Some would call me an Oxford veteran. I have, after all, been attending the farming conference there each January for many years. And having served my time on the organising committee (these days they’re more grandly called directors) I recognise its traditions. That is not to say it hasn’t changed. In some ways, it’s almost unrecognisable compared with when I first got the Oxford bug.
In those austere days, virtually all delegates stayed in the cold college rooms and an extra blanket was packed into many pieces of luggage. Winters seemed a lot colder then, although that may be my memory playing tricks. Only the top echelon of attendees would contemplate staying in the luxurious (and expensive) Randolph Hotel, although we did hold the annual dinner there before retiring to college bars for some internal warming, then cold beds.
But the biggest difference was the lack of sponsorship in those days. No hint of commercialism was permitted and when, in 1984, after the tragic sudden death of the conference secretary, I persuaded ICI Fertilisers to subsidise Ken Nelson (who had previously run their Recorded Farms Scheme) as his replacement, I received an avalanche of criticism. Today, everyone who is anyone in agriculture sponsors something and there are substantial cash reserves in case one of those snowy winters turns up again and delegates are unable to get there.
The overall “shape” of the event, however, remains. The first day is mainly devoted to politics and it has become de rigueur for the top person at DEFRA (previously MAFF) to make an appearance. This year it was the first opportunity most delegates had had to listen to the new DEFRA secretary, Owen Paterson, so the occasion had novelty value and was worthwhile. It also enabled him to indicate his priorities to the industry over which he now presides.
But the more I see of most politicians in such contexts, the less value I perceive. They seldom add to existing knowledge and often can’t wait to get away once they’ve addressed the statutory press conference. You sometimes wonder if they accepted the invitation to speak for the good of agriculture or simply to burnish their own image.
The exception on day one this year was Mark Lynas, a reformed eco-terrorist, who delivered one of the strongest and most persuasive papers in favour of genetic modification that I have ever heard at Oxford. I was expecting it because I had already heard him speak at the John Innes Centre in Norwich a month before. Indeed, I wrote about him in a Farmers Weekly column published in the 14 December issue. But he was even better at Oxford and went down a storm with the audience. Sadly, I gather he’s been getting hate mail for his pains.
He was one of several speakers advocating that this country and the EU should stop pussy-footing around, adopt GM and start catching up with the rest of the world. Mr Paterson had said it first and on day two Prof Maurice Maloney, director of Rothamsted Research, reinforced the argument for arable crops, followed by Mark Smith of Genus who spoke of the potential with livestock. In passing, Jake Freestone, LEAF farmer, Nuffield Scholar and farm manager, who spoke inspiringly about the potential for precision farming, said he too was pro-GM.
Sometimes Oxford is a catalyst. Who knows what will happen afterwards? But most of all, Oxford is the best networking opportunity of the year. Which is, I suppose, why I keep going to it.
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