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A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at the 70th Anniversary of the Soil Association

Published on 22nd June 2017

Ladies and gentlemen, I am enormously grateful to Helen Browning and indeed to all of you here for this incredibly unexpected and undeserved award.  It really is a very great privilege to receive such recognition – especially in the presence of so many organic luminaries!

Needless to say, I really could not be more pleased to be joining what appears to be a great many old friends to celebrate the Soil Association's seventieth anniversary, and as your Patron to have this chance to offer my warmest congratulations, for what they're worth, for all on such a significant occasion.  I must say, I am rather proud that I am nearly as old as this august organization!  And at least I have the pleasure of knowing that it will last a great deal longer than its rapidly disintegrating Patron! 

Now Ladies and Gentlemen, as many of you know, although the term "organic farming" was coined by Lord Northbrook in his first book, "Look Back to the Land" in 1940, the formation of the Soil Association was inspired by the ideas of a small group of extraordinary individuals who first understood the indivisibility of the links between the way in which we produce food and the health of our soils, plants, animals and people.

How fortunate we are then that Lady Eve Balfour immediately understood the significance of these links, after she read about the ideas of Sir Albert Howard, in his wonderful book, "An Agricultural Testament" – his homage of course to what he had learnt from the peasant farmers of North West India, back in the early part of the twentieth century.  And of course one of my great regrets in life is not having met Lady Eve Balfour; someone just told me that he met her, when she was very old in hospital, as a rather small frail person; she had a rather frail body, and this enormously loud booming voice; she must have been wonderful.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I realize now that I was merely following in the footsteps of these extraordinary individuals when I began to explore – at the beginning of the 1980's when I first had responsibility for managing some land in my own right – how I might develop an approach to food production which avoided the impact of the predominant, conventional system of industrialized agriculture which, it seemed to me, would in the long-term inevitably have a disastrous impact on soil fertility, biodiversity, plants, animals and human health.

The fact that I and others could take these steps, "controversial" though they seemed to some people at the time, was because of the pioneering work of the founder members of the Soil Association almost forty years earlier.  So it is not only wonderful, but also entirely appropriate that we are all here to celebrate the first seventy years of this organization that has helped so much change to happen.  I also want to take this opportunity to say a personal thank you to just a few of the people who helped and inspired me on my own journey.  For instance, it was only by meeting and talking to pioneers such as Professor Hardy Vogtmann, the Young family, Patrick Holden (Bless him), Lawrence Woodward, Peter Melchett, Helen Browning and my marvellously long-suffering farm manager, David Wilson, that I have survived as an organic farmer.  I know they have also helped countless others and it is terrific to be able to thank them on this special occasion.

Well, Ladies and Gentlemen, I expect you can imagine that when I first suggested organic farming should be taken seriously and, at the same time, rather cautiously managed to convert forty acres of the Duchy Home Farm at Highgrove in 1985 – followed shortly after with the rest of the acreage at Home Farm – not everyone was entirely comfortable with the decisions I had taken! 

The same was rather true when I realized that adding value and better marketing to organic raw materials was the next step to take.  Hence the establishment of Duchy Originals where my aim was to benefit family farmers and the environment while, hopefully, hopefully, generating some income in the long term for my charitable operations.  The launch of the first oat biscuit (which is still the best-selling) rather encouragingly – and I will never forget this – produced a tabloid headline screaming "A Shop-Soiled Royal!"  In the last eight years my Charitable Foundation has given away over £17 million and now, with the great help of Waitrose, the annual turnover is over £200 million and a proportion of the proceeds is devoted to research into greater sustainability through the Duchy Originals Future Farming programme.

This "Innovative Farmers" scheme, which I think most of you will have seen some sign of today, with the Soil Association and its partners, is pioneering in the way it celebrates and supports farmers as innovators.  We know that some of the best ideas come from farmers and growers, with researchers helping them, rather than from research which only takes place in laboratories and institutions.  So I need hardly say, I am very proud that the Duchy brand has been able to support this hugely important work, which is bringing about real change in farming methods and helping both organic and non-organic farmers to work well together, and to learn from one another's endeavours.

So Ladies and Gentlemen, it is becoming ever clearer that the very future of humanity may depend to a very large extent on a mainstream transition to more sustainable farming practices, based of course on organic principles!  Yet despite the extraordinary efforts of the Soil Association, including the work of the individuals and organizations in this room and of many others throughout the world, in terms of impact on the planet and public health, things have actually got worse, not better, with the majority of farmland still in so-called conventional production, and the organic market still small and relatively fragile.

For instance, the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on the soil biome, mirrored in our own stomachs as a result of excessive use of antibiotics, has been so devastating, that it is now being said that we only have enough fertility left for sixty harvests.

Now of course there are glimmers of hope, not least the inspiring initiative launched at the C.O.P. 21 conference by then French Agriculture Minister, Monsieur Le Folle, encouraging farmers throughout the world to build their soil carbon through changes of farming practice, such as the introduction of crop rotations which included a fertility building phase – in other words what organic farmers have been practising for decades!

Paradoxically, the inability of conventional industrial agricultural systems to stay within the so-called "planetary boundaries", in terms of their impact on climate change, soil fertility, biodiversity and public health may soon encourage policy-makers to incentivize precisely those practices that many of you here have been advocating for decades, especially since these are now supported by sound science. 

However, we must remain ever mindful that despite seventy years of endeavour, change is not happening fast enough.  One thing is absolutely clear, against this uncertain external backdrop, exacerbated by the ever present threat of irreversible climate change, the role of the Soil Association is more important than ever, so while much has been achieved in seventy years, the hard work must continue.  I remain, Ladies and Gentlemen, immensely proud to be Patron of this remarkable organization and to have this opportunity to thank you for everything you all do to support its crucial work.  And I can only hope you will all keep going for at least - at least - another seventy years! Thank you.