Editor’s Note: Last May, the Prince of Wales gave a speech on sustainability at Georgetown. Many of us who heard it thought it was seminal. First, that it came from a public figure whose pronouncements must be moderate and moderated; second, because it was such a strong, specific statement of principles many of us have believed in and have been working toward for a long time; and third, because, contrary to what pretty much anyone would expect, the speech was written by, not for, him.
I was also particularly struck by Eric Schlosser’s introduction to the speech, as strong a statement as I’ve ever heard or read about food justice, income inequality, and the necessity of thinking about every part of the food system — particularly the people who grow and pick and pack it — when buying food and eating.
Sam Fromartz was also in the audience, and, impressed, wrote this for the site a few days after the speech; Marion Nestle was there, too, and recently wrote this about the speech, which thanks to the efforts of Schlosser, Laurie David, Robert Martin, and others has just been published by Rodale Press. The full text of the speech as delivered is here, the ordering information for the book here.
I’m very glad that the authors have kindly allowed us to publish excerpts of the speech, as it appears in the book, and particularly that Schlosser, longtime Atlantic contributing editor, who expanded his introduction with the collaboration of Will Allen, of Growing Power, gave his permission to his extremely strong remarks, which appear as an afterword in the book. –Corby Kummer
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sustainability” as “keeping something going continuously.” And the need to “keep things going” for future generations is quite frankly the reason I have been venturing into extremely dangerous territory by speaking about the future of food over the past 30 years. I have all the scars to prove it!
Questioning the conventional worldview is a risky business. And the only reason I have done so is for the sake of the younger generation and for the integrity of Nature herself. It is your future that concerns me and that of your grandchildren, and theirs too. That is how far we should be looking ahead. I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on Earth we didn’t do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong. The threat of that question, the responsibility of it, is precisely why I have gone on challenging the assumptions of our day. And I would urge you to do the same, because we need to face up to asking whether how we produce our food is actually fit for purpose in the very challenging circumstances of the 21st century. We simply cannot ignore that question any longer.
Genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply, and in the wildlife — the birds, insects, and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change. To do this it must be a mixed approach: one where animal waste is recycled and organic waste is composted to build the soil’s fertility. One where antibiotics are only used on animals to treat illnesses, not deployed in prophylactic doses to prevent them; and where those animals are fed on grass-based regimes as Nature intended.
Many people may think this an idealized definition — that it isn’t possible in “the real world.” But if you consider this the gold standard, then for food production to become more “sustainable” it has to reduce the use of those substances that are dangerous and harmful not only to human health, but also to the health of those natural systems, such as the oceans, forests, and wetlands, that provide us with the services essential to life on this planet — but which we rashly take for granted. At the same time, it has to minimize the use of nonrenewable external inputs. Fertilizers that do not come from renewable sources do not enable a sustainable approach, which ultimately comes down to giving back to Nature as much as it takes out and recognizing that there are necessary limits to what the Earth can do. Equally, it includes the need for producers to receive a reasonable price for their labors above the price of production.
And that leads me to the nub of what we should consider. Having myself tried to farm as sustainably as possible for some 26 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 United Nations. 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. This was a major study and a very explicit statement. And yet, for some strange reason, the conclusions of this exhaustive report seem to have vanished without trace.
This is the heart of the problem. Why it is that an industrialized system, deeply dependent on fossil fuels and chemical treatments, is promoted as viable, while a much less damaging one is rubbished and condemned as unfit for purpose? The reasons lie in the anomalies that exist behind the scenes.
First, we should look at the slack in the system. Under the current, inherently unsustainable system, in the developed world we actually throw away approximately 40 percent of the food we have bought. Food is now much cheaper than it was, and one of the unexpected consequences of this is, perhaps, that we do not value it as once we did. I cannot help feeling some of this problem could be avoided with better food education. You only have to consider the progress the First Lady, Mrs. Obama, has achieved by launching her “Let’s Move” campaign — a wonderful initiative. Manufacturers are making their “Healthy Weight Commitment” and pledging to cut 1.5 trillion calories a year from their products; Walmart has promised to sell products with less sugar, salt, and trans fats, and to reduce their prices on healthy items like fresh fruits and vegetables; and with the First Lady’s big drive to improve healthy eating in schools and the excellent thought of urging doctors to write out prescriptions for exercise — these are marvelous ideas that I am sure will make a major difference.
Alas, in developing countries approximately 40 percent of food is lost between farm and market. Could that be remedied too, by better on-farm storage? And we should also remember that many, if not most, of the farmers in the developing world are achieving a fraction of the yields they might do if the soil was nurtured more with an eye to organic matter content and improved water management.
However, the really big issue we need to consider is how conventional, agri-industrial techniques are able to achieve the success they do, and how we measure that success. And here I come to the aspect of food production that troubles me most. The well-known commentator on food matters Michael Pollan pointed out recently that, so far, the combined market for local and organic food, both in the United States and Europe, has only reached around two or three percent of total sales. And the reason, he says, is quite simple. It is the difficulty in making sustainable farming more profitable for producers and sustainable food more affordable for consumers.
With so much growing concern about this, my International Sustainability Unit carried out a study into why sustainable food production systems struggle to make a profit, and how it is that intensively produced food costs less. The answer to that last question may seem obvious, but my ISU study reveals a less apparent reason. It looked at five case studies and discovered two things: firstly, that the system of farm subsidies is geared in such a way that it favors overwhelmingly those kinds of agricultural techniques that are responsible for the many problems I have just outlined; and secondly, that the cost of that damage is not factored into the price of food production. Consider, for example, what happens when pesticides get into the water supply. At the moment, the water has to be cleaned up at enormous cost to consumer water bills; the primary polluter is not charged. Or take the emissions from the manufacture and application of nitrogen fertilizer, which are potent greenhouse gases. They, too, are not costed at source into the equation.
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 penalized.
And so this raises an admittedly difficult question: Has the time arrived when a long, hard look is needed at the way public subsidies are generally geared? And should the recalibration of that gearing be considered so that it helps healthier approaches and techniques? Could there be benefits if public finance were redirected so that subsidies are linked specifically to farming practices that are more sustainable, less polluting, and of wide benefit to the public interest, rather than what many environmental experts have called the curiously “perverse” economic incentive system that too frequently directs food production?
The point, surely, is to achieve a situation where the production of healthier food is rewarded and becomes more affordable and the Earth’s capital is not so eroded. 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? It would simply be a more honest form of accounting that may make it more desirable for producers to operate more sustainably — particularly if subsidies were redirected to benefit sustainable systems of production. It is a question worth considering, and I only ask it because my concern is simply that we seek to produce the healthiest food possible from the healthiest environment possible — for the long term — and to ensure that it is affordable for ordinary consumers.
There are, after all, already precedents for these kinds of measures, particularly, for instance, in the way that governments around the world have stimulated the growth of the renewable energy market by the provision of market mechanisms and feed-in tariffs. Could what has been done for energy production be applied to food? Is this worth considering? After all, it could have a very powerful, transformative effect on the market for sustainably produced food, with benefits all around.
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.
Excerpted from The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food(Rodale Books)