The crisis in Sri Lanka shows the urgency to feed the world



With a global food crisis looming, policymakers everywhere need to think hard about how to make food cheaper and more plentiful. That requires a commitment to producing more fertilizers and better seeds, maximizing the potential of genetic modification, and abandoning the rich world’s obsession with organic produce.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has affected food production, supply and availability, as the two countries account for more than a quarter of world wheat exports and huge amounts of barley, corn and vegetable oil. Adding to tough climate policies and the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, fertilizer and oil and gas prices are skyrocketing, and food prices have risen 61 percent over the past two years.

The conflict has exposed some hard truths. One is that Europe – which claims to be a green energy pioneer – relies heavily on Russian gas, especially when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. The conflict has confirmed the basic reality that fossil fuels remain essential for the vast majority of global needs. And the looming food crisis has exposed another hard truth: organic farming cannot feed the world; Instead, it could exacerbate future crises.

Long a fad for the world’s 1 percent, environmental activists have been promoting the beguiling idea that organic farming can alleviate hunger. The European Union is pushing for organic farming to triple by 2030, while a majority of Germans actually believe that organic farming can help feed the world.

However, research shows that organic farming produces much less food per hectare than conventional farming. Organic farming forces farmers to remove soil from production for pasture, fallow land, or cover crops, reducing its effectiveness. In fact, organic farming produces between a quarter and a half less food than conventional, science-based farming.

Not only does this make organic food more expensive, but it also means that organic farmers would need much more land to feed the same number of people as they do today – potentially almost twice the area. Given that agriculture currently uses 40 percent of the Earth’s ice-free land, going organic would mean destroying large parts of nature for less effective production.

The catastrophe in Sri Lanka is a sobering lesson. The government last year forced a full transition to organic farming and appointed “eco-farming gurus,” including some who claimed dubious links between farm chemicals and health problems, as agricultural advisors. Despite extravagant claims that organic methods could produce yields comparable to conventional agriculture, the policy produced nothing but misery, with some food prices quintupling.

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

Sri Lanka’s bio-experiment failed fundamentally because of one simple fact: it does not have enough land to replace synthetic nitrogen fertilizers with animal manure. Going organic and maintaining production would require five to seven times more manure than all together today.

Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers, mostly made with natural gas, are a modern miracle drug that is vital to feeding the world. Largely thanks to such fertilizers, agricultural production has tripled over the past half-century, while the human population has doubled. Artificial fertilizers and modern agricultural inputs are the reason why the number of people working on farms has been greatly reduced in every rich country, freeing people up for other productive occupations.

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

If a country – or the world – went fully organic without these inputs, nitrogen shortages would quickly become catastrophic, just like we saw in Sri Lanka. Research shows that a global shift to organic can only feed about half of the current world population. Organic farming will result in more expensive, scarce food for fewer people, while devouring more of nature.

To feed the world sustainably and withstand future global shocks, we need to produce better and cheaper food. And history shows that the best way to do that is by improving seed, including using genetic modifications, along with expanding irrigation and increasing fertilizer and pesticide production. This allows us to produce more food, lower prices, alleviate hunger and save nature.

The author is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and author of False Alarm. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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