I've known for a long time that Britain's Prince Charles had an organic farm. What I did not appreciate was the depth and breadth of his understanding of food and agricultural issues which were on full display at Wednesday's Future of Food Conference in DC.
In the speech, which I recommend reading in its entirety, he said that "over the past thirty years I have been venturing into extremely dangerous territory by speaking about the future of food. I have all the scars to prove it. Questioning the conventional world view is a risky business."
He then laid out his central concerns about the sustainability of food production for an ever growing world and the dependence of the current industrial model on shrinking resources.
We find ourselves in ... a system heavily dependent upon fossil fuels and other forms of diminishing natural capital – mineral fertilizers and so on. 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! And when you consider that in the past decade the cost of artificial nitrogen fertilizers has gone up fourfold and the cost of potash three times, you start to see how uncomfortable the future could become if we do not wean ourselves off our dependency. And that’s not even counting the impact of higher fuel prices on the other costs of production – transport and processing – all of which are passed on to the consumer. It is indeed a vicious circle.
Then add the supply of land into the equation – where do we grow all of the extra plants or graze all that extra stock when urban expansion is such a pressure? Here in the United States I am told that one acre is lost to development every minute of every day – which means that since 1982 an area the size of Indiana has been built over – though that is small fry compared with what is happening in places like India where, somehow, they have to find a way of housing another three hundred million people in the next thirty years. But on top of this is the very real problem of soil erosion.
Again, 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.
Given these pressures, it seems likely we will have to grow plants in more difficult terrain. But the only sustainable way to do that will be by increasing the long term fertility of the soil, because, as I say, achieving increased production using imported, non-renewable inputs is simply not sustainable.
He went on to talk about the alternative.
So what is a “sustainable food production” system? We should be very clear about it, or else we will end up with the same system that we have now, but dipped in “green wash.” For me, it has to be a form of agriculture that does not exceed the carrying capacity of its local ecosystem and which recognizes that the soil is the planet’s most vital renewable resource. 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. If we degrade it, as we are doing, then Nature’s capital will lose its innate resilience and it won’t be very long, believe you me, before our human economic capital and economic systems also begin to lose their resilience.
It was that last point that was especially striking, because he linked the natural capital inherent in an ecologic system with the extractive economic capital that has driven agribusiness. The former shouldn't be sacrificed for the latter -- and in fact, ecological models should be rewarded.
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. Simply because, if we do not consider the whole picture and take steps with the health of the whole system in mind, not only will we suffer from rising food prices, we will also see the overall resilience of our economies and, in some instances, our ecological and social systems too, becoming dangerously unstable.
A glimmer of that instability was evident recently, as a result of rising food prices. But the issues are far more wide-reaching than a momentary (one hopes) spike in prices. And on that score, it was refreshing to hear another side of the debate that too often is drowned out by a monoculture of interests favoring the status quo.
Addendum: In the wake of his remarks, Prince Charles was criticized for talking about sustainability while riding around in a motorcade and living the life of, well, a royal. It's rather pathetic when these eighth-grade level arguments are rolled out. It would be like calling Bill Gates a hypocrite for devoting his billions to philanthropy, while living in a mansion. For a more subtle and highly recommended take on these issues click over to Paula Crossfield's piece "Elitism Is Dead" on Civil Eats.
Image source: The Daily Mail
- Samuel Fromartz