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At the Oxford Farming Conference 2023: the role of rules

Agri-TechE Article

The Princess Royal at the Oxford Farming Conference called for fair rules [image from OFC]
The Princess Royal at the Oxford Farming Conference called for fair rules [image from OFC]
At the Oxford Farming Conference 2023 the pressing need for clear rules to drive innovation and creativity became very apparent.

Policy-makers, industry professionals, farmers and researchers from across the world convened to discuss “Farming A New Future” at the 77th Oxford Farming Conference. The wide-ranging discussions and presentations got us thinking about how we can reach those new horizons.

We all need rules – not least to prevent anarchy – but also to provide the parameters within which societies can operate. For the agricultural industry this would encompass standards as well as regulation and legislation, so that everyone across the supply chain is able to participate fairly, equitably and competitively in the global arena.

Vital rules for fair play

A number of speakers articulated the rules:

  • Sustainable trade rules which don’t discriminate around regional differences – Jason Hafmeister, Trade Counsel to the Secretary at the USDA
  • Widely agreed regulatory baselines, with good incentives for farmers, overseen by government leadership – Kyle Lischak, Head of UK, ClimateEarth
  • Rules to enable sustainable productivity and countryside stewardship – wide support
  • Better rules and international regulatory collaboration on carbon accounting – Kimberley Botwright, Head of Sustainable Trade and the World Economic Forum.

Ecocide – an international crime?

Indeed, one of the sessions was actually titled “Getting the Rules Right” and featured JoJo Mehta from Stop Ecocide International who introduced the term “ecocide” – defined as making “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.”

Since 2019 there are now 26 governments globally discussing how best to legislate on ecocide.

Enabling contracts

Much of farming operates under contract and the nature and duration of the contracts can have a big impact on the ability to deliver ecosystem services.

Baroness Kate Rock has chaired The Rock Review into the agricultural tenanted sector. The report, commissioned by Defra, recommends longer-term, more enabling contracts to provide clear rules for both tenant farmers and landlords to promote cooperation for the benefit of productivity and the environment. As the emphasis on ecosystem services, as well as yields grows, the need for clear definitions around “agriculture” in contractual agreements is going to be ever more vital to maintain good tenant-landlord relationships.

Even HRH Princess Royal referred to the rules in her address to the conference – saying that the transition of the industry to net zero requires adequate funding but also the rules need to be right to help everyone understand what is expected and delivered.

Rule-breaker Tim Smit, co-founder of Eden Project, at Oxford Farming Conference [image from OFC]
Rule-breaker Tim Smit, co-founder of Eden Project, at Oxford Farming Conference [image from OFC]
So far, so compliant.

Sir Tim Smit, Co-founder of the Eden Project is surely one of the greatest rule-breakers of a generation.

Yet even he described the importance of long-term contracts for the suppliers of the Eden Project, arguing that giving them certainty of income streams enabled better access to finance and incentivised investment into their businesses.

Rules are tricky things. The need to be applied fairly, equitably, appropriately and give clear boundaries within which there is license to operate. And very occasionally, as Tim Smit pointed out, they should be tested, challenged and maybe even broken.

Clarity and consensus

But it’s clear that as the industry is moving so rapidly, global agreements, including trade deals, need to carefully thought through to ensure we don’t end up with toxic politics and there is regulatory alignment between key trading partners.