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Princely advice

I just read a speech given by Prince Charles at Georgetown University this past May. I'm normally not a follower of Royalty, but he did a great job of simply connecting global trends to the importance of building local food systems through the application of permaculture (though he didn't call it permaculture).

Here is Prince Charles' speech on youtube.

And here is the text of his speech.

Some might take his words as simply the naïve views of one pampered high society guy that is out of touch with the 'reality' of growing food or the ‘economics’ of the struggling poor. Yet it is significant that someone so far entrenched in the power establishment can come to these 'anti-establishment' conclusions. And even more significant that he is taking his message to the people through his position as a prince. It is courageous for such a fish to swim against the current, and worthy of respect.

To summarize his solutions, Charles is calling for a transition to food systems that mimic native ecosystem dynamics, use few external inputs, are diverse in species mix, use perennials, recycle nutrients, and are local in scale. He values the small producer and smart management of elegant systems rather than brute management of simple systems (he also points out that these are the same conclusions of more than 400 agricultural scientists in the United Nations 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development, which has strangely been ignored by the policies of the USDA, USAID, and our agricultural Land Grant institutions).

Where the speech falls short (and possibly the actual movement falls short) is when he gives suggestions on how to get there. Prince Charles (as many others do too) recommends taking subsidies away from conventional commodity grain agriculture and shifting the subsidies to farmers that use practices that build soil, use less inputs, and produce in abundance. He is suggesting that if governments could only give money to farmers that are doing things like management intensive grazing of animals, farming in diversity, recycling nutrients, using year-round cover crops, or integrating crops and animals -- and take away subsidies from big commodity agriculture -- then the good systems will propagate.

That would have been a great strategy to start 20 years ago, but such a policy is becoming increasingly unattainable at this point in history for two reasons:

  1. In the high food price era, subsidies are already very low to big agriculture (large payments are triggered by low prices)
  2. Economies around the world are shrinking, tax revenues declining, and governments are being cut off from borrowing money.

Simply put, governments will have a hard enough time staying afloat. The good news is that industrial agriculture will likely get cut, but I wouldn’t hang my hopes on the savings being diverted to agro-ecological adoption. We need to start thinking about how to promote the spread of good practices without massive infusions of capital. Can we succeed without subsidies?

I listed some worthy directions for policies in past blogs here and here, but I’d like to highlight the two most critical issues:

  1. Set innovation free: Given good information + high food prices, local farmers and businesses will respond by growing and supplying food. But regulations restricting small producers from legally entering the market need to be reworked. An example is the USDA ‘exemption’ to small poultry producers that is now prohibitably expensive to implement due to costly HACCP regulations. Another example is the new Food Safety and Modernization Act (FSMA) that lays out rules for Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification--Small producers cannot sell vegetables/fruit to food ‘aggregators’ without extensive and expense outlays. Yet another example is urban zoning prohibiting selling vegetables from urban gardens. These examples and more indicate that we need to go through the current regulations with a vision on how to make it easier for small producers to make a buck and then change those regulations.
  2. Spread good information: Agricultural extension services could be a key link to picking up and spreading good information to farmers and urban gardeners. Likewise, Land Grant research universities could be a source of new innovations in building regional agro-ecological practices. But we must quickly change the status quo of these institutions, which remains to support and promote the 'dinosaur' of input-intensive industrial agriculture. Lots of smart people are being paid well to make crops roundup resistant, breed cow kidneys that can stand up longer to corn-soybean diets, or work in collaboration with industry to develop a salt resistant golf turf -- This has to stop -- We need to return the time of these government-funded researchers to seeking out, sharing, and possibly tweaking how to grow as much food regionally while building soils and using as few fossil fuel intensive inputs as possible. This work should mostly entail finding farmers/ranchers/orchardists/aquaculturalists who are already using agro-ecological practices and sharing that information with other farmers and students. Research should involve tweaking these already existing systems to function even better under low-input conditions. Most of the good work will not have to get too fancy or costly. ‘Keep it simple’ should be the modus operandi.

The facts are that the global economy is shrinking, money is disappearing, and food is getting more expensive. But I also believe that local food systems can emerge and thrive - even without redirecting big subsidies that have been going to commodity agriculture. Sure, it would be great if there were large incentives to adopt agro-ecological practices, but those days are drawing to an end. Lets hold onto the backbone of our agricultural network - the extension service - and redirect this low cost/high return institution to building local food systems! Success could come if we simply had an unhindered marketplace and readily available network of useful practitioners to share knowledge. And truly, if we can feed ourselves, we can get through most anything, even global economic collapse.

But we have to be smart. And these are two smart policy choices that are both doable and yield big returns in terms of building local food systems that will feed us even when energy prices skyrocket and climate problems knock out ‘breadbasket’ harvests*. A lot of headway can be made at the regional level on these two policy areas. We don’t have to wait for national governments or international agencies to take productive action.

So that’s my advice to the Prince!

*Local regions will likely have to take their turn at a climate hit, knocking out region’s food system, but with food production dispersed throughout the nation, other ‘bumper’ crop regions will be able to pick up the slack for hard hit regions. This is why some amount of trade of food between regions is always valuable.

Editorial Notes: About the author: I grew up in Olathe, Kansas, and attended St. Olaf college in Northfield Minnesota. After college, I spent several years working and learning at the Land Institute, an agricultural research farm in Salina, Kansas. I also served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama and with the US Forest Service in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. I received my MS in Agricultural Economics in 1996 and a doctorate in geography at the University of Tennessee in 2008. I am presently a research assistant professor at the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center. My work there focuses on agricultural land use policies, climate change mitigation, biofuels analysis and defining appropriate long-term agricultural policy in a post peak-oil world. I was the winner of the 2009 Farm Foundation’s policy contest for my essay entitled, “Peak Oil and the Necessity of Transitioning to Regenerative Agriculture”. My wife, Tracie Hellwinckel, and I co-founded the Knoxville Permaculture Guild, and I've recently been appointed by Mayor Haslem to the Knoxville Food Policy Council. I live with my wife and 7 year old son in the Parkridge neighborhood of East Knoxville, which is an urban area with quite small lots (50x150feet).

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