Madam President, Ladies and Gentlemen, I must say it is an enormous pleasure to welcome you all to Clarence House. As Patron of the Crop Trust, I was very touched indeed to be asked, I really am so pleased to have the opportunity to meet the distinguished members of the Alliance for Agricultural Biodiversity while they are actually here in London for their latest gathering. I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that their work is of fundamental importance to the future of humanity.
What we eat, and in what quantities, can be the difference between life and death. It can keep us healthy, or ruin us. And we can produce this food in harmony with the environment that sustains every aspect of our lives, or place our own survival in peril by undermining it.
Now, I doubt that anyone here today will need convincing that the combination of a dangerously-changing global climate with ever-growing competition for finite natural resources presents a massive challenge. How are we going to produce enough nutritious food for the 8.3 billion people expected to inhabit the world by 2030?
Our current methods of food production are, quite literally, unsustainable. Converting more natural landscapes into farmland and pasture is not an option when one considers the threat to what remains of global biodiversity, upon which we depend for our survival. Neither, for that matter, is increasing the use of chemicals such as pesticides and artificial fertilizers which can threaten the environment and human health, and of course untold problems in the oceans. And we are already using far too much precious water on so-called marginal land.
The United Nation Sustainable Development Goals challenge us to pursue new solutions, beyond such twentieth-century thinking. These solutions can be found in sustainable management practices that make best use of the wonderful diversity of our food plants. So it is all the more alarming that the common global heritage of plant biodiversity is at such risk.
Now, we have the world’s farmers to thank for the rich variety of foods we eat. Over many millennia they have developed, grown and guarded the diversity of domesticated plants and animals. Every major crop now has hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different varieties, each with unique characteristics. But that very diversity is disappearing fast, as so many of you know, as changing agricultural practices sweep away what are seen as ‘old’ and ‘inefficient’ varieties, including so-called ‘orphan crops’ that were once collected from the wild rather than being planted and grown. And at the same time the wild relatives of our crop species, which provide new and vital resources for future breeding, are left to decline unnoticed and undervalued.
And I remember when I first went to Highgrove 38 years ago, in Gloucestershire, that I tried so hard, and have done since, to provide a home for rare breeds of all kinds, whether farm animals, native breeds, fruit varieties, vegetable varieties, anything. It has been a huge battle so I am pleased to discover that the Crop Trust is doing so much in this area and I could not be more delighted to give it my support.
Professional plant breeders hold tremendous knowledge that can benefit mankind, but this should not be allowed to overshadow or restrict the steady improvements made by small scale farmers saving their own seed over time. There is a place for both, because while preservation in seed banks is critical, we also need to keep diversity alive and evolving within the local context of farming communities.
I must say had the good fortune, on a recent trip to Malaysia last Autumn, to visit "Crops for the Future", where they are conducting valuable research into underutilised crops. I was enormously impressed with the research that the Centre, led by Professor Sayed Azam Ali, who I am pleased to see here today, is undertaking, and I hope that Crops for the Future's 'Forgotten Foods Network' can work together with the Food Forever Initiative towards their shared goal of securing the future of food for the benefit of humanity.
Agricultural biodiversity needs to be recognised as one of the world’s most valuable natural resources. Whatever we allow to be lost is gone forever. So every time we allow it to be diminished we sacrifice our options for the future, leaving our food systems more vulnerable to the challenges that lie ahead, be they the production of sufficient nutritious food for an increasing population, adaptation to changing climates, the ravages of new pests and diseases or, indeed, all of the above.
So, it must surely be a collective responsibility for our generation to ensure that our children, grandchildren, and their children inherit a planet that can sustain them. And an essential part of what we bequeath them must be the widest possible range of biodiversity among crop species and their wild relatives. We cannot predict exactly what their agricultural needs will be, or indeed what tools they will have at their disposal for crop breeding, but the very essence of sustainability is that we should not limit their ability to meet their own needs. And that is a heavy responsibility.
So the time to act is now. And a much more ambitious and global effort to appreciate, safeguard and share the world’s food diversity is urgently required. This is why, if I may say so, the work of the Crop Trust and the Food Forever Initiative is so absolutely crucial. As I said, it has my full support, for what it's worth and I hope, as its Patron, and I pray Ladies and Gentlemen it has yours too. There's no such thing as a free lunch!