A variety of food activists, ranging from author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and poet/environmentalist Wendell Berry to the cofounder of the Coalition of Immokallee Workers, an advocacy group that protects the rights of migrant farmers, and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, convened to talk about the long-term survival of the world's food supply and how our current industrial food system is poisoning our children, destroying the planet, and threatening the world's most vulnerable citizens. "We're venturing into extremely dangerous territory by speaking of the future of food," Prince Charles said in his keynote address. "Questioning the conventional world view is risky business."
THE DETAILS: Prince Charles' interest in organic farming dates back over 30 years, he said, to when he first realized that he needed to put his interest in healthy, sustainable food to some sort of action. In the 1980s, he decided to convert the Duchy Home Farm on one of the royal estates, Highgrove, to an organic agricultural system. After a few years, the farm became productive enough to support a commercial food business he named Duchy Originals, and it now includes more than 200 organic meat, dairy, and packaged food products sold throughout the United Kingdom. The Prince has been a champion of sustainable food production ever since.
"We have to maintain a supply of healthy food when there is mounting pressure on every element affecting the farming process," he told the crowd. "Soils are being depleted, demand for water is growing even more voracious, and our entire system is at the mercy of the increasingly fluctuating price of oil." According to one statistic he cited, the average person on a Western-style diet consumes a gallon of diesel every day through food, due to our current system's heavy dependence on fossil fuel–dependent fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery.
In addition, world hunger and world food insecurity, which plague roughly 2 billion people, are made worse by the fact that industrial food systems being pushed upon farmers in developing countries have led to crop yields that, for the first time in history, are lower than the rate of population growth, he said.
WHAT IT MEANS: Organic farming will have to become the default means of feeding the world, he said. As economists, scientists, and farmers worldwide have been discovering, the Prince of Wales concurred that truly sustainable food systems based upon organic agricultural methods aren't just required to feed the world, but they're also required to maintain "economic biodiversity." "Imagine a global food shortage," he said. "If it becomes harder to import food in today's quantities, where do countries turn to for staple foods? If those foods are produced locally, such economic shocks to the system wouldn't create such a panic." He also used the example of bluefin tuna fisheries. If sustainably managed, he said, fishermen would reap profits of $500 million per year, as opposed to the $70 million per year they're currently making. "And that's after $120 million in subsidies," he added.
Noting that excessive agricultural subsidies are to blame for our lopsided systems, he added that when those are removed and businesses pay for the true costs of their food production methods—whether it be air pollution from factory farms, water pollution from pesticides, health problems associated with cheap junk foods—poverty in the developing world would be substantially reduced. At that point, he said, it would be industrial food suppliers, not underfunded municipalities, paying to prevent water contamination, and food manufacturers, not individuals, paying for healthier foods that prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and all the other expensive chronic diseases associated with bad food.
"I have been told ceaselessly that sustainable or organic farming cannot feed the world," he added. "And I find this claim very hard to understand." He cited a 2008 report from the United Nations that compiled research from more than 400 scientists worldwide that concluded that small family farms were the most productive food systems in the world." And yet, for some strange reason, the conclusions of this exhaustive report seem to have vanished without trace."
"Capitalism ultimately depends on capital, but our capital depends on nature's capital," he concluded. "The two are in fact inseparable."
"The Prince did an excellent job of tying all the major issues together in a neat bow that he wrapped around a package laid squarely on the doorstep of government subsidies," said Maria Rodale, chairman and CEO of Rodale Inc. and board member of the Rodale Institute (which researches organic farming), of the Prince's remarks. "Global government subsidies must stop making toxic, polluting, and nutritionally inferior foods cheaper than real food."
Here are a few more important takeaways from Prince Charles's speech and the conference:
• Demand organic—you're not being an elitist, we promise. In his opening remarks, author Eric Schlosser took the food industry to task for labeling anyone who wants organic food as "elitist." "The chemical companies and biotech companies like to dismiss organic food as something trendy and elitist," he said. "It isn't. It really is a matter of life and death." Not only are the pesticides and fertilizers used in conventional agriculture poisonous, but the farming system deprives farmworkers of making an adequate living and threatens the health of their children when the workers come home covered in pesticide residues. If that's not enough to convince you, here are 12 more reasons to demand organic.
Doing so is increasingly important in light of the upcoming Farm Bill debates. "We have the facts on our side, we have the truth," said Maria Rodale, who attended the conference. "Since we are not nearly as well funded as the toxic chemical companies, the only power we have is with our unified voices. It's time to fight. To act with strength and conviction. If enough Americans band together to demand a healthy food system, we may have a chance of saving ourselves."
• Watch out for greenwashing. "What is a truly sustainable food system? We should be very clear, or you'll simply have the system we have now just dipped in greenwash," Prince Charles said. Don't settle for unsubstantiated claims like "natural" or "no-spray;" the USDA Organic seal is the only truly reliable way to ensure you're getting sustainable food.
• Catch up on what you missed. You can watch clips of the Prince's speech and other panels from yesterday's conference online at the Washington Post's website. See more pictures on the Georgetown University site.