Last week, The Future of Food Conference was held at Georgetown University, where thought leaders from around the world discussed the trends in food and agriculture that will shape our future.
Speakers included U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, author and filmmaker Eric Schlosser, and poet Wendell Berry. Yet the most surprising and memorable speech was made by the Prince of Wales on the crucial need for the world agriculture industries to adopt sustainable farming practices for the sake of global health and economic security.
Prince Charles is a long-time supporter of organic and sustainable farming, but this speech took his advocacy a step further, urging government officials and global agriculture industries to re-evaluate the current food structure in favor of more sustainable practices in order to secure the resilience of our planet as well as our global economy.
“Questioning the conventional world view is a risky business. And the only reason I have done so is for the sake of your generation and for the integrity of Nature herself.”
The prince painted a grim picture of the current food system, arguing that it is depleting our resources and weakening our food system and economies at unprecedented rates.
“In the U.S., soil is being washed away ten times faster than the Earth can replenish it, and it is happening forty times faster in China and India. Twenty-two thousand square miles of arable land is turning into desert every year and, all told, it appears a quarter of the world’s farmland, two billion acres, is degraded.”
He also questioned our dependence on non-renewable resources as an Achilles’ heel in our ability to continue to feed the world’s growing population. This is contrasted to the growing obesity epidemic and deteriorating health of develped nations.
“Most forms of industrialized agriculture now have an umbilical dependency on oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources. One study I have read estimates that a person today on a typical Western diet is, in effect, consuming nearly a U.S. gallon of diesel every day.”
“Over a billion people – one seventh of the world’s population – are hungry and another billion suffer from what is called “hidden hunger,” which is the lack of essential vitamins and nutrients in their diets. And on the reverse side of the coin, let us not forget the other tragic fact – that over a billion people in the world are now considered overweight or obese. It is an increasingly insane picture.”
The critical factor and cornerstone of the economic prosperity, according to Prince Charles, is the health and diversity of the top soil, which he calls “the planet’s most vital renewable resource.” Though this is an idea frequently promoted by organic farming advocates, rarely if ever has such nuanced understanding of the importance of natural ecosystems been uttered by such prominent political figures.
“Top soil is the cornerstone of the prosperity of nations. It acts as a buffer against drought and as a carbon sink and it is the primary source of the health of all animals, plants and people.”
He goes on to explain that not only is sustainable farming necessary for the health of the planet and our economy, but that it can help create a more resilient global food system, directly challenging the popular mantra that organic agriculture cannot produce enough food to feed the planet.
“Having myself tried to farm as sustainably as possible for some twenty-six years in England…I certainly know of plenty of current evidence that adopting an approach which mirrors the miraculous ingenuity of Nature can produce surprisingly high yields of a wide range of vegetables, arable crops, beef, lamb and milk. And yet we are told ceaselessly that sustainable or organic agriculture cannot feed the world. I find this claim very hard to understand. Especially when you consider the findings of an impeccably well-researched International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, conducted in 2008 by the U.N.”
The report “drew on evidence from more than 400 scientists worldwide and concluded that small-scale, family-based farming systems, adopting so-called agro-ecological approaches, were among the most productive systems in developing countries.”
Prince Charles goes on to explain that the reason sustainable farming has not so far had great success in industrial societies is because of a “system of farm subsidies geared in such a way that it favours overwhelmingly those kinds of agricultural techniques that are responsible for the many problems I have just outlined,” and “the cost of that damage is not factored into the price of food production.”
“This has led to a situation where farmers are better off using intensive methods and where consumers who would prefer to buy sustainably produced food are unable to do so because of the price. There are many producers and consumers who want to do the right thing but, as things stand, “doing the right thing” is penalised.”
The prince address the political ramifications of this directly.
“Nobody wants food prices to go up, but if it is the case that the present low price of intensively produced food in developed countries is actually an illusion, only made possible by transferring the costs of cleaning up pollution or dealing with human health problems onto other agencies, then could correcting these anomalies result in a more beneficial arena where nobody is actually worse off in net terms?”
Ultimately he recommends developed nations change the way they think and approach food systems entirely.
“This all depends upon us deepening our understanding of the relationship between food, energy, water and economic security, and then creating policies which reward producers who base their farming systems on these principles.”
He also suggests that rather than hurting economic systems and agriculture industries, which is often suggested as a reason organic, sustainable agriculture cannot be expanded to a global scale, he explains that sustainable farming is in fact required for the strength of our economy.
“Capitalism depends upon capital, but our capital ultimately depends upon the health of Nature’s capital. Whether we like it or not, the two are in fact inseparable…. We need to include in the bottom line the true costs of food production – the true financial costs and the true costs to the Earth.”
“If we are to make our agricultural and marine systems (and therefore our economies) resilient in the long term, then we have to design policies in every sector that bring the true costs of environmental destruction and the depletion of natural capital to the fore and support an ecosystem based approach.”
The entire speech can be read here.