Why eco-activists love His Royal Hystericalness
What does Prince Charles share with his middle-class fanboys? A small-minded, typically aristocratic fear of change and the future.
It was over 200 years ago that America threw off the yoke of the British crown and became a republic that enshrined ideas about the universal rights of man. Yet in recent weeks, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon: apparently radical American activists, campaigning journalists and leading academics fawning over the man who will be the UK’s next monarch, Prince Charles. Since the feudal throwback himself is about as charismatic as a concrete bollard, why are some right-on foodie types treating him as the best thing to come out of Britain since The Beatles?
The focus of this mass genuflection is a speech given by our treehugging future king at Georgetown University in Washington DC in May 2011. The speech, on the future of food production and supply, has now been turned into a small book by Rodale Press, purveyors of all things organic to those who prefer their food produced from manure. There is, therefore, something rather appropriate about this book being produced by fans of bullshit.
A flavour of this simultaneous creaming of knickers over royalty is provided by eco-website Grist, which interviewed leading food writers and activists about the book of the speech. ‘It’s impressive that someone of his stature cares about these issues and is willing to go on record promoting a healthier food system’, drooled Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University. Laurie David, producer of Al Gore’s Oscar-winning docu-lecture, An Inconvenient Truth, swooned: ‘I was surprised at how truthful his words were… I see the book as a mini-crash course in the issues surrounding our food.’
In the Atlantic, Corby Kummer described the speech as ‘seminal’, while in their afterword in the book, activist author Eric Schlosser (famous for Fast Food Nation) and basketball-player-turned-urban-farmer Will Allen describe Charles as ‘one of the few world leaders brave enough to say – publicly, not just privately – that the current system is unsustainable’.
‘Brave’ is a strange way to describe a man who can spout off on any subject he likes, safe in the knowledge that he is guaranteed to become the head of state of a major European country, regardless of what anybody actually thinks about him or his views. Nor does he exactly fit the model of the little farmer these writers and campaigners normally like to promote. Through the Duchy of Cornwall, Charles owns over 200 square miles of land, raking in £17.8million in rent and other income during the financial year 2010-11. His Duchy Originals brand turns over millions of pounds per year, too. (Though it is so unprofitable that he’s now handed control of it to supermarket chain, Waitrose.) Bravo for the little guy, huh?
The real reason that Charles made such an impact is because this was really a mutual appreciation society. Aristocrat and activists alike think that our food system is killing us and killing the planet, a hysterical overreaction that bears little correspondence to reality.
As is the way with any good fearmonger, His Royal Hystericalness starts by laying out the problems the world faces: ‘We have to maintain a supply of healthy food at affordable prices when there is mounting pressure on nearly every element affecting the process. In some cases, we are pushing Nature’s life-support systems so far, they are struggling to cope with what we ask of them. Soils are being depleted, demand for water is growing ever more voracious, and the entire system is at the mercy of an increasingly fluctuating price of oil.’ Throw in a rising world population, the problem of climate change and the ‘obesity epidemic’ and you would seem to have a perfect storm of problems.
But wait, there’s more! Not only are these things going on but the solutions are getting harder and harder: the growth in food yields is slowing down, from three per cent per year in the 1960s to one per cent per year now. Worse, we’re now using land to produce biofuel rather than food – ‘four in 10 bushels of corn’ in the US, according to Charles, are feeding engines not people. And what about all those people who, as they get richer, will want to eat more meat and dairy products instead of grains and vegetables? ‘I have no intention’, declares Charles, ‘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’.
So, yes, if the mood takes you, it is certainly possible to talk up the problems. What’s the solution? Apparently, it is stepping backwards in time and bowing down to Nature. ‘[W]hat is a “sustainable food production” system?’, asks Charles. ‘For me, it has to be a form of agriculture that does not exceed the carrying capacity of its local ecosystem and which recognises that the soil is the planet’s most vital renewable resource.’ Naturally, when you’re wealth is dependent on owning a ridiculously large amount of land, you do tend to worry about the soil. He continues that a future food system ‘is surely not dependent upon the use of chemical pesticides, fungicides and insecticides; nor, for that matter, upon artificial fertilisers and growth-promoters or genetic modification’.
No wonder the eco-foodies were hotter than a pubescent teenage girl reading Twilight: this was every one of their dodgy, anti-progress prejudices being reflected back to them by some foreign royal dude.
The real problem is not with the status quo of the ‘industrialised food system’ that critics bemoan. In fact, what’s good about the system we have is that by and large there is no status quo; the system is constantly evolving as new problems and opportunities are identified. No, the real disaster would be to react to changing circumstances by retreating to the chemical-light, labour-intensive, Nature-worshipping system of food production that Charles and his screaming fans advocate.
The suggestion that we are running out of resources is nonsense. Soil erosion is a minor problem in the developed world, as indicated by the stunning rises in agricultural yield over the past few decades. If soils really were in serious decline, yields would be falling. In fact, fretting about soil suggests a rather patronising view of farmers, who are assumed to be incapable of checking on the state of their farmland and taking steps to put into it the necessary mix of chemical nutrients and other inputs required to sustain its fertility. In reality, farmers do this very well and are continually getting better at it.
Demand for water may be rising, but it’s also true that we can get better at using water. As relatively dry but very productive countries like Australia and Israel show, we can get much smarter with how we use existing resources. However, the real answer is supply, not conservation: we can’t rely forever on the aquifers and rivers that Nature has supplied; we need to start taking control of freshwater supplies, either by moving them to where they are most needed or by producing more. Given that two thirds of the Earth is covered in water, there is no shortage of it; we just need to get more of it in the right state (desalinated) into the right places (where we grow food).
As for oil, in this context it is simply a source of energy – and we have lots of different sources of energy at our disposal. After years of falling energy prices, the current relatively high prices have spurred a new round of exploration and innovation. In his foreword to Charles’s speech, the American author and activist Wendell Berry bizarrely claims that we face a shortage of fertiliser in the future as natural gas (one of the inputs used to make fertiliser) runs out. Perhaps Bery should get out more: the ‘shale gas revolution’ has turned the US from a gas importer to a gas exporter; in fact, America has just overtaken Russia to become the world’s No.1 producer of natural gas. It is becoming increasingly clear that there won’t be a problem with fossil fuels running out in the foreseeable future and no shortage of fertiliser, either.
Population growth is more likely to be a boon than a problem. It means that there are even more people to produce new wealth and solve problems. The ‘obesity epidemic’ is grossly exaggerated. To the extent that obesity is a problem, the solution is hardly to find ways of producing food less efficiently. Every problem thrown up by Charles and chums is either illusory, exaggerated or perfectly solvable.
But that’s not what this debate is really about. It’s really about groups in society who recognise their redundancy lashing out at our changing world. The aristocracy is an anachronism that should have been dumped by us Brits at the same time as the Americans and French had the good sense to become republics. Small farmers should, by and large, be replaced by much bigger and more efficient farmers. Small shopkeepers (unless they are willing to specialise in the kind of things the big boys don’t do) should make way for supermarkets.
This kind of historical and economic change is painful, but usually for the best in the long run. It means a more productive society where the most valuable resource of all – human labour – can be reallocated to something new and useful. It doesn’t just happen in the food business, nor is it confined to small businesses. There’s a fairly regular turnover of supermarket chains in the UK, for example. Names like Safeway, Kwik-Save and Somerfield have all been bought out by wealthier competitors. The supposedly hegemonic Tesco has just issued a profit warning to investors. Northern Foods, once one of the UK’s biggest food manufacturers, has been swallowed up by an Indian company.
The difference is that when the car factory closes down or relocates, or a supermarket chain shuts up shop, the workers there get sympathy for a day or two and then attention moves on. Yet the small farmer or shopkeeper is constantly lionised against the evil men in grey suits in Big Food. Why? Because the small producer or retailer symbolises the squeezed-out middle classes, a social grouping that constantly fears being steamrollered by Big Business into becoming, you know, just common-or-garden workers.
What’s happened in the past couple of decades, however, is an enormous change to the political scene. Both the bosses and the workers are in abeyance, leaving the political stage clear for the middle classes to make the most noise about their fears and concerns. The fact that politics today is conducted almost exclusively through the media – a sphere dominated by the fearful and individualistic middle classes – only exacerbates the problem.
If the sustainable-food crowd was just talking to itself, it would be of no more social importance than any other bunch of geeks with a minority interest. But because what happens to food impinges on all our lives, and because the eco-foodies have so successfully monopolised debate, the result may well affect us. That is, more fearmongering about health and the environment, leading to more expensive food produced less efficiently. Let’s hope this little book does not represent the future of food.