May 6, 2011
Just five days after his son William’s wedding that drew millions of viewers, the Prince of Wales keynoted Wednesday’s Future of Food conference at Georgetown University with an impassioned 40 minute talk. Prince Charles, who has farmed “as sustainably as possible” for 26 years, explained why conventional agriculture is simply not sustainable.
The “business as usual approach,” he asserted, creates vast monocultures and treats animals like machines in industrial rearing systems, depends upon chemical pesticides, fungicides and insecticides, artificial fertilizers, growth-promoters, genetic engineering, drinks the Earth dry, depletes the soil, clogs streams with nutrient-rich run-off and creates out-of-sight and out-of-mind enormous dead zones in the oceans. He suggested that this system is both propped up by subsidies and allowed to externalize the costs of its environmental and public health damage. His call consider recalibrating subsidies to support to farming practices that are more sustainable, less polluting, and of wide benefit to the public interest received a standing ovation.
Later in the conference, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack fielded questions from participants on subjects including agricultural subsidies, the use of medically important antibiotics in animal agriculture, and ways to engage young people in food policy.
Deborah Koons Garcia, the documentarian who produced the 2004 film also called The Future of Food, also challenged Vilsack on the USDA’s recent decision to deregulate GE Alfalfa. Vilsack responded, as he has in the past, that there is no bad guy in the GE debate, that it is really a case of good guy and good guy. Likening conventional agriculture and sustainable agriculture to two sons, he asserted that he loves both of his sons equally. “One of your sons is a bully,” Koons Garcia responded, noting that GE crops can contaminate non-GE crops, but that contamination is not a concern in the other direction. Vilsack urged the audience to avoid that kind of tone in the debate, in hopes that a real dialogue can occur. He notes USDA is in the process of reconstituting the Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture and will soon invite 21 people from all sides of the debate to sit at the table for cooperative, productive discussion.
Other presenters at the conference included Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, Bon Appétit Management Company co-founder Fedele Bauccio, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture President Fred Kirschenmann, Stonyfield Farm President Gary Hirshberg, Food Politics author Marion Nestle, FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor, and Growing Power Inc. founder and CEO Will Allen.