Organic Farming Systems Yield Energy Savings of 20% or More

Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada

After a review of 130 studies, researchers have concluded that organic farming systems use significantly less nonrenewable energy than conventional farming.

The farm energy savings for organic are often 20% or more.

“We concluded that the evidence strongly favours organic farming with respect to whole-farm energy use and energy efficiency both on a per hectare and per farm product basis,” states the study. Possible exceptions are the poultry, hog and fruit sectors.

The findings validate the opinions of many organic famers, says Derek Lynch of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College (NSAC) in Truro, lead author of the “The Carbon and Global Warming Potential Impacts of Organic Farming: Does It Have a Significant Role in an Energy Constrained World?” study, published in Sustainability.

“Many organic farmers are convinced their farming system . . . is just as important as the product in terms of promotion of organic,” said Lynch in a phone interview.

“And this is just another bit of evidence that our environmentally conscientious farmer manages a farm with a much lower footprint in terms of energy, and global warming to a lesser degree.”

One of the differences in this study was that rather than considering only the energy use of farm fuel and electricity, a much broader approach was taken. The study authors, who included Rod MacRae of York University and Ralph Martin of NSAC, looked at all energy used within the life cycle of the whole farm system. “This means you have to include the embedded energy of any farm input,” says Lynch.

Comparisons of farm-level energy use and global warming potential (GWP) were made of organic and conventional production. 

For example, nitrogen fertilizer and some herbicides and pesticides all have an embedded energy content that has to be considered. “That’s well established. We’re not stretching things by doing that.”

The study also compared farm energy savings with that used across the entire food chain, including packaging, processing, distribution, storage, preparation and waste disposal. Other major energy users in the food chain are wholesale and retail, for services such as cooling and packaging, and processing.

Based on the study’s estimate that farm energy use accounts for an average 35 per cent of the total energy used in the food chain, a 20% reduction at the organic farm level would result in a 7% cut for the whole food chain.

Though the study came up with average estimates, there were significant variances for different sectors. For example, some field crops, fruits and vegetables and livestock, such as hogs, were outside the 20% threshold for energy savings.

Referring to a recent United States Department of Agriculture report, the study noted that transportation accounted for an average of 11% energy use, though some sectors were higher.

The study also found that tillage methods used by organic farmers “does not appear to be a significant contributor with respect to on-farm energy use, in contrast to common assumptions of organic critics.”

Lynch says the study provides organic farmers with more information to promote their farming systems and products.

“You’re trying to say the farm itself is value added,” says Lynch. “It’s value added to society and consumers. Now whether consumers and policy makers see that yet, is of course the million dollar question.”

One of the key audiences for the study is policy makers. More evidence on the energy benefits of organic farming could lead to greater support for this type of farming.

The study was initiated by a market-development working group of the national Organic Value Chain Roundtable. “They felt that a closer look at organic farming on an energy use and energy intensity basis would be worthwhile,” says Lynch.

One of the strengths of organic farming is its resilience, says Lynch. “If you’ve got a farming system that can be moderately productive with less energy requirements, you’ve got a more resilient farming system.”

In a world of uncertain energy prices and supply, which will lead to higher synthetic fertilizer prices, “you’ve defined a farming system that is robust in those situations.”

This article was written by Steve Harder on behalf of the OACC with funding provided by Canada’s Organic Science Cluster (a part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada's Growing Forward Policy Framework).  The Organic Science Cluster is a collaborative effort led jointly by the OACC, the Organic Federation of Canada and industry partners
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