“The Great Feast” – TEDxOxbridge

Agriculture & Food, Collaboration, Society, Speaking, Sustainability, Systems thinking

This is the transcript from my talk at TEDxOxbridge last weekend.


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If you a have a phone, take it out and hold it up.

This device makes us magicians: At any time, from any where, we can know almost ANYTHING that is known to mankind.

Ok – hands down.

But what is truly extraordinary about this device…

… is that this man has one too.

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He uses his to get stock updates – but his reminds him when to check his cows for diseases.

He also tweets questions to the regional vet, shares tips and information with other farmers, knows the local and international market prices for his produce, and when you buy from him… you can pay him by SMS.

There are 650 million people with a mobile phone in Sub-Saharan Africa, and even though only half of them have access to clean water or sanitation, they all have better mobile access to more information than Bill Clinton did when he was President.

The world is changing quickly.

Today I want to tell you,
why food is the smartest way to change the world
what’s coming next,
and how connected technology can help us work smarter, together – not ever harder, against each other.


Everything is secondary to food. If we make a change here, everything else changes.


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It is our most important activity, and yet our most environmentally harmful, consuming 70% of our fresh water, 40% of the planet’s land, is creating more than 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions.

It keeps us alive, and yet is the biggest cause of premature death amongst humans, and extinction of other species.

It strives to be cheap, but as Prince Charles said on Monday, it ‘costs nothing less than the Earth.’

By addressing these problems head on, it seems that food might be the single most effective and fastest way to fix pretty much everything that’s wrong in our world, whilst at the same time creating a lasting, stable society of abundance, peace, and equity.


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There is a phrase in farming: take care of the soil, and the plants will take care of themselves.

That’s true of society, too. If we create an environment which encourages healthy growth, we will thrive.

If we make available the knowledge which help us know what to do, and provide the structures on which we can grow, we will work together at a variety of different levels and scales to reach great heights and provide abundant yields.

The challenge of our generation is to improve and make best use of the resources we have available. To find upward generative spirals which can kick off improving multipliers in not just air, water, and soil, but in our society, too, to create healthy, fair, and fulfilling livelihoods.

Food is one of these multipliers.

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The local [Oxford based]  science journalist Colin Tudge coined the phrase “Good food, for everyone, forever” – this seems like a great – and perfectly reasonable – ambition to me.

Let’s run through a lightning example of what a food system would look like if we tried to do this.

The ‘forever’ part means it needs to work without petrochemicals, because they’re running out.

That’s OK because the UN has shown that not only can we do away with them by using better farming techniques, but we can almost double yield at the same time.

These techniques focus on healthy soils – which also reduce flooding, mitigate against drought, and draw down 40% of the world’s CO2 emissions into the soil, restoring the atmosphere.

Good food means high in nutrients and energy. These decay the second the crop is harvested, so we’re looking for either frozen, or fresh – and so therefore local.

Schools and hospitals are leading the way finding that when they put fresh and local on the menus they save money and get better outcomes – like the hospital in Nottingham which saved £800,000 / year by sourcing locally; or the schools in the Food for Life programme whose pupil attainment doubled.

And for everyone means we need a vibrant and robust economy. Local trade stimulates more local trade, and the money circulates about 2-3 times faster, meaning it does 2-3 times the good – so those shifts the hospitals and schools made create a lot of activity.

And those farming techniques create more skilled jobs. Most of them are seasonal and flexible, too, so fit nicely with our trend towards more blended and flexible careers. And being active jobs, they keep us healthy and .. well today would be a lovely day for us all to be outstanding in our fields.

So you can see, there are lots of interplaying processes, most of which already exist – and by working at a local scale it’s easier to pay attention to the benefits of the whole system, and tune all its parts – from farm to fork – to be aligned to work with each other, using and amplifying the full utility of each.


The question of course is ‘how do we make this happen?

And of course it’s not all about local, so at what scale should these things happen?

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In the UK over 50% of farmers have a twitter account.

On Thursday evenings, many of them converge online in a conversation using the hashtag #agrichatUK. It regularly ‘trends’ in the UK – which is to say it is one of the most active conversations in the whole country.

Even our agriculture ministry now joins in.

Across the world people are self-organising around themes which they find useful or interesting, and helping each other learn.

These are the conversations, and these are the tools which make sustainable food systems find their scale.


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And here are some of the other companies providing those structures which empower people to find new ways to rewire the food system.

Farmeron help farmers improve yields by monitoring nutrition and herd health

BuckyBox saves 90% of the time it takes to run a farm delivery scheme.

There are services which let customers order direct from local farms – making sales and marketing marvellously efficient,

and others who take this a step further, letting customers cluster together to buy in bulk at wholesale prices. Less hassle for the farms, cheaper produce, AND you build a community.

Housebites is clever. They connect people ordering takeaway meals with chefs cooking at home, all delivered by couriers in the city. Just be connecting the dots, everyone gets more choice, better food, and more business.

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So I had an idea to build a business trade network to help more food companies join the dots, too.

We’re a kind of dating site for food businesses, but we’re also learning a thing or two from the big guys.

Corporate food companies use market awareness & connected data to give them the efficiency to dominate the market.

However, 99% of food companies in the EU are small enterprises and so struggle to access that kind of information.

So we pool and analyse all information from all the individual companies, so that we can feed back market-intelligence, highlighting business opportunities and potential collaborations.

And because we do it together, we do it for a fraction of the cost.

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Through our work and research we’ve learned that whilst the food system is not broken, it is not capable of meeting current challenges sustainably – it does not and will not deliver good food, for everyone, for ever.

We need to rewire it for good.

Data gives us information we need to know how to reconfigure it.

And technology makes it easier to do. Technology makes the complex, simple … and the invisible, visible.

Where is the place to open a local shop to reach most of the community, and what hours should it be open?

Who could save money by sharing deliveries? Or where can we re-localise supply?

We might analyse successful areas and learn what makes them successful,
and look for opportunities for new business by highlighting the gaps between demand and supply

And because there is data about almost everything, we can combine it deeper insights —
sea level rise, soil type, rainfall, gender, age, income.. or .. well ask me later – I could talk on this forever.


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This is just the beginning, and what I’ve talked about today is only a fraction of what’s being worked on.

This technology is new and society and business haven’t caught up yet, and politics still needs the most almighty kick.

We’ve not even touched on the smartphones which tell you if your food is organic, the rapid rise of urban and precision agriculture, or the smart irrigation systems which hook up to weather satellites.

The coming internet of things which is going to see some 20 – some say 50 billion devices connected to the internet by 2020 is going to take transparency to whole new levels, and empower us to make change like never before.

So listen, I’ve told you these stories of healthier, happier people living richer lives in a more balanced world and not only using fewer resources but actually enriching them for generations to come …. it sounds like some kind of distant dreamy of tech-rich social utopia right?

Well hands up if you expect to be alive in 20 years time.

Great! I’ve got good news and bad news.


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The good news is that by then oil and rock phosphate – the two critical ingredients of mainstream agriculture which make business as usual possible – will have peaked and be in dramatic decline, destabilising food systems and countries around the world, including yours.

The reason this is good news because it means you get to be part of the biggest, swiftest, and most wonderful revolution this world has ever seen.

The bad news is
that we’re going to miss the people who didn’t raise their hands
well.. everyone raised their hands, so there is no bad news.

We cannot slow down the world or avoid these problems, so it is more important than ever that we focus on the goals and steer ourselves towards a future we want.

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If we have to change all this anyway – if we are at this global pivot point where it’s still easy to change and we haven’t committed to a path, let’s do the audaciously human – the audaciously humane thing – and make life better for everyone.

The reason I chose to work in food it largely works on an annual cycle, so we can make bigger structural choices every single year, and because it’s the one human system which affects every single person, every single day – so every single day you. and you, and all of you have the power to make it better.

Every single day we co-create tomorrow. We are all just a choice away from a world we can be proud of and excited by.

We have so much innovation. So much creativity. And so much need.

Now all we need is you to understand how close we are to achieving this bold and necessary goal, and to choose – every day – to support those people from farm to fork who are making it happen.







Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons


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