Prince Charles Takes On Critics Of Sustainable Farming

The Prince of Wales, himself a long-time farmer, argues against the fallacy that truly sustainable farming isn’t feasible in "the real world."

In a global ecosystem that is, to say the least, under stress, our apparently unbridled demands for energy, land, and water put overwhelming pressure on our food systems. I am not 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 dipped in "greenwash." For me, it has to be a form of agriculture that does not exceed the carrying capacity 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 drought 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 before our human economic capital and economic systems also begin to lose their resilience.

Let’s 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 genetic modification. You would have perhaps thought a genuinely sustainable agriculture system would be 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 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.

Many people 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 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 leads me to the nub of what we should consider.

Having myself tried to farm as sustainably as possible for some 26 years in England, 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 United Nations. The 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. Why is it 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?

Reprinted from "The Prince’s Speech" by HRH The Prince of Wales. Copyright (c) 2012 by AG Carrick, Ltd. By permission of Rodale, Inc. Available wherever books are sold.

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  • JohnZyl

    This is an oversimplified, unscientific statement made by a "farmer" who does not depend on the land for his living.  While developing countries with cheap labor can indeed produce good yields of a variety of produce, using their own waste and animal waste as fertilizer, getting on hands and knees to pull weeds, and using various home remedies to control insects and disease, this is only possible when you have farmers making a couple dollars a day as wages.  In developed countries this is not feasible.  Furthermore, this can be okay for produce that is sold locally in the local open market stalls, but is not suitable for a system where grain or other food is produced for export or sale some long distance from where it is grown. 

    Any system that uses fuel and machinery will become more fuel efficient as it gets larger, thus reducing greenhouse gas impact.   In those systems, there will not be enough manure and compost to produce top yields on all the fields.  Fertilizers and herbicides more than double food yields, thus reducing land required for agriculture and leaving more natural lands alone.  Most organic fertilizer comes from animals, but the problem is that cattle and sheep produce a lot of methane, which is another greenhouse gas. 

    Yes, we could stop eating bread(from wheat), and stop using margarine(from canola or soybeans), but as long as we eat them, we will need someone to grow it, to keep the cost of it reasonable, and someone to mill it and to bake the bread.  If we have a 20% reduction in global food supply, this world will be in trouble; what we see as wars and strife today will be as nothing in comparison. 

    Today, with the help of various technologies, we are producing twice as much per acre as we did thirty years ago.  Our technologies are also conserving soil due to reduced tillage methods and reduced soil erosion.  The fertilizers we use are also producing more plant material which gets recycled and has improved the soil organic matter.  Rotations are still possible even in these technological farms;  we just need a market for legume and pulse products. 

  • Hiren Bose

    Being a weekend farmer but a passionate one I think the Prince is right. ORGANIC carbon of the soil needs to be pushed and only then can we talk of sustainable agriculture. the issue is how does one increase the organic carbon of the soil which is globally at .5. Many indian farners have shown the way. i too am doing it. i have come across instance of organic carbon of the soil increase to 3.5. its very simple. any farmer can do it.

  • British Citizen

    A great article with interesting insight. I hadnt realised the Prince was American though, he does love his 'Z's where the rest of us Brits may prefer an 'S'

  • Sue

    Such a lot of good sense here. We need to refute the claims of the agri-business lobby with its industrial livestock farming and high chemical/pharmaceutical inputs. This is not the world in which we want to live.