Tag Archives: conventional

The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 3 – Energy Use

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Welcome back to the BiG Stink and thanks for joining me for Round 3 of the great conventional vs. organic farming inquisition! Here’s a rapid recap: So far in this debate I, your trusty guide Faith, have defined organic and conventional agriculture; explored the impacts of both methods on soil health; and examined the ins and outs of land use efficiency. Today’s agenda? Diving into emissions and energy inputs for conventional and organic farming.

For my purposes, energy inputs for crop production are fossil fuels needed for equipment and transport of materials, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. The largest energy sucker for organic farming was diesel fuel. Diesel fuel is needed to keep on-site machinery rolling and to bring in supplies such as seeds and natural soil amendments like compost and fertilizers like manure.

When assessing conventional agriculture, though, diesel fuel use was in the number two slot. The single largest energy sink in modern agriculture was the production and distribution of nitrogen fertilizers. To let that soak in, consider that the production and distribution of one ton of synthetic fertilizer was estimated to consume the equivalent of one and a half tons of gasoline! One study found that nitrogen fertilizer accounted for a whopping 41% of total energy input. Compared to fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides were miniscule, accounting for a measly 10% of inputs for conventional farming. Though it varied from study to study, organic agriculture inputs overall were found to be 28-32% less than those of conventional methods.

“Organic farms were superior energy misers than their conventional counterparts and were found to require nearly a third less energy inputs.”

Much like inputs, greenhouse gas emissions were dominated by nitrogen. The single largest contributor to emissions in conventional and organic farming was nitrous oxide (N20). Both methods spew a fair amount of the potent greenhouse gas during farming. Agriculture (be it conventional or organic) is the largest source of N20 and accounts for 79% of U.S. emissions of nitrous oxide. Where is all this nitrogen coming from? As mentioned while dissecting inputs, conventional farming relies heavily on synthetic fertilizers and nitrous oxide is a byproduct created during the manufacture of the synthetic fertilizers.

What about organic agriculture? Since most synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are off limits for organic methods, farmers rely upon the use of compost and manure for nitrogen.  N20 is a naturally occurring compound and a normal byproduct of the nitrogen cycle. Nitrous oxide is emitted when microbes break down the various forms of nitrogen (nitrate, nitrite, nitrogen dioxide – I’ll stop now) found in manure and compost.

Naturally occurring or not, organic and conventional agriculture have the same major greenhouse gas emitter, N20. That does not mean the farming methods have the same overall emissions! According to the Rodale Farming Systems Trial (FST), conventional agriculture oozes out nearly 40% more greenhouse gas emissions per pound of crop, largely owing to the manufacture, production,and application of synthetic fertilizers.

Interestingly, in my previous post on land use I pointed out that conventional agriculture puts out more crop per acre. However, now I know organic farms were superior energy misers than their conventional counterparts and were found to require nearly a third less energy inputs. The “organic advantage” means greater crop output relative to energy inputs and fewer emissions per pound of crop. Or in other words: more bang per energy buck. And less gassy.
And so with that, we’re three quarters of the way through this series and the end is nigh! Please stay tuned, keep your eyes peeled, and keep an ear out for the final round of the conventional vs. organic debate, where we’ll explore the uplifting subject of chemical and pesticide leaching.

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The BiG Stink: Organic vs. Conventional, Round 1 – Soil Health

By Faith Miller
Operations Manager at Bootstrap Compost, Inc.

Last time I covered what it means to be “organic” and now I want to know what the label is worth. The BiG Stink asks: Is organic better for the environment? That’s a loaded question with numerous angles and it would take an army of scientists to get to the bottom of it. Since I am not a) an army or b) a scientist, I will cover four specific topics (soil health, energy use, chemical runoff, and land use efficiency) in four different posts comparing organic and conventional methods.  While the conventional versus organic debate will hardly be settled, I hope I can drop some knowledge and get people thinking.

To begin, get to know thy farming method. Conventional farming a.k.a. industrial agriculture a.k.a modern farming is defined by a loose group of characteristics. Conventional farms are typically large scale and cultivate a single strain of a high-yield crop continuously for many seasons. They also are characterized by high energy inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers.

WLfarm

BSC’s John, Faith and Emma visit organic partner farm Wright-Locke Farm in Winchester

Organic farming also has a wide definition. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), organic farming “preserves natural resources and biodiversity, only uses approved materials, and does not use genetically modified ingredients.” In order to “preserve natural resources and biodiversity” farmers employ techniques such as crop rotation and low-tillage to promote soil health, use of compost and green manure as fertilizer, and mulching to control weeds. For a more in depth breakdown of what it means for produce to be certified organic check out my previous post, “But what does organic even mean?”

Now that each farming method has a definition, let’s get to the good stuff. When it comes to soil health, how do organic and conventional methods compare? For soil to be deemed “healthy” it must function as a living ecosystem that sustains humans, animals and plants. And what’s the number one need of plants, animals, and humans? Water. The soil of organic crops exhibits better water-holding capacity, better water infiltration rates, and better resilience to moisture fluctuations. What does all that mean? Water, water everywhere. Under organic management, the soil system stores 15-20% more water than conventional methods. Stored water becomes crucial during dry spells or intense rainfall, making crops more resilient to extreme weather.

There’s not just more water down there. Soil handled using organic methods contains more soil organic matter (SOM) than soils subjected to conventional till methods. SOM allows soil particles to bind together which prevents erosion and loss of topsoil. SOM also provides substrates to attach heavy metals and pesticides. The microbes and minerals found in soil detoxify, immobilize, and degrade harmful chemicals and reduce runoff. Finally SOM produces nutrients for microbes that boost plant productivity by freeing up nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium for plant uptake.

What about soil subjected to conventional till methods, continuous monocropping and constant synthetic chemical inputs of industrial agriculture? Can you say dust bowl? Lacking careful management, soils can be stripped of their topsoil, become drought-prone, and, well, turn to dust, no longer able to sustain life.

The comparison of soil health of organic and conventional farming is no contest. Organic methods are superior at maintaining overall soil health in the long-term. Organic farming methods such as low/no-till, composting, use of green manure, and crop rotation produce healthy soils that function as physical support to prevent erosion, as a plant nutrient source, as a water source, and as a chemical repository to prevent runoff. While the conventional versus organic farming debate may never be settled, when it comes to soil health, organic farming has it in the bag.

With soil health behind us, next up the BiG Stink crunches numbers to compare the energy inputs of modern agriculture and organic farming. Stay tuned for the 411 on fossil fuel use during agriculture and we’ll discover where all that energy is spent on a farm.