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The Food, Farming & Countryside Commission team travelled to Oxford to join conversations around the future of food and farming, taking away four key points for the year ahead.

The New Year starts with two major farming conferences. The Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) has been running for over 80 years and brings the farming industry together for debate, discussion and networking. Up the road, the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) was founded ten years ago, providing an alternative meeting place for farmers and growers interested in agro-ecological approaches.

And what a year this will be for farmers and rural communities. The Agriculture Bill, replacing the Common Agricultural Policy after we leave the European Union, contains major changes for the farming sector. But, as Secretary of State Michael Gove pointed out in his speech, the form of Brexit really matters. “A no deal Brexit, will”, he said, “be catastrophic for many farmers” with tariffs of up to 40% applied to red meat and lamb exports to the EU, their major market. Food prices will go up; some everyday products will not be available for a while. This was no doubt why Minette Batters, NFU President, was robust in saying: “There have been enough warm words to us as farmers but now is time for decisions”. 

And, while the UK debates Brexit, the clock is still ticking on the huge changes we need to make to tackle climate breakdown, biodiversity loss and soil and water quality - as well as mitigating the inevitable effects of these on our global farming and food systems.    

This year I moved between both conferences, and, as well as the predictable contrasts, I found some encouraging points of similarity and consensus. 

Here are my four top tips for the tumultuous year ahead.

1. Don’t let tribalism blind us from building on our common ground.

Tribalism is an inevitable human practice. It is part of the evolutionary mechanism which enabled us to co-operate, develop and protect ourselves. That sense of belonging and community is essential for good mental health and it helps us understand who ‘we’ are. But it also has huge consequences; we can also be quick to label, dismiss and demonise those outside our tribe, which can too easily escalate to conflict. But one thing seems clear.  The old tribal signifiers are breaking down. The leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas, gave a keynote to the OFC. Gove made his second visit to the ORFC, both stepping into territories where they might not ordinarily be expected. Passionate activists, anxious about the future of farming, food systems and our ecosystems, are found on all sides of the professional and political spectrum. If we’re stuck in our comfortable old tribes, we’re missing the opportunities to grow the critical mass we need to take us closer to the tipping point for change.

2. It doesn’t matter how well you do it, if it’s the wrong thing to do.

The challenge and urgency of climate change, biodiversity loss, soil and water quality require the kind of collective effort for change across the globe, the like of which we have not yet seen.  And this means that we have to stop doing some things that we know now are not good for people or the planet. As the scientific and social consensus changes it challenges businesses to think about adapting their strategies. We’ve seen it before, with tobacco and fossil fuels.

Today’s emblematic challenge is sugar. The world produces much more sugar than it needs, when we know our land is an increasingly pressured and scarce resource, and when human health is damaged by too much sugar consumption. Perhaps inevitably, the NFU sugar advocates questioned Sir Ian’s comments on this, on the Today programme, at the publication of our progress report.  They’re keen to tell us that the British sugar business is one of the best in the world - sustainable and green. Sir Ian argues that successful businesses should make a Net Positive contribution to society, throughout the value chain. The Commission will visit some sugar producers in the next few months, and we’re looking forward to a vigorous and lively conversation between them and our Public Health Commissioners. We hope we’ll find a genuinely explorative conversation there. 

3. Beware the charismatic leader.

Despite all the disconfirming evidence, we’re still easily seduced by the fine words of a good leadership speech. But we really don’t need any more Oxford Union-style oratory. The OFC’s Oxford Union debate makes the point. The topic was “This house believes that the country is better served if farmers focus on profits not public goods.” Guy Smith, NFU Vice President, gave a rousing performance in support of the motion. Hilary McGrady, the National Trust CEO, opposed the motion and was more thoughtful and muted in her style. In reality, they each recognised that the motion itself set up a false choice and I suspect that they were not so very far apart in practice. However, the house supported the motion 75-25% - which conveys an impression of farmers that I personally, as a farmer too, find disappointing. In truth, we cannot farm at all, without relying every day on the public goods we (clearly) take for granted. The NFU itself recognises the dangers of being persuaded by compelling rhetoric. The ‘warm words’ that Minette Batters referred to, are, without concrete actions, nothing more than deception. Sir Ian Cheshire, went further: “For those of you who are looking for certainty, you will be disappointed. And if people are offering you certainty or easy answers, they either don’t understand the situation or they’re misleading you.”

Leadership that’s all about selling a simple vision of the future, about stirring people’s emotional responses with fine words, without a clear-eyed assessment of the effort and the change needed, is just manipulation. And we’re already feeling the effects of living through times when one person’s vision is another person’s nightmare…

4. Invest in growing a better kind of leadership.

We need to convene and facilitate different kinds of conversations: deliberative, systematic, persistent and respectful - processes where people can come together, explore and debate their real differences and decide together what needs to happen next. In short, to co-create a version of the future we can all commit to. 

As Helen Browning said in the FFCC session at ORFC, “We’re all much clearer about what we need to do. To work out how to do it, we need a huge and far-reaching collaboration.” More than ever it’s what we do that counts. Whether we feel optimistic or pessimistic doesn’t really matter. What matters is to keep going, to persevere and take purposeful action in the face of almost unbearable uncertainty. It’s the only reasonable course left. Luckily, we’re finding many inspiring instances of people who are getting on and doing things around the UK. One of the most important parts of our work in the Commission is to help illuminate and amplify those stories of change so that they can help inspire others. 

In tough and turbulent times, let’s value these different leadership skills: scanning the horizon, alert to what’s coming; bringing critical insight and thoughtful judgement on complex issues; cultural competence, being able to work across boundaries, with empathy and respect; and perhaps most importantly, resilience – sticking with it – balanced with the humility and capacity to learn & adapt in the light of experiences.

This is the hardest work. It is so much easier to sit in our echo chambers, treasuring the rightness of our arguments. Building real radical and practical consensus to take serious action on the most important issues is the leadership skill we all need now.

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