Book of the Week: Prince Charles on farming and food

Britain's Prince Charles checking the smell of a mushroom during a visit to Japan in 2008. This veteran farmer writes about producing food for the future. (AP Photos/Issei Kato, Pool)

The setting was a conference about the future of food at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

As the keynote speaker began to talk, people in the room took special note, and not just because they were listening to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

“Honestly, as I was listening to him speak my jaw dropped, along with everyone else’s, because the speech was such a clear and comprehensive explanation of what has gone so wrong with how we produce food in this country and what we need to do to get back on track,” recalls Laurie David, an award-winning producer.

And now, that May 4, 2011, speech has been reprinted as a book, The Prince’s Speech: On the Future of Food, which David has guest-edited for Emmaus publisher Rodale Books, which also published Al Gore's books on climate change.

The Prince's Speech was released yesterday.

“It was very clear to me that this speech needed to be read by everyone who eats,” David said in press release from the company. “And while this book may seem small in size, it seeks to answer a very big question: How do we reclaim the integrity of our food and get back to producing good, clean, fair food for everyone on the planet?"

Small, indeed. At a mere 64 pages, you can just about read it over breakfast. At just $6.99, you hardly need a royal income to afford it.

And, oh, how lovely this little book is. Just a plain cover with a picture of carrots — bright orange roots topped by fluffy greenery.

The book is concise and compelling.

Prince Charles points out it's not just a matter of the environment and sustainability. Food production cuts to the core of human health.

"Over a billion people -- one-seventh of the world's population -- are hungry and another billion suffer from what is called 'hidden hunger,' which is the lack of essential vitamins and nutrients in their diets," he writes. "And on the reverse side of the coin, let us not forget the other tragic fact -- that over a billion people in the world are now considereded overweight or obese. It is an inreasingly insane picture. In one way or another, half the world finds itself on the wrong side of the food equation."

Prince Charles has long drawn criticism for his views about architecture. Now, “I have been venturing into extremely dangerous territory by speaking about the future of food over the past 30 years,” he writes. “I have the scars to prove it!”

He’s been challenging the conventional views about modern agribusiness.

“This is the heart of the problem,” Prince Charles writes. “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?”

He points to studies — and his own 26 years of farming in England — that show producing food on a scale necessary to feed the planet can only be done in harmony with nature, not with a barrage of chemicals on monocultured fields.

Indeed, the Rodale Institute in Kutztown has published some of the studies. Its Farming Systems Trial, begun 31 years ago, is said to be America’s longest-running side-by-side comparison of organic and chemical farming methods.

The results, announced last year: “After an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system soon rebounded to match or surpass the conventional system.”

The researchers found that compared with chemical methods, organic methods matched yields, performed better in years of drought, built the soil, used 45 percent less energy, produced lesser amounts of greenhouse gases. and were more profitable.

But back to Prince Charles.

“In essence, what I am suggesting here is something very simple. We need to include in the bottom line the true costs of food production — the true financial costs and the true costs to the earth.” Including: the costs of cleaning up pollution and dealing with human health problems, he writes.

One theme that doesn’t get talked about much is how localized agriculture isn’t just a way to green up the food supply, but more importantly, to make it more resilient. If there are “shocks to the system” in the form of, say, a particular crop failure, how much better it would be if staples were produced locally as well.

Prince Charles says small-farm production “could be a major force in preserving the traditional knowledge and biodiversity that we lose at our peril.”

The book is bolstered with two more essays — a foreword by author and farmer Wendell Berry, plus an afterword by urban farmer Will Allen and author Eric Schlosser.

Berry writes that the prince’s speech was all the more powerful because he delivered it quietly. He was a human being addressing other human beings, not a “blinkered partisan.” And the content “amounts exactly to the good sense that we once recognized as ‘common.’ “

Allen and Schlossher are much more pointed in their comments. “The industrial model has caused enormous damage, in a remarkably brief period of time, and we have no choice but to seek a better one,” they write.

On the other hand, “the founders of the organic movement understood that the health of people, livestock and the land cannot be separated from one another - they’re indivisible.”