Bjorn Lomborg: The global food crisis…and the dirty secret of organic farming

RUSSIA’s brutal war in Ukraine has precipitated a global food crisis, so policymakers around the world need to think hard about how to make food cheaper and more plentiful. This requires a commitment to producing more fertilizer and better seeds, maximizing the potential offered by genetic modification, and abandoning the rich world’s obsession with organic products.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is making less food available because the two nations have been responsible for more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and large amounts of barley, corn and vegetable oil. On top of punitive climate policies and the world emerging from the pandemic, fertilizer, energy and transport prices are soaring, and food prices have soared 61% in the past two years.

The war has revealed hard truths. The first is that Europe – which bills itself as a green energy pioneer – is heavily dependent on Russian gas, especially when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. The war reaffirmed the fundamental reality that fossil fuels remain crucial to the vast majority of global needs. And the emerging food crisis is now revealing another hard truth: organic farming cannot feed the world and could even make future crises worse.

Long simply a hot trend for the global 1%, environmental activists have increasingly peddled the seductive idea that organic farming can solve hunger. The European Union is actively pushing for a tripling of organic farming on the continent by 2030, while a majority of Germans actually believe that organic farming can help feed the world.

However, research conclusively shows that organic farming produces far less food than conventional farming per hectare. Additionally, organic farming requires farmers to rotate soil out of production for pasture, fallow or cover crops, reducing its effectiveness. In total, organic approaches produce between a quarter and half as much food as conventional and scientific agriculture.

This not only makes organic food more expensive, but it means that organic farmers would need a lot more land to feed the same number of people as they do today – perhaps almost double the area. Given that agriculture currently uses 40% of Earth’s ice-free land, switching to organic farming would mean destroying large swaths of nature for less efficient production.

The disaster unfolding in Sri Lanka is a sobering lesson. Last year, the government forced a full transition to organic farming, appointing organic farming gurus as agricultural advisers, some of whom have claimed dubious links between agricultural chemicals and health problems. Despite outlandish claims that organic methods could produce yields comparable to conventional farming, within months the policy produced nothing but misery, with prices for some foodstuffs quintupling.

Sri Lanka was self-sufficient in rice production for decades, but is now forced to import $450 million worth of rice. Tea, the country’s main export crop and source of foreign currency, has been devastated, with economic losses estimated at $425 million. Before the country descended into brutal violence and political resignations, the government was forced to offer $200 million in compensation to farmers and offer $149 million in subsidies.

Sri Lanka’s organic experiment failed fundamentally because of one simple fact: there is not enough land to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with animal manure. To switch to organic farming and maintain production, she would need five to seven times more manure than her total manure today.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, mainly based on natural gas, are a modern miracle, essential to feed the planet. Thanks in large part to this fertilizer, agricultural yields have tripled over the past half-century, while the human population has doubled. Artificial fertilizers and modern agricultural inputs are the reason the number of people working on farms has been reduced in all rich countries, freeing people up for other productive occupations.

In fact, a dirty secret of organic farming is that in wealthy countries the vast majority of existing organic crops depend on imported nitrogen bleached from animal manure, which ultimately comes from fossil fertilizers used in conventional farms.

Without these inputs, if a country – or the world – went all organic, nitrogen scarcity would quickly become disastrous, just as we saw in Sri Lanka. That’s why research shows that organic on a global scale can only feed about half of the world’s population today. Organic farming will lead to more expensive and scarcer food for fewer people, while gobbling up more of nature.

To sustainably feed the world and withstand future global shocks, we need to produce better and cheaper food. History shows that the best way to do this is to improve seeds, including using genetic modification, as well as the expansion of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation. This will allow us to produce more food, reduce prices, alleviate hunger and save nature.

Bjorn Lomborg is Chair of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.

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