What Should We Eat?
I was invited by Patrick Holden, CEO of the Sustainable Food Trust, to join a group of health-oriented people for a day of exploring the issue of food sustainability. The venue for this one-day meeting was Broadfield Farm in Tetbury, Wales, where Prince Charles has pursued biologically sustainable farming for over thirty years. About 20 guests joined the Sustainable Food Trust staff at the farm. One of the buildings on the grounds has a meeting room where we gathered at 9:30 a.m.
After a round of brief self-introductions, Patrick opened the discussion by posing three questions to focus on for the day:
- What should we eat?
- How should we farm?
- How can we make sustainable farming economic?
We spent about half an hour discussing the first question. There was general agreement that organically produced plant-based foods were desirable and that highly processed foods should be minimized or avoided.
The most interesting point of discussion centered on whether meat should be included in an ideal diet. Patrick noted that there are nutritional differences between pasture-raised beef and grain-fed beef. Pasture-raised beef has less total fat but more omega-3 fat than grain-fed beef. The consensus seemed to be that grass-fed beef in small portions can be part of a healthy diet, but even then it’s best to keep meat intake minimal.
How Should We Farm?
David Wilson, who has been the farm manager for Prince Charles for the past 31 years, told us how he has been farming to improve the soils over that time span. Without going into great detail, he has been using rotational and mixed farming to build soil fertility. Well-planned rotations provide many advantages for the soil and its crops. Mixing pasture and crop rotations improves soil fertility. Building a healthy soil microbiome (the population of microscopic organisms in the soil) turns out to be of key importance in producing healthy crops.
After his talk (with Q & A,) we went on a tour of the farm to see the practical results of sustainable farming theory. Some of the crops had already been harvested, but we saw a field of healthy looking spelt (an ancient form of wheat) that was ready for harvest. There’s an increasing demand for spelt today for health reasons. This is relevant because farmers must always consider the “demand” factor when planning their crops.
We also saw several pastures with and without livestock on them. Broadfield Farm raises sheep, beef, and dairy cows without hormones or prophylactic antibiotics. They all looked healthy. We also saw a small area devoted to forestry. Stopping in the shade to discuss forestry benefits to the farm was nice because the day had turned quite warm.
After the tour, we returned to the classroom to continue our discussion over a good organic lunch. The question of how to make sustainable farming economic is an extremely complicated question. The underlying problem is that industrial scale farming has not been held accountable for its external costs. That is, the damage that industrial farming does to the environment is not priced into its products. Neither are the huge disease costs that are the eventual result of eating the unhealthy processed foods produced by this system.
Since these real external costs are not accounted for, the foods produced by industrial farming are very cheaply priced – far below their true cost. Consumers buy these products because they are cheap, convenient and tasty, but in the final analysis, we are all faced with enormous environmental and disease costs resulting from this system.
Put most simply, industrial farming is damaging to the environment and its creatures, and most highly processed foods produced by this system are damaging to human health. By contrast, organic farming works in harmony with the natural environment, and it produces food that promotes good health.
We did not resolve the question of how to make sustainable farming economic, but we agreed that clear communication about the issues involved is essential.
Close Farm and Highgrove
After lunch, we moved a few miles down the road by car to Close Farm, another of the Prince’s farms. Many fruits and vegetables are grown organically on this farm. We saw an impressive thousand-tree apple orchard, unique in that each tree represents a different variety of heirloom apple. This orchard is an example of Prince Charles’ work to save varieties in danger of extinction. The trees and fruit in this orchard looked very healthy.
From Close Farm, we moved on a couple more miles to Highgrove Estate for a tour of its famous gardens. Highgrove is the private home of Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall. We had to show our passports and printed invitations to the security guards at the gate in order to enter the property. Highgrove receives tens of thousands visitors annually.
As with the farms, Prince Charles has improved the quality of the soil remarkably over the past 30 years. When he bought these farms, the soil was depleted and barren. Today, the ornamental gardens at Highgrove have become world-famous because of their vigor and beauty. The Prince designed these gardens and takes a keen personal interest in keeping them healthy and beautiful. After an hour-long guided tour of the gardens, we concluded our day with a visit to the Highgrove Gift Shop. All profits from the shop and the farms go to the Prince’s Charities.
My day as one of Patrick’s guests at the royal farms in Wales was a valuable experience. The staff of the Sustainable Food Trust, other guests, and the farms and farm manager provided a great context for stimulating discussions. I gained fresh insights into the challenges and value of organic farming. In spite of a few minor differences of opinion, there was general consensus on the critical importance of organic farming and food production for our future and the future of our planet.
It was good to find so many key people committed to organic principles, and to see a prominent world figure like the Prince of Wales so strongly committed to these values. It was eye-opening to see what the Prince and his staff have accomplished in restoring soil health to previously barren farms. In doing this, he has clearly demonstrated the truth of the Soil Association’s motto: “Healthy soils are full of life!”
I’ll conclude with a pertinent quote from Lady Eve Balfour, one of the founders of the Organic Soil Association: “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.” This is a deep truth about the web of life that our day on the farm helped me see more clearly. We can revive our wholeness!
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
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