Last spring the Prince of Wales made a speech about “The Future of Food” as the keynote speaker for a conference of students and policymakers at Georgetown University. If you’ve followed the Prince’s interests and efforts, you’ll know that he’s a vocal proponent of sustainable agriculture and that he has even implemented organic, biodiversity-enhancing techniques at his two-acre estate (with the help of a full-time gardener or two, of course). He is among the most high-profile organic agriculture advocates on the planet, and in that sense alone his speech was important and worth reproducing, an effort that was recently undertaken by film producer-cum-environmental activist Laurie David, who worked with Rodale Press to publish the speech as a smartly produced chapbook. If you have any food-system-illiterate friends and family who might be swayed by a bold-faced name, this is the perfect book for them.
What is exceptional about The Prince’s Speech is not so much its content (which many advocates of sustainable agriculture would find familiar, if not conventional, by now), but its context. Here is a critique of industrial farming coming from an aristocrat. While Prince Charles isn’t a political leader, his words hold the societal weight of one. His inheritance puts the Prince in the company of the 1 percent of the 1 percent who try to leverage their privilege into positive social change. Philanthropy and advocacy are the Prince’s means for changing the food system.
The Prince’s solutions to the problems of industrial agriculture are largely technical. He argues for redirecting first world subsidies away from monocultures to diversified family farming, improving irrigation techniques to save water, and introducing markets in “ecosystem services.” He gets a lot right. It is certainly true that we shouldn’t be subsidizing industrial production of commodity crops. And figuring out how to incorporate the externalities of industrial production into products’ prices is a key task for the twenty-first century. This is classic top-down thinking, where problems are perceived as constrained by technology and policy and are rarely seen to have social origins, or social solutions.
What HRH leaves out, to the book’s great detriment, is the acknowledgement that it is people allied in a social movement that always have, and will continue to, create true social change – not edicts, policies, and philanthropy. While the latter can certainly help, without the ongoing pressure of social movements, edicts become empty rhetoric, policies are repealed, and funding is fickle.
Of course, there’s an alternative social change model – messier and from the bottom-up. If the Occupy movement has done anything for social change advocates, it has made it realistic to consider ordinary people as progenitors of change. While the verdict may be out as to Occupy’s eventual policy effects, it has already profoundly changed our political discourse. For those insisting on the imperative of environmental sanity, and a new food system that holds this imperative at its heart, Occupy’s 99 percent solution encourages us to look to one particular source for change: ourselves.
photo Eric Fidler
The most convincing solution The Prince’s Speech offers – small scale, diversified family farming – is also the one that emerges from the ground up. Look, for example, at the farmer-to-farmer movement that has spread across the global South, distributing agro-ecological techniques among poor farmers who need it most to feed their people. Or the back-to-the-land organic farming movement in the global North that has revived interest in growing food and knowing one’s farmer. These are hopeful examples in which farming solutions are integrated with social lives, causing cultural shifts as well as deeper political changes.
The problem with The Prince’s Speech, then, isn’t Prince Charles’ treatment of agricultural issues, but his lack of awareness of social movements and his own potential role within them. Elites do have a role to play in solving social and environmental problems, but their role should be one of support, not leadership. That might be a surprise to someone like Laurie David, who lives among a coterie of celebrities and wealth; she is likely more accustomed to the top-down perspective of change. If we “little people” can convince her and the Prince to place their faith in us instead, we can gain the support and leverage needed to make our mutually desired changes to the agricultural system inevitable.
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