Forget the Royal Wedding: Prince Charles Crosses the Pond to Denounce Factory Farming

Last Updated May 4, 2011 4:17 PM EDT

Just days after the hullabaloo of his son William's wedding, Prince Charles delivered a rousing speech on the evils of industrial agriculture in Washington this morning -- instantly turning himself into a new icon in the battle over modern agriculture and its impact on the environment, human health and animal welfare.

Speaking at the Washington Post's "Future of Food" conference, the Prince called the large-scale, non-local, chemical-intensive, oil-shackled system of food production "no longer as viable as it once appeared to be," earning him hero status among the assembled sustainable food advocates. In a tweet, Grist's Tom Philpott called him a "lucid big picture thinker." (That's one indication, at least, that Charles may have better luck with this endeavor than he did with his ill-fated critique of modern architecture).

His Royal Highness has been a champion for sustainable agriculture for many years, but this is his first major speech on the subject in the U.S. Citing his concern for future generations, Charles argued for food systems more in sync with nature:

Soil is the foundation of world civilization, the health of nations....But 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...In some cases, we are pushing nature's life support systems so far they are struggling to cope with what we ask of them...If we do not work within nature's system, then nature can not be the sustaining force she has been.
This sort of thinking -- that industrial farming is ruining the environment and isn't a good solution for feeding the developing world's exploding population -- is exactly the criticism large farm groups are gearing up to debunk. Trade groups representing the pork, chicken, beef and egg industries and the growers of corn, soy and sugar have formed the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and are planning a PR campaign starting in July. Here's their message:
Consumers should realize and understand that U.S. farmers and rancher share their values and are committed to producing safe and nutritious food in a way that protects and enhances the environment, responsibly cares for animals and contributes to our larger community.
Some of those same industry groups, plus lots more, have teamed up to create another alliance -- the Alliance to Feed the Future -- though it's not clear how these two groups will overlap since they're both in the early stages.

Another presenter at the conference -- Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation -- argued that "the survival of the current food system depends on widespread ignorance of how it really operates." The food industry professes to disagree. Both the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and the Alliance to Feed the Future are based on the idea that once Americans learn the story behind their food, they'll realize farmers are people too and that everything's OK.

But as we've seen before, when the food industry decides to open up its barn doors, the picture the public gets isn't always complete. Big Ag is smart to try and counter some of the negative publicity with heartwarming stories of third generation family farmers. But with half of all Americans admitting concerns about genetically engineered foods and 80% of moms saying they're concerned about antibiotic use on farms, it's going to take a lot more than slick PR campaigns to turn the tide of public opinion.

For that, the industry is going to have to adopt actual change -- using a lot less antibiotics, fewer GE crops and raising animals with a humane amount of space in which to live.

Image by Flickr use CWGC