Prince Charles on the future of food

May 10, 2011

Excerpted remarks from the Washington Post Live Future of Food Conference held May 4 at Georgetown University:

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?

The system of farm subsidies is geared in such a way that it favors overwhelmingly those kinds of agriculture techniques that are responsible for the many problems that I have just outlined. And secondly, that the cost of that damage is 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 manufacturing application of nitrogen fertilizer, which are potent greenhouse gases. They, too, are not costed at source. 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 penalized. 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 a 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 cost 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. 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.

Perhaps at the end of this, 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 it 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 insures the dimensions 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, ladies and gentlemen, by addressing the challenges of making our food systems more sustainable and secure but also because, as far as I’m concerned, agriculture — not agri-industry — holds the key to the improvement of public health, the expansion of rural employment, the enrichment of education and the enhancement of quality of life.

Critically, such a new Washington consensus might embrace the willingness of all aspects of society — the public, private and NGO [non-governmental organizations] sectors, large corporations and small organizations — to work together to build an economic model built upon resilience and diversity, which are the two great characteristics, if I may say so, of your nation.

The full text of Prince Charles’s keynote address is available at wapo.st/princespeech.

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