And the Horse You Rode In On

A fascinating academic article has been circulating recently, comparing the energy it takes to run a conventional farm with that required on an organic one. If you’re interested in the ‘real’ costs that go into your food, then the cost and benefits of energy use should certainly be high up there. And this study delivers. What makes it particularly good is the resolution of the information – over 1.25 million data points over six years, from the Land Institute’s Sunshine Farm. What they find is that organic farming is more energy efficient than conventional farming, when all variables are taken into account.

The only area where the Sunshine Farm stumbled was in the use of horses against the use of tractors. Apparently, tractors are more energy efficient than horses – and this raises some tough questions for proponents of sustainable agriculture like me.

First, even if it’s energy inefficient, can animal traction be more efficient when its other uses (source of fertilizer, lower rates of soil compaction, etc) are taken into account? That’s a difficult question to answer, not least because when you introduce these other factors, you need some way of making them comparable, which opens the door to all kinds of statistical sleights of hand.

Also, this study looks at the difference between organic and industrial operations. What it doesn’t look at is the distinction between monoculture organic and agroecological organic. This matters because in the latter, the farm labour necessary to keep farms working tends to live much closer to the farm, which lowers the energy demands generated by commuting.

On top of this all, and perhaps the most awkward question is this: is it possible to scale agroecological practices to a larger size of farm? It’s a question I’m going to be investigating in the future, but it’s one that’s divisive. In the agroecology community, there are those for whom a ‘family-size’ farm is an article of faith. But it’s worth asking, I think, how communities built beyond the family size can make agroecology work for them, and it’s something that you’ll be hearing more and more about from me in the future.

Meantime, though, do check the study out here.