With gas prices well over $4/gallon, conversation with my neighbors frequently turns to the vulnerability of our fossil-fuel-based economy and to the future of our planet. The good news I can share today is that organic farms — besides being good for the soil, environment and our health — are proving to be much more energy efficient than conventional systems.
The latest evidence comes from Canada. York University recently completed a comprehensive analysis of 130 studies comparing energy use and global warming potential of the two farming approaches.
Researchers found that organic grain growers in Canada’s prairie region had 50% lower energy use than conventional growers, primarily from the elimination of chemical nitrogen fertilizer in their operations. Meanwhile, organic dairy farmers were 64% more energy efficient (and also emitted 29% less greenhouse gases) than conventional farmers.
These findings shake up the concept that ‘bigger’ is always better. Higher crop yields, bigger equipment, less genetic diversity, and more fertilizer and pesticides do not equal a more energy-efficient operation. – Rod MacRae, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University
One more reason to get serious about sustainability. So what's the next step?
Incremental vs. Transformative Change
Connecting the dots for us, authors of the U.S. National Resource Council’s (NRC) 2010 report, Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, have just published a succinct re-cap of their findings in the May 6 issue of Science.
Their main message is a wake-up call:
Achieving sustainable agricultural systems will require transformative changes in markets, policy, and science.
Incremental changes are good and necessary, they explain. These include specific practices and technologies that address shortcomings in mainstream conventional agriculture. However, the narrow, technological fix approach is “inadequate to address multiple sustainability concerns.”
What we also need is a “transformative approach that builds on an understanding of agriculture as a complex socioecological system.” This approach requires “whole system redesign”. Examples include organic farming, alternative (grass-fed) livestock production, mixed crop-livestock systems and perennial grains (see Green Land Blue Waters for a great example). As you can imagine, all this is music to my systems-thinking, agroecologist's brain!
These transformations are not so many utopian dreams, but rather firmly within our grasp. NRC’s scientists make the argument that as we already have many successful examples of these innovative systems on the ground, we should realize that the problem is not fundamentally technological or scientific. Rather, it is a problem of market structure, policy incentives, funding priorities and engagement by a well-informed public.
Luckily for us, transformative action is at hand if we want it. Now is the time to get involved in building a visionary 2012 Food and Farm Bill.
Take action >> If you haven't called your Senator yet this week, urging her/him to protect green payments to farmers who are conserving our soil, water and biodiversity, here’s your chance. The issue is live right now in Congress. Please call!