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On The Prince’s Speech: The Future of Food

The content of “On The Future of Food” (a speech given in May of 2011 by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales at Georgetown University and recently published by Rodale Press) shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the Prince or sustainable agriculture. The two have been connected since at least 1985, when HRH converted his farmland to organic, wildlife-friendly practices. In contrast to other monarchs and heads of state, the Prince has also been an advocate of sustainable practices for commercial operations and has long stood out as a critic of industrial agriculture. That he is so personally knowledgeable on the subject—as well as being in a position to influence discourse and policy at such a high level—gives him some clout to tell us what is wrong in the food system and what can be done about it.

The newly published version of his speech is a good book for someone who hasn’t yet heard: Our current industrial food system is failing us and the planet. The Prince shows the irony that “an industrialized system, deeply dependent on fossil fuels and chemical treatment, is promoted as viable, while a much less damaging one is rubbished and condemned as unfit.” He also addresses the irony of obesity and hunger, two sides of the same dysfunction. He makes the usual case for the depth of the problem and the urgency of change and shares some reasonable solutions.

These solutions include physical changes: Reducing pesticide and chemical usage, conserving water through drip irrigation, and adopting agro-ecological techniques for small, family-scale farms. The Prince also wisely advocates for re-localized production and distribution of staple crops, due to food security concerns. As organic farmers know, farm-scale solutions are pretty simple, really: Add organic matter to the soil. Avoid poisons. Water wisely. Cultivate diversity.

The more complicated aspects of the Prince’s speech relate to the social, political, and economic realms of the food system and here he hits some key points, but stops short of making truly innovative suggestions. He notes the reality that sustainable food only accounts for two to three percent of the U.S. market and that people cannot access such foods because they generally cost more. The Prince blames two factors for this: Distorting subsidies and a lack of true-cost accounting. The solution, then, would be a redirection of subsidies away from industrial methods towards sustainable methods (and I would add, supports for young and beginning farmers), along with policies that could incorporate the externalities of industrial production into the price of its products.

These suggestions are certainly worth looking at, but are not without problems. After all, direct removal of most subsidies in the U.S. would likely result in loan defaults and massive poverty for communities managing industrial-scale corn, wheat, and soy farms, which would only lead to further corporate consolidation of land. Incorporating the costs of water pollution from nitrogen runoff and health costs from diet-related disease sounds great, but those costs are very difficult to quantify and enforce. This isn’t to say that these aren’t solutions, but that behind them stand structural barriers. Corporate/financial money power dominates markets, elections, and the policymaking process. Even when environmentalism is legislated, as through certification schemes, companies will do the least for sustainability and social justice that they can, as continued attempts to water down and circumvent organic certification standards show.

As much as I appreciate that he conveys the relatively commonsensical views of agro-ecology and state subsidies for sustainability to a relatively new audience, a fundamental belief of the Prince undermines his presentation: His belief in markets. As a member of the British royal family, and as a political figure, his social position reflects the historic global spread of markets; it is hard to imagine him challenging the primacy of markets in proposing solutions to agricultural sustainability. And sure enough, the Prince lauds both the efforts of government (Michelle Obama) and corporate America (Walmart) in promoting food sustainability, regardless that these could be the major forces behind the crux of the problem.

The agricultural problems the Prince cares so much to solve are not simple, but they are all symptoms of one much deeper issue: Policies are consistently bent to the will of companies’ bottom-line mentality, causing a market that harms. Without addressing this, how are we to expect the marketizing of ecosystem services (as the Prince suggests) to protect those services? Carbon markets haven’t exactly worked wonders. Without corporations under command of government, and government under command of the people, any reform risks getting rolled back or co-opted.

At the beginning of his speech, the Prince says that “questioning the conventional worldview is a risky business” and I agree. But if we want our proposals to be unconventional, we aren’t likely to find them from a member of the one percent whose position sits within a long tradition of Brits extolling the virtues of capitalism. Capitalist competition and the corporate class’ ongoing control over government–not mere misplaced subsidies–are at the root of the problems HRH decries.

Short of a total transformation of society (a long shot), there are other solutions to promote for food system change. A litany of electoral reforms (instant runoff voting, campaign finance limits, overturning Citizens United, limits to lobbying) might curb legalized corruption and two-party dominance, allowing the Prince’s reforms of subsidies and externality pricing to have a fighting chance. Beyond a focus on restoring democratic governance (which must include a resolution of the proper levels of both government intervention and the decentralization of decision-making), I see two “unconventional” ways forward.

To destroy the primacy of private property, without destroying it completely, we should develop “social obligation“ laws in land, as already exist in Brazil. Their constitutional clause allows the Landless Peasants Movement (MST) to squat un- and misused farmlands, creating instead their own agro-ecological communities. While there aren’t large peasant populations in the U.S., it would still be a substantial change to move the onus of environmentally friendly land stewardship to landowners (this is a “stick” approach in contrast to the “carrot” of paying landowners for ecosystem services). The other tactic is to revitalize the idea of “commons”, or “common pool resources”, on multiple scales. Nobel Prize in Economics winner Elinor Ostrom has pioneered research in this realm, helping us see that the management of scarce resources is sometimes best left to those who use them. As Ostrom advises, there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution (like marketizing) to commons management, and so environmental issues should be negotiated by users of resources and those affected by their use–through governing structures they themselves participate in.

As difficult as this might sound, it is but one of the challenges for creating a sustainable agriculture. Technical, social, economic, geographic, and political factors must all be addressed, from multiple vantage points and at multiple scales, by a movement of people, creating solutions as data is gathered, models are proposed and tested, policy is advocated for, and direct action is taken. Relying on political leaders to craft or implement solutions, like relying only on dominant paradigms within which to envision solutions, will only limit our progress.

San Francisco native Antonio Roman-Alcalá has been irrationally dedicated to urban sustainability since he decided that there wasn't enough "land" for all dropouts to go "back to". Attempting to live both a well-examined life and a joyful one, he splits his time among such pursuits as: teaching farming and permaculture through Alemany Farm; playing drums, guitar and singing; writing about the sustainable food movement as a perpetually critical insider; promoting his film In Search of Good Food; organizing the urban farm movement via the SFUAA, and resisting–yet submitting to–the dominant paradigm of institutional learning environments.

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