A few responses to Prince Charles

I just read the transcript of Prince Charles' speech on sustainable agriculture in DC last week. There are a lot of good ideas, and a few areas in which I think more can be said.

Ag subsidies: I believe there’s a strong consensus across many individual issues and disciplines that American and European agricultural subsidies are wasteful and counter-productive. The challenge is a political one – there are about 20 farm states, and it’s very difficult to get things done legislatively in other areas (health care, immigration, climate change, you pick) without the support of at least some of that bipartisan group of 40 farm senators. It’s not a rich-world-only issue, too – here’s a year-old WSJ article (subscription required) on how difficult it has been to repeal fertilizer subsidies in India despite 40 years of trying, and recent fertilizer subsidies in Malawi have become a darling case study of country-led agricultural development proponents, despite criticism by the World Bank and others.

Scale: I think Prince Charles is too blasé about dismissing the benefits of scale for cost and efficiency of agricultural production. Cost is important not as much to you and me, but definitely to the urban slum-dweller in Cairo or Mumbai who spends 2/3 of his or her income on food. And efficiency is important for the environment – less yield per hectare of land means more land under cultivation, and since there’s not much unused cropland around the world, this results in degradation and cultivation of ecologically sensitive areas like the Amazon, the Sahel, Indonesia’s peat swamps, etc. If we can replicate current yields at scale using organic methods, that would be great, but the burden of proof is still on those who claim this can be done.

Local production: Another attractive idea that I think is easier to apply to ourselves (living in not only the richest but also one of the most agriculturally productive countries), but runs into difficulty when generalized across the world. There is a lot of upside in smallholder productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa, but in other regions that import food today – I’m thinking of mainly the Middle East and China – it would be very difficult for them to produce more food domestically without exactly the kind of unsustainable drawing down of natural capital that Prince Charles rightly warns against. If we want the most holistic and least naturally destructive agricultural system at a global level, it has to include a significant component of trade between the most fertile parts of the world and the less fertile but more populated parts (unfortunately the two don’t match).
To close, a photo I took from an airplane of pivot-irrigated wheat in the middle of the Egyptian desert, with water drawn unsustainably from the underlying aquifer (we do this in the American West, too). We Americans are very fortunate for the fertility as well as the economic prosperity of our country, and not all countries have the agro-ecological potential to feed themselves in a sustainable way.


  1. Trade in agricultural goods is actually trade in water, when you consider the volumes needed. Encouraging wetter parts of the world to produce and export more, and dryer places to waste less on agriculture is a winning idea for water resources. Unfortunately trade in agricultural goods is often denigrated by those who worry most about the environment.

  2. Well put - thanks for making the connection to water, it is a great way of framing the issue.