Fit for a King: On the Future of Food (A Book Review)

Fit for a King: On the Future of Food (A Book Review)

    In his foreword, Wendell Berry calls Prince Charles the only eminent person with "both the clarity to see and the courage to speak candidly about the obvious failures and dangers of industrial agriculture."

Advocates of locally sourced, sustainably produced food are often portrayed as elitists(most often by those with a vested interest in the agricultural status quo) and granted, it doesn’t get much more elite than His Royal Highness Prince Charles, The Prince of Wales.

Last May, just a day after his son William’s eagerly anticipated marriage to Kate Middleton, Prince Charles flew to Washington D.C. to give a speech at the Future of Food Conference, in which he outlined the social and environmental problems associated with industrial food systems and some pragmatic solutions to them.  Author and environmentalist Laurie David was in the audience that day and like many others (including Ecocentric bloggers Chris and Kai), was deeply impressed. Laurie immediately set out to convince the Prince – and Rodale Press – that an essay adaptation of the speech would make a great small book.

Today, that little book is out in print and called The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food, with a foreword by poet and farmer Wendell Berry, and an afterword co-written by urban farmer/MacArthur genius Will Allen and longtime food journalist Eric Schlosser. (Disclosure: GRACE was a sponsor of the Future of Food conference and is working to promote the book, primarily through the creation of this website.)

Why would you care what a prince from the UK has to say about the future of food in the US?

First off, Prince Charles knows what he’s talking about. He has been farming – yes, farming – sustainably and touting the benefits of organic agriculture for decades. A friend of mine who was invited to a private tour of his Highgrove farm told me that when she shook his hand, it was calloused, and she insists without a smidgen of cynicism that she is sure he really spends three days each week working the land.

Second, his message makes sense. He observes something not often addressed by industrial solutions to problems like yield or water scarcity: that agriculture does not exist in a vacuum. He points out the interrelated nature of food, water, energy and global economics, and that local production is systemically more resilient than its centralized counterpart.

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.

….Imagine if there were a global food shortage; if it became much harder to import food in today’s quantities, where would 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.

Prince Charles does not oversimplify the problems (including but not limited to overuse of water and energy; pollution of water, soil and air; and unjust labor conditions) created by our current methods of food production, or the solutions he puts forth – instead, he acknowledges the complexity of feeding a rapidly growing global population. He recognizes the complex nature of the Earth herself and does not, like so many proponents of “solutions” like transgenic seeds, seek to tame her wilderness, but rather holds a reverence for biodiversity and an interest in preserving all manner of plants and microorganisms, and working with them to create healthy, thriving agricultural systems. He draws on the wisdom of the IAASTD report, published in 2008 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation – with 400 contributing agricultural scientists from 57 different countries – the gist of which was that developing nations know how to feed themselves and don’t need genetically engineered seeds, but instead need infrastructure and access to local markets. He points out that if one billion people around the globe are hungry, so too are one billion obese and another billion suffering from “hidden hunger,” or malnutrition, and that all three of these are symptoms of an unhealthy system.

Finally, the Prince makes his bravest statement, a call for a “more honest form of accounting.”

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.”

This more honest form of accounting would include what economists refer to as externalities, which are costs (or benefits) incurred in the production of a material – in this case, food – that are borne by someone outside the transaction between buyer and seller. Our current system relies on society to pay for the negative externalities (environmental cleanup, public health costs and more), while Big Food pads its profit margins by not being made to pay for the messes it creates. Conversely, local and sustainable agriculture is not only more “honest” and fair, but in fact creates positive externalities like stronger local economies and eaters who have reconnected to traditional food knowledge, the places they live and even each other (farmers' market patrons have been found to have four times as many conversations there than visitors to the average supermarket).

It’s worth pointing out that it’s not in the Prince’s interest to go around sounding off on the perils of the industrial food system. Sure, he’s in a better position than some – as Wendell Berry points out, he is no “mere citizen.” And he’s not a politician, so he’s not beholden to Big Food’s contributions for his next election campaign. However, his position ensures that he will be in the public eye throughout his entire lifetime, so upsetting the proverbial apple cart has lasting implications for him. And though he doesn’t expound, His Royal Highness hints at the dangers of speaking out on food issues, and his honorable reason for doing so.

Questioning the conventional worldview is 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.

In his foreword, Wendell Berry calls Prince Charles the only eminent person with “both the clarity to see and the courage to speak candidly about the obvious failures and dangers of industrial agriculture.” Eminent though he may be, speaking honestly and acting for the good of society as a whole by preventing wealthy and powerful agribusiness interests from compromising public health and environmental quality to earn profits seems to me to be the opposite of elitist.

If advocating for cleaner, more just food systems and supporting small scale farmers and local economies through the purchase and enjoyment of locally grown, sustainably produced food makes me an elitist, then let them eat (organic) cake.