The Ukrainian crisis reveals the madness of organic farming

Ukraine’s war-induced energy crisis has disillusioned many politicians that the world could make a rapid transition to green energy powered by solar, wind and wishful thinking. As food prices soar and conflict threatens a global food crisis, we face another unpopular reality: organic farming is inefficient, land-intensive and very expensive, and it would leave billions of starving people if adopted worldwide.

For years, politicians and the chattering classes have argued that organic farming is the responsible way to feed the world. Last year, the European Union pushed its members to roughly triple organic farming by 2030. Influential non-profit organizations have long promoted organic farming in developing countries, which has pushed fragile countries like Sri Lanka to invest in such methods. In the West, many consumers have been conquered: half the population of Germany believes that organic farming can fight world hunger.

Rising food prices, spurred by rising fertilizer, energy and transport costs, amid conflict in Ukraine have exposed the inherent flaws in the case for organic farming. Because organic farming shirks many scientific advances that have allowed farmers to increase crop yields, it is inherently less efficient than conventional farming. The research has conclusively shown that organic farming produces less food per acre than conventional farming. In addition, organic farming rotate fields used and out of use more often than conventional agriculture, which can rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain fertility and ward off pests.

Taking this and the lower production of a given field into account, organic farming produces between 29% and 44% less food than conventional methods. It therefore requires up to 78% more land than conventional agriculture and the food produced costs 50% more—while generating no measurable increase Human health or animal wellbeing.

This higher cost is untenable in developing countries, and it was irresponsible for activists in wealthy economies to impose inefficient farming methods on them. Nowhere is this tragedy more evident than in Sri Lanka, where the taxation of organic products has been calamitous. President Mahinda Rajapaksa ran for office in 2019 promising a shift to organic food production. This policy has produced nothing but misery. The abandonment of fertilizers caused rice production to fall by 20% in the first six months after the implementation of the switch to organic farming. Last winter, farmers predicted that tea yields could drop by up to 40%. Food prices have increased; the cost of vegetables has increased fivefold. Protests eventually forced Sri Lanka to mostly abandon its biological foray last winter, too late to save much of this year’s crop.

The example of Sri Lanka highlights the irresponsibility of organic products. Organic farming rejects synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, 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 of the world’s population.

Affluent consumers can afford the corresponding price increases, but many poor households in the developing world spend more than half of their income on food. Every 1% increase in food prices tip another 10 million people in global poverty. Advocating for global organics implicitly means suggesting that billions of people should give up food.

It’s 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 supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and significant quantities of corn, vegetable oil and barley. Nearly a third of the world’s potash, a potassium-rich commodity crucial for plant growth, comes from Russia and Belarus and is most likely to be subject to penalties. Russia also produces 8% of the world’s nitrogen, the price of which had already more than tripled in the two years before the invasion. Most nitrogen is made from fossil fuels, and many factories have had to shut down production as the pandemic and climate policies have raised the price of non-renewable energy. And it doesn’t help food prices that transport costs have more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.

The result will be devastation. Rising fertilizer prices could decrease rice yields by 10% next season, resulting in a drop in food production equivalent to what could feed half a billion people.

Policymakers and nonprofits must urgently focus on ways to produce more food for the world’s poorest at a lower cost. Genetic engineering, better pest control and more irrigation would go a long way to increasing yields. Increased production of artificial fertilizers, as well as the ability to remove regulations that make its fossil fuel inputs more expensive, will also help. These simple, common-sense approaches can curb price hikes, avert hunger, and even help the environment. Agriculture already uses 40% of the ice-free land on earth. Increasing its effectiveness will allow us to keep more land wild and natural.

It’s time to ditch that self-indulgent obsession with organics and focus on science-based, effective approaches that can feed the planet.

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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