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Prince Charles
Address by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales
Oct-2011 | Prince Charles (Bio) (Prince of Wales)
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The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability as keeping something going continuously. Now one or two of you may have noticed that over the past thirty years, I’ve 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, believe you me. And the only reason I have done so is for the sake of your 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.

Now, 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, if I may, 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 twenty-first century.

We simply cannot ignore that question any longer. Now, very nearly thirty years ago, I began by talking about the issue, but I realized in the end I had to go further. I had to put my concern into some sort of action to demonstrate how else we might do things so that we secure food production for the future. But also, crucially, to take care of the earth that sustains us because if we don’t do that; if we do not work within nature’s system, then nature will fail to be the durable continuously sustaining force she has always been.

Only by safeguarding nature’s resilience, can we hope to have a resilient form of food production and insure food security in the long term. This, then, is the challenge facing us.

We have to maintain a supply of healthy food at affordable prices when there is mounting pressure on nearly every element affecting the process. In some cases, we are pushing nature’s life support systems so far, they are struggling to cope with what we ask of them. Soils are being depleted. Demand for water is growing ever more voracious. And the entire system is at the mercy of an increasingly fluctuating price of oil. Remember that when we talk about agriculture and food production, we are talking about a complex and interrelated system and it is simply not possible to single out, oh, just one objective, like maximizing production, without also insuring that the system which delivers those increased yields meets society’s other needs. And as Eric has highlighted, I think, these should include the maintenance of public health, the safeguarding of rural employment, the protection of the environment and contributing to the overall quality of life. So,ladies and gentlemen, I trust that this conference will not shy away from the big questions: Chiefly, how can we create a more sustainable approach to agriculture while recognizing those wider and important
social and economic perimeters, an approach that is capable of feeding the world with a global population rapidly heading for nine billion? And can we do so amid so many competing demands on land in an increasingly volatile climate and when levels of the planet, in spite of us here, are under such threats or in serious decline

Now, as I see it, these pressures mean we haven’t much choice in the matter. We are going to have to take some very brave steps. We will have to develop much more sustainable or durable forms of food production because the way we have done things up to now are no longer as viable as they once appeared to be. The more I talk with people about this issue, the more I realize how vague the general picture remains of the perilous state we are in.

So, just to be absolutely clear, I feel I should offer you a quick pen sketch of some of the evidence that this is so. Certainly, internationally, food insecurity is a growing problem. There are also many now who consider that global food systems are well on their way to being in crisis. Yield increases for staple food crops are declining. They have dropped from three percent in the 1960s to one percent today. And that is really worrying because, for the first time, that rate is less than the rate of population growth. And all of this, of course, has to be set against the ravages caused by climate change. Already yields are suffering in Africa and India, where crops are failing to cope with ever increasing temperatures and fluctuating rainfall. And we all remember the failure of last year’s wheat harvest in Russia and droughts in China. They have caused the cost of food to rocket and with it, inflation around the world, stoking social discontent in many countries, notably in the Middle East. It is a situation I feel will only become more volatile as we suffer yet more natural disasters. Set against these threats to yields is the ever growing demand for food. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that the demand will rise by seventy percent between now and 2050. The curve is quite astonishing. The world somehow has to find the means of feeding a staggering 219 thousand new mouths every day. That’s about 450 since I started talking!

And what is more, with incomes rising in places like China and India there also will be more people wealthy enough to consume more. So the demand for meat and dairy products may well increase yet further. And all that extra livestock will compete for feed more and more with an energy sector that has massively expanded its demand for biofuels.Here in the United States, I am told, four out of every ten bushels of corn are now grown to fuel motor vehicles. So this is the context we find ourselves in. And it is set against the backdrop of 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 – on natural gas and on other nonrenewable 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 or the other costs of production - transport and processing - all of which are passed on to the consumer. So it is indeed a vicious circle. Then, add the supply of land into the question – 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’m 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 300 million people in the next thirty years.

But on top of this is the very real problem of soil erosion. Again, here in the United States, soil is being washed away ten times faster than the earth can replenish it and it is happening forty times faster in China and in 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 farm land - that’s two billion acres – is degraded. So 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 said, achieving increased production using imported nonrenewable inputs is simply not sustainable. There are many other pressures on the way we produce our food but I just need to highlight one more, if I may, before I move on to the possible solutions, because it is so important. And it is that magical substance we have taken for granted for so long – water. In a country like the United States, a fifth of all your grain production is dependent upon irrigation. For every pound of beef produced in the industrial system, it takes two thousand gallons of water. That is a lot of water and there is plenty of evidence that the earth cannot keep up with the demand. The Ogallala Aquifer on the Great Plains, for instance, is depleting by 1.3 trillion gallons faster than rainfall can replenish it. And when you consider that of all the water in the world, only five percent of it is fresh and a quarter of that actually sits in Lake Baikal in Siberia, then there’s not in fact, a lot left. Of the remaining four percent, nearly three quarters of it is used in agriculture but thirty percent of that water is wasted. If you set that figure against future predictions, then the picture gets even worse. By 2030, it is estimated that the world’s farmers will need forty-five percent more water than today. And yet already, because of irrigation, many of the world’s largest rivers no longer reach the sea for part of the year, including, I’m afraid, the Colorado and Rio Grande. Ladies and gentlemen, you must forgive me for laboring these points but the impact of all of this has already been immense. Over a billion people, over a 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 the 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. In one way or another, half of the world finds itself on the wrong side of the food equation. So you can see, I hope, that in a global ecosystem that is, to say the least, under stress, our apparently unbridled demands for energy, land and water puts overwhelming pressure on our food systems. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that the current model is simply not durable in the long term. It is not keeping everything going continuously. And it is, therefore, not sustainable. 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 just dipped in greenwash. For me, it has to be a form of agriculture that does not exceed the carrying capacity of the local of its local ecosystem and which recognizes that the soil is the planet’s most vital renewable resource. Topsoil is the cornerstone of the prosperity of nations. It acts as a buffer against droughts 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. Let’s then try and look for a moment at what, very probably, is not a genuinely sustainable form of agriculture for the long term. And by that, I mean generations yet unborn. In my own view, it is surely not dependent upon the use of chemical pesticides, fungicides and insecticides nor, for that matter, upon artificial fertilizers, growth promoters or GM. You would have, perhaps, thought it unlikely to create vast monocultures and to treat animals like machines by using industrial rearing systems. Nor would you expect it to drink the earth dry, deplete the soil, clog streams with nutrient rich runoff and create out-of-sight and out-of-mind enormous dead cells in the oceans. You would also think, wouldn’t you, that it might not lead to the destruction of whole cultures or the removal of many of the remaining small farmers around the world. Nor presumably would it destroy, by diversity, at the same time as cultural and social diversity. On the contrary, 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 grow-based regimes as nature actually intended. Now, you may think this is an idealized definition, that is 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, at the moment, 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, ladies and gentlemen, leads me to the nub of what I would like you to consider.

Having myself tried to farm as sustainably as possible some twenty-six years in England, which is not as long as other people here, I know, 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, apple crops, beef, lamb and milk. And yet we are told ceaselessly – 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, IAASTD, conducted in 2008 by the U.N. I’m very pleased, by the way, to see that the co chair of that report, Professor Hans Herren, will be taking part in the international panel discussion toward the end of the conference because his report drew on evidence from more than four hundred scientists worldwide and concluded that small scale, family-based farming systems adopting so-called agri-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. So, ladies and gentlemen, this is the heart of the problem, it seems to me, 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. And I would certainly urge you first to look at the slack in the system. Under the current, inherently unsustainable system in the developed world, we actually throw away approximately forty percent of the food we have bought. Food is now much cheaper than it was and many unexpected consequences of this is perhaps that we do not value it as once we did. I kind of have a feeling that some of this problem could be avoided with better food education. You would have to consider the progress your first lady, Mrs. Obama, has achieved lately by launching her “Let’s Move” campaign, a wonderful initiative, if I may say so. With manufacturers making their healthy weight commitment and pledging to cut 1.5 trillion calories a year from their products; with Wal-Mart promising to sell products with less sugar, salt and transfats 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 sort of urging doctors to write out prescriptions to exercise, these are marvelous ideas that I’m sure will make a major difference. Alas, in developing countries, approximately forty percent of food is lost between farm and market. Could that be remedied, too, this time 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 that they might do if the soil was nurtured more to an organic content and to improve 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  ommentator 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 onsumers. With so much growing concern about this, my International Sustainability Unit, which the president mentioned earlier, 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, ladies and gentlemen, 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 agriculture techniques that are responsible for the many problems that I have just outlined. And secondly, that the cost of that damage is 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 manufacturing 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 a 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 that 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 elusion, only made possible by transferring the cost 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, I think, 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 insure that it is affordable for ordinary consumers.

There are, after all, already precedents to 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 is being 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. Certainly, the United Nations Environment Program inspires hope when it estimates that the greening of agriculture and fisheries would increase economic value per year by eleven percent by 2050. The hugely overstretched stocks of the Northeast Atlantic blue fin tuna is a case in point, where it is estimated that a transition to a sustainable fisheries management could generate a profit of more than $500 million every year as compared to the current figure of $70 million and that is after having received $120 million in subsidies. It is also worth bearing in mind that these sorts of policies which encourage more diversity in terms of landscape, community and product often generate all sorts of other positive results, too, in tourism, forestry and industry. Ladies and gentlemen, this all depends upon us deepening our understanding of the relationship between food, energy, water and economic security and denigrating 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 for the health of the whole system in mind, not only will we suffer from rising food prices, you will also see the overall resilience of our economies and, in some instances, our ecological and social systems, too, becoming dangerously unstable. If we do take such important steps, it seems to me that we would also have to ask – have to question whether it is responsible in the long term to have most of our food coming from highly centralized processing and distribution systems. Raw materials are often sourced from – sourced many thousands of miles away from where we live. Meat is processed in vast factories and then transported great distances before being sold. And in light of the kind of events we have been witnessing more frequently as of late, such as the horrific floods in Pakistan last year and in Australia a few months ago, it is very easy to imagine that, with systems concentrated in such intense, large scale ways, these events could quickly escalate into a global food crisis. So we have to consider how we achieve food security in a world where commodity food prices will inevitably rise. So could one way be to put more emphasis on re-localizing the production and distribution of key staple foods? Wouldn’t that create the sort of buffer we will need if we are to face increasingly volatile and unpredictable world markets – world market prices? And, just to remember the point I made earlier, the fact that food production is part of a wider socioeconomic landscape. We have to recognize that social and economic stability is built upon valuing and supporting local communities and their traditions. Small holder agriculture therefore has a pivotal role. Imagine if there was a global food shortage, if it became much harder to import food in today’s quantities, where do countries turn to for their staple foods? Is there not more resilience in a system where the necessary staple foods are produced locally so that, if there are shocks to the system, there won’t be panic? And what is more, not only can it be much more productive than it currently is, strengthening small farm production could be a major force in preserving the traditional knowledge and biodiversity that we lose at our peril. So might it be wise, given the rather difficult situation that we appear to be in, that if we do look at re-gearing the way subsidies work, we include policies that focus funding on strengthening economic and environmental diversity? This diversity is at the root of building resilient economies, that have the adaptive capacity to deal with the increasingly severe and frequent shocks that affect us all.

I am a historian and not an economist but what I’m hinting at here is that it is surely time to grasp one of the biggest mettles of all and reassess what has become a fundamental aspect of our entire economic model. As far as I can see, responding to the problems we have with a “business as usual” approach towards the way in which we measure GDP offers us only short term relief. It does not promise a long term cure. Why? Because we cannot possibly maintain the approach in the long term if we continue to consume our planet as rapaciously as we are doing. Capitalism ultimately 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. There are alternative ways to growing our food, which if used with new technology, things like precision irrigation, for instance, would go a very long way to resolving some of the problems we face. If they are underpinned by smarter financial ways of supporting them, they could strengthen the resilience of our agriculture and green and energy systems. We could insure a means of supply that is capable of withstanding the source of sudden fluctuations on international markets which are bound to come our way, as the price of oil goes up and the impact of our accelerating disruption of our entire natural systems, becomes greater.

In essence, what I am suggesting here is something very simple. We need to include in the bottom line the true cost of food production, the true financial costs and the true costs to the earth. It is what I suppose you would call “accounting for sustainability,” a name I gave to a project I set up six years ago, initially to encourage businesses to expand their accounting process so that it incorporates the interconnected impact of financial, environmental and social elements on their long term performance.

What if accounting for sustainability was applied to the agriculture sector? This was certainly the implicit suggestion in a recent and very important study by the U.N. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, or TEEB, assessed the multi-trillion dollar importance to the world’s economy – of the natural world – and concluded that the present system of national accounts needs to be upgraded rapidly so they include the health of natural capital and thereby accurately reflect how the services offered by natural ecosystems are performing, let alone are paid for.

Incidentally, to create a genuine market for such services in the same way as a common market is being created could conceivably make a substantial contribution to reducing poverty in the developing world. And this is very important. If we hope to redress the market failure that would otherwise blight the lives of future generations, we have to see that there is a direct relationship between the resilience of the planet’s ecosystems and the resilience of our national economies.

Essentially, we have to do more today to avert the catastrophes of tomorrow and we can only do that by reframing the way we approach the economic problems that confront us. We have to put nature back at the heart of the equation. If we are to make our agricultural and marine systems and therefore our economies resilient for the long term, then we have to design policies in every sector that bring the true cost of environmental destruction and the depletion of natural capital to the fore and support an ecosystem-based approach and we have to nurture and support the  ommunities of small holders and family farmers. 

Everyone has to work together and we all have to recognize the principle that Mahatma Gandhi observed so incisively when he said that we may utilize the gifts of nature just as we choose but in her book, the debts are always equal to the credits. It is, I feel, our apparent reluctance to recognize the interrelated nature of the problems and therefore, the solutions that lie at the heart of our predicament and certainly, on our ability to determine the future of food. How we deal with this systemic failure in our thinking will define us as a civilization and determine our survival.

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