A review of the Harmony in Food and Farming conference on 10-11 July 2017 in Llandovery College, Wales.

Agriculture is responsible for 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. We need to feed a growing population a better diet, more sustainably. This conference explored how.

The Harmony 2017 conference was inspired by Charles Windsor’s eponymous book and initiated by Patrick Holden, founder of the Sustainable Food Trust – which he set up following his disillusionment with the Soil Association.

Harmony Charles Windsor book cover

In his opening speech, before whizzing off in a chopper (how eco is that?), Windsor mentioned that harmony in Welsh is cydseiniad (m.) or cynghanedd (f.) and to work in harmony is cyd-dynnu. Literally this is ‘work-together’. The conductor Sir John Gardiner later said in his keynote speech, “music is the foundation of harmony. It is ‘the state of being in agreement'”.

Harmony is not a word normally used in agriculture. Windsor said that “we can’t separate what we are from what we do”, and that the bottom line should not be the chief motivating factor in the production of food.

“Spirituality, nature and man are not separate things. Where we do separate them, therein lies the root of the problem. Nature is not an autonomous machine. Farms are not factories, and we must be more balanced and harmonious and diverse. We must put back at least as much as we take out.”

He believes that attitudes are changing, to greater realisation that we are all part of the web that supports all life on earth, and that this is why biodiversity needs to be encouraged everywhere.

Fifty speakers and moderators at the conference took up and explored this theme, as did the chef and his team, providing all the meals for 200-300 people over two and a half days, using local, specially prepared very delicious and nutritious food, which, unusually for a conference, was celebrated and made centre-stage.

Closing loops

Ellen MacArthur
Ellen MacArthur

Dame Ellen MacArthur gave a great presentation of her Foundation’s work with large corporations, getting them to make their products more recyclable in line with the idea of the ‘closed loop economy’. In the diagram illustrating this concept below, on the left are the biodegradable items which should usually be recycled back to the land to feed the soil.

Closed Loop resource use

On the right is the technological ‘stuff’. “The loops should maximise the restorative and regenerative potential for the earth,” she said. Companies like Renault and BMW (making reusable cars) and Apple’s Upgrade system (reusuable phones) are on board.

But there was disagreement privately in the audience, a feeling that the corporations are part of the problem, and what is needed is system change, working locally. Yet others said system change cannot solve everything, particularly in cities or to make large scale, rapid change, and corporations have a place.

MacArthur called cities ‘great aggregators’ of resources and materials – especially nutrients. The opportunities to collect and reuse these is described in her Foundation’s latest publication, URBAN BIOCYCLES, which “highlights the opportunities to capture value, in the form of the energy, nutrients and materials embedded in the significant volume of organic waste flowing through cities, through the application of circular economy principles”.

Ending the disconnect

Gunhild Stordalen
Gunhild Stordalen

Gunhild Stordalen is an amazing woman from the EAT Forum in Sweden, who believes food is the main issue around which coalesces all the others: climate change, poor health, social inequality, soil loss, biodiversity loss. “Food is the biggest driver of climate change. As 2 billion more people will be added to the planet this century and more people become affluent, more will eat meat and there is no scientific consensus on solving these interconnected problems,” she said. “We need action to change this and to end the disconnect between consumption and production“. She thinks this can be done by collaboration across sectors. “We need new business models as much as new practices.”

Peter Seggers, of Blaencamel Farm, Cilycennan, feeds his 300 strong community with year-round organic produce by feeding the soil and using polytunnels. He is a thermophilic compost freak. This is his passion, and he composts absolutely everything that is compostable to feed microbes to the soil which increases the nutrients in the food and gives greater protection to the crops from disease.

The heat from compost can be captured and used to grow fruit and other crops that would not grow outside in this climate, inside polytunnels (as it was in Victorian times, such as in the Heligan Estate). There was a trip to his farm on Tuesday afternoon.

He believes that the trick to ending this disconnect between consumers and producers is educating the consumers about the add-on benefits of this kind of food – fighting climate change, feeding the soil, improving biodiversity – through passionate communication, and telling them of the damage done by intensive farming.

Others, such as the veteran Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods, Green and Black’s chocolate, and biochar firm Carbon Gold, think that this disconnect will never change until the price of real food is cheaper than fake food. This should be achieved with a tax on the carbon cost of fake food (you know what that is) and a rebate to real food (and that) producers for the amount of carbon they return to the soil.

Richard Young, of the Sustainable Food Trust, agreed with the principle but thought Sams’ solution was too technically difficult to implement and that instead a tax on nitrogen fertiliser to reflect the external costs of its use would be easier to implement and just as effective.

Carbon sequestration in soil

Soil care is the central issue. Sams mentioned the 4p1000 initiative – increasing the amount of carbon in the soil by 4 parts per thousand each year would counteract all human GHG emissions, = 16bn tonnes/yr. He said La Vialla farm in Italy sequesters 7 parts per year – the link is to a peer-reviewed research report validating and explaining this.

Other things we shouldn’t do, said Seggars, are burn food or food oil or even wood. “Burning wood contributes to premature deaths through air pollution and is a waste of carbon which should be sequestered (in buildings) or returned to the soil in compost or biochar,” he said. “We should pay people to sequester carbon – planting trees, feeding the soil and building with timber.”

Richard Young is a strong advocate of grassland use and ruminants. He said that grassland sequesters carbon for 50-100 years while cropland loses it for the same period. “It is a myth that ruminants’ emissions are a really big problem if they are on grassland in the UK. They are only a problem in indoor intensive farming and in pasture created by deforestation.” The latter, he said. is responsible for 15% of global GHGE. Ruminants’ methane emissions in the UK form 2% of total emissions – a fair bit but not a lot, and this can be replaced by sequestering more carbon in the soil.

As this crucial paper shows, a range of management practices reduce carbon losses and increase carbon sequestration in grassland soil:

  1. avoiding soil tillage and the conversion of grasslands to arable use;
  2. moderately intensifying nutrient-poor permanent grasslands;
  3. using light grazing instead of heavy grazing;
  4. increasing the duration of grass leys;
  5. converting grass leys to grass-legume mixtures or to permanent grasslands.

This was scientific data which I had been seeking for a while, which confirms that conversion is problematic unless grassland is replaced with agroecological methods of horticulture – which are more intensive in human labour (employing more people) but use minimum tillage and no fossil fuels. They are also more productive per hectare.

Otherwise, despite the cruelty and methane emissions, to feed the world, much existing grasslands should be used for for sheep and cows. Conversion to agroecology produces higher yields of nutritional value per hectare (feeding more people) than pasture. I believe that in the future, as this type of food provision increases in the most appropriate places (for climate and soil quality, such as south-facing, well-drained, sheltered and flood-free areas), some grassland no longer needed can be re-wilded to promote biodiversity and tree-growing.

I urge that there is still a great need for more research on the comparative productivity of agro-ecological and permaculture methods compared to large scale conventional farming methods using artificial inputs. Such figures would really help to make the case for a faster shift away from artificial fertilisers to practices which promote soil care.

There were also talks on local food projects – Farmdrop and The Cambridge Sustainable Food Hub – and Jane Davidson talked about One Planet Development and the sustainability drives of Trinity St. David’s University and Wales as a whole, with its world-leading Well-Being of Future Generations Act.


Education was another theme and Richard Dunne, headmaster of Ashley School in Surrey, said schools should feed themselves. He described how he had made the school menu 100% organic and locally sourced, including getting the children to grow and prepare some of it and making the kitchen into a classroom. The school has won the Soil Association Catering Award Scheme, Gold level. They keep prices down by using less meat and parents pay 10p/day more. They teach the geometry of nature and weigh their food waste every day.

The programme also contained sessions on bringing harmony into our lives and conflict resolution.

The whole conference was attended by delegates from as far as Norway and California. They all left feeling that this had been a very special event, hopefully the start of something big, and were determined to put it into practice what they had learned in some way in their own lives and work.

For me, it was inspirational and I met many very interesting people, also meeting curiosity about The One Planet Life and the work of Calon Cymru Network. It was especially weird for me in that it took place inside the grey metal shed (a ‘carbuncle’?) that I stare at beyond my office window every day – the Sports Hall of Llandovery College, behind which I live and work!

My view of Llandovery Sports Hall
My view of Llandovery College Sports Hall – inside of which the pictures and video above were taken.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life.