Oxford Real Farming Conference 2023

I participated in this event- the first time in-person since 2020. It was as usual a brilliant event, well-organised with a wealth of speakers. 1800 people attended with 2000+ online. Though I spent some time with farmers during my research period, my knowledge and understanding of the issues is very limited. This conference is a great opportunity to learn more about food and agriculture from the perspective of the agroecological farming movement. I also attend in order to raise issues about land justice and distributed the pamphlet produced by the People’s Land Policy called: Towards a Manifesto for Land Justice. (See: https://peopleslandpolicyhome.files.wordpress.com/2022/12/manifesto-for-printing-final.pdf)

I was able to use what I do know by helping to organise a panel in the Justice Hub at the conference:

Green investment: opportunities for nature friendly farming or a new land grab?

For a summary of the session see notes below- thanks to the note takers from Shared Assets.

As well as the in-person event, there was an extensive online programme which you can view using these links.

https://www.youtube.com/c/OxfordRealFarming/featured?app=desktop

Green investment: opportunities for nature friendly farming or a new land grab?

Bonnie VandeSteeg (People’s Land Policy/author of Land for What? Land for Whom?), Mark Walton (Shared Assets), Olivia Oldham (University of Edinburgh), Kai Heron (Birkbeck), Aled Jones (NFU Cymru)

Why are we having this debate, and why now? (Mark)

  • Climate/nature emergencies require us to change land use, tree cover, sequester carbon, restore habitats etc
  • We are seeing new public streams of finance develop around this, such as from government paying farmers for environmental outcomes as well as producing food, and from local authorities through biodiversity net gain/planning system
  • Also new forms of private finance emerging – carbon credit trading creating new investment streams, and corporate offsetting
  • Lots of new money going into environmental improvement, creating opportunities for landowners, resulting in displacement of food growing, as well as tree planting and changing land use, increasing demand for land which pushes up land prices
  • Speakers today will look at these issues and try to move us forwards towards some sort of action

Bonnie

  • Did anthropology research in Cairngorms, spent a year living amongst different groups of people
  • Looked at environmental land use conflict – e.g. conservation vs livelihoods 
  • Different people had very different relationships to land, the same place can be seen completely differently by various people
  • Spent time with sporting estates and farmers
    • Estates representatives thought of landscape as their ‘garden’, something you create, saw the beauty in heather burning, making a mark in the land
    • Farmers wanted to make something people need, not just doing it as a hobby
  • Difficult to match up these views with conservation actors, who loved and got pleasure from studying the landscape and its wildlife
  • Thought a lot about what counts as knowledge – people would get annoyed they wouldn’t get consulted, or felt their knowledge wasn’t accepted
  • Also a tension between ‘outsiders’ vs ‘locals’ – anyone in conservation was seen as parachuted in ‘from the south’, and it was thought that they don’t have the right to say things (even if those people giving this opinion had also been newcomers to the area at some point)
  • Beneath the surface there was a lot in common between different groups – had to take away some of the histories etc and see they were all mainly interested in looking after/caring for the land on a day to day basis
  • Conflicts were exacerbated by power struggles at the top – for example big developers would whip up antagonism towards conservationists as they didn’t want their own power taken away
  • Would argue we need to bring together ordinary voices, not a stakeholder model which pigeonholes people – need to hear all voices and not just those at the top
  • Current situation in the Cairngorms – a land grab, with outcomes not good enough – there are three main groups involved:
    • Classic ‘green’ landowners – RPB, Wildlife Trust etc – their impact all depends on how they work with the community
    • Wealthy individuals – may be very sincere in objectives but do they really involve the local community or is it paternalism? 
    • Corporate landowners, taking advantage of the system, have the resources and money and know who to go to – e.g. Brewdog (Is it about caring for the land or just looking trendy and part of a marketing strategy?)
  • Issue of price rises – can’t get access to land if price keeps going up – and hierarchies even within local democracies will reinforce this, so distribution of resources won’t be equal and will remain too top down
  • Need a complete change of direction to match up to ideals heard in this conference

Aled

  • 8th generation farmer from Wales – started hill farming, but pressure of retail etc has driven increases in scale, now milking 500 cows (up from 6 they started with) 
  • Agriculture industry has always been concerned with feeding people, but there are many fewer farmers now
  • Aled’s farm employs 5 full time people, 12 part time, and other businesses rely on them indirectly, so he understands the role farmers have in communities and wants to preserve that, and is fearful of the decline in farming
  • Believes farm focus should be on the local community, there is a discomfort when you go to scale that that circle gets bigger and bigger, and your customers have less of a connection with where their food comes from
  • We are in a period of huge change, massive upheaval in farming, partly due to Brexit, the redesigning of policies, and on top of which climate change is having a real effect – can see this even in his own diaries
  • Policy changes often come from civil servants but they never have the depth of wisdom understanding of people on the ground – as President of NFU Cymru, he lobbies so that policy-makers understand the impacts of policy on people and businesses, as once these are set into legislation not much can be done to change them
  • NFU Cymru is committed to achieving net zero by 2040 – understand the crucial role of farming for both producing food and to sequester carbon – presented the report ‘Growing Together’ to Welsh government which is a shared vision of how they could expand on tree growth and storing carbon, but at the same time safeguarding food supply 
  • There is a role for tree planting but in such a way that it protects the communities they work within – the NFU’s strategy was to ensure that food growing potential isn’t eroded
  • The environmental market is wild, lots of companies who want to buy carbon credits while carrying on with their business as usual – Aled has heard stories of family farmers in Wales being gazumped by companies based in London who just want to buy land for tree planting 
  • Research has shown that some livestock farms in Wales were 1/5th in world for carbon capture, lot of rain in the region makes things green – want to maintain this but also the vibrancy of rural communities
  • Attended COP in Egypt, and spoke with delegates from Kenya about the impact of climate change – drove home that we have to tackle climate change, but at the same time maintain our ability to produce food and keep community vibrancy
  • New Agriculture Bill is coming in Wales this summer, crucial as all future bills will hang off it – one of NFU Cymru’s main aims will be to lobby politicians and hold them to account, as they can legislate for future prosperity or future starvation

Olivia 

  • PhD student, will mainly talk about the theory around land and green investment
  • Important thing to keep in mind is the current practice all depend on private property, the nature and the land on which credits are offset
  • Olivia’s research focuses on how the key features of private ownership are incompatible with an agroecological future 
  • What is property?
    • Legally it is a bundle of rights, such as the right to exclude people from property, sell it, lease it etc
    • There are some responsibilities that come with it but mainly its to do with rights
  • The three most important of these rights in how we in the Western world understand private property are:
    • Alienation – to sell it on the market – creates a situation where land is more valuable for how much it can be exchanged for than anything else, not just how much rent you can get now but how much you could get in the future. Carbon credits increase the potential amount of money you can make from the land – this pushes up price of land and shuts out small farmers
    • Exclusion – in England you can exclude everyone else from private land. You can choose to do something different, but don’t have to. This means people need to buy things they need to live instead of being able to get them from the land, and leads to a situation where lots of farmers don’t eat what they produce, agroecological products are priced so high many people can’t afford them, and there is also downwards pressure on workers’ conditions and working environment
    • Making unilateral decisions – Agroecology is deliberative and community based, but private property owners get the final say on what happens on their land, and may be forced by circumstances to do not ideal things
  • Property is a social construct, humans invented it, and we can choose to do something different
  • Land could be thought of as a commons, our kin, or many other framings
  • Private property advocates say it advances democracy and justice, but it is always founded on dispossession – we need to question freedom and justice for whom? Capitalism designed to enclose what was once common wealth

Kai

  • Lecturer at Birkbeck, and works at Common Wealth on alternative forms of ownership and commons 
  • Did PhD on anti-fracking movements, and as part of this went to an oil and gas conference – they said, in support of market-led/nature-based solution to climate crisis – ‘we will not be in business in 2030s if net zero doesn’t take off’ – this anecdote shows how important ‘green grabs’ are to the fossil fuel industry
  • We are now in that brave new world, it’s become the dominant way of sequestering carbon
  • Speculative investments may be a financial opportunity for farmers, but market-based solutions aren’t enough to tackle climate change – we need other models
  • One possible model – been working on something known as a ‘public-common partnership’ (or PCP), initially in urban contexts – but now starting a new cycle in rural areas
  • A PCP is an institutional form that democratises management and ownership of a resource, meaning a community collectively controls it. Can be any asset – a farm, a high street, a hospital, an energy company etc
  • Beginning to show PCPs are a viable alternative to private property and an inversion of public-private ownership (where the government gives a company money to invest, and the government takes on all the risk – e.g. with Covid Track and Trace)
  • 3 elements to a PCP – it relies on the state/a public body with assets (e.g. in London have been working with Transport for London), a ‘commons association’ (community members, workers, growers etc), and project specific specialists (people whose expertise is needed, to exchange knowledge, part of the commons)
  • The public body benefits through gaining legitimacy, and the community benefits through control over an asset
  • Community Land Trusts are another useful model – but PCPs are different in that surpluses generated can be given to another PCP to get it up and running, allowing self-expansion of the commons
  • Can read about work so far in Haringey here – https://www.common-wealth.co.uk/interactive-digital-projects/a-new-model#chapter-1 
  • In a new report, thinking about rural contexts, thinking about council farms (publicly owned farms that were meant to help people get into farming), which could be repurposed, could also think about National Trust sites
  • This is one model, there are others – but government are currently legislating the future of agriculture in the UK – would like to hear from others about successful models of stopping green grabs

Discussion/questions

  • Seeing a picture emerge of huge investments with new types of landowner emerging, which are having impacts in Scotland and Wales in particular on existing landowners, the food system and much more
  • These are big structural issues related to the property ownership regime that we have, even where farmers have close relationships with the local community, under a private property system the local community is excluded from decision-making, and then the logics of carbon markets reinforce existing inequalities
  • Green investment might help address the climate crisis in part, but who benefits from these in the longer term?
  • Question for Aled – can you say more about the impact of green investments on food growing?
    • When we talk about food security, let’s begin to be conscious of the reality of what it means to people who can’t afford food – food is more than just energy, good food is positive to health
    • Fearful about the drive to cheaper food, for example the ultra processing of food to cheapen it impinges on health
    • Need to bring it back to more of a local level – it does not have to be multinationals that process food, there are examples of communities taking control of this
    • Also have to change longer distance food travels these days to be consumed 
    • Personal example – tried to work on community wind energy scheme on his farm eight years ago, made a lot of progress but ultimately was rejected due to opposition from people who didn’t want wind turbines, this was demoralising
  • There is a difference between money flowing to small private landowners and huge corporate ones – should we look at how smaller landowners can benefit as this money is coming? Or instead say these investments are a mistake?
    • Olivia – her view is that they are a mistake and take us down a path that forecloses other possibilities for the land.
      • They are designed for more powerful companies – for small companies it’s more of a risk. 
      • Important to be focusing at lots of different scale, can get caught up in romanticising small scale, some of the appeal is that carbon credits can act at a big scale quickly – but there are different ways to scale up/out quickly would be helpful, like PCPs, to combat the appeal of carbon credits
    • Kai – one of the things that matters is who gets to decide
      • Working in Skye to bring regenerative aquaculture onto the foreshore, but tension with big fish farms who employ people locally 
      • With carbon markets, some people don’t want to engage, people are aware the main people who will benefit are outside their community – but on the other hand  these are sparsely populated areas so alternatives funding mechanisms such as crowdfunding are hard, so carbon credits may be a good opportunity
      • Need to sit in the uncomfortable and decide democratically
      • Also should be conscious of the phenomenon of ‘ghost acres’ – someone or some land always being exploited elsewhere 
  • Is there any provision in Welsh agricultural policy to restrict carbon credits and tree planting?
    • Aled – government hasn’t considered who will take advantage of these policies, companies are utilising public money that should be circulating in local communities. Our main ask is that support should come to active farmers, those who take economic risks within communities, as this would deter outside companies from taking wealth and vibrancy of communities away. 43% of people in agriculture in Wales have Welsh as their first language, should treasure this as part of culture
    • Point from audience member who had done representative survey of rural areas in Wales on behalf of WWF – their findings showed people had no preference about where the money comes from, they just want to plant trees
  • Farm clusters are a good example of how to democratise access to environmental markets for farmers – for upland farmers continued profitability is going to be a challenge as certain subsidies are withdrawn – need to facilitate the flow of private finance to support this. Is there a simple solution where if you own an area of land you can only put X% into this sort of environmental scheme? This would mean you still get some finance but need to go through a person managing land in a more diverse way? Would this work?
    • Kai – financiers won’t do it if they have to deal with too many people, so would need heavy regulation about how this would work but state won’t do this as they are so close to industry
    • Olivia – People are grabbing land as nowhere else to put money in British economy where you are going to get a profit – look at Rentier Capitalism by Brett Christophers on this
  • Is there a potential future risk of corporate greenwashing through sponsorships?
    • Corporate sponsorship greenwashing ship has sailed – already lots happening on this
  • Are there good ways of doing green investment or do we need a whole new system?
    • Bonnie – ban carbon offsetting, it’s not going to work with communities, people should be paid to look after the land well, the corporate sponsorship vision is the nightmare
    • (Aled?) – The Environment Act is coming into force in the autumn, Biodiversity Net gain coming – lots of money and new schemes, all in local authority planning areas, the threat is that some people make lots of money on low quality schemes, and take land out of production, need democratic oversight of this
  • Will finance companies expand into the Global South?
    • This has already been happening for decades – the UK is largest landowner in Madagascar for instance
    • Can trace violence through these financial networks, for example some are linked to BAE Systems
  • Could renting land for carbon offset work to stop land grabbing?
    • Not necessarily that much difference – privatisation of public land has happened behind closed doors, and confers a lot of rights anyway
    • Audience member clarified certain protocols mean you have to own the land so couldn’t do this anyway
  • What can people do?
    • Bonnie – Make sure that people who aren’t normally heard can get more involved in how land is used – but this requires a lot of work
    • Aled – Continue to highlight the hypocrisy of greenwashing – we need to cut our addiction to fossil fuels whilst maintaining food production 
    • Olivia – Think beyond the market, work to take profit out of food, it should be a commons, and farmers should be seen as providing a vital public service, and not struggling to make a living 
    • Kai – the problem is not overpopulation and scarcity, it’s justice and distribution, make people feel engaged with land, see Right to Roam for example 

Mark – the need for a Land Use Framework in England will come up soon in the Lords – get involved in lobbying if you can

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