As a Brit living in the United States, I have immensely enjoyed all the attention my former stomping grounds have been receiving lately due to the Royal Wedding. Watching my future king walk down the aisle, and having my American friends and family celebrate with me, was incredible and exciting.
So when His Royal Highness (HRH) the Duke of Cambridge’s father, otherwise known as HRH The Prince of Wales or Prince Charles and my immediate future king, visited the U.S recently to speak on food and agriculture at the Future of Food conference in Washington D.C., I paid attention.
And I found a lot I agreed with. But also some key ideas that I didn’t agree with.
I agree that “we have to maintain a supply of healthy food at affordable prices.” I wholeheartedly concur that the big questions are “how can we create a more sustainable approach to agriculture while recognizing those wider and important social and economic parameters – an approach that is capable of feeding the world with a global population rapidly heading for nine billion? And can we do so amid so many competing demands on land, in an increasingly volatile climate and when levels of the planet’s biodiversity are under such threat or in serious decline?”
I understand “food insecurity is a growing problem.” And I fully agree that a key resource that is being stressed is water.
I even agree with some of the Prince of Wales’ solutions. We need to continue our use of conservation agriculture, specifically conservation tillage, where soil depletion is stopped via the use of crop residue and key natural nutrients are protected from erosion. We need to reduce the amount of run-off that studies claim are impacting our oceans. And investment around the world in more sustainable farming practices should be encouraged at all levels.
But then we come to a difference in opinion. Prince Charles sees the solution in organic and local, and sees no solutions in biotech crops or a system where large companies invest in developing better seeds. I, on the other hand, see a place for both, and am fully convinced if people are willing to be open-minded that we can exist side-by-side.
Organic and local is great if you can afford it. If you have the extra time and manpower, and the climate in which to grow a large variety of foods, that’s great. In the old country, it is very common for people to have plots of land where we grow our own vegetables, and most back yards have some vegetables being grown in them. Prince Charles has spent many years farming using organic practices on his own farm, and I commend him for it.
But I just can’t see how we can feed a rapidly growing world, with limited land and resources, using just organic seeds and practices. I see the work being done now to develop seeds that use water and fertilizers more efficiently, and biotech designed to protect the potential of those traits, and the utilization of more technology and better agronomics on the farm, as being part of the answer. How do you feed 9 billion people is the question. Organic farming by itself is not the answer.
When I look at the crop yields from 2008 in the U.S., using biotech, advanced breeding and technology, I see corn yields of 160 bushels per acre. In Brazil, India and Mexico, where technology and biotech are new to the neighborhood, you see 50 bushels per acre. In Africa, where biotech is almost non-existent when you look at the entire continent, you are at 20 or less.
What if we had seeds that used water more efficiently in Africa? What if we had advanced breeding and agronomics in Africa? I don’t see organic practices being able to improve lives in these developing nations.
But I also will not deny someone the choice should they want to farm organic, or pay more for their food because it is organic.
My hope, and it might be a crazy hope, is that we can all work together towards a common solution that allows each nation to choose the best food production for their people, their social climate, their economy and their needs.
When it comes to the global food I have a lot to agree with my future king on. And I hope that which we disagree on will not stand in the way of a better future for our entire planet.