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CEL Conference
Heaven and Earth: Christianity, Food and Land Use
Saturday 13th October 2001

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used in creating them" - Albert Einstein

The Conference was held at the Henry Doubleday Research Association Organic Gardens in Ryton, Warwickshire. We were blessed with a beautifully mellow Autumn day which enhanced the colour, scents and sounds of mid-October in these inspiring gardens.

Dr Tim Cooper, Chairman of CEL, welcomed everyone to the Conference which was, he said, the first where dozens had had to be turned away.

The Opening Prayer was made by Lord Beaumont of Whitley, Green Party spokesman on Agriculture and a member of the House of Lords. He introduced the Right Reverend John Oliver, Bishop of Hereford, leading Church of England spokesman on environmental issues in the House of Lords, and with 25 years' experience of rural ministry:

"Sleepwalking towards the Precipice?" explored the decline in the farming industry, now in crisis following the foot and mouth outbreak. There was a growing awareness that economically we could no longer continue as before, and he supported CEL's solutions - locally produced food, organically grown, fairly traded and with animal welfare at the heart. He called for fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, and payments to farmers to caretake and enhance the local environment and its communities. He warned of the effects of climate change and globalisation on the future of farming.

He praised the work of the ARC-Addington Fund and other rural stress networks, which had provided a lifeline for farming families at a time of real financial hardship.

Alan Gear, Director of HDRA, spoke of its work. Established 50 years ago, it researches organic horticulture and advises commercial organic farmers. He would like to see farming 100% organic, a system which increases soil fertility and improves plant health and natural resistance to disease. Bad agricultural practices since the end of the Second World War had destroyed one-sixth of the growing area of the planet. He stressed the importance of people's gardens and allotments and spoke of the greatly increased yields in Cuba from backyard gardening following the advice of HDRA's Third World Organic Support Group.

Dr Edward Echlin, author of Earth Spirituality, Jesus at the Centre, regards the soil as a theological resource - "When talking about topsoil, it's hard to avoid the language of religion". With the passing of small mixed family farms we had lost not only our soil wisdom, but also our resource of natural farmers.

During discussion it was felt that we now needed to concentrate on scientific advance in organic agriculture, and to encourage farmers to be more entrepreneurial.

Time for lunch (vegetable quiche, salad and warm new potatoes), to browse at some of the stalls (the Anglican Society for the Welfare of Animals, SPCK Bookshop, CEL, Christian Rural Concern, John Ray Initiative) and to wander through HDRA's patchwork of gardens: herbaceous perennials, shrub border, compost making, natural pest deterrents, Seed Library Gardens, 'no-dig' garden, allotment, cooking and medicinal herbs - sounds of contented insects! - and greenhouses overflowing with mixed plantings. The shop revealed such delights as organic ice cream and fresh apples ready for National Apple Day.

In the afternoon, James Howe spoke of his work as Agricultural Assets Manager in the Investment Department of the Church Commissioners, who own 125,000 acres of prime lowland farmland on 350 farms of varying size. The land is valued at around 2,000 per acre, and the gross rent of 9million pays management fees and maintenance. Mineral rights are retained when the land is sold.

All farmland is tenanted, with lifetime security for three generations of the tenant family, though some flexibility is to be introduced because of the increasing number who do not wish to continue the family farming tradition.

Tenants are allowed to farm as they wish, though there has been concern at the Commissioners about intensive livestock units. New environmental policy will encourage a positive approach to sustainability, but this can only be effective with the commitment of the tenant. There are some organic farmers.

During the foot and mouth outbreak, livestock on 27 farms was culled, mainly in the Carlisle area, and partial abatement of rent granted in cases of hardship. Dwellings are provided at fair rent if a farmer or widow is unable to vacate the farm because of insufficient funds.

The Investment Department sought to balance trusteeship with ethics.

Dr Peter Carruthers, of Agricultural Christian Fellowship, the John Ray Initiative and Farm Crisis Network, said the crisis in farming had been caused by a combination of factors. These included a move away from mixed farming, negative Government involvement, globalisation, alienation from the land and natural rhythms, loss of communities and dependence on oil. Farm incomes were declining and there was a growth in part-time and hobby farming. 10 - 15% of livestock holdings had been affected by foot and mouth, and farmers, though resilient, were becoming increasingly despondent.

Christians needed to respond both on a human level and with a sense of reverence for the land and animals. Stewardship should include concern for the poor employed in agriculture around the world, who were often exposed to pesticides and treated as commodities.

Dr Carruthers believed that moral failure was at the root of the crisis in farming. He highlighted 2 Corinthians 7, v. 13-14 in which God asks that we turn to Him humbly in prayer, and He will heal the land.

And, finally, quick-fire solutions - what can Christians do?:

* Say grace before shopping
* Get your church to join CEL
* Local food for local people in local shops
* "Postcode" (local) food for harvest festivals
* Show you're supporting farming communities
* Arrange a visit to a farm
* Twin your congregation with a local farmer to guarantee a market for his produce
* Nurture alternative economics
* Challenge supermarkets to stock local and fairtrade produce
* Call for local food in schools
* Campaign for higher taxes on transport and aviation fuel
* Less grass and more vegetables in gardens
* Green burials
* Ask the Church Commissioners to encourage organic farming on their land
* Reduce, reuse, recycle
* Spend more time outdoors and less in front of the TV
* Join HDRA!
Thank you to our guest speakers, and to all the other people who worked so hard to make this an excellent Conference.


Next year we discuss Climate Change: Christians, Consumption and Sheffield.

See you there!

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