Is switching to 100% organic food production worth it?


Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is an adjunct professor with Lincoln University and a farmer-elected director on the boards of DairyNZ and Ravensdown.

OPINION: Globalization means that a significant event in one country has ramifications in others. Drought, flood, fire, pest and plague – the effects on food prices are being felt everywhere, and food insecurity is rife.

This is disappointing given what was achieved last century.

In 1960 there were 3 billion people in the world and 25 per cent were malnourished. By 2019 there were 7.7 billion people and 8.9 per cent were malnourished.

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More people were being fed to a better state of nutrition. Norman Borlaug’s work in creating what is now termed the Green Revolution, was responsible. Borlaug developed short-strawed cultivars of cereals, which gave the potential to increase yields.

Application of nutrients and water enabled the yield potential to be achieved, and the development of herbicides and pesticides kept competition for resources at bay. Risk and uncertainty in food production decreased.

Despite the success, there are some people advocating a change. Suggestions include moving to organic, regenerative agriculture and phasing out synthetic nitrogen and other chemicals.

Sri Lanka has just tried doing exactly what has been suggested.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is an adjunct professor with Lincoln University and a farmer-elected director on the Boards of DairyNZ and Ravensdown.

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Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is an adjunct professor with Lincoln University and a farmer-elected director on the Boards of DairyNZ and Ravensdown.

In April last year, Sri Lanka banned the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers and became the first country to pursue 100 per cent organic food production. The effect was rapid.

Tea production reduced by 35 per cent and rice production by 25 per cent. Media reports suggest that 30 per cent of land has been abandoned because farming under the new regime is financially unviable. Rural poverty has increased, and the economy has suffered, exacerbated by loss of tourism due to Covid-19. Food availability has decreased, prices are up and, the young and skilled are reported to be seeking opportunities in other countries.

The chemical ban was opposed by many agriculture scientists and farmers, who warned that the sudden transformation could halve crop production. Their warnings were ignored in the desire to lead change.

The European Green Deal has been accompanied by similar warnings.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Services analysis indicates that the proposed input reductions of land, fertilizers, antimicrobials, and pesticides will affect EU farmers by reducing their agricultural production by 7 to 12 per cent overall, reducing their competitiveness in both domestic and export markets.

Further, the researchers suggest that impacts will stretch beyond the EU, driving up worldwide food prices by 9 per cent (EU only adoption) to 89 per cent (global adoption).

This will affect consumer budgets negatively, ultimately reducing worldwide societal welfare by $96 billion to $1.1 trillion, depending on how widely other countries adopt the strategies.

Researchers from Wageningen University have pointed out that the Green Deal will also result in increased uncertainty in food production.

Fluctuations in yields are higher in organic production systems than in conventional production because organic farmers have access to fewer crop protection tools. The reduced yields require compensation with higher prices if farmers are to stay in business.

Now is not the time to be putting that production at risk by removing tools that have been shown to be effective and safe – people, including farmers, can't afford it.

NZ Gardener

Now is not the time to be putting that production at risk by removing tools that have been shown to be effective and safe – people, including farmers, can’t afford it.

The USDA researchers estimated that higher food prices would increase the number of food-insecure people in the world’s most vulnerable regions by 22 million (EU only adoption) to 185 million (global adoption).

The Green Deal has been positioned on improved health for people and for the environment, but malnourished people are not healthy.

Professor Derrick Moot, a Lincoln University agronomist who has spent his life researching how to produce food for people sustainably, is clear about the importance of putting people first.

“If people are hungry, they do not have the mental or physical space in their lives to be concerned about the environment. Feeding people is always the first step in development. If we help people to grow their food and increase yields, the community becomes richer. Surplus food can be sold in markets, girls are able to go to school instead of having to find food, and population plateaus because children are no longer an investment in a parents old age. When the population stabilizes, the biggest driver of climate change, also stabilizes.”

Professor Moot has worked with many people from developing countries. “Feed people, and they have the space to think about the water/pollution/environment,” he says.

“The developed world demanding reduced chemicals inputs ignores the fact that much of the developing world is undernourished and have soils that require fertilizer inputs to be productive. New Zealand cannot feed the world, but the practices and principles we teach can. Organic, low input and regenerative agriculture practices have market appeal to some high value consumers. Applied to developing nations the removal of chemicals consigns them to poverty and hunger that leads to conflict and societal disruption. Sri Lanka has demonstrated the reality very clearly.”

Sri Lanka experienced a 21.5 per cent increase in food inflation in the year to December 2021 – the year of the organic experiment.

Consumers in New Zealand felt the impact of 4.5 per cent last year. Food prices increased by 5.9 per cent in the year ended January 2022. Weather and labor shortages have compounded the problems – $15 cauliflowers this month are the result.

Inflation in food prices is a global issue and will be with us for the predictable future.

Now is not the time to be putting that production at risk by removing tools that have been shown to be effective and safe – people, including farmers, can’t afford it.

The analysis and conclusions above are Dr Jacqueline Rowarth’s own.

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