The British royal family is no stranger to controversy and media attention, but Prince Charles caused a new kind of worldwide media flurry on Tuesday when he sat down for an exclusive interview with the Telegraph (U.K.). This time around, though, it seems unlikely the media story will be covered by the British tabloids since the Prince of Wales didn’t discuss his sons, his love life, or even his future reign as king. Instead, the Prince talked about genetically modified organisms, our food supply, and the future of food security for the globe.
Simple enough, it seems: A soon-to-be global leader honestly discussed the roles of nations in food security, food technological issues, and the ways in which our entire human population can feed billions of people sustainably. Apparently, though, it’s controversial for a global leader to advocate for a food system not dominated by “gigantic corporations,” which would be an “absolute disaster.” He further noted, “Corporations [are] conducting a gigantic experiment with nature and the whole of humanity which has gone seriously wrong. Why else are we facing all these challenges, climate change and everything?”
I almost wish I were British so I could be proud of such bold leadership. Prince Charles’ remarks tie together the phenomenon of increasing corporate control and business profits with that of increasing natural disasters and food insecurity. Corporate control of agriculture and our food system is at unprecedented levels, and industrial agriculture continues to rely almost exclusively on the extensive use of fossil fuels, which are ever increasing in price, perpetually polluting, and most importantly, diminishing. In the United States, over 90 percent of the soybeans harbor Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready gene; and the company continues to buy up seed companies throughout the world. This control has done nothing for world environmental and social sustainability. Instead it has only resulted in corporate profits in the billions of dollars while people continue to go hungry throughout the world.
And what about GMOs? Is Prince Charles accurate to note that they are an experiment with nature and humanity? The majority of GM crops are designed to resist herbicides and repel insects. Despite what some people may think, not a single GMO is commercially available that is designed to enhance nutrition, increase yield potential, tolerate drought, or manifest other attractive traits touted by the biotech industry. Rather, 82 percent of commercialized GM crops are designed to resist continual applications of herbicides. In reality, this means that GM crops are being developed to allow for greater pesticide use. In the United States from 1994 to 2005, there was a 15-fold increase in the use of the herbicide glyphosate on soybeans, corn, and cotton, driven by adoption of Roundup Ready (Monsanto brand) versions of these GM crops. Use of other more toxic herbicides, such as atrazine and 2,4-D, is also on the rise to deal with the epidemic of weeds that have become resistant to glyphosate.
The effect of this increased pesticide use is widespread and dramatic. Pesticides are polluting waterways, wildlife, and aquatic life while also affecting human health globally. Yet, perhaps the greatest tragedy of our GM fields is the loss of biodiversity it fosters. As our agriculture moves more and more toward monoculture with increased pesticide use, biodiversity decreases rapidly. Prince Charles specifically noted the devastating toll that corporate industrial agriculture has taken on India, especially in the Punjab. At the heart of India’s green revolution, intensive industrial agriculture has impoverished Punjab’s once-rich soils leading to diminished yields and rural breakdown. This is reflected in the rising incidence of farmer suicides.
As more and more people go hungry, natural disasters become increasingly prevalent and corporations continue to grow bigger and richer. In his interview, Prince Charles demonstrated bold leadership by decrying a system that is fundamentally flawed. Earlier this year the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) — a committee commissioned by the World Bank and United Nations — issued a report declaring “Modern agriculture will have to change radically if the world is to avoid social breakdown and environmental collapse.” The director of IAASTD further noted, “To argue, as we do, that continuing to focus on production alone will undermine our agricultural capital and leave us with an increasingly degraded and divided planet is to reiterate an old message … If those with power are now willing to hear it, then we may hope for more equitable policies that do take the interests of the poor into account.” It looks like Prince Charles has taken this to heart — his remarks are encouraging and inspiring, because they recognize all of the “externalities” that industrial food production seems to leave out of the equation. I hope he will inspire other global leaders to rethink their agricultural perspectives and advance towards a true food security.