The Prince's Speech

The best recent news from Britain was not the royal nuptials beamed across the world. The best news had to do with feeding the world, the viability of rural communities, and preserving farmland for future generations--and it came from the groom’s father. Charles, Prince of Wales, was in Washington last week to address “The Future of Food” conference at Georgetown University, along with other sustainable agriculture luminaries.  As part of his visit, he toured Common Good City Farm, an urban agriculture project and education center nestled in the midst of Howard University, one of the nation’s oldest black universities.

The invitation to the conference must have been a sweet vindication for Charles. For years, he was derided in the press as kooky and anti-modern for his decades-long interest in organic farming. As reported by the New York Times, on his Highgrove and Duchy Road farms, compost and natural fertilizer nourish the crops. There are no genetically-modified plants, the cattle are pasture fed, and the organic oats are baked into tasty crackers, part of the lucrative Duchy Originals line of products, the proceeds of which go to the Prince’s charities.

“Having myself tried to farm as sustainably as possible for some 26 years in England, I certainly know of plenty of current evidence that adopting an approach which mirrors the mere ingenuity of Nature can produce surprisingly high yield of a wide range of vegetables, arable crops, beef, lamb and milk,” Charles stated in his speech. “And yet we are told ceaselessly that sustainable or organic agriculture cannot feed the world. I find this claim very hard to understand.”

Now, it is true that His Royalness enjoys support on his various rural estates not available to the average farmer. One doubts that he ploughs the North 40 without an assist from the village commoners. But he has managed not only to persevere in modeling sustainable farming methods; he also knows enough to place those practices in the context of global warming, politics, and corporate agriculture power—and speak truth to that power.

He referenced a UN Report that “drew on evidence from more than 400 scientists worldwide and concluded that small-scale, family-based farming systems, adopting so-called agro-ecological approaches, were among the most productive systems in developing countries. And yet, for some strange reason, the conclusions of this exhaustive report seem to have vanished without a trace.” The conclusions? “Capitalism depends upon capital, but our capital ultimately depends upon the health of Nature’s capital. Whether we like it or not, the two are in fact inseparable.... 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. If we are to make our agricultural and marine systems (and therefore our economies) resilient in the long term, then we have to design policies in every sector that bring the true costs of environmental destruction and the depletion of natural capital to the fore and support an ecosystem based approach.”

 Charles’ eloquence and visibility highlight the potential impact of the celebrity factor. People notice and often want to emulate the tastes and interests of the rich and famous. They think, "Hey, if royalty likes it, it must be good." It’s great that actors like Leonard de Caprio and Matt Damon are lending their star power to documentaries and foundations that support sustainability. But now we need to ramp up the climate change and ecological profile by drawing upon other figures adored by the mainstream.

What if  [insert the name of any lavishly overpaid major basketball player] paused in mid-setup, turned to the fans and said, “Damn! Global warming is a bitch. What are y’all doing to reduce your carbon footprint?” What if Martha Stewart took a break from demonstrating how to make rosettes out of jujubes and addressed how water pollution could be reduced if her viewers demanded correct agricultural runoff practices at the farms in their counties? And the phenomenally successful film director Tyler Perry would certainly earn his props if, in his next production, his steely matriarch Medea upbraided the local minister for not instituting recycling at the church socials.

The efficacy of celebrity has its limits, of course. Relentless public exposure wears, and popular tastes are fleeting.  But, for staying power and relevance, you can’t beat this statement from Charles’ speech: "I have no intention of being confronted by my grandchildren, demanding to know why on earth we didn't do something about the many problems that existed when we knew what was going wrong.” That sentiment is timeless. You might even say it’s majestic.