Nuffield 2017 Contemporary Scholars Conference (CSC)
11th March – 18th March 2017. At Brasilia, Brazil
A Personal Reflection
by Tom Levitt
If you don’t feel uncomfortable, then you are not making the most of being Nuffield scholar. Or so we were told pretty early on at the Nuffield contemporary scholars conference in Brasilia.
As a journalist in a cohort of mainly farmers, I had every reason to feel like an oddity. But the week ahead was a surprise. Both in terms of the welcome I felt and the minds and personalities behind that reception.
If a Nuffield scholarship is about your travels, your study and your experiences, then the conference is about your fellow scholars.
I’ve visited plenty of agricultural businesses and farms around the world in ten plus years as a journalist. The routine was predictable. Lot’s of people talking at you. Telling you what to believe. And just one mind to question it all.
Here in Brazil, however, was a sea of inquisition at every moment. How often, I thought to myself, will I spend ten successive days in close proximity to seventy people representing not just experts in their fields of agriculture, but motivated and driven to listen, engage and learn?
Yes, we had guest speakers, political heavyweights and ambassadors, and visits to farms and local enterprises. But the conference week and a half for me was not about what I heard from the lectern or the field, but the questions, reactions and thoughts of my fellow scholars.
In the UK farming and farmers are still caricatured by stereotypes and generalisations. Listening to my fellow scholars from eleven different countries - Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK and the US - I heard something different. Independent minds engaged and ready to tackle the complex challenges of the world today.
Every session and visit brought another illustration of the diversity of perspectives and interests within the group. The scholars were not a cross-section of farmers in a stereotypical sense, but a cross-section of society today.
Today, Australian farmers can happily talk about gender equality, Kiwis can ponder synthetic milk and an Englishman can openly talk about emotion and succession policy. That this might come as a surprise to anyone shows a misplaced perception of the farming community amongst the wider public. And dare I say it myself.
Nuffield scholars have already put their head above the parapet, but here at the conference they talked openly of their hopes, fears and ‘the big C’: the consumer. A producer wants to feed the world, but they also want the respect and support of the people they are feeding. A social license to operate, as some might call it. Being part of the community, not apart from it.
My perception of the conference and the scholars that I was fortunate enough to meet was of a group already very much in tune with the world around them today. Yet at the same time, realistic enough to realise they might not know it all. They might not be right. And not scared or uncomfortable of change. The future of food and farming is in safe hands.