Prince Charles on the Future of Food

Prince Charles’ speech on the future of food, delivered in May 2011 at Georgetown University and released in print from this past February, is a poignant illumination of the problems facing our food system (growth of monocultures instead of polycultures; use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, genetic modification, growth hormones in animals; damage to the atmosphere, to the water supply, to the soil, to public health, to local cultural traditions). The problems of our food system are well known: the system is built upon nonrenewable sources for inputs; it takes out nutrients without putting nutrients back in; it is threatening our health and threatening the very ability of the land to continue providing the very food we seek to produce.

This is a system that values efficiency and productivity, the present over the future, no matter the cost. Prince Charles talks eloquently about the need for a cultural shift. Instead of valuing the (extremely vulnerable) uniformity of monocultures in the crops we grow, we should mimic nature and value biodiversity.  Instead of depleting the soil, we should work to restore its fertility, we should make sure not to exceed its carrying capacity, and should give back as much as we take out. A more fertile soil is a more resilient soil in the face of unforeseen drastic shifts in weather patterns; a more resilient soil is a more sustainable and productive soil in the long run.

Charles points out that the costs of conventional agriculture are an illusion, and that we need an honest form of accounting that does not push the true costs onto others. He asks, when pesticides get into the water supply, who pays? Not the farm spraying the pesticide. Surely not the corporation that manufactures the chemicals. Someone has to pay for the clean-up, someone has to pay for medical bills when someone drinks that water. This cost is not factored into the price of production or at the supermarket check-out counter. A policy shift to erase these externalities could help shift our society towards a more sustainable food system.

Ultimately, Charles says to make changes with the entire intricate web of relationships inherent in our food system firmly in mind. Even if pesticides do a great job at killing pests, they make farmworkers exposed to them sick, they get into our water supply, into our air, they deplete rather than restore the soil.

Read this article from Scientific American about how a hybrid approach to food production may be the best way to balance productivity with sustainability.

Prince Charles quotes Gandhi, who said that “we may utilize the gifts of Nature just as we choose, but in her books the debts are always equal to the credits.” Right now, we owe a lot. And we are seeing those debts appear in the form of depleted soil, polluted air and waterways, and a system that for all its vaunted productivity still leaves many people without the sort of healthy food to which we are all entitled.

2 Responses to “Prince Charles on the Future of Food”
  1. seems to me that Prince Charles is a very eloquent speaker who puts good thought into his every word. Being a local resident around the georgetown university area, i find it wonderful to be given the chance to have such profound speakers there. The note about ‘relationships inherent to our food’ is what I believe to be one of the most important things to consider in regards to today’s agricultural practices.

    • ehimmel says:

      You’re right, Georgetown University definitely attracts some prominent speakers. And you’re also right about the relationships being the key: it’s important for us all to understand the way our decisions affect the environment and the people around us.

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