Energy Use in Organic vs Conventional Farming

Many people tend to buy USDA Organic labeled foods at the supermarket instead of conventional or GMO based products.  People also tend to do this for a few reasons; they think it’s healthier for them, they think its healthier for the environment, and some people just buy organic for the taste.  However, there are very few people who buy organic crops and meats for energy saving reasons.  This is the topic I will explore in this blog, whether buying organic to save energy is a realistic reason to switch to organic foods.


In a study done by ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture, they tested this very hypothesis, that organic farming uses less energy that conventional farming.  They conducted a number of different studies on different farms with different crops in order to get a correct answer.  What they came up with was that for the most part, organic farming typically uses less energy.  The range of energy efficiency can be quite drastic depending on the food as well.  For instance, an acre of organic corn compared to an acre of conventional corn, used 60% less energy than the conventional farm did.  This sparks a question in my mind, Where does all this energy savings come from.

According to Sustainable America, The bulk of this energy actually comes from the fertilizers that are used in inorganic farming. More specifically it is the nitrogen based fertilizers because these require massive amounts of oil in order to make the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, as well as large amounts of energy to transport the fertilizer to the farms.  Since conventional farming pumps the ground full of nutrients, these fertilizers cause the amount of energy required to grow a certain amount of food skyrocket.  Now we know that conventional farming is highly energy intensive, lets compare the two and see how organic farming manages to save energy.


Conventional farming and organic farming share a lot of practices in common, such as water use.  Surprisingly to me, the two use very similar amounts of water in order to raise crops, however, they way that they water can sometimes be different.  Many times, water from conventional farms is shot straight up as to cover a wide amount of area, however, much of the water tends to dissipate into the atmosphere, whereas with organic farming, drip systems and other water saving technologies are used.  (Though, this is not always the case) Looking into the energy intensive fertilizers is where we see the largest difference in farming practices.  As said earlier, traditional farming uses synthetic nitrogen fertilizers which are highly energy intensive, from actually making the fertilizer to simply transporting it across the globe.  So how do organic farmers manage to keep their crops alive without the use of fertilizers that are energy intensive?

Organic farmers typically rely on other natural aspects in order to maintain a farm.  For example, organic farmers will keep cattle on the fields in order to graze and to produce manure, which is then used to fertilize the crops naturally.  Organic farmers also use crop rotation techniques in order to maintain the soil quality.  In the end, organic farmers do generally save far more energy than their conventional counterparts by trying to minimize the amount of inputs required to maintain soil quality and to achieve a high yield.  It is important to note, that a lot of organic farms do not produce nearly the same yields, therefore they lose energy because they do not produce as many crops, so the efficiency goes down.  However, many organic farms can produce similar yields and have an overall better strategy to sustainably produce food that wont destroy the environment.






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2 responses to “Energy Use in Organic vs Conventional Farming

  1. amyquandt

    Did you read anything comparing the energy used to transport organic versus conventional food to consumers? Also, why were you surprised that the amounts of water used were similar?


    • cooperluvisa

      In regards to the transportation, since a lot of organic food is grown locally, those organic farms would have a significantly less carbon impact than conventional food that has been shipped in from south america. However, not all organic food is grown locally, so some organic foods have a very high carbon impact in regards to travel. But typically, conventional has a longer travel time to get from farm to table.

      I was surprised by the amount of water used because I figured that conventional farming would just pump and spray water without caring, whereas a lot of organic farmers have developed a drip system to water their plants. The massive scale traditional farms tend to have turnstile sprinklers that send 50% of the water back into the atmosphere. In all, I expected organic farming to use less water.


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