Opinion: While it can be seen as "environmentally friendly," removing agrichemicals and moving to organic farming would have a significant impact on food supply, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
Tomatoes at 8c a kg have become a distant memory and concerns about food insecurity and costs are increasing again. Food banks are reporting ever greater demand and shelves are empty.
Around the world, the Global Food Insecurity Index has indicated that most countries are worse off than New Zealand, yet despite the obvious need for food, environmentalists are arguing for a dramatic change in agriculture – removing agrichemicals, such as nitrogen fertiliser and the "cides" that kill weeds, insects and the micro-organisms.
These are the chemicals that boost yields by overcoming nutrient limitations in plants, or controlling the weeds and bugs that reduce yields through competition for resources, or simply by consumption of the food before humans have access.
Removing agrichemicals would have significant impact on food supply.
Not using the tools, being "organic" for instance, means sourcing nutrients for application that have not been through a chemical laboratory or processing system. A similar philosophy applies to the chemicals used for controlling pests.
The result is food that is more expensive per unit than its "non-organic" or "conventional" counterpart.
It also has a greater impact on the environment, per kg of food, than conventionally produced food.
This is disappointing to the advocates who believe otherwise, but the evidence produced from global studies is clear.
Although the impact of organic food production is sometimes less than conventional food production per hectare, lower yields mean that per kg and per mouthful, the impact is higher.
The reduced yield also means that to feed the same number of people takes more land under organic production than it does conventional production.
This in turn has an impact on biodiversity – agricultural expansion into forests or across savannahs disrupts the natural ecosystem with consequent effects on the flora and fauna that previously occupied the area.
The stark reality is that to meet the essential amino acid needs of an ever-increasing global population, agricultural intensification (more production per hectare) is required with animals as an integral part.
Agrichemicals are also vital if the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved. Number one is No Poverty. Number Two is No Hunger.
Agrichemicals are important in providing jobs and food.
When used as regulated, they are not associated with human health issues.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Repeated surveys have shown lower incidence of cancer, for instance, in rural districts than in urban districts. The latest report in New Zealand indicated 25 per cent lower in rural areas.
The high-profile court cases against chemical companies in America have been driven by lawyers, not scientists and health experts.
Geoffrey Kabat, cancer epidemiologist and the author of Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks, has stated "that there is little relationship between glyphosate and Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma".
He also says that NHL is rare and "is not one disease but a number of different types of lymphoma – about which we know very little".
In considerable contrast, malnutrition is relatively common, and we do know what causes it – insufficient nutrients.
Insufficiency will increase if glyphosate (Roundup) is banned.
Calculations from the Northern Hemisphere suggest that the area in wheat will decrease by 20 per cent and the yield will decrease by over 12 per cent.
In New Zealand a report commissioned by Agcarm and published in 2019 indicated that without crop protection products, New Zealand would lose $7.4 to $11 billion.
The overall effect can be seen in the price differences in food produced under different systems currently in the supermarkets. Organic flour is $5.50/kg versus 1.33/kg from
Organic potatoes are $6 a kilogram – twice the price of the standard conventional version (gourmet potatoes are more, whatever the production system).
The organic market is always touted to be increasing, but so is the conventional market because more people require more food.
Although there will probably always be a small premium market for food produced without synthetic chemicals, most of the global population just wants good food, and recognises that the difference between natural and synthesised chemicals is philosophical.
Derris dust is considered natural because it is found in plants, but the chemical (rotenone) requires processing to ensure standardisation.
Urea is an important compound in the metabolism of nitrogen-containing compounds (e.g. protein) in the body. Also called carbamide, it is termed an organic compound because it is based on carbon.
Terminology creates confusion and raises concerns unnecessarily.
With an escalating global population escalating, there are no easy answers for food production.
Application of agrichemicals precisely and in the right form, in the right place and the right time in the right amount will assist.
New Zealand is a world leader in precision agriculture and meets the protein needs of over 1 per cent of the global population for considerably less than 0.1 per cent of global GHG.
This will not be the case if the basic tools are removed.
In addition, food, including tomatoes, will become more expensive.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, has an honours degree in environmental agriculture and PhD in nutrient cycling. She is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org