Commentary: Prince Charles’ misguided attack on modern agriculture

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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.

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usa  |  May, 12, 2011 at 09:45 AM

You can not expect anything form a fellow who has not move a finger in his life. Royalty are lazy and stupid.

Springfield, OR  |  May, 12, 2011 at 10:41 AM

While turning back the clock might threaten those vested interests into whose hands are held the production of foodstuffs to feed the masses, it seems pretty obvious where more local and balanced foodsheds could afford everyone a greater sense of food security. Organic production (the Prince's way) is admirable in so far as it set the direction of agriculture toward fewer and fewer toxic inputs to permeate the environment. It is not the entire answer but it certainly beats the 'savior of the world' approach with the corrupt government fox guarding the agri-henhouse.

Berny Bethier    
Colorado  |  May, 12, 2011 at 03:24 PM

Dear Bill: I can't had stated better, now for jim, this is not about God, this is about human kind. Organic Agriculture is not going back in the pass it is going forward in the future. It is the New Modern Agriculture.

Bill Akins    
East Mountain, Tx.  |  May, 12, 2011 at 10:43 AM

I am a rancher, and I personnally agree with Prince Charles. I have an organic operation that is still green, due to the high organic matter in the soil, despite the worst drought on record. This is largely due to the fact that a 1% increase in organic matter in 8" of top soil covering 1 acre increases the water hold capacity of the land by 5,000 gallons per acre. All my cattle will score 6 or higher, during this drought, and I do not spend money on hay and feed. On the other hand, 431, or even 1,000 gallons of water is not much. Consider that a 1" rain on one acre of land is 21,000 gallons of water. Cattle eating grass and the resulting fertilization of the ground is far better for the environment than having land lay idle, as long as it is not overgrazed. This is just the way God made nature work.

Jim perry    
arizona  |  May, 12, 2011 at 12:04 PM

Dear Bill, I whole heartedly agree with you and your comment about the way god made nature work. So while we are getting back to the way god made nature work I will have to ask you to turn over basically everything you have becasue god did not invent the pickup truck or the saddle or the shovel. I apreciate you starting this movement.

Anita Stuever    
Michigan  |  May, 12, 2011 at 11:59 AM

Good information, but I wish it weren't tainted with personal attacks on the prince. That's just not necessary. It dilutes the positive message and has nothing to do with the story. A personal attack does not advance the cause of modern agriculture. It does not strengthen the story. It stoops to the tactics of HSUS. Let's be above that.

Jim Perry    
arizona  |  May, 12, 2011 at 12:00 PM

Why, in a time when everyone is calling for inovation to increase efficiancies, are people trying to take away the inovation that has been created in agriculture?

John M.Smith    
OH.State Univ. Extension  |  May, 12, 2011 at 12:36 PM

If a steer takes 441 gallons of water to produce a pound of gain, then for 2.5 pounds of gain per day they would have to drink over 1000 gallon /day.

kansas  |  May, 12, 2011 at 01:08 PM

@John Smith, I think they are talking about the amount of water from conception to the pound of beef leaving the packing plant. Water for the cow, for the bull, for the meat animal, for washing the equipment used to haul and process the animal into beef, etc.

Nate Wilson    
Sinclairville, N.Y.  |  May, 12, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Mr. Henderson, you must have missed a documentary on Prince Charles that aired on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) a few years ago. In it the Prince was shown milking in a very ordinary "barebones" milking parlor on one of his tenant's dairy farm. This was no photo opportunity: Charles knew what he was doing and did it well. He was wearing some rather well worn, drab, sweaty duds as well as a well worn pair of barn boots with genuine mud as well as other more serious organic sustances. It seemed he had neglected to sport his silk tie that day, perhaps owing to the fact his sweatshirt had no collar. Charles stated he felt he should spend a few days working on each of his tenants' farms each year so he could better understand their problems and concerns. As a dairy farmer of some experience, I realized the Prince had a very good command of his facts pertaining to sustainable agriculture. His concerns for his tenants was genuine. This man knows far more than you give him credit for... Journalists write best from a knowledge of facts than writing about what "strikes" them, Mr. Henderson. Your piece on Prince Charles was a cheap shot: he deserves better...

Big Sandy, MT  |  May, 12, 2011 at 12:54 PM

PC is cut from the same cloth as the people who decry the plight of starving nations. After reading, I'm reminded of the saying, "Better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.

Rushville, Indiana  |  May, 12, 2011 at 01:02 PM

You call it turning back the clock, others of us call it bringing back the techniques that worked so well without all the chemical inputs. Crop rotations, grazing of crop residues, legumes instead of high nitrogen fertilizers, and other practices work well in this age of high energy costs. If they happen to be "organic" all the better. Look to the future. With expensive grain, some of the recent livestock management practices will be un-economic. Tell me how you can feed $7 corn to $140 calves in a feedlot and make money!

Rushville, Indiana  |  May, 12, 2011 at 01:02 PM

You call it turning back the clock, others of us call it bringing back the techniques that worked so well without all the chemical inputs. Crop rotations, grazing of crop residues, legumes instead of high nitrogen fertilizers, and other practices work well in this age of high energy costs. If they happen to be "organic" all the better. Look to the future. With expensive grain, some of the recent livestock management practices will be un-economic. Tell me how you can feed $7 corn to $140 calves in a feedlot and make money!

Anthony Pannone    
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, CA  |  May, 12, 2011 at 01:04 PM

Great piece. Well said. Keep up the agvoticism!

Diane Schivera    
Appleton, ME  |  May, 12, 2011 at 01:05 PM

Organic Agriculture does use many techniques that are reminiscent of days gone by. But today those methods are validated by modern, double blind research. It is not simply, turning back the clock. Many crops grown using organic methods have the same or higher production levels than conventionally grown crops. Making it possible to "Feed the World".

kansas  |  May, 12, 2011 at 01:19 PM

I think you missed the point of PC's talk. It was more along the lines of industrialized or modern, or developed country agriculture is not going to work in third world countries and the current modern agriculture system cannot be expected to make the gains in the next 40 years as it has in the past 40 years. Its called diminshing returns, or to get the last 5% efficiency costs as much as the first 95% efficiency improvement. The third world is much more likely to gain due to selecting appropriate varieties and genetics and combining the organic residues into a production process than trying to come up with $ to buy inorganic, fossil fuel based, inputs. Not trying to denigrate modern agriculture but it is not appropriate in many areas and it may not be able to meet the expected future demand.

WY  |  May, 12, 2011 at 01:29 PM

I admire Prince Charles and perhaps one can understand more where he is coming from if you will read about the Duchy of Cornwall and his sincere interest in rural development and agriculture in the UK here: His farms are leased out and they have been in families for generations so the farmers believe in him and that says a lot!

SD  |  May, 12, 2011 at 02:06 PM

I think that feedlot cattle is worse than cattle that eat some grass/pasture. Feedlot cattle are less tasty and nutritious for a reason. Not to mention the Prince's arguments, I think it is a little silly to pretend that concern over resource consumption is just for the tree huggers, a good farmer seeks out a sustainable plan to ensure profit and success. Industrial agriculture is not all bad but there are some modern practices that don't really help us much in the short term or long run.

Georgia  |  May, 12, 2011 at 02:11 PM

Am not involved in agriculture as a livelihood but do go out of my way both in time and money to buy grass-fed beef from a responsible local rancher. You will find no sympathy from me regarding hack job on the prince.

New Mexico  |  May, 12, 2011 at 02:21 PM

This is just self-serving industry propaganda. There is no question that today's agricultural practices are doing severe damage to the land, water, and air. Prince Charles has the world's health and welfare in mind, whereas the cattle network site has only the cattle producers in mind.

Pennsylvania  |  May, 12, 2011 at 03:18 PM

Mr. Henderson, you're dead wrong about Prince Charles' personal experience as a farmer: he was laughed at for years in the U.K. press for his personal dedication to organic farming. Several former household employees who wrote 'tell-all' books, such as his and Diana's former butler, consistently described the prince as enjoying working the soil of his land himself, that he would spend many hours at a time working in the "mud" himself, because he found it so very fulfilling. That apparently drove Diana nuts because she had no interest in farming herself, and several of their former employees have stated that they believe if he hadn't been born the Prince of Wales, Charles would have been living and working as a farmer. Consequently, this kind of "journalism" is extremely irresponsible: you owe your readers, as well as Prince Charles, a sincere apology.

Dan Nagengast    
Kansas  |  May, 13, 2011 at 10:51 AM

My family was invited by his farm manager to visit Prince Charles farm, Highgrove, in the summer of 2000. We saw his two sons, boys at the time, shoveling manure and cleaning out stalls. We saw his cattle, pastures, crops and work on maintaining traditional English hedgerows. We saw at least 3 other farmers with their own enterprises that were part of his field rotations. I remember pastured red wattle hogs and a couple of vegetable growers who had CSAs based at the farm. He has multiple value added businesses that sell organic products including beer, cookies and biscuits. I think he knows what he is talking about.

West Nebraska  |  May, 12, 2011 at 04:25 PM

Reading the news article does not cover the whole scope of the Prince of Wales speech. The information, excluding the beef/water issue is generally good information. Are we not with all of the research, grant funding, Grow it Local, By it local, and sustainable farming encourage, doing just what the PW is talking about? He is talking about some fundamental truths. Why are the Honey Bees dying off. Farming Practices!! How are we going to feed the world in 2050? The farmers/ranchers are dying off of old age.

G. Frank    
Tomball, TX  |  May, 12, 2011 at 05:12 PM

FYI, here is a URL/link to the text/transcript of HRH The Prince of Wales speech @ the Future for Food Conference, Georgetown University, Washington DC on 4th May 2011. Perhaps, I will read it before making ANY comment? Then I will probably

Steve Straits    
Walnut Creek, Ohio  |  May, 12, 2011 at 09:36 PM

I don't call it turning back the clock, it's more of a progression of experiencies. Our farm all but went broke using all the "latest technology". It took awhile, but we learned how to farm without it, and found out animals and crops are much healther. No, we are not breaking yield records but our inputs are far less. We don't have any "new paint" to pay for either.

Springfield, OR  |  May, 12, 2011 at 10:32 PM

Thank God organic agriculture preceeded 'modern' ag. Otherwise we'd all believe the silver bullet approach underlying modern ag would be the only way. Turning back the clock? Nah, just re-establishing the old values in a new way.

Todd Bachmayer    
Temple, Tx  |  May, 13, 2011 at 09:03 AM

I agree that modern agriculture needs to do all that it can to use less inputs for the benefits of protecting the environment, but it has to be tempered with the ability to maintain a high level of production to meet demands of population growth that is out of control. On top of that, I live in the central Texas blacklands and what I see everyday is more and more agricultrual land being destroyed by development, meaning less and less production land. To be "sustainable", agriculture has to also be profitable, which adds a whole new aspect to the balancing act. Hopefully the 98% of people in this country who have nothing to do with production agriculture will come to a consensus and teach the other 2% of us how our job is supposed to be done.

John Shelton    
Indiana  |  May, 13, 2011 at 07:26 PM

A royal should be more conscious of the Marie Antoinette story. The commoners get head choppin' grumpy when hunger is widespread.

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