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As food prices skyrocket, the world needs to admit it can’t live without modern, efficient agriculture
The energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine disabused many politicians of the notion that the world could make a swift transition to green energy powered by solar, wind and wishful thinking. As food prices skyrocket and the conflict threatens a global food crisis, we need to face another unpopular reality: Organic farming is ineffective, land hungry and very expensive, and it would leave billions hungry if it were embraced world-wide.
For years, politicians and the chattering classes have argued that organic farming is the responsible way to feed the world. The European Union pushed last year for members roughly to triple organic farming by 2030. Influential nonprofits have long promoted organic farming to developing nations, causing fragile countries like Sri Lanka to invest in such methods. In the West, many consumers have been won over: About half the population of Germany believes that organic farming can fight global hunger.
The rise in food prices—buoyed by increased fertilizer, energy and transport costs—amid the conflict in Ukraine has exposed inherent flaws in the argument for organic farming. Because organic agriculture shirks many of the scientific advancements that have allowed farmers to increase crop yields, it’s inherently less efficient than conventional farming. Research has conclusively shown that organic farming produces less food per acre than conventional agriculture. Moreover, organic farming rotates fields in and out of use more often than conventional farming, which can rely on synthetic fertilizer and pesticides to maintain fertility and keep away pests.
Taking this and the lower production in a given field into account, organic farming produces between 29% to 44% less food than conventional methods. It therefore requires as much as 78% more land than conventional agriculture and the food produced costs 50% more—all while generating no measurable increase in human health or animal welfare.
This higher cost is untenable in developing nations, and it was irresponsible for activists in wealthy economies to push inefficient farming methods on them. Nowhere is this tragedy more obvious than Sri Lanka, where the imposition of organics has been calamitous. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ran for election in 2019 promising a transition to organic food production. This policy produced nothing but misery. The eschewing of fertilizer caused rice production to drop by 20% in the first six months after the switch to organic farming was implemented. Last winter, farmers predicted that tea yields could fall by as much as 40%. Food prices rose; the cost of vegetables quintupled. Protests finally forced Sri Lanka mostly to give up its organic foray this past winter, too late to rescue much of this year’s crop.
Sri Lanka’s example underscores the irresponsibility of organics. Organic farming rejects synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, but there is currently far from enough organic nitrogen to feed the world. It turns out that synthetic nitrogen is directly responsible for feeding four billion people, more than half the world’s population.
Wealthy consumers can take the related price increases, but many poor households in the developing world spend more than half their income on food. Every 1% hike in food prices tips another 10 million people into global poverty. Advocating for global organics implicitly means suggesting that billions should forgo food.
It is easier to ignore these inconvenient details when food shortages aren’t in the headlines, but the war in Ukraine has put world hunger on everyone’s mind. Russia and Ukraine normally provide more than a quarter of the world’s exported wheat and significant supplies of corn, vegetable oil and barley. Almost a third of global potash, a potassium-rich product crucial for plant growth, comes from Russia and Belarus and most is likely subject to sanctions. Russia also produces 8% of the world’s nitrogen, the price of which had already more than tripled over the two years before the invasion. Most nitrogen is made from fossil fuels, and many factories have had to stop production as the pandemic and climate policies have raised the price of nonrenewable energy. And it doesn’t help food prices that the costs of transport have more than doubled since the pandemic began.
The result will be devastation. Rising fertilizer prices could decrease rice yields by 10% in the next season, leading to a drop in food production equivalent to what could feed half a billion people.
Policy makers and nonprofits must urgently focus on ways to produce more food for the world’s poorest at less cost. Genetic engineering, better pest management and more irrigation would go a long way toward increasing yields. Ramping up the production of artificial fertilizer, as well as considering removing regulation that makes its fossil-fuel inputs more expensive, will also help. These simple, common-sense approaches can curb price hikes, avoid hunger and even help the environment. Agriculture already uses 40% of the ice-free land on the earth. Increasing its efficiency will allow us to keep more land wild and natural.
It’s time to let go of this self-indulgent obsession with organics and focus on scientific and effective approaches that can feed the planet.
It points to some genuine problems with organic farming, but the proposed solution will lead to far worse outcomes. Also it made my head spin that they acknowledge the reliance of conventional ag on synthetic fertilisers, the nitrogen from which results in a high percentage of global food production, but somehow fail to make the point that relying on Russian supplies of this is ... a bit of a liability, to put it mildly. Of course they don't mention peak oil which will result in all petro-chemical products gradually becoming too expensive for nearly every activity, economic or otherwise. They want to continue accelerating into the oncoming brick wall, whereas building a little slack into the system and keeping alive the older ways that didn't rely on fossil fuels might mitigate the worst effects of the imminent global crash. Of course the idea that gene 'editing' or any other shiny new tech 'solution' is going to do anything but create worse problems in the long run is utterly delusional.