Congressional Leaders and Prince Charles Call for Transforming Farming and Ag Subsidies

Last week I had the opportunity to hear His Royal Highness Prince Charles speak at a conference on sustainable agriculture at Georgetown University. Together with several leaders—including author Wendell Berry, Senator and dry-land farmer John Tester of Montana, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack—he called for reforms in the way we produce and subsidize food.

I welcome this outspoken support for healthier farming practices. A movement that emerged from local growers and farmers markets has spread to Congress and beyond. NRDC's new food and agriculture program is working to build on this momentum in order to create real policies changes. If we don't, we will all pay a high price.

Prince Charles gave a detailed account of the consequences of industrial food production, including soil erosion and limited water supplies. These are just a few of the enormous ecological and human health costs of a system that depends upon chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics to function.

In contrast, farming practices that mirror what he called the "miraculous ingenuity of nature" can be just as productive-without the ecological degradation. He cited copious evidence, including a study conducted by the United Nations in 2008 called, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development.

That report drew on the research of 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."

The prince's careful presentation of the facts is substantiated by a recent piece in the journal Science, in which a group of leading scientists, economists, and farmers called for federal policies that would promote more environmentally and economically more sustainable farming.

"We have the technology and the science right now to grow food in sustainable ways, but we lack the policies and markets to make it happen," says John Reganold, a Washington State University soil scientist and the lead author on the Science paper.

Coincidentally, on the same day the Prince spoke, Congressman Paul Ryan called for cutting agricultural subsidies as part of a deficit reduction package. President Bush supported similar cuts during the last farm bill in 2008, but some Midwestern farming interests blocked progress.

I think Americans are starting to view food and farming differently than they did just those three years ago. With calls for reform coming from many different voices, regions, and rationales, I see a glimmer of hope that things can change. I know from meeting the winners of NRDC 2011 Growing Green Awards last month that things are already changing on the ground.

But as I headed to the train this morning, I heard a radio ad describing the benefits of sustainable agriculture-brought to you by agribusiness giant Monsanto. Deeply entrenched interests continue to benefit from the way things have been for decades.

But if we galvanize the many parents, consumers, farmers, retailers, college kids, doctors, health professionals, and others who support healthier and more equitable ways of growing food, then we can create some real reform.