If your livelihood centers around agriculture, you probably believe you are pretty fortunate. There’s that lifestyle thing, which many farmers and ranchers mention as one of the top reasons they keep plugging away despite the increasing challenges of the vocation. And you may count yourself as fortunate because so many other farms have simply disappeared over the past couple of decades.
If you’re making ends meet in agriculture, so much the better, because, well, farming is really not that difficult. In fact, agriculture, even on a global scale, is pretty simple, or so some would have the world believe.
This week we can add Prince Charles to the list of those who have convinced themselves that there’s nothing wrong with agriculture that turning the clock back about a half century wouldn’t solve. On a visit to Washington, D.C. last week (home of one of the world’s most famous organic gardens), the Prince of Wales “spoke passionately about organic and sustainable farming” to Georgetown University students.
In his speech at the Future of Food Conference, Prince Charles criticized U.S. government subsidies for large-scale agriculture and encouraged more government and business support for organic and environmentally-friendly food production.
Charles said rising hunger and obesity problems around the world are an “increasingly insane picture” and proposed that production agriculture use fewer chemical pesticides, artificial fertilizers and antibiotics. He also criticized industrial pollution and global dependence on oil.
Because Prince Charles is, well, Prince Charles, everything he does and everything he says makes news. Granted, much of Charles’ actions a decade or more ago was more fodder for the tabloids than the business pages, but his actions remain highly influential on a global scale. That’s why it’s disappointing to learn that he has decided to promote arguable — if not questionable — theories about modern agriculture.
To be fair, Prince Charles is, among many things, a farmer. That’s right. In 1986, the Prince decided to convert the Duchy Home Farm to a “completely organic system to demonstrate the environmental and commercial benefits.”
According to information on Home Farm’s website, “Home Farm is not only a successful and viable working farm, but is a flagship for the benefits of an organic, sustainable form of agriculture.”
Now, I’ve met a good many farmers in my time, but Prince Charles just doesn’t strike me as one who would fit into that crowd. When you visit with a farmer or rancher, a good gauge of his or her knowledge is often the mud on their boots and the calluses on their hands, not the silk in their tie. I could be wrong, but it’s hard for me to visualize the Prince of Wales with sweat on his brow and dirt under his fingernails.
I have no doubt, however, that Prince Charles is sincere in his wishes that starving people be fed and obese people become healthier. It’s just that so much of what he said at Georgetown last week will be taken out of context by others who haven’t the foggiest notion about anything involving sunshine, animals or soils, and how those basic ingredients are the foundation of the world’s economic and life-sustaining engine.
For instance, Prince Charles repeated a common gross exaggeration about beef’s water usage. “For every pound of beef produced in the industrial system, it takes 2,000 gallons of water,” he said.
Actually, Prince Charles’ figure is much closer to reality than some of the other false claims out there, but researchers at the University of California-Davis, led by professor Jim Oltjen, determined that producing a pound of beef actually requires 441 gallons of water. That still sound high? Consider that a pound of rice requires 403 gallons of water.
All of this is not to say agriculture can’t do better. Chemicals and fertilizers must be used judiciously, and we must seek more ways to reduce agriculture’s use of fossil fuels. But we must also recognize that feeding our world’s growing population is a daunting task. We must use the available technology or face more political unrest over food costs and food shortages.
None of the world’s great problems were ever solved by turning the clock back. There’s no evidence to suggest it will help us increase food production on a global scale.