Live from the Real Farming Conference: Equality in the Countryside – a rural manifesto

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Posted Jan 6 2016 by Dave Darby of

I’m blogging from the Real Farming Conference in Oxford, in Oxford Town Hall. This is the seventh annual conference, set up as a counter to the corporate farming conference running at the university in Oxford. I wasn’t expecting such a huge affair – 850 attendees, with some fantastic sessions. So far today I’ve attended discussions on independent retail for local food; synthetic biology – the latest assault on agroecology; the corruption of agricultural science; and access to land in the UK, past and present. I’ve learnt a lot, made some new contacts and met old friends. I’ll blog about those other sessions later, but today I want to blog about a session that happened at lunchtime – the launch of a new rural manifesto by the Landworkers’ Alliance and The Land Magazine. It’s called ‘Equality in the Countryside’ and it’s intended for the parliamentary opposition, to inform their policies.

By the way, as an aside, I noticed that the press were tending to photograph some of the ‘wackier’ looking attendees, but trust me, the 850 people are largely very normal-looking – a good cross-section of the public, apart from the fact that seem to possess a lot more common sense than most, and an acute awareness of the corporate takeover of our food supply.

Simon Fairlie of the Land Magazine started the ball rolling by saying that the manifesto was part of a campaign against a bogus countryside – one in which most people who live there don’t work there. Most people who live in the countryside work in towns, and people are being pushed off the land as farms get bigger and employ fewer people. The main reason he gives for this is that primary commodities are subject to global competition, which pushes prices down. The decline in food prices has been accompanied by a rapid rise in land and house prices. This means that most of the profits from agriculture are absorbed by housing / rent / mortgages. On average in the UK, around 50% of income is spent on housing costs.

The aim of the manifesto is to help nudge policy towards equality and greater access to land and employment for people in the countryside and people who want to live in the countryside. There are 46 recommendations, although there could have been many more. Here are some highlights, and the full manifesto is below.

  1. Land: a proper land registry for the UK – one that everyone has easy access to.
  2. Housing: more council housing and more self-build (Simon actually praised the Tories for focusing more on self-build). The problem is the price of development land – we need more affordable self-build. Here I might mention the work of the Ecological Land Co-op, who are all about providing affordable land for self-build for smallholders.
  3. Energy: the countryside will be a big provider as oil runs out (water, wind, solar, biomass), but profits should be kept within communities rather than exported to shareholders. See here.
  4. Transport: reduce private vehicle transport, improve public transport, but also village hubs with shops, post office, pub, bus stop and car hire.
  5. Education: bring back the agricultural extension system and include farming and food production in school curricula.
  6. Environment: more trees and fewer sheep for uplands; more agriculture in green belts, instead of ‘horses grazing under pylons’.

Rebecca Laughton of the Landworkers’ Alliance talked about the need to get more young people into agriculture, and to put feeding people and environmental protection above corporate profit. Then Simon returned with some controversial suggestions:

  1. Food prices need to rise. Low food prices mean that small farmers go out of business, farms get bigger and the environment gets damaged.
  2. Housing and land costs need to fall.
  3. The combination of these two policies would mean taking money away from developers and giving it to farmers. He sees this as a very good thing (and so do I).
  4. ‘Conventional’ food should be organic. Pesticide-grown food should be labelled as such (maybe with a skull and crossbones, or with a black tractor with sprayer logo).
  5. So there should be no fee to be labelled organic, but there should be a licence requirement to farm with pesticides. This would make it cheaper to do the environmentally-friendly thing, rather than more expensive, as it is at the moment.

Here’s the full manifesto, hot off the press (click on the image):