Few of us would say that we’re not happy to see the back of 2020. For one thing, it’s fundamentally changed how we live and work, often for the worse. We’ve all missed the creativity that emerges from human connection, and many of us are now bound to long hours in front of screens, zooming between one meeting and the next. So you can imagine our reaction when we learned that this year’s UK annual agroecology get-together, the Oxford REAL Farming Conference (ORFC 2021), usually a joyous 2-day affair in the Oxford Town Hall now in its 11th year, was going online … for seven days.

It was also going international, which we admit to having had some reservations about – not least due to concerns about projecting agroecology onto the rest of the world from ‘the belly of the beast’ (also the title of one of our own panel discussions). Yet, throughout the conference, many of the voices that were lifted up were from the ‘Global South’. In fact, participation was free for all presenters and delegates outside of the industrialised ‘North’, and translation channels were available in French, Spanish and Chinese.

Due to the self-selected topics of session proposers themselves, it was perhaps unsurprising that there was a strong focus on critiquing the dominant discourse of elite and corporate economic and political forces and their allies (largely in the Global North) that have long colonised our food systems. Over the 7-day programme, with over 5000 delegates, ORFC 2021 drew on its live tradition, getting underway with keynotes from important thinkers and activists, interspersed with musical folk traditions from the British Isles, Aotearoa and Japan to carry us through the week. The new online format provided an opportunity for over 500 speakers – combinations of farmers, foresters and fishers, women and youths, and activists and researchers – from 78 countries across 18 time zones – to present and share their work and passion for food systems transformation on many different levels. And the technology worked!

Themes and sessions that resonated with us at ORFC 2021

With over 150 presentations and workshops, we got to learn more about how farmers are engaging with regenerative farming practices and on-farm innovations to protect biodiversity above and below ground; hear about challenges to global food and farming represented by big ag and its corporate allies; explore the use of cosmologies and traditional practices that connect us to nature, our authentic selves and to one another; engage with the ongoing challenges of those fighting for access to land as the basis for food and climate justice; and how to build movements for equity and diversity through practice and activism, including sessions on racial justice, gender and feminism.

Many sessions reflected on the very real challenges faced by farming communities in the UK, such as the ever-present BREXIT and its impacts on food and farming policy and practice, and across the world due to the ratcheting climate and biodiversity crises, COVID-19 and the destruction of complex ecosystems by industrial monocultures. On the origins of pandemics past and present, and what we might reasonably expect with a continuation of business as usual, epidemiologist and agroecology activist Rob Wallace was in compelling conversation with Tammi Jonas, President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance, about whether agriculture can stop COVID-21, 22, or 23; and the Guardian’s environment editor John Vidal talked to researcher-practitioner John Letts on ‘Why we need biodiversity’, especially in arable systems.

After years of attempting to get something on cosmologies into ORFC, we were pleased to see this important topic come of age this year – with many Peoples engaged with nature for their spiritual wellbeing, health and livelihoods sharing their practices in both presentations and workshops. As well as considering ‘How Cosmology Guides Farmers of Shashe Community in Zimbabwe’, it was particularly interesting, in Julia Wright’s session on ‘Subtle Agroecologies: Farming with the Hidden Half of Nature’, to see participants including commercial farmers and agronomists literally meditating on nature – a conference first?

With the many agroecological success stories shared from across the globe, so we must continue to ask the question of why this is not being supported beyond niche projects that are often difficult to quantify – and how might this be done. Here our own Nina Moeller and Colin Anderson presented deficits in Financing Agroecology from public funds, and Daniel Moss at the AgroEcology Fund looked at ‘Moving Money into Agroecology’ – to explore solutions for directing private funds into agroecology. Of course, it’s impossible to consider why these deficits exist without discussing the underlying power and origins of international capital.

This brings us to another powerful theme that echoed across the conference – the deeply-rooted impact of colonialism and the ongoing colonisation of the food system. To name but a few, Raj Patel & Rupa Mayra’s talked ‘Against Philanthropy’, and our very own Patrick Mulvany with Saurabh Arora, Neth Daño from etcGroup and the incredibly powerful Ruchi Shroff (who stepped in for Vandana Shiva at short notice) discussed ‘The Exporting of Technofixes – Colonialism and Resistance’. The theme continued with further sessions including LVC’s on ‘Food Justice Not Food Aid’ and Mariam Mayet, Vandana Shiva and Tim Wise’s impassioned session on  ‘Neo-colonial Ecologies and Economies, Smallholders and Multiple Shocks in Africa’. These sessions, in particular, gathered powerful messages from all corners of the world which should galvanise people in the UK to challenge the dominant trends in production, aid, trade and technology.

Despite the many challenges we face, many sessions focused on creating positive change by learning from incremental actions and successes, such as Nourish Scotland’s ‘Tracing Food Systems Transformations Along Desire Lines’. These provide inspiration for us, as a movement, to go beyond fear – and passive hope – by actively engaging with and co-constructing the future we seek. Here, Rob Hopkins’ session entitled ‘From What If, to What Next’ called on our creative imaginations to re-imagine and re-story the future, and was followed by a workshop on ‘How to Build a Time Machine’. This resonated through into the final session, with Nnimmo Bassey and Naomi Klein who presented their animation ‘Message from the Future II: Years of Repair’ and reminded us that galvanising interconnected movements in these troubling times requires plenty of hard work and vision.

Looking forward

If we’ve learned nothing else over the past 12-months, or indeed from this ORFC 2021 gathering, it’s that no two COVID-19 experiences are the same. Just as it has been a disconnector, it has also been a disrupter – encouraging many to look at and value our natural, spiritual and social worlds through new eyes. And just as industrial food chains were disrupted, so we also learned that many producers have been creating new spaces that are more responsive to the kind of local food systems people increasingly want to support. And while these past 12-months have proved immensely challenging for social organisation to push back against a post-nature vision of the future currently gaining pace, through ORFC 2021 we experienced new opportunities for alliance and solidarity building around agroecology and food sovereignty to galvanise the global food movement as we enter this new year. And so, as we emerge blinking into the light, from behind our lockdown screens, it is with an invigorated vision of the world we’re collectively striving to build. We have much to do, but grounds to be positive.

If you missed any of this – not to worry. All ORFC 2021 workshops are already available on the ORFC YouTube Channel, and panel sessions will be freely available at the end of January. One question asked by many delegates, was what to do next year? Do we return, if at all possible, to the Oxford Town Hall which, while restricted to around 1000 delegates, provides practitioners, activists and researchers (mainly from the UK) with a valuable opportunity to meet and share face-to-face; or to remain online and inclusive of global voices in agroecology to continue building out?  Perhaps there’s a hybrid model, or an opportunity to alternate each year?  If you have a view – visit ORFC’s survey and let them know.