Prince Charles – unwilling to let his son steal the whole show – almost atoned for a lifetime's embarrassing blurts and blunders, when he aired his passion for agri-culture, not agri-industry. Maybe he shouldn't be put out to pasture, just yet – or is that in fact where he belongs?

HRH the Prince of Wales should have followed his heart in life, I think, not the call of duty.

In a May 4 speech to Washington conference The Future of Food, he says that “we need to face up to asking whether how we produce our food is actually fit for purpose”, concludes that it is not, and recollects that he was on the case 30 years ago:

We will have to develop much more sustainable, or durable forms of food production because the way we have done things up to now are no longer as viable as they once appeared to be. The more I talk with people about this issue, the more I realize how vague the general picture remains of the perilous state we are in. So, just to be absolutely clear, I feel I should offer you a quick pen sketch of just some of the evidence that this is so.

Certainly, internationally, food insecurity is a growing problem. There are also many now who consider that global food systems are well on the way to being in crisis. ... Already yields are suffering in Africa and India where crops are failing to cope with ever-increasing temperatures and fluctuating rainfall. We all remember the failure of last year’s wheat harvest in Russia and droughts in China. They have caused the cost of food to rocket and, with it, inflation around the world, stoking social discontent in many countries, notably in the Middle East. ...

Set against these threats to yields is the ever-growing demand for food. ... What is more, with incomes rising in places like China and India, there will also be more people wealthy enough to consume more, so the demand for meat and dairy products may well increase yet further. ...

This is the context we find ourselves in and it is set against the backdrop of a system heavily dependent upon fossil fuels … Most forms of industrialized agriculture now have an umbilical dependency on oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources. One study I have read estimates that a person today on a typical Western diet is, in effect, consuming nearly a U.S. gallon of diesel every day! ... And that’s not even counting the impact of higher fuel prices on the other costs of production – transport and processing – all of which are passed on to the consumer. It is indeed a vicious circle. ...

Forgive me for labouring these points, but the impact of all of this has already been immense. Over a billion people – one seventh of the world’s population – are hungry and another billion suffer from what is called “hidden hunger,” which is the lack of essential vitamins and nutrients in their diets. And on the reverse side of the coin, let us not forget the other tragic fact – that over a billion people in the world are now considered overweight or obese. It is an increasingly insane picture. In one way or another, half the world finds itself on the wrong side of the food equation ...

So what is a “sustainable food production” system? We should be very clear about it, or else we will end up with the same system that we have now, but dipped in “green wash.” For me, it has to be a form of agriculture that does not exceed the carrying capacity of its local ecosystem and which recognizes that the soil is the planet’s most vital renewable resource. Top soil is the cornerstone of the prosperity of nations. It acts as a buffer against drought and as a carbon sink and it is the primary source of the health of all animals, plants and people. If we degrade it, as we are doing, then Nature’s capital will lose its innate resilience and it won’t be very long, believe you me, before our human economic capital and economic systems also begin to lose their resilience …

… genuinely sustainable farming maintains the resilience of the entire ecosystem by encouraging a rich level of biodiversity in the soil, in its water supply and in the wildlife – the birds, insects and bees that maintain the health of the whole system. Sustainable farming also recognizes the importance to the soil of planting trees; of protecting and enhancing water-catchment systems; of mitigating, rather than adding to, climate change. To do this it must be a mixed approach. One where animal waste is recycled and organic waste is composted to build the soil’s fertility. One where antibiotics are only used on animals to treat illnesses, not deployed in prophylactic doses to prevent them; and where those animals are fed on grass-based regimes as Nature intended. …

This has led to a situation where farmers are better off using intensive methods and where consumers who would prefer to buy sustainably produced food are unable to do so because of the price. There are many producers and consumers who want to do the right thing but, as things stand, “doing the right thing” is penalised. And so this raises an admittedly difficult question – has the time arrived when a long, hard look is needed at the way public subsidies are generally geared? And should the recalibration of that gearing be considered so that it helps healthier approaches and “techniques”? Could there be benefits if public finance were redirected so that subsidies are linked specifically to farming practices that are more sustainable, less polluting and of wide benefit to the public interest, rather than what many environmental experts have called the curiously “perverse” economic incentive system that too frequently directs food production?

The point, surely, is to achieve a situation where the production of healthier food is rewarded and becomes more affordable and that the Earth’s capital is not so eroded. Nobody wants food prices to go up, but if it is the case that the present low price of intensively produced food in developed countries is actually an illusion, only made possible by transferring the costs of cleaning up pollution or dealing with human health problems onto other agencies, then could correcting these anomalies result in a more beneficial arena where nobody is actually worse off in net terms? It would simply be a more honest form of accounting that may make it more desirable for producers to operate more sustainably – particularly if subsidies were redirected to benefit sustainable systems of production. It is a question worth considering, and I only ask it because my concern is simply that we seek to produce the healthiest food possible from the healthiest environment possible – for the long term – and to ensure that it is affordable for ordinary consumers

This all depends upon us deepening our understanding of the relationship between food, energy, water and economic security, and then creating policies which reward producers who base their farming systems on these principles. Simply because, if we do not consider the whole picture and take steps with the health of the whole system in mind, not only will we suffer from rising food prices, we will also see the overall resilience of our economies and, in some instances, our ecological and social systems too, becoming dangerously unstable …

Ladies and gentlemen, I am a historian, not an economist, but what I am hinting at here is that it is surely time to grasp one of the biggest nettles of all and re-assess what has become a fundamental aspect of our entire economic model. As far as I can see, responding to the problems we have with a “business as usual” approach towards the way in which we measure G.D.P. offers us only short-term relief. It does not promise a long-term cure. Why? Because we cannot possibly maintain the approach in the long-term if we continue to consume our planet as rapaciously as we are doing. Capitalism depends upon capital, but our capital ultimately depends upon the health of Nature’s capital. Whether we like it or not, the two are in fact inseparable …

In essence what I am suggesting here is something very simple. We need to include in the bottom line the true costs of food production – the true financial costs and the true costs to the Earth. It is what I suppose you could call “Accounting for Sustainability,” …

… Essentially, we have to do more today to avert the catastrophes of tomorrow and we can only do that by re-framing the way we approach the economic problems that confront us. We have to put Nature back at the heart of the equation.

For context, he was talking in America, about subsidies. But this is his issue, and his time to shine. He talks about putting Nature, and soil, back at the heart of the equation. He says, "Capitalism depends upon capital, but our capital ultimately depends upon the health of Nature’s capital."

The whole speech is, I suppose, a bit like the monarchy really: a bit of a turgid irrelevance. He says nothing in it, that we didn't know already. And a bit of an analogy too, in which the future King of England starts asserting himself, too little, too late.

All the same, I like the speech; I like him better for making it; and I thought you might, too. The Windsors are fighting back, and winning, and I find that I do not mind.


Comments (37)

by Ben Curran on May 16, 2011
Ben Curran

The sentiment is grand. It would be a lot more reassuring though, if it had come from someone who was actually in a position to do something and didn't come across as a bit of a nutter in almost everything else he does.

by Todd on May 16, 2011

I don't think what Charles is saying is turgid or irrelivent at all.

He emphasized that the challenging circumstances of the 21st century, waning fresh water resources, soil depletion, increased droughts and floods and a continued reliance on fossil fuels among others, make it impossible to continue to produce food responsibly under the current model.

The thing is that countries are not doing anywhere near enough to avert the negative effects of climate change. This includes New Zealand's National government, who is happy with picking up a bit of foreigner’s rubbish, which is really just another attack on our civil liberties and right to camp for free in our own country.

When a prominent person stands up and says “we have to do more”, he should be applauded, no matter what anti monarchist sentiments are bubbling under the surface. The effects of climate change are far more significant and important than to be dismissed in such a way. It is simply defeatism to believe that he is asserting himself too late to make a relevant difference.

by Claire Browning on May 16, 2011
Claire Browning
Okay ... more questions, that might've been in the post, had I not had to scoot. Does it help or hinder his personal 'bid' for the throne, speaking out politically? Does it help or hinder his political cause, given history of excruciating musing on such diverse matters as love, communing with plants, and feminine hygiene products? Accepting that one aw shucks speech makes not a jot of difference to the merits of arguments for a republic - does the logic actually matter, when it's a figurehead you're talking about? Or, if this is his life's real passion and purpose, isn't it about time he went and pursued it, Al Gore-style?
by Antoine on May 16, 2011


I am sorry, I do not want to be contrary, but the Prince has been speaking on environmental causes for over 20 years and done some very significant work.

See for instance the Accounting for Sustainability project,

In short, he was Al-Goring long before Al Gore.


P.S. To be pedantic, I think "speaking out politically" is not quite the right phrase - I understand there are very strong protocols forbidding the Royal Family from engaging in any political debate.

by mudfish on May 17, 2011

In short, he was Al-Goring long before Al Gore. Sure of that one? Al Gore was Al-Goring a long time ago.

The Prince has been Princing for a long time too, but sometimes more bemoaning losses of heritage and social values, for which he's lambasted as an out of touch toffer. He's been pushing organics for a while, but the ones with his stamp on are rather pricy for the ordinary consumers he talks of. No idea what he said about feminine hygiene products, but he's long been in the position where he can't win no matter what he says - he's been dismissed by the mainstream.

Maybe this stems from being ahead of his time? When is his time again?

What an odd life to lead.

Anyway, how did his speech go down? I've heard American subsidies mentioned a few times lately - but does the logic actually matter, when it's entrenched american lobbies you're talking about?

by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
He told Camilla - who was not then his wife, in what he thought was a private conversation - that he wished he was her tampon.
by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
Antoine ''I do not want to be contrary'' - sure you do. Whyever not? I know both of those things, they're why I found it interesting. Charles has spent his extra-curricular life on this, with headlines about loons and worms. It was a political - Green - speech, or would be, if the greens ever got organised.
by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
[comment continues ...] It sounds as if the green movement in Britain is in some disarray, and in the US, mired in politics. Maybe one thing it needs is a patron. Gore is politicised. Americans seem keen on royals (and exes). Might Charles find better employment there? He and Gore could do a trans-Atlantic swap?
by Antoine on May 17, 2011

Sounds like an episode on a reality TV show. "Al struggles with English plumbing, while Charles pines for his kippers".

Who did we trade for that Russell Norman?


by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
Some criminals.
by Paul Corrigan on May 17, 2011
Paul Corrigan

I'm  not particularly 'greenie'. I am sceptical about 'global warming', and I don't see animals as not-quite humans.

But the Prince of Wales gets a bum rap from the media, which persist in promoting the image of an eccentric fuddy-duddy, dull, unimaginative, who talks to plants.

His private life gets regurgitated, too. And it gets picked up in the same sneering way by the repeaters here.

All of which obscures a picture of someone who sometimes does have interesting things to say.

Sometimes you have to step outside, so to speak, to see another perpective. I didn't realise until I read a feature about him in The New York Times (2007, I think), which said that he was regarded as a rock star among greenie types in North America. He was taken seriously, and Americans who are of that persuasion couldn't understand why he was portrayed in Britain as some kind of idiot.

Only The Timaru Herald last year seemed interested in the fact that our future king was using his position and influence to promote our wool (and Australia's) as a 'natural' and sustainable fibre, and wrote a leader about it.

I happened to be talking to a staffer from Agriculture Minister David Carter's office a few months back. The minister had met the prince, and the staff who went with him were surprised at how on-to-it he was, and were surprised at what he was doing behind the scenes to promote this country's sheep farming.

So, I guess, this post is more about distorted pictures than about the joys of being 'green'.

I am old enough to remember when he was depicted in a similar manner to his son:  Action Man, young, vigorous, dynamic, and modern. The new face of the monarchy, etc etc etc.

Perhaps having to wait so long for his mother to die and then ascend to the Throne has squeezed all that out of him. 

by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
Thank you, Paul. I agree with you. He is worth taking seriously - hence the post - it's the Americans (perhaps with the luxury of not having to fund his eccentricities) who have it right. He strikes me as an essentially kind, miserably unlucky man (if a bit out of touch), who's made a mistake or few, and paid dearly. That's why, I guess, I wish he would follow his heart for once.
by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
[comment continues ...] I know that's not in the job description, but to me, he's done his duty: two pretty awesome sons, by Windsor standards, or anyone's. The monarchy doesn't want him. He could leave a better legacy, that was actually about him. Failing that, the speech also made me think how nice it would be to have a king (if we keep one) who did actually stand for something, and something contemporary.
by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
Sorry about proliferating comments today. its bcos im txtng thm.
by Tim Watkin on May 17, 2011
Tim Watkin

I take a liking to some odd folk. For example, I've always felt sympathy for Gail Platt in Coro. Everyone else I know wants to club her with a frying pan. I've always felt the same about Charles; he's the pick of them, I reckon and always has been.

As commented, he was ahead of his time and his private life (and that of his wife) was ruined by mischance and misguided duty. But he went organic, got his sons pretty right, finally married the right woman and, I could be wrong, but I think the Prince's Trust was a ground-breaker when it came to royalty doing its bit for charity.

In the time of my memory as least, the mockery started with him talking to his plants. I think science backs him up now (talking improves yields?), but it and his love of nature and heritage at a time when such things were taken for granted started the slide.

The impressive thing is he's stuck to his principles and enacted them. Yes, he can afford to. But he could afford not to as well.

In other words, decent chap.

by stuart munro on May 17, 2011
stuart munro

Whatever else, Charles' travails have made him a bit of a philosopher. He had a few good things to say even before he married, having had perhaps, a space for reflection that is increasingly rare in the modern world. He'd make an excellent king, having long overcome the illusion of infallibility under which NZ politicians labour.

I'm not especially fond of kings, but when you compare Charles to NZ MPs there is no doubt who is better fitted for the role of head of state.

by Claire Browning on May 17, 2011
Claire Browning
Mm. Don't know that he spent too much time reflecting on what life was like for his young bride; not sure how total lack of self-awareness squares with your youthful philosopher theory, Stuart. However. I find the logic of arguments about what is wrong with the monarchy, and better about a republic, hard to refute. I also find that strict logic doesn't quite do it for me on this occasion, which is ... annoying.
by stuart munro on May 18, 2011
stuart munro

Philosophers were not on the whole very good at women, Charles did better than Nietzsche & Schopenhauer. As for Monarchies, the arete and the aristos remain relevant, even though our leaders have forgotten them. Montesquieu explains, so does de Tocqueville.

by Claire Browning on May 18, 2011
Claire Browning

For pity's sake, Stuart, you could - explain, I mean.

I was with you as far as Montesquieu, probably.

Oh, and Paul C [belatedly, and off-topic] - I "don't see animals as not-quite humans", either. Not sure where that one came from! They are just themselves.

by Paul Corrigan on May 18, 2011
Paul Corrigan

Hello, Claire:

Long story, never mind. Yes, they are themselves. That's why I have no problems eating them.

Thanks your comments about my comments. And Tim and Stuart. I had expected a thrashing for expressing such unfashionable views.

I think Stuart was trying to elegantly tell us that he believed monarchies were still relevant, and he was quoting someone as saying so.

by stuart munro on May 18, 2011
stuart munro

@ Paul,

Not quite. The late monarchies were well aware that they existed on the sufferance of the people though, so they needed to conspicuously demonstrate the virtues that comprise arete, that make them preferred persons to govern.

Smart monarchs get it, so the King was probably the best educated fellow in Tonga, and Lee Kuan Yew's son is probably the best educated fellow in Singapore. That being so, who's the best guy to run these places? Of course people can object on representation, style, or left or right wingedness. But policy will on the average be better informed than that dreamed up at random on the street. So most political competitors start at a disadvantage.

And then you have the whole matter of honour. Montesquieu will tell you that honour or the appearance of honour is the reigning virtue of monarchies. Our MPs pretending to the virtue - not very successfully on the whole - is a legacy of the aristocratic system.

Rulers who aim to rule without the education and honour, are going to need a mort of guns. The Kim Jong Eun system. But even he needs a bunch of credibility from somewhere to rule, outside his age class, in a Confucian influenced paradigm.

Monarchies are no longer relevant as such, but virtues and vices of them never went away. Shakespeare anyone?

by Claire Browning on May 18, 2011
Claire Browning
You know what, Stuart: I think I just jumped the fence, and joined Antoine on the side of the contrarians. The sole difference between monarchy and democratically elected head of state, to my mind, is that when the latter throws up a duffer, at least she or he is OUR duffer, and can be evicted a bit sooner. Those virtues you name haven't been conspicuous in the monarchy, in my observation.
by stuart munro on May 18, 2011
stuart munro

Few to no NZ MPs give me the feeling that they are mine. And it takes something a little more seriously corrupt than a duffer to raffle off - what - a couple of billion dollars worth of state assets for ten cents on the dollar.

When Kings screw up that badly, you get to abridge them. (Though often a sibling will do it for you)Republicans you round up a mob to defenestrate. But you're a contrarian - I'm wasting my pixels.

by Antoine on May 19, 2011


You may or may not be a contrarian, but I am rapidly coming to the view that you are a closet monarchist.

I further put it to you that you went out and bought a set of William and Kate commemorative teaspoons when you thought no one was looking.


by Claire Browning on May 19, 2011
Claire Browning

I am not. I did not.

I abhor such naffness. And consumption! Where were Charles' scruples then?

Tim may take a liking to some odd folk. I find his tele-viewing habits odder. For my money, if I want to dip into a good soap, the House of Windsor is a vast deal better (as Jane Austen might say) than Coro St - sort of soap and fabulous costume drama, all rolled up in one.

I know I should be debating this all on high principle, in high dudgeon, leaving the personalities out of it. I just can't get that exercised about the whole republican thing, really.

But if it's logic that you want, and an explanation for why, that has nothing to do with being (or not) a "closet monarchist", try this:

In the end, a democratically-elected head of state is going to be a popularity contest, which may or may not produce any better results than the Royal lottery.

Right now (perhaps temporarily) the royals are winning the popularity contest. Everybody, surely, can find something in that to be happy about? ... we are kind of electing them, already.

by stuart munro on May 19, 2011
stuart munro

In the end, a democratically-elected head of state is going to be a popularity contest...

Must it be? Because if it is we might as well have royals and be done. Polities are capable of transcending their heteronymous desires from time to time, and choosing wisely. Supposing of course that wiser choices are available to them than the unprepossessing rabble of place seekers that comprises New Zealand parliamentary aspirants.

by Paul Corrigan on May 19, 2011
Paul Corrigan

As I understand it, the royals reign (they don't rule) with our consent.

It's all very civilised, well-mannered, calm, and orderly; nothing is forced on us.

I doubt if the Windsor-Mountbattens would despatch the remnants of the once-awesome (oarsome?) Royal Navy to our waters to wrench us back into the fold if this country said we didn't want them any more.

I get cross with much of what purports to be a republican argument -- that somehow we're not grown-up, mature, and there seems to be a cultural or nationalistic cringe because our unelected head of state is an Englishwoman of Scots-German descent who lives in London.

I call them 'resentful republicans' because that's how they sound.

Look, there is no reason for this country not to be a republic if that's what the majority (rather than the noisy, resentful minority) want.

But what we have works well. Someone better qualified than me can correct me, but it seems to me that we've been an independent, self-governing nation since 1850 when the New Zealand Constitution Act gave settlers self-government.  

As far as I can tell, we have long had an identity that defined us as not-British. I've never felt anything other than a New Zealander and a citizen of an independent state.

by Claire Browning on May 19, 2011
Claire Browning

Must it be?

Well, by definition, surely.

Because if it is we might as well have royals and be done. Polities are capable of transcending their heteronymous desires from time to time, and choosing wisely. Supposing of course that wiser choices are available to them than the unprepossessing rabble of place seekers that comprises New Zealand parliamentary aspirants.

But I should think, Stuart, that quite a few of the choices available would end up having come from the same milieu. (I see your 'heteronymous', and raise you ...) 

All of them, actually, since it's a House of Representatives, innit ...

by stuart munro on May 19, 2011
stuart munro

Seems you bust on that one Claire. Heteronymy represents not a post-modern sampling but random or adventitious choice uniformed by ethical considerations, a lower or inferior set of choices.

Calling them a house of representatives does not make them representative any more than calling them the honorable makes them honorable.

by Antoine on May 19, 2011

Or calling them heteronymous makes them heteronymous.



by Claire Browning on May 19, 2011
Claire Browning
I agree with the question-mark. Speak English, Stuart, please.
by stuart munro on May 20, 2011
stuart munro

Sheesh -nursery school.

Your preference for strawberry icecream over chocolate icecream or vice versa, is arbitrary. It may be a product of your genes or your upbringing, but it is often not a conscious, and generally not a rational choice. Especially, it is not an ethical choice. Such preferences, differing as they do between different persons, are necessarily heteronymous. Heteronymous choices like these are not truly free, because they are frequently innate preferences or any case  not made consciously. (If you chose a locally made icecream from seasonally available fruits to reduce your food miles, that would not be entirely heteronymous, because it is rationally considered.)

An election presents the possibly of both kinds of choice. You might vote heteronymously according to the popularity or aesthetic merits of a political aspirant, but such decisions are not likely to produce a government much better than a troupe of actors or models.

A polity than transcends the impulse to vote heteronymously has at least the possibility of intelligent or representative government, probably a good thing on the whole and a refreshing change.

Should I summarize the Spirit of Laws too? 

by Claire Browning on May 20, 2011
Claire Browning

My preference is for vanilla. Let's try to cut through some of this: your position seems to be that, were we to vote on a head of state, we'd risk getting someone like a politician - a bit common. In case you hadn't noticed, the Windsors are a bit common, which I thought was kind of the republican point (or one of them) - NZ likes to think itself egalitarian, and a meritocracy, not elitist. So tell me: which of these are you arguing for? - or is it that the everyman shouldn't be so common, as opposed to, well, more like you?

by stuart munro on May 20, 2011
stuart munro

It's all a little more sophisticated than that. Even your 'common' people are nevertheless perfectly capable of making sound decisions - when not distracted by frivolous elite concepts like popularity contests.

Obama talked about the 'better angels' of human nature, and the point was sound, though evidence of his having paid much attention to them is fairly thin on the ground.

The capacity to make well-reasoned and conscietious decisions is somewhat volatile. One of the roles of civic discourse is to remind our 'representatives' that in principle at least,they are not there just for the BMWs and the best retirement package in the country. That it is all a little more serious than your 'popularity contest'. Serious enough that late aristocratic families spent a lifetime training for it.


by Antoine on May 20, 2011

> Capiche?

Only if the fish is sustainably caught.


by Paul Corrigan on May 21, 2011
Paul Corrigan

Someone had to bite, Antoine ...

by on July 21, 2012

... but whether it's so or not I like our straightforward English and American way best. We may blunder along for a while and lose at first, but to be open and honest is ...


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