Organics Use Less Energy?

My recent writings on GM food crops, including in The Land newspaper last Thursday, have resulted in some emails suggesting that I am wrong and that organics, rather than GM, really are the answer.

I received an email with a link to a paper titled ‘Organic farming stands the test of time’ by David Suzuki published on 5th August:

http://www.davidsuzuki.org/about_us/Dr_David_Suzuki/Article_Archives/weekly08050501.asp

Suzuki suggests that organics use less energy than conventional systems. But then states organics require more labour to remove weeds.

I understand about 70 percent of the labour spent in traditional subsistence organic food production systems in Africa involve women hoeing for weeds. If this type of manual labour is not counted in the energy budget then the calculations are worth nothing.

Suzuki makes mention of the Rodale Institute Farming Systems which are organic.

Their website is here:
http://www.newfarm.org/depts/NFfield_trials/0903/FST.shtml .

I can’t find any data that shows yields in organic versus conventional systems and relative to energy input.

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18 Responses to Organics Use Less Energy?

  1. Rick August 16, 2005 at 8:45 pm #

    I don’t have any data on the energy efficiency of one form of farming versus another either, but I have heard anecdotally that one commercial broadacre farm which is organic has by their own admission 40% less productivity. They accept this penalty as their inputs are also lower. I’m not sure if that business is more or less profitable than conventional farming.

    On broadacre wheatbelt farming, I would like to know how efficient it is to cultivate, then work back to kill the weeds, then seed, which is a third cultivation. I accept that herbicides are energy intensive in their manufacture, but as minimum tillage practices involve a single light cultivation instead of three deep cultivations, how do the energy budgets compare? Herbicide application is done using booms over 30m wide, whereas a wide seeder bar is only about 15m wide. Not only is there far more power required to pull a cultivating implement, but it covers half the width at about one quarter of the speed.

    Then we have to consider the damage done to the soil by more traffic with more wheel-slip under organic farming, more soil disturbance, which reduces the build-up of soil organic matter and more cultivation and traffic in wet soil conditions (soil compaction is worse in wet conditions).

    And repeated cultivations required under an organic system reduce the ability of farmers to perform their operations in a timely fashion, which is important because early seeding improves yield. By only cultivating once farmers reduce the risk of failing to get all the crop in before soil conditions become too wet.

    Using experience from Europe and North America in the Australian context is also economically dodgy. US farmers are guaranteed a price for their wheat. In Europe the new agricultural policy is to effectively pay farmers an amount per hectare to care for their land and this payment is so high some farmers are choosing to do nothing with their land and just live on the EU payment. Under this fairyland scenario, farmers can indulge in all sorts of practices regardless of the economics. Aus farmers are almost totally exposed to world markets, the exceptions being drought support and similar minor schemes.

    But perhaps I am influenced too much by the need for farming to be profitable. Organic advocates may be opposed to profit as a nasty characteristic of neo-cons. Many urban people may also be under the impression that there is something noble about being a peasant farmer in a developing country. Perhaps they should give it a try.

  2. Graham Finlayson August 16, 2005 at 9:49 pm #

    To argue against a system by analysing just one component in isolation, ie “energy usage” would be a futile waste of time.
    The thrust of organics is to use systems that improve our ecosystems and be people friendly, which is what industrialised agriculture has been moving away from.
    Not all of the extra labour would be in the back breaking hoeing of weeds. “Weeds” don’t necessarily need to be sprayed or cut out as they are just a symptom of the land trying to heal itself.To those who promote a monoculture cropping system then everything is a weed!!
    Our rural communities are crying out for ways to get people back in touch with a sense of belonging and ownership.I would rather see profits spent locally on labour then exported overseas via chemical/tractor companies.
    There is no shortage of people to provide labour out here, but their desire for work has been stifled by a system that would rather see them afforded the luxury of drinking themselves to death.Unemployment and all of its associated social problems are a huge cost to society as well as a terrible waste of energy.
    Would you also factor that into your “energy inputs” for industrialised agriculture Jennifer, as well as the true cost of chemical induced health problems and degraded, nutrient deficient soils.
    Organics isn’t all about subsistance farming barefooted with a blunt stick. I don’t grow crops at all, only grazing at this stage but it always amazes me the amount of opposition there is towards low input methods of land sterwardship.

  3. jennifer marohasy August 16, 2005 at 10:02 pm #

    Graham,
    I would be interested in some data that gives an indication of how organics is good for the environment and people – or even some logical argument.
    I understand it might feel good. But I don’t see how it is good in reality – environmentally or economically or socially.
    I was supporitve of organics in the sugar industry including biodynamic growers in the Burdekin and organic growers at Rocky Point. There was/is a limited market for organic sugar which the Rocky Point growers quickly supplied to capacity.

  4. Rick August 16, 2005 at 10:40 pm #

    A major factor in this debate is that what is appropriate in one form of agriculture is not relevant to another.

    Australia’s grain is grown in areas that are very short of labour. Two examples I know of – one farmer brings in young men from the UK for a paid “holiday” to put in his crop. Another brings in a team of 8 Kiwis for seeding. The cost of airfares and accommodation is justified because there is so little local labour available.

    20% of Australia’s farmers produce 80% of agriculture’s output. If you look at a region that is dominated by small farms and there is apparently surplus labour available, perhaps the scale of agriculture is uneconomic, so there is no money for wages and most “farmers” are making a large proportion of their income working for someone else. These areas become infused with lifestylers and seachangers who have the resources to potter along enjoying themselves and doing no harm to anyone else. However these enterprises are not necessarily representative of the agriculture that puts bread on the nation’s table and earns the export dollars.

    High value crops of a more horticultural style are important. But they are not the same in terms of economies of scale as broadacre grain farming. Most of the world’s calories come from a small number of domesticated grasses such as wheat and rice, and these crops are not amenable to labour-intensive systems in this country. This doesn’t mean avocadoes are not important, but we hold global starvation at bay with “industrial” agriculture. Horticulture, for all is significance, is only appropriate to a small proportion of the agricultural landscape and a modest proportion of the world’s calorific requirement.

  5. rog August 17, 2005 at 7:59 am #

    A recent study by the Australian Farm Institute found about 40per cent of farmers ran smaller farms, defined as those with an annual turnover of $100,000 or less, and earned 91per cent of their income off-farm.

    http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5744,16288056%255E2702,00.html

  6. jennifer marohasy August 17, 2005 at 8:57 am #

    I would like to write something, preferably positive, about organics for my next Land column. Can someone direct me to a good research paper or website that is current and data rich?

  7. peter mueller August 17, 2005 at 11:48 am #

    Oh Jennifer,

    I have been growing up on a conventional farm in Germany, and my father has changed to organic farming nearly 20 years ago.
    There are so many positive things about organic farming that I do not know where to start. As you for sure will not accept the emotional benefits of organic farming and consumption of organically grown food (Just simple things like respect of nature and other creatures) I have just a two minutes search on isi-web of knowledge. Really just two minutes.
    Here we go…

    Antioxidant effectiveness of organically and non-organically grown red oranges in cell culture systems
    Author(s): Tarozzi A, Hrelia S, Angeloni C, Morroni F, Biagi P, Guardigli M, Cantelli-Forti G, Hrelia P
    Source: EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF NUTRITION

    “Organic oranges had significantly higher total phenolics, total anthocyanins and ascorbic acid levels than the corresponding non-organic oranges (all p < 0.05). Moreover, the organic orange extracts had a higher total antioxidant activity than non-organic orange extracts (p < 0.05). In addition, our results indicate that red oranges have a strong capacity of inhibiting the production of conjugated diene containing lipids and free radicals in rat cardiomyocytes and differentiated Caco-2 cells, respectively. Statistically higher levels of antioxidant activity in both cell models were found in organically grown oranges as compared to those produced by integrated agriculture practice”

    Pesticide residues survey in citrus fruits
    Author(s): Ortelli D, Edder P, Corvi C
    Source: FOOD ADDITIVES AND CONTAMINANTS 22 (5): 423-428 MAY 2005
    “Ninety-five percent of the 164 samples issued from classical agriculture contained pesticides and 38 different compounds have been identified. This high percentage of positive samples was mainly due to the presence of two post-harvest fungicides, imazalil and thiabendazole, detected in 70% and 36% of samples respectively. Only three samples exceeded the Swiss maximum residue limits ( MRLs). Fifty-three samples sold with the written indication “without post-harvest treatment” were also controlled. Among theses samples, three exceeded the Swiss MRLs for penconazole or chlorpyrifos and 18 (34%) did not respect the written indication since we found large amounts of post-harvest fungicides. Finally, 23 samples coming from certified organic production were analysed. Among theses samples, three contained small amounts of pesticides and the others were pesticides free”

    Biological Agriculture and Horticulture, 1987, Vol. 4, pp.309-357 0144-8765/87 85 ‘ 1987 A B Academic Publishers.
    The Environmental Effects of Conventional and Organic/Biological Farming Systems. 1. Soil Erosion, with Special Reference to Britain*
    C. Arden-Clarke’ and R.D. Hodges
    “It is clear that the soil degradation and erosion being recorded in Britain is largely a direct result of’ several decades of increasingly intensive conventional farming; organic farming, which is inherently a soil-enhancing system, does not result in damage to soils”

    About the economically viability of organic farming please read…..

    The Economics of Organic Grain and Soybean Production in the
    Midwestern United States
    Rick Welsh, policy analyst
    May 1999

    There is so much more Jennifer, the nutrient input of conventional farming into our rivers, lakes, groundwater, remnant vegetation…. And, and and. Anyhow, I realise, that you are very critic about everything what has the slightest touch of green (to avoid the saying you are cynical) And this is the problem, the “anti organic movement” is driven by this type of ideology you do not like of the green movement itself.

    Beside all of this. Bite into an apple that is organically grown, buy an organic chicken and just taste the different.
    Cheers Peter

  8. john sheeran August 17, 2005 at 3:10 pm #

    Oh Jennifer,
    I suggest you go a site such as i-sis.org.uk to gind out about GM vs Organic Farming.
    These people are scientists and (maybe) have the answers we are looking for.

  9. Robert Patterson August 17, 2005 at 5:06 pm #

    Jennifer: I say to you what I said to Tony, another lover of frankenstein food. Please go to and read what they have to say about GM food.Remember Thalidomide and so many said it was so good – then. How anyone can possibly believe that monsanto and their ilk are doing what they are with GM food because they want to help the farmers is totally beyond me. Try filling their bank books for the real reason. numbat

  10. Louis Hissink August 17, 2005 at 9:08 pm #

    Organic?

    All food is organic.

    The distinctions are, generally, rhetorical.

    Mind you, “Organic” costs heaps more than other food, and that suggests that our most outspoken environmentalists and greenies are probably among the most easily led and duped in society.

    Sad, isn’t it.

    A personal note – my recently decedent younger brother started the Canberra Environment Centre. He was a Greenie, Vegan, was abstemious and politically correct 100%. Slipped, slopped, and slapped, ate organic food, (raised 3 sons) and died of cancer derived from melanoma.

    I on the other hand, never use sunscreen, for 20 years smoked 3 proper packets of Benson and Hedges per day, love my whisky and beer, have robust health, avoid organic food totally. (I was a Wooleen this morning and wanted a plate of porridge – spied a jar full of oats, measured out a serving only to notice large black things in it, currants!, then other strange grains – arrgghhhhh Mueslie! and gagged). Parsons Rice Cream, Vanilla flavour, was breakfast.

    And as my late father was a surgeon and physician, yes I do have some amateur knowledge of matters medical. Unlike Alan Pease, (60 minutes, TCN 9), I knew what a prostate gland was.

    Organic food reminds me much of what airlines do when charging for seats – economy class pays for the fuel, while business and 1st class passenger fares are the profit.

    You did not know that, did you 🙂

  11. Graham Finlayson August 17, 2005 at 9:21 pm #

    “I understand how it might feel good – but I don’t see how it is good in reality, environmentally or economically or socially”.

    Oh really Jennifer….

    I won’t hold my breath waiting for a good article about organics from you in the Land.

    I would suggest (at a guess, as I’m not a data obsessed scientist) that most people primarily go into organics driven not by profits, but
    by a desire to improve what they are doing environmentally and socially. The added bonus of premium returns is fuelled by an expanding and developing market that is rapidly outgrowing its “niche” status.
    The more that organic food becomes available, and the more the general public become aware of what they are consuming and realise that they have a choice, the more popular it will become. Hence the the GM lovers need for secrecy in labelling.

    Whether scientists say so or not.

  12. jennifer marohasy August 17, 2005 at 9:38 pm #

    Graham, I am honestly seeking some information/some evidence and you reply with people go into organics because they are motivated by a desire to do good. I know a lot of people who want to do good, but stuff up because they haven’t properly thought the issues through. I think my 16 year old daughter made some comment about this – hers was the first comment on my first ever post.

  13. Louis Hissink August 18, 2005 at 12:15 am #

    People eat Organic food because it makes THEM feel good, in the sense that by doing so they might be making a meaningful contribution to life, and thus, thus, thus, thus……

  14. Graham Finlayson August 18, 2005 at 7:49 am #

    Jennifer, I’m glad Caroline has a thirst for knowledge and truth, maybe she will discover that some of the answers we seek are ancient. And that science and disecting problems in isolation does not always give the “whole” picture.
    We don’t mind making our own path.

    The choice for the organic path is my choice, and I have put a lot of thought into it and it is not without its inconveniences. I don’t need for it to be scientifically proven and I can certainly live with critics looking down their nose at me. Hell, everything we are doing here has got its critics locally. The important thing is that I believe in what we are doing, and yes Louis it does make me feel good.
    I don’t mind a quiet beer on a hot day and an omnivorous meal, but three packs of B&H a day Louis???. And you claim intellectual superiority over sheep herders!!!!!

  15. rog August 18, 2005 at 8:13 am #

    There seems to be a lot of angst attached to organic/non organic food, I just see food (seafood, *joke*, get it?)

    We have been eating organic food for years now, for the many reasons;

    * it almost always tastes better and has a better texture

    * it almost always lasts longer

    * it is far easier to go to the one shop, park right outside and do the business without all the hassle of s/market carparks, trollies, checkout queues, fly/buys etc

    * given the choice to consume or not consume chemicals we chose the latter

    * we dont hold back on meats, dairy whatever – no particular dietary regimes

    * despite some items appearing to be expensive our weekly bill is no more than anyone elses, around $150 for 2, $180 for 3 (adults)

    Organic food is cost effective and quality.

    Not all foods (fruit & veg) are available all the time, seasonal variation does play a role. So I cant buy mangoes in winter, will I survive? And at Xmas you may have to stock up, the growers/suppliers go on hols!!

    What we dont buy is processed/convenience foods – no great loss there.

  16. Louis Hissink August 18, 2005 at 9:59 pm #

    But the masses, unclean as they are, do buy non-organic foods.

    Which is why the mass marketers are in business, and remain so.

  17. Roger Kalla August 23, 2005 at 10:10 am #

    Jennifer if you haven’t already done so you might be interested in reading Dick Tavernes latest book The March of Unreason.
    He writes about the mass marketing of Organics brands such as the Duchy of Cornwall (owned by the Prince of Whales the next King of Australia?) and the many unsubstantiated health claims proclaimed by the UK Soil Association in relation to Organic foods that they have had to retract.
    I read with interest in The Sunday Age that one of our most visible mass marketers , Cody Pierce, the owner of many super sized billboards
    plastered over our main thoroughfares spruiking brands of luxury cars, expensive alcohol and anti wrinkle cream now has decided to start up a chain of Organic supermarkets here in Os. This is to bring the ‘feel good’ organic shopping experience to the masses and naturally to make masses of money out of it. He also stated that organic oranges had 40% more nutritional value than ‘chemically’ grown one. A viral marketing message without any subtance to it.

    I don’t think you will find very mcuh scientifically authorative litterature on the superiority of organic produce from a nutritional perspective. There are a few cautious reports on the presence of slightly elevated levels of phenolic compounds, which are the antioxidants, but they are also induced in response to insect attack as they are natural pesticides so this is to be expected in an organic farming situation.

    However the placebo effect might be real and I have seen some sociological studies showing that the positive attitude to the food they are buying might make people feel better and so induce beneficial physiological changes.

  18. detribe August 24, 2005 at 8:15 am #

    Both the claims and context of claims made for organics need to be tested sceptically. Some statements may be true but mean little (because of extra cost and wastage of land area) and even imply some further issues should be tested. Eg High phenolics/secondary metabolites may imply that greater chance of contamination with fungal toxins should be checked thoroughly.
    see:
    Organic agriculture: does it enhance or reduce the nutritional value of plant foods?
    Brandt, K; Molgaard, J P
    Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. Vol. 81, no. 9, pp. 924-31. July 2001

    The possible differences between organic and conventional plant products are examined from the view of possible effects on human health. It is concluded that nutritionally important differences relating to contents of minerals, vitamins, proteins and carbohydrates are not likely, primarily since none of these are deficient in typical First World diets, nor are present levels of pesticide residues in conventional products a cause for concern. However, there is reason to believe that contents of many defence-related secondary metabolites in the diet are lower than optimal for human health, even for those where too high levels are known to be harmful. High biological activity resulting in adverse effects on growth of animals and children may be directly linked with promotion of longevity. There is ample, but circumstantial, evidence that, on average, organic vegetables and fruits most likely contain more of these compounds than conventional ones, allowing for the possibility that organic plant foods may in fact benefit human health more than corresponding conventional ones. The authors define testable scientific hypotheses which should be further investigated to provide more definitive answers to the question. (Original abstract)

    Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture J Sci Food Agric 84:207–216 (online: 2004)
    Grain mineral concentrations and yield of wheat grown under organic and conventional management
    MH Ryan,1∗ JW Derrick2 and PR Dann3†
    1CSIRO Plant Industry, GPO Box 1600, Canberra, ACT 2601, Australia
    2Natural Resource Management, Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, GPO Box 858, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia
    3Charley’s Forest Road, Mongarlowe NSW 2622, Australia
    Abstract: On the low-P soils in southeastern Australia, organic crops differ from conventional ones
    primarily in the use of relatively insoluble, as opposed to soluble, P fertilisers and in the non-use of
    herbicides. As organic management, particularly elimination of soluble fertilisers, is often claimed to
    enhance grain mineral concentrations, we examined grain fromwheat on paired organic and conventional
    farms in two sets of experiments: (1) four pairs of commercial crops (1991–1993); and (2) fertiliser
    experiments on one farm pair where nil fertiliser was compared with 40 kg ha−1 of P as either relatively
    insoluble reactive phosphate rock or more soluble superphosphate (1991 and 1992). All wheat was grown
    following a 2–6 year legume-based pasture phase. Both conventionalmanagement and the superphosphate
    treatment greatly increased yields but reduced colonisation by mycorrhizal fungi. While only minor
    variations occurred in grain N, K, Mg, Ca, S and Fe concentrations, conventional grain had lower Zn
    and Cu but higher Mn and P than organic grain. These differences were ascribed to: soluble P fertilisers
    increasing P uptake but reducing mycorrhizal colonisation and thereby reducing Zn uptake and enhancing
    Mn uptake; dilution of Cu in heavier crops; and past lime applications on the organic farm decreasing
    Mn availability. These variations in grain minerals had nutritional implications primarily favouring the
    organic grain; however, organic management and, specifically, elimination of soluble fertilisers did not
    induce dramatic increases in grain mineral concentrations. In addition, organic management was coupled
    with yield reductions of 17–84 per cent due to P limitation and weeds. The impact of large regional
    variations in the characteristics of organic and conventional systems on the general applicability of the
    results from this study and other similar studies is discussed.

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