Following a talk I recently gave to a college group, a student asked what book I would recommend if I had to suggest a single book about the modern industrial food system. The obvious candidates came to mind—Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma—but in the end, I told her to read The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food.
With a foreword by Wendell Berry and an afterword by Eric Schlosser and Will Allen (that together are worth far more than the price of the book), The Prince’s Speech is a slim, elegantly designed paperback with the accessible price of $6.99.
Its origins date back to last spring, when His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales delivered the keynote speech to a small, influential group invited to the Future of Food Conference in Washington, D.C. I did not attend, and until I read The Prince’s Speech, I had no idea what I missed.
In reasoned tones, and with eloquent prose, Prince Charles crystallizes the lessons he has learned over three decades on the frontlines of the battle to promote more sustainable ways of producing food. For member of the royal family, whose duties are to promote and shed positive light on all things British, taking the side of environmentalists and organic growers over the interests of agribusiness is not without risk. As the Prince writes, “I have been venturing into dangerous territory over the past 30 years. I have all the scars to prove it . . . !”
Being criticized for his stance on agricultural issues is worth it, he writes, because he has no intention of being confronted by his grandchildren asking why our generation did not do something about the broken food system when the problems were there for all to see. Making a virtue out of brevity, he goes on to examine those problems: depleted and vanishing topsoil, an ever-growing demand for limited water supplies, and reliance on fluctuating and finite supplies of oil and natural gas. This, he says, represents a drawing down of “natural capital,” which in turn puts pressure on the entire modern economy.
“Capitalism depends on capital, but our capital ultimately depends on the health of Nature’s capital. Whether we like it or not, the two are inseparable,” he writes.
Having farmed his own lands as sustainably as possible for the past 26 years, producing perfectly respectable yields of vegetables, grains, lamb, beef, and milk, the Prince does not buy into that tired and untrue refrain about sustainable farming not being able to feed the world. He cites an exhaustive United Nations study showing that “agro-ecological” approaches were among the most productive in the developing countries most likely to suffer food shortages in the future and laments, “And yet, for some strange reason, the conclusions of this exhaustive report have vanished without trace.”
With all due respect, His Highness is wrong on that last point. Thanks to the ongoing work of influential people and efforts such as The Prince’s Speech, valuable information about sustainable agriculture is getting out.