THE PRINCE OF WALES outlined his vision for sustainable agriculture to an audience of students and faculty at Georgetown University on May 4th.
"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 as 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 and growth-promoters or G.M.? 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 run-off and create, out of sight and out of mind, enormous dead zones 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 biodiversity 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 grass-based regimes as Nature intended.
You 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 non-renewable 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 labours 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 for 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, 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 U.N....This 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, 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.
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 per cent 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 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 Walmart promising 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 marvellous ideas that I am sure will make a major difference.
Alas, in developing countries approximately forty per cent 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 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 in this country on food matters, Michael Pollan, pointed out recently that, so far, the combined market for local and organic food, both in the U.S. and Europe, has only reached around two or three per cent 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 I.S.U. 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 favours 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 penalised. 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 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 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 round.
Certainly, the U.N.'s Environment Programme inspires hope when it estimates that the "greening" of agriculture and fisheries would increase economic value per year by eleven per cent by 2050. The hugely overstretched stocks of the North East Atlantic Blue Fin Tuna is a case in point, where it is estimated that a transition to sustainable fisheries management could generate a profit of more than 500 million dollars every year, as compared to the current figure of seventy million dollars – and that is after having received 120 million dollars in subsidies. It is also worth bearing in mind that these sorts of policies which encourage more diversity, in terms of landscape, community and products, often generate all sorts of other positive results too – in tourism, forestry and industry.
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.
If we do take such important steps, it seems to me that we would also have to question whether it is responsible in the long-term to have most of our food coming from highly centralised processing and distribution systems. Raw materials are often sourced many thousands of miles away from where we live; meat is processed in vast factories and then transported great distances before being sold. In light of the kinds of events we have been witnessing more frequently 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. 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-localising 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 market prices?
And remember the point I made earlier. The fact that food production is part of a wider socio-economic landscape. We have to recognize that social and economic stability is built upon valuing and supporting local communities and their traditions. Smallholder 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 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.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am a historian, not an economist, but what I am hinting at here is that it is surely time to grasp one of the biggest nettles of all and re-assess 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 G.D.P. 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 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, marine and energy systems. We could ensure a means of supply that is capable of withstanding the sorts 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 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 costs of food production – the true financial costs and the true costs to the Earth. It is what I suppose you could 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 agricultural 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 T.E.E.B., 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 carbon market has been created – could conceivably make a substantial contribution to reducing poverty in the developing world.
This is very important. If we hope to redress the market failure that will 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.
Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you have begun to see my point – and that the other universities are still with us! Essentially, we have to do more today to avert the catastrophes of tomorrow and we can only do that by re-framing 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 in the long term, then we have to design policies in every sector that bring the true costs 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 communities of smallholders and family farmers.
I trust that these thoughts will help to fire your debates and focus your thoughts for the rest of the conference. Who knows, perhaps at the end of it, we might be able to herald a new "Washington Consensus?" Like the previous version which has so dominated economic thinking around the world, it could be a consensus that acknowledges the need for markets and the role of the private sector, but which also embraces the urgent need for a rounded approach – one that recognizes the real opportunities and trade-offs needed to build a food system that enhances and ensures the maintenance of social, economic and environmental capital.
The new food movement could be at the heart of this Consensus, acting as an agent for truly transformational change; not just by addressing the challenges of making our food systems more sustainable and secure but also because, as far as I am concerned, agriculture – not agri-industry – holds the key to the improvement of public health, the expansion of rural employment, the enrichment of education and enhancement of quality of life.
Critically, such a new Washington Consensus might embrace the willingness of all aspects of society – the public, private and N.G.O. sectors, large corporations and small organisations – to work together to build an economic model built upon resilience and diversity, which are the two great characteristics of your nation. Such a partnership is vital; indeed, it has never been needed more and I am tremendously inspired by recent initiatives here in the United States. You cannot help but feel hopeful when such huge corporations like Walmart back local sourcing of food and decide to stock their shelves with sustainable or organic produce. Industry is clearly listening. 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 books 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 lies 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 civilisation and determine our survival. Ladies and gentlemen, let me end by reminding you of the words of one of your own founding fathers and visionaries. It was George Washington who entreated your forebears to "Raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God" – and, indeed, as so often in the past, in the hands of your great country, the United States of America.