23 May, 2024


Can Organic Farming Feed The World?

By Chandre Dharmawardana

Dr. Chandre Dharmawardana

The blazing banner  of a media release (14-Nov-2017)  by the Swiss-based “Research Institute of Organic agriculture” caught headlines all over the world as it made the claim that “organic farming can feed the world after all” (see also the scientific paper in “Nature communications”). In “Strategies for feeding the world more sustainably with organic agriculture”, agronomists led by Dr. Adrian Mueller claim that “a world conversion to organic farming can contribute to a comprehensive and sustainable food system, if combined with further measures”.

Public disenchantment over conventional agriculture.

The ordinary public sees conventional agriculture with a suspicious eye even though quite happy to demand the lowest prices for food and shop at box stores like Wall Mart and Costco. Everyone has heard of how the over use of DDT led to the famous “silent spring” documented by Rachel Carson in the 1970s. DDT killed the bad bugs as well as the good bugs! Richard Nixon, no friend of ecology loved the votes  of the green movement and banned DDT in 1975. However, the public doesn’t know that after extensive study, the WHO approved the use of DDT for domestic use (e.g., against mosquitoes) while it remains banned for agricultural use. Nevertheless, many countries like India, Russia and China use DDT even in the agricultural sector. Tea imported from India contains surprisingly high amounts of DDT. Even the completely innocuous N, K, P fertilizer is unpopular  with the public because of news about excess phosphate run off producing algae blooms which convert lakes to oxygen depleted dead bodies of water.

Glyphosate controversy and Russia.

Even very safe herbicides like glyphosate have come under the gun because of public suspicion that these “chemicals” are the cause of various chronic diseases including cancer. A recent (2014) classification of glyphosate as a class-II carcinogen by the International Agency for Research in Cancer (IARC) has been used by the “green-lobby” to demand the ban of glyphosate. They ignore  that according to IARC classifications, motor-vehicle exhaust, red meat and sausages are more dangerous class-I carcinogens! The IARC merely indicates the health hazard level and not the health  risk level. An excellent discussion of glyphosate by knowledgeable scientists may be found in the debate on “Roundup”  (a commercial form of diluted glyphosate containing some additives like tallowamine), hosted by Steve Paikin on TV-Ontario. Interestingly, while Russia is a major producer of glyphosate, internationally it opposes gyphosate as a means of crippling European agriculture as a part of its global anti-NATO political strategy.

The  existing excellent safety and harvest records of conventional agriculture are ignored by the frightened by poorly informed members of public public who look for a “safe environmental alternative”. Hence the increasing interest on organic farming as an environmentally friendly alternative. But is it actually environmentally friendly, and is it practicable to feed the world using organic farming exclusively? 

Organic agriculture.

Today only about 1% of the world’s food is “organic”. The huge claim by the Swiss research group is based on computer simulations projected to 2050. Although many of us  ignore projections of complex systems that go beyond a few years,  such studies reveal the assumptions   made  by scientifically well-informed but naive  optimists.  They can guide us to launch better, more practicable environmentally friendly approaches  which are not inflexibly bound to irrational ideologies.

The ideology of organic agriculture is a close kin of belief systems that reject vaccinations etc.,  and insist on `natural cures’ and prayer for treating disease. The origins of organic farming in the West go back to  “biodynamics”  claims of  Rudolf Steiner (1920s) in Austria.  He claimed that agriculture must use  “cosmic and telluric forces,” and  established  the lucrative certification of  “bio-dynamic” products.  The British Soil Association’s “organic agriculture” (e.g., Sir Albert Howard, 1940) advocates composting and a return to a “yeoman-farmer-based agriculture”.    Certain agricultural practices distinguish “organic” from conventional farming:

    1.  a prohibition on chemical fertilizers and pesticides, plant and animal growth regulators, hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, etc.;

    2. a prohibition on genetically modified organisms (GMO) and  biotechnology;

    3. a prohibition on soil-less culture (hydroponics etc.) while allowing greenhouse growing;

    4.  in animal production, to allow free-range practices, use organic feed,  and limit animal density;

    5. require farm conversion periods before any produce can be  marketed as “organic”.

Many supporters of organic farming include social taboos and ethical aspects (e.g., humane treatment of animals) to the definition of organic farming. 

    6.  Hence some organic farmers prohibit human excreta and urine in producing organic fertilizers.

The French aristocrat had his Chateau, private vineyard, orangerie, pommier and farm managed by his peasant subjects,  together with his private forest for him to hunt “gibier”; this  exemplified the highest manifestation  of the organic farm in practice. In medieval times, a small handful of aristocrats all over the world lived the “organic life” while the others starved. Nevertheless, a strong driving force behind “organic agriculture” is the opposition to “big agro-business” latent in socialist activism, and a misplaced nostalgia for the small-farming communities of the pre-industrial world, often exemplified by the “weva-kumbura-gama ” (water-source, farm, community) concept.

When “organic” farming methods are coupled with quasi-religious,  astrology and folklore-based practices, we obtain “traditional agriculture” where a return to  the use of “traditional seeds” is a must. The “Vasha-Visha Naethi Ratak” (toxin-free nation) program with catastrophic consequences to Sri Lanka’s agriculture is  a result of such an ideology. 

The Swiss agronomists’ proposals for an organic future.

The Swiss-based  agronomists  (Mueller et al.)  are serious scientists who use  computer simulations to assess the  environmental impact of a theoretical conversion of world agriculture to 100 percent organic. Their study itself shows that global organic conversion would lead to a 16-33 percent increase in land use, a corresponding 8-15 percent increase in deforestation, corresponding additional water resources and increased emissions (from composting). They propose to solve the increased land and water use, deforestation etc., by two strategies. (i) The world to go heroically 100 per cent vegetarian!  (ii) Cutting  food waste by 50 per cent.

In a 100 % vegetarian world, in optimistic cases,  a 100 % reduction in land-area for animal production is possible. However, how does one provide nitrogen to the organic farmer? Animal manure will be as expensive  as black truffles in such a world! 

Currently, the organic farmer uses cattle manure from cattle grazed on land fertilized conventionally. He  is piggy-backing on Haber-Bosch Nitrogen fertilizer! In the book “Enriching the Earth”, the Canadian writer Vaclav Smil discusses  nitrogen’s unique status in  agriculture, and traditional means of supplying the nutrient; then he shows that only about half the world’s population can be supported (with great effort) without synthetic urea.

Vaclav Smil overlooks  the organic practice of farming  a grain crop one year, and  a legume crop the following year to enrich the soil with nitrogen via the legume crop. So the actual organic harvest, taken over several years is less than estimated by Vaclav Smil. So the world population must be reduced even more than by ½ to account for the organic “harvest  short fall”.

The burden falls on the poor nations.

Given that the Swiss program for a “sustainable organic and healthy world” implies reducing the world population by half or more, the burden of famine will fall on the poor nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Reducing food waste by 50% will also weigh mostly on the poor countries where food waste is huge. Due to strong social prejudices and traditional beliefs, seeds are not irradiated. Poor tropical granaries are notorious for their weevils, bugs and fungal decay of farm produce in hot  humid climates.

Technology is strong on food preservation while the elitist organic consumer wants it “all natural”, “no chemicals” and  no pasteurized milk!   Individuals object to even an innocuous layer of protective wax on apples because they want it “all fresh”. In fact, the untreated “organic” apple looses its aroma and rots much faster than the wax-treated “industrial” apple.

The organic farmer relies  on inter-cropping, crop rotation and “natural methods” for the control of  pests and weeds.  A major threat to global harvests  is  “wheat rust”, a deadly fungal disease of wheat, controlled with fungicides. Without these fungicides, wheat rust epidemics occur and spores spread globally via  winds and modern mass transport, quickly creating a global famine. Wheat  feeds even rice-eating “developing” countries when the rice crop fails. Sri Lanka,  recently wedded to a “toxin-free agriculture” has just recently (very quietly and unknown to God Natha?) tripled its imports of industrial GMO wheat flour to feed its people.

Heavy-metal toxins, organic and mineral fertilizers.

The organic farmer faces  not only the “nitrogen crunch”, but  difficulties in providing  phosphate (and potassium) to crops. Organic fertilizers do not overcome  heavy-metal contamination linked to mineral fertilizers, but actually add new problems. Even if we start with soils containing a mere 3 parts per billion of cadmium, most plants (e.g., rice) accumulate cadmium from the soil during its growth. The seeds and the leaves (straw) may now contain a 100 parts per billion of toxic cadmium. Using this in compost  may be 300% as bad as using the worst TSP from Morocco.

One salutary aspect of organic agriculture is its emphasis on “soil health”. The soil is a microcosm of many organisms, most of which are beneficial to crops and to our health in reducing toxicity and in making nutrients (e.g., phosphates) more bio-available.  But the organisms also need optimal amounts of N, K, and P for their survival as well. It is this balance between organic and inorganic components that the scientific farmer needs to search for. The flocks of egrets (see photo in Maha Illuppallama by Dr. Chamila Perera, courtesy Dr. Sarath Amarasiri) that collect around the plough to eat worms  when fields are tilled is testimony to the fact that Sri Lanka’s fields are significantly free of metal toxins, a fact confirmed by several researchers who did chemically analyzed  the soil and water (e.g., by Nanayakkara et al. 2014). 

However, unlike the organic farmer, the scientific farmer  can opt for “soil-free” hydroponic and aerophonic agriculture. One can envisage a future world where we return our agricultural fields back to forests, and use grow towers and DNA-based vats for the production of many  types of food. Here GM technology and plant cultivation are joined into one activity.

Progress in conventional agriculture.

The Swiss agronomists forget that “conventional” agriculture is moving ahead in leaps and bounds. The energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process can be  run on solar energy, reducing climate damaging emissions. The nitrogen needed for a  100% vegetarian population is feasible when solar urea is used. Farm emissions, the need for pesticides etc., can be reduced with GM technology. For instance, blight resistant GM potatoes and similar corps (used in the USA and Canada) that require no pesticides can be used globally when prejudices are eradicated. Non-legume crops can be genetically modified to make nitrogen.

We cannot halve the world’s population by 2050, or  even stabilize it and change  life styles to  more modest, ecologically sustainable forms. An “organic world” feeding the elite rich with their “all-natural, chemicals free” food is a plan for genocide. A world where every one can be fed, while ensuring a healthy environment can be achieved using our very best scientific knowledge, and not by rejecting its recent advances. We need to take what ever is good from any system, without being enslaved by rigid doctrines divorced from empirical science.

*The author was instrumental in setting up the first food technology and environmental science courses in Sri Lanka at the SJP university in the mid 1970s when it was known as the Vidyodaya University where he was the Professor of Chemistry and Vice-Chancellor. He is currently a Professor of Physics at the University of Montreal, and a Principal Research Scientist at the National Research Council of Canada. 

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Amazing this guy…he goes on circles and publishes unsuspecting headings on articles and comes to one single point…that’s GLYPHOSATE …in every article, in every forum this guy will justify Glyphosate…I propose Chandra….you better go to “Padaviya” and tell the poor CKD affected farmers to continue use Glyphosate….It is high time you stop propagating Glyphosate with the money pumped to you by MNC Giant “MONSANTO”. look at the thousands of sick farmers after the use of Glyphosate…don’t you have a single drop of tear in your eyes to cry after looking at those poor farmers suffering from CKD after using your Glyphosate…Shame on you Chandra

  • 5

    Chandre Professor or whatever, CT readers are getting tired of your finding new ways to grumble about the glyphosate ban, as Thumpane Gamaya has pointed out nicely. Now here is a challenge to you. If glyphosate is as safe o eat etc as you say t, go the nearest community centre in the Canadian city you live in (don’t forget to invite the media), and eat a bowl of rice and curry with 150 g of glyphosate sprinkled on top. Because you have also said that arsenic reduces toxicity of other chemicals, you can also add a bit of arsenic, cadmium – and get this, some cyanide. If you survive, write back to CT giving your experience and this writer will undertake (pardon the pun!) to import and distribute glyphosate free of charge to all Sri Lankans. If you don’t accept this challenge, SHUT THE …. UP.

  • 5

    Here goes Chandre again arguing for glysophate at the behest of international companies .No matter it’s deadly affect on poor Sri Lankans.

    His attitude towards filthy lucre is solidly established.He abandoned Sri Lanka to make millions abroad in the early 70s.The bond signed with Sri Jayawardanapura University remains unpaid todate.Now he pops his ugly face out and argues in favour of glysophate in our country overrun by kidney desease.Does the word traitor need a better example to explain?These are our patriots!

    • 1

      Typical comments by the great brainwashed Sri Lankan intelligentsia. Don’t you guys know that Glyphosate MAY cause CANCER, not CKD, if you eat kilos of it.
      The NCP farmers have CKD, but not the NP or CP farmers. Do you have any explanation for that? Well, Chandre has a perfectly plausible explanation, if you idiots read his previous posts. You guys are free to believe what you want, but remember that Chandre is a trained scientist. If you prefer to believe what a half-baked Buddhist monk claims over a professor of Physics, what more can we assume about your intelligence?

  • 1

    Organic farming will impose a demand on human workforce. We have moved away from manual work.
    Organic farming will require lots of land.
    Organic farming will increase cost of living which will lead to wars.
    Organic farming is a useful topic for after-dinner gossip though

  • 3

    Well you can’t blame readers for developing a congenital dislike for what academics say.We have had a nasty experience after having listened to another Professor,so called Rhodes Scholar ,who goes by the name of GL (Gas Labu)Pieris.Cancer or death by Glysophate -What difference does it make? Both are cause by the use of the same chemical as you unintentionally admit.Even though highlighted above by Asoka W,you are quietly silent on the unpaid bond by your hero Chandre Dharmawardene.To you its peanuts but to USJ it’s a huge sum of money.When thieves hunt it is said they do it best hunting in pairs or more.

    • 1

      I see this allegation of a bond which must be a malicious slander in a country run by bond scam politicians and Politicians like Ven. Ratana who import cars duty free and sell them on black market for over 50 million rupees cool robbery of the public. Their henchmen are active on this websitre, coming to the defence of the yahapalanya idiots who baned glyphosate.
      I know that medical students have to serve 5 years after grsduation to cover their service bond, but if Dr. Dharmawardana had worked for some 10 years as lecturer, Prof., and VC, then he cannot have any bonds.

    • 1

      I repeat , for the benefit of all you organic fans, that the farmers are dying of CKD, NOT Cancer. Get it? There IS a difference. Banning glyphosate is like cutting off your head to cure a headache.
      As for academics, GL Pieris is not a scientist, so he can say anything he likes. A scientist does not deal in vague theories supported by divine influence.

  • 2

    The interesting information is Red Meat is type – I carcinogen, it can cause HEart diseases, high cholesterol etc., but, the type -II carcinogen Round up is a big concern. I think Sri lanka’s CKDU were increased after the increase of Fertilizer. If fertilizer is not clean or if it was imported from countries where the synthetic process was full of dangerous impurities, that can eventually cause CKDUs because ground water is filled with heavy metals and toxins. another point is earlier some western experts predicted that by 2000, world would be starved because the food production would not be enough. That did not happen yet the fertilizer use should have increased. Even Sri lanka introduced more high yielding paddy varieties. Now, the same western experts say ORganic Farming is the method to go and countries can be food – self sufficient with Organic Farming. The strange thing is Sri Lanka had organic farming those days as pesticides and fertilizer were not used. So, I think these all my be western agenda to promote their business practices.

  • 1

    I see that the foes of glyphosate see only the short paragraph (5% )on it in an article which is somd 20 paragraphs long. So we see who is obsesses with it. Also, if it is not so important why did the Russians bother to create fake news on it.. Also why did the EU have an year long review on it if it is not important?
    The essay is on Organic Farming and Sri Lanka has its Ranil Senanayakes and Ven. Ratana rasputins who push for it without realizing that it is a big trap for the third world. It is an impotant and timely essay to debunk the Swiss research claim.

  • 0

    You have presented some strange argument about that russia is the major Glyphosate Manufacturer. but, russia (that is what I am understanding) as an anti-NATO strategy is trying to reduce the use of Glyphosate. I think You got it wrong completely for some specific reason. Glyphosate is an western product by Monsanto. May be their patent rights has come to end. Because, of that western intelligence agencies as part of anti-russian strategy, may be pushing an anti-glyphosate campaign. I read no where that Russia is against the glyphosate use. I am suspicious about the ban of glyphosate in Sri lanka instead cutting down on the fertilizer use and why o one us talking about the heavy metals, CKDUs and heavy fertilizer use. IT is the Western NGOs who are pushing getting rid of Round up use even though the pure chemical is not harmful to humans. Now, it is the western experts say ORganic Farming is good for the world. It looks very suspicious is it because the reason is that , russia took over the Glyphosate market in the world. I think you are also very biased and I am wondering why suddenly advertise for Organic farming, a well known supporter of glyphosate Use. that is very contradictory.

  • 2

    The newsclip to a Russian Utube video is very revealing as it shows how fake news is created and disseminated. It is such fake information that keeps up the claim that glyphosate causes variius illnesses. Although all the mainstream scientific and medical experts have ruled that glyphosate cannot be the cause
    of Kidney disease, you see some of the postings here how many hang onto such beliefs spread by politically ambitious activists like Channa Jayasumana and Ms Senanayake (Ladg who claims to talk to god Natha), with the help of a Sinhalese living in California. The medical scientists, chemists, and geologists of the Peradeniya University have now published definitive research showing that the CKDU illnes (kidney disease) is caused by fluoride naturally present in the hard water of household wells which are disconnected from the common water table of the area. I should add that the Kelaniya science fac got a bad name from the Natha Diyyo people led by the nutty Prof. Nalin de Silva.

    • 1

      Kelaniya graduate,
      You are perfectly correct. Most of our people are supposed to be literate, but that doesn’t mean that they can think. Most keep repeating fake science from idiotic monks who will ultimately ruin agriculture in the country.

      • 0


        When you read articles/typing by former SLAS top officials now retired you wonder how this country survived since 1948 under their administration/advice. No wonder why the country has hit the bottom.
        Their current state of mind explain their previous avatar as a typical Sinhala/Buddhist top level functionary (a closet racist).

        If SLAS wants to recruit closet racists who are willing to transform this country into a Sinhala/Buddhist ghetto double quick they should stop looking for educated/literate persons and start recruiting the rank and file from political parties and Sanghas directly, plenty of supply from each party and each Sanghas.

        Future riots against minorities can be organised in an orderly manner by the state which has the resources needed for excellent mayhem.

        • 0

          Year : 1946
          Population : 6 million
          Percentage of food imported: 60%
          Use of agrochemicals : 0%
          Life expectancy : 46 years

          Year: 2015
          Population: 20.5 million
          Percentage of food imported : less than 5%,
          Agrochemicals used extensively
          Life expectancy: 76 years

          That should be clear enough to anybody except the suicidal organic maniacs.
          And, by the way, I do expect riots by patriotic farmers against cheap Jaffna onions and cheap Kattankudy rice.

          • 0

            Old Codger
            You hsve gjven a great argument which is short and pithy. Now let us hear from Dr. Ranil Senanayake and friends who go about claiming that his organic paddy plots can feed the country May be he is only thinking of the Colombo 7 crowd.

    • 0

      KElaniya Graduate. This claim that It is the high fluoride that causes CKDU is a dumb statement to be published. fluoride is not a new contamination. It should have been there even before this. What made Fluoride become more water soluble. What other metal ion went to stomachs with the fluorides. with the increase of fluorides, dissolving enamal and Teeth diseases also should be high. Accusing different activists is dumb. YOu think, the materials can explain everything that is why you do not accept a god can not help us or tell us something. Just say you are still naive, inexperienced and you need to grow up more.

  • 0

    To Native Vedda
    Of course you are an open racist trying to get back the lands you owned in the North, together with the “low caste” labour who worked your land so that you can live in the south, drink your Whisky, unscrew the fair sex, and write about your “traditional homeland” in the north without ever living there. The “periyia dorei” goes there only to make sure that the Kankani has kept the books correctly and not robbed you.
    What about the Muslims who were driven out of the North. They are the traditional people of the North according to Captain Percival.
    Now, this article talks of the Fernch aristocrats who at least lived in their domain snd ecploited the land and the peasentd. This author should have ecplanied how the land ownining Vellalas (former Maalabars) practiceed, and continue to practice agriculture in the north, completrly toxifying the water table, while filling their ILL GOTEN bank balances

    • 0


      What the hell are you typing about?

      N M Perera and Colvin were public racists. They were part of the cabinet which approved a constitution that gave theocracy a prominent place, standardization as solution to demand for more places at the uni, corruption was introduced into the state legally under guise of creating a level playing field, people from minority communities were denied employment in the armed forces and police, ………………….large scale war crimes were committed for the first time in 1971 and impunity was granted without any investigation, ………………. at the parliament N M the double doctorate brain behind the ruin, permanent destruction of economy thundered Northerners rather than complaining about the rise in rice prices the Tamil women should sell their matrimonial chain (Thaali) and pay for the rice.

      His economic policies (shrinking economy and large scale unemployment) triggered terrorism in this island. Maybe he wanted to be known as the father of Sinhala/Tamil terrorism. He was a socialist in that respect.

  • 0

    Glyphosate also affect kidney failure. that is mentioned and A UN report talks about prevalance of Kidney failure in LAtin american countries.

  • 0

    I believe that Dr. Dharmawardana was appointed a VC of Vidyodaya due to his being a fellow traveller of the old left, with links to Dr. Osmand Jayaratna, NM Perera and Wijedoru. Anyway he was eminently qualified for it and introduced key changes like a course unit system, and even attempted to make English a compulsory course Unit for arts students. He recruited people like Orani Janz, Basil Fernando (now doing human rights in Hng Kong) etc., as nonstsff faculty., to teach English. He was driven out by the Sinhala rural undergrads of the JVP and the Communist (SB Dissansyske) faction opposed to the LSSP and opposed to the attempt to introduce English. Some science faculty staff also didnt want the extra work of course units.
    I alo worked there as an Englidh instructor at the time. Of course, according to Native Vedda even NMPerera and Colvin were “closet racists” while wigneswaran is a fine balanced gentleman with the correct verdion of Devanianpiyathieesen history.

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