Ukraine crisis reveals the folly of organic farming

The energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine has deterred many politicians from the idea that the world could quickly switch to green energy based on solar, wind and wishful thinking. With food prices skyrocketing and conflict threatening a global food crisis, we must face another unpopular reality: Organic farming is ineffective, land hungry and very expensive, and it would starve billions if embraced worldwide.

For years, politicians and the chattering classes have argued that organic farming is the responsible way to feed the world. The European Union last year urged members to roughly triple organic farming by 2030. Influential non-profit organizations have long promoted organic farming in developing countries, leading fragile countries like Sri Lanka to invest in such methods. In the West, many consumers are convinced: about half of the German population believes that organic farming can fight global hunger.

The rise in food prices – supported by higher fertilizer, energy and transport costs – during the conflict in Ukraine has exposed inherent flaws in the organic farming argument. Because organic farming eludes much of the scientific advances that have enabled farmers to increase crop yields, it is inherently less efficient than conventional farming. Research has conclusively shown that organic farming produces less food per hectare than conventional farming. In addition, organic farming rotates fields in and out of use more often than conventional farming, which can rely on synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to maintain fertility and keep pests away.

Taking this and the lower production in any given area into account, organic farming produces between 29% and 44% less food than conventional methods. It therefore requires as much as 78% more land than conventional farming and the food produced costs 50% more, while delivering no measurable increase in human health or animal welfare.

These increased costs are unsustainable 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 imposition of organic products has been disastrous. President Mahinda Rajapaksa ran for election in 2019, promising a transition to organic food production. This policy brought nothing but misery. By avoiding fertilizers, rice production fell by 20% in the first six months after the switch to organic farming. Last winter, farmers predicted that tea yields could drop by as much as 40%. Food prices rose; the cost of vegetables has increased fivefold. Protests eventually caused Sri Lanka to largely forgo organic farming last winter, too late to save much of this year’s crop.

The example of Sri Lanka underlines the irresponsibility of organic products. Organic farming rejects synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, but there is currently not nearly 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.

Rich consumers can cope with the associated price increases, but many poor households in developing countries spend more than half of their income on food. Every 1% increase in food prices puts another 10 million people in global poverty. Advocating global organics implicitly suggests that billions of people should forgo food.

It’s easier to ignore these inconvenient details when food shortages aren’t in the headlines, but the war in Ukraine has brought world hunger to everyone’s mind. Russia and Ukraine normally supply more than a quarter of the world’s wheat exports and significant stocks of maize, vegetable oil and barley. Nearly a third of the world’s potash, a potassium-rich product critical to plant growth, comes from Russia and Belarus, and most of it is likely subject to sanctions. Russia also produces 8% of the world’s nitrogen, the price of which had 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 increased the price of non-renewable energy. And it doesn’t help food prices that transportation costs have more than doubled since the start of the pandemic.

The result will be devastation. Rising fertilizer prices could reduce rice yields by 10% the following season, leading to a decline in food production equivalent to what could feed half a billion people.

Policymakers and non-profit organizations urgently need to 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 in increasing yields. It will also help to ramp up fertilizer production and consider removing regulations that make fossil fuel inputs more expensive. These simple, common sense approaches can curb price increases, prevent hunger and even help the environment. Agriculture already uses 40% of the ice-free land on Earth. By increasing its efficiency, we can 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.

Bjorn Lomborg is chair of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow 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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