modern diet around to ensure physical and mental health and to help us avoid many of the diseases that are common to 21st Century living. I switched from a low fat, mainly carbohydrate diet with little red meat to a nutrient dense Paleo diet that included various forms of red meat and offal in much higher quantities than I had eaten for more than I can remember. Despite this, my diet is still moderate (rather than high) in protein and the effects of adopting this lifestyle for me, my partner and my 85 year-old mother have been fantastic.
Red meat and the environment
But what about the costs of meat production to the environment? Firstly, I believe that animals that we choose to eat should be raised in a natural environment eating the food that they evolved to eat. That means that ruminants should be 100% pasture fed. I also believe that the Savory Institute’s method of holistic management which seeks to replicate the movement of large herds of animals across the landscape has much to teach us in providing food for an increasing population and in regenerating the land and restoring the health of the soil. In contrast, the mass farming of animals in artificial environments such as feedlots and warehouses, raised on food that is completely unnatural for them and deprived of freedom of movement is ultimately detrimental to our health, to the health of the animal and the health of our environment.
If we truly care about these things then we have to – as consumers – make choices that reflect our concerns. To me this is not about eating less meat, but eating better quality meat. It is not about spending vast amounts of money but about choosing cheaper cuts, using offal and bones, eating animal fats, trying new recipes. It is about eating in season, varying our meat sources, eating wild game when available. It is about eating a variety of protein sources; meat, poultry, fish and shellfish. It is not red meat that is the problem – it is intensive farming, processed foods, and the pollution of the environment. These are the things that ultimately impact our health and the health of the planet. We have confused the issues and now it is accepted wisdom that reducing the amount of meat we eat will ‘save the planet’ and prevent diseases such as cancer.
Andrea Malmberg, in her talk An Introduction to Holistic Management, stressed that sometimes it is better to look at our goal first and then work backwards in the decision making process. We would be better tackling this complicated web of interconnecting issues by starting with something like soil health. How do we heal our soils? Or indeed human health. What are the most nutrient dense foods that we can eat and how can we produce those foods? From both perspectives, I believe that the production of red meat through intelligently managed livestock plays a central feature in what we are trying to achieve.
George Monbiot was a good addition to the panel in Soils, Stomachs and Livestock although admittedly I barely agreed with anything he said. His argument seemed to be primarily focused on upland farming which quite surprised me and his invective was reserved mainly for sheep which rate second only to Ghengis Khan in the baddie stakes. According to George there are (in general) just too many animals. His remarks about an economy based around wildlife employing more people than a farming system left me wondering how this would help with the problem of our decreasing food security (perhaps he meant only on the uplands?). He also stressed that: ‘We cannot continue to eat meat’. If he means that we (i.e. human beings) cannot continue to eat factory farmed meat and processed rubbish then I’m with him on that. If he means that we cannot continue to eat meat from animals that are raised humanely, that are free to roam, that are fed their natural diet and that take their rightful place in a holistic farming system that encourages biodiversity, soil health, and all the social and economic benefits that stem from this then I have to disagree. The Savory Institute’s distinction here between ‘livestock’ and ‘properly managed livestock’ is crucial. Richard Young and Patrick Holden made some excellent points in this discussion and I was particularly interested in Patrick’s mention of the human microbiome as a mirror of the soil, having just completed an enjoyable online course with Coursera on the Human Microbiome (run by Jeff Knight at the University of Colorado) and as a current participant in the British Gut Project. (More about these coming soon…).
Overall, we have made red meat into the villain of the piece and sadly this is a viewpoint shared by many people. I disagree with much of the thinking on this.
The return of fat
The importance of eating more healthy fats and the favourable Omega-3 to Omega-6 ratio found in pasture fed meat was also a subject that cropped up repeatedly. This was fantastic to hear and it is important for producers to link up with those who are calling for a reintroduction of fats into the diet. The taste of fat on pasture-fed meat is fantastic and products such as ghee, butter and full fat yoghurt (for those who eat dairy) need to be made more available! We buy Kerrygold butter as it is the only pasture fed butter that we can find (see here), but obviously we would prefer butter and ghee from 100% pasture-fed cows that is produced locally. There is great need for farmers to tap into markets of well-informed consumers that are ready to buy their products!
The importance of citizen scientists
This is was a wonderful point that came up a few times during the conference. As farmers experiment with alternative methods of production (‘farming outside the box’) there is a crucial need to document their results. Likewise with the Paleo community, there is a change from the ‘bottom-up’ that involves N=1 experiments and stepping out on a limb to go against conventional wisdom, group-think and decades of political and social misinformation. This swell of people in the Paleo/Primal/Ancestral Health community is testament to the fact that the lifestyle is more than a fad but there is much negative propaganda as vested interests have much to lose, as surely is the case with farming. It is crucial that people talk and document their experiences to offer advice to others who are looking for alternatives and to add to the increasing body of evidence. With the amazing amount of information available on the internet, people are carrying out their own research – whether it is in farming or health – and linking up with others across the globe to pool knowledge and experience. This is a positive thing and something that conferences such as ORFC help to facilitate.
By far and away the highlights for me at ORFC15 were the talks on pasture-fed meat and holistic management: Kicking the Grain Habit – It Can Be Done and Introduction to Holistic Management. I felt that there was a real buzz and excitement around the work of the Pasture Fed Livestock Association, the American Grassfed Association and the Savory Institute and I have to say the PFLA members asked the best questions throughout the two days, especially Chris Jones. I felt that these organisations provide a real blueprint for the future. The talk by Andrea on holistic management was fantastic and it is very exciting to hear of the UK’s first Savory Hub at Vitality Farm. It was also heartening to hear people recognise the Paleo community as some of the most vocal proponents for championing pasture-fed meat and holistic management practises. Indeed if it wasn’t for Paleo, I would never have attended ORFC15 nor the Savory Institute London Conference 2014, never have wanted to find out even more about the way my food is produced, never looked tirelessly for a pasture-fed supplier, and never discovered the PFLA.
It was very interesting to hear Carrie Balkcom talk about how the AGA was set up in response to confusion over labelling of ‘grass-fed’ meat. I found exactly the same problem on my search (see here) and it was a complete blessing that the PFLA was there to help. They are clearly passionate about what they do and take great pride in what they produce. The PFLA certification mark (see the photos below) reassures all of us that want to eat pasture-fed meat that what we are buying is the real deal. It is crucial that the Paleo community gets behind the PFLA and supports their work. If you are already buying pasture-fed meat, check that it is 100% and not finished on grain. If you are in a buyer’s club at your local gym, check that what you are buying is authentically 100% pasture-fed. Finishing cattle even for a few months on grain skews the Omega 3/Omega-6 levels so be sure to check. Of course there are times when we eat beef that is grain-finished but the point is that when given the choice we will pick the pasture-fed and when we go out of our way to source it we need a guarantee that what we are being sold is authentic.
In addition to this we need to be more vocal in our demands. It was interesting to hear Fidelity Weston talk about local restaurants and butchers that did not want to market her meat as 100% pasture-fed for fear of disappointing consumers should none be available. We need to constantly ask about the source of our meat; in shops, in restaurants, at farmers markets. We need to demand more – see here.
Getting the chance to talk to PFLA members and also to Carrie Balkcom and Andrea Malmberg was just brilliant and this conference gave me the chance to do just that. I met some really lovely people and learnt so much in those two days that I want to do my best to help spread the message. The Paleo/Ancestral health communities can really help in the battle for ethically produced food. I am so looking forward to next year’s ORFC and let’s hope that there are even more consumers, chefs, butchers, retailers, Paleo people and anyone else that cares about their food. As Carrie said ‘Consumers have to get involved in the fight’. Bring it on!
With tremendous thanks to all those at PFLA. Keep up the amazing work.
Here are my initial thoughts:
- It would be great to hear Joel Salatin and Darren Doherty from the Regrarians talk!
- A talk on health and the benefits of pasture-fed full fat products would also be great. Farming and health are inextricably linked.
- Advertise the conference to consumers, the food service industry, health professionals. These are the links we have to make.
- Have some input from well-informed target consumers: Paleo/Primal/Ancestral Health/WAP communities.
- Widen the exhibitor base – there was room for more stalls. How about some of those above?
- Wider food options – on my first day I found gluten-free tomato soup. This wasn’t available on the second day so I queued for some meat but it ran out after about 20 minutes of queuing. Where was the pasture-fed meat?!
* According to the Office for National Statistics, in 1974 people in the UK bought 393g of carcass meat per person per week + 630g of non-carcass meat (sausages, bacon, other meat products) per person per week, giving a total of 1023g per person per week. Fast forward to 2012 (latest figures) and the average per person per week bought 196g of carcass meat and 793g of non-carcass meat giving a total of 989g per person per week.
Click on the links below to go to my notes and photographs