Agriculture and food systems play an important role in fossil fuel consumption and climate change because of their significant energy use and because of agriculture’s potential to serve as a sink for the negative externalities of energy use and a source for renewable energy. Comparing organic and non-organic production in terms of energy use is crucial to understanding the energy inefficiencies of different food systems and their potential for reducing energy consumption and mitigating environmental impacts especially of climate change.
Based on existing research, this paper considers the environmental efficiency of energy use in organic and non-organic agricultural systems, with implications on the natural and socioeconomic environment of organic production methods as compared to non-organic production.
Because organic and non-organic food systems maintain separate but parallel supply and transport chains, it is important to include in the analysis of energy consumption not only agriculture production but also post-harvest practices and distribution networks and the energy consumption therein. Conventional agriculture production utilises more overall energy than organic systems due to heavy reliance on energy intensive fertilisers, chemicals, and concentrated feed, which organic farmers forego.
Other production practices such as irrigation, use of heavy machinery, and use of heated greenhouses are high energy consumers and are utilised by both organic and conventional operations. Organic systems, with exceptions, however, use less of these energy-demanding implements. Organic systems partly compensate for the decreased fossil-fuel based energy used on a farm with generally higher labour requirements and higher returns on labour.
Little information is available regarding concrete differences between organic and conventional processing, packaging, storage, and distribution; however, there is some indication that organic systems may offer less energy intensive methods than their conventional counterparts.
With lower energy inputs, organic systems contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions and have a greater potential to sequester carbon in biomass than conventional systems. The energy efficiency of organic agriculture is attractive for bioenergy production as the aim of this renewable fuel source is to reduce dependency of fossil fuel energy and mitigate environmental damage caused by emissions.
Because organic agriculture relies less on external inputs, human labour needs are increased. Organic agriculture can provide employment opportunities supported by price premiums and decreased costs for purchasing inputs; however, in some circumstances, additional labour is unavailable or could burden overworked demographics.
Agriculture’s role in both climate change and non-renewable resource consumption needs a more prominent position in the global discussion of curbing greenhouse gas emissions and reducing dependency on oil. Designing a food label to display the energy used in the production, packaging, and distribution of products may offer incentives to streamline energy use and educate consumers; however, standards are needed for measuring energy consumption in food systems.
Natural Resources Management and Environment Department
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations