Organic - or not? Opinion of Peter Thomson, Agriculturist


Peter Thomson, Agriculturalist with over 20 years of expertize in land management and production-related operations in Ukraine

Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, recently speaking at the 70th anniversary of the Soil Association, claimed that “there were only sixty harvests left” due to use of artificial fertilizers and crop protection chemicals. Implying that humanity needs to urgently move to organic farming methods to avoid a global collapse in food production. Ok, but on the other hand, why then are conventional crop yields still increasing at 2-3% per year? And more importantly, if we all move to organic production, with an associated reduction in yields of around 25% (USDA research 2011), how are we going to feed the world population, that is, on medium UN projections, expected to reach 9 billion by 2050?

As a farmer, driven by market economics, the idea of sustainable farming sits very nicely, I use less resources and grow the same or bigger yields = better profits. Of course, all the other farmers do the same, so the profits tend to stay the same, but that’s progress.

What I can’t get my head round is the inherent unfairness of organic produce. It is and always has been more expensive than “conventional” produce, which means people’s access to it is determined by their financial position. If food occupies a large part of your household budget, you will look for what’s cheapest, and that’s not organic. More than that, with 1 in 9 people (UN FAO 2014-2016) in the world suffering from chronic undernourishment (that’s ~800 million people), and while that number is decreasing, it’s still a awful lot of people. I think you get my drift.

So we’re happy with sustainable farming, but “sustainable” needs careful definition. Rather than out and out organic farming, which is only sustainable as a production model, not as a means of feeding a growing world population, don’t we need to be looking to technology to limit use of natural resources in food production? For example, technology is now available to apply herbicides on a site specific basis, i.e. applying the chemical on a spot basis to the target weed, not as a blanket application which might waste more than 90% of the chemical.

On one hand, I have the utmost respect for organic farmers, it’s not an easy way to go, and it takes a long time to achieve. On the other, and I’d better refrain from moralizing too much, but it does seem, well, basically unsustainable.



Readers choice: TOP-5 articles of the month by UkrAgroConsult