Bookmark and Share March 10, 2010 - Dave Mulder

Are organic farms less efficient?

This post is the second in a series of responses to typical anti-organic, anti-local talking points. My first article considered whether or not organic foods are too expensive for the average American family.

Today’s subject is the the efficiency of organic farms.

Conventional farms use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically-modified (GM) seed to boost yield. In theory, this sounds great; but conventional farming requires a constant input of energy to sustain fields beyond natural limits.

The heart of this question comes down to your definition of efficiency. Critics of organic production point to crop yield; advocates frame it as energy input versus output. Conventional farms are clearly winners in crop yield efficiency, while organic farms are more energy efficient.

There is also a concern regarding nutrition density of conventional plants versus organic plants, but that will be saved for a more thorough examination.

While I would love to side with the organic advocate view, it is hard to do so when many organic products are transported thousands of miles before reaching your dinner plate. So, even if an organic farm uses no energy input beyond the sun and natural fertilizer (animal manure), that number is meaningless when you consider the energy used in cross-country or international transportation.

So, I do not like to make the energy-efficient argument for organics, UNLESS they are purchased from local farms. Before transportable refrigeration existed, almost all produce came from local farms, and energy use was negligible.

Energy, however, becomes more important as its price rises. During the recent oil crunch, many doomer folks speculated that the American food production system would crash and that there would be massive food shortages. As the world’s economy recovers, oil prices will begin a steady rise and could once again have significant impact on food costs.

Ultimately, conventional farming in a global food production system is reliant on an abundant supply of cheap energy. When this assumption fails, so will the utility of conventional farming (though it will still exist in local/regional settings).

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