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Is organic really more energy efficient?

In her 2010 Diet for a Hot Planet, food-sustainability eco-promoter Anne Lappé predicts a coming "climate crisis" caused by the food system, unless the developed world adopts her seven principles for a climate-friendly diet, including a reversion to old-style farming that replaces petrolium-based energy for more organic forms.

"Implementing climate-friendly solutions--including agroecological and organic methods," promises Lappe, "creates even more beneficial ripples: preserving biodiversity, improving food security and people's health, strenghtening communities, and reducing reliance on diminishing oil reserves."

Then again, maybe not so much, according to a new review scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems.

The review of about 50 published scientific journal articles showed organic leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to rescuing modern agriculture from oil use:

  • Granted, organic agriculture does consistently show lower energy use than conventional agriculture, writes the study's lead author, British green-food professor Adrian Williams. More than eight out of 10 of the studies he reviewed showed lower energy use associated with organic production. However, that stark difference only appears when you do the math based on the amount of energy used per unit of land. That's all well and good when you're measuring non-market products of agriculture, like biodiversity. But if you're comparing farming systems based on production of goods for market, like food, fiber and fuel, a more meaningful measure is one that compares energy used based on units of production.

  • What happens when you do compare organic vs. conventional farming based on energy consumed per unit of production? The results become "more variable," in Williams' words. "This is to be expected," he writes, "due to the lower intensity of production on most organic holdings, resulting in fewer inputs, and a reduced yield." In other words, organic trades lower energy use for lower yield. Only when researchers create an elaborate accounting system that, in essence, measures the amount of stored solar energy in an entire farm's output, both harvested and standing, does organic begin to approach the energy efficiency ratio of conventional on a pound-per-pound basis. Otherwise, conventional production was found to have the highest levels of net energy production. It's this false organics economy of trading lower use of fertilizer and pesticide for lower food production that has led critics to argue organic cannot sustainably feed the world by meeting current and future demands, Williams grudgingly concedes.

Energy demands of livestock productionEnergy use of organic vs. conventional produce and cropping

Despite remaining an apparent organic advocate because of its promised overall environmental benefits and his conclusion that global petrolium supplies are running out, Williams nevertheless concludes, " their current form, organic systems do not offer a radical alternative to the fossil-fuel reliance of modern agricultural systems. The reduced use of energy in organic production and increased energy efficiency compared to conventional production is often marginal. These systems often still depend on the same sources of (fossil) fuel for tractors, machinery and buildings, etc. While organic production can make a contribution to a more resource-efficient agriculture, in its present form it does not provide a complete solution."

Recent news reports have brought the issue of how farmers house their mother pigs, or sows, back into the spotlight. Here are some answers to common reader questions about the use of "gestation crates" or individual stalls for sows.

Why put cattle in feedlots?

Of the more than 33 million calves U.S. farmers will raise this year, three out of four will eventually end up in fenced pens or feedlots, where they will be fed rations of grain and crop surpluses that average from 70 percent to 90 percent grain. Three-fourths of those animals will be fed on feedlots that sell 5,000 or more animals in a year. Why do farmers crowd beef cattle into these large feedlots, rather than just leaving them to graze?

The concept of taking a beef calf weighing from 500 to 700 pounds off pasture and putting it into a confined pen to add weight dates back to colonial New England, by some accounts. But what we know today as the feedlot system began in earnest just before the Civil War, when cottonseed-mill owners of the South discovered they could use their waste meal and hulls as cattle feed rather than simply dump it. Coupled with improved transportation and steady supplies of cattle, by the end of the Great Depression, large commercial cattle-feeding operations were common throughout the Great Plains. Meanwhile, by the early 1900s, smaller Midwest farmers were beginning to buy calves and year-old beef cattle in the fall, once the grass was no longer good for grazing, and "wintering them" on stored corn silage. As researchers began to discover the value of corn for improving the efficiency and quality of beef cattle by the 1950s, those farmers began using cattle feeding as a method to add value to their corn, moving corn-king Iowa to top the list as the nation's largest cattle feeder. Once large-scale irrigated corn production began to shift the heart of corn country south and west from Iowa, Texas eventually took over that distinction. Eventually, the packing plants followed the ready cattle supply. Today, 85 percent of fed cattle come from either Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado or Nebraska.

As important as the availabity of cheap feed is to the development of feedlots as the standard, it's important not to underestimate the impact of another unappreciated factor: consumer demand. By using confined feeding to bring calves to market at a younger age, standardize and control their diets, and group cattle by type and size, the quality of beef improved as well as the predictably of that quality. Those demand factors can't be under-stated in the importance of concentrating beef feeding into the system we consider the norm today.

Today, most U.S. cattle are  raised on range or pasture land for most of their lives and then transported to a feedlot for finishing at anywhere from 6- to 18-months old. There, they typically spend about three to six months on feed, growing between 2.5 and 4 pounds per day on specially made feed rations customized to their age, body type, breed and climate. That feed is delivered on a set schedule--usually twice daily--by trucks that present it in long concrete feeders, or "bunks." That kind of control over feed and feeding, the most expensive fraction of the total cost of raising beef, is simply not attainable when cattle are roaming on open ground.

In addition, because they are contained within a space of only about 125 to 250 square feet per animal, the cattle can be more closely monitored daily by professional cowboys, known as "pen riders," who are trained and experienced in the science and art of spotting animals that may be getting sick or are not eating sufficiently. Those animals can be quickly moved to "hospital pens" if needed, where they can be medicated and given special rations to encourage their return to health.

Many of the cattle fed in large commercial feedlots are still owned by the ranchers who run the ranch on which they were originally born. Like a hotel for cattle, the commercial feedlot cares for and feeds the rancher's "retained ownership" cattle, in return for a fee for the feed, medicine and a daily "yardage" fee. The feedlot then typically arranges for sale or delivery of the cattle to a beef packer based on the packer's needs and the quality level of the cattle.

Grouping the cattle into pens for finishing permits a degree of predictable growth and production that is reflected in the relatively cheaper price grain-finished costs compared to pasture-finished beef. If grocers were forced to rely on a completely pasture-based finishing system, as some advocate, the beef meatcase as we know it would be extinct.

Why do ranchers give cattle hormones implants?

We know they're safe, but considering the ongoing controversy about the use of hormone implants ranchers and farmers give to most beef cattle, why would they continue to use them? The answer may not be as black and white as you think.

Why do farmers do that?

Q Yet another "undercover" farm video shot by a group with politically motivated animal-rights concerns has hit the Internet and news media. Created to gin up public outrage against farmers and food suppliers, it once again is not only likely to cause your shoppers to have questions about why farmers do what they do, but also illustrates the reality that what they see in those sensationalized videos is not always as it seems. Case in point: Why are the dairy workers in this video “forcing” sick cows to stand, as the video claims. Why would any humane farmer do that?

A The inexcusable beating of the cattle by some of the workers on the video aside, what consumers are seeing in the case of the heavy equipment hoisting cattle off the ground is likely actually a good-faith attempt to save the lives of these “downer cows.” Downer cows are animals that for one reason or another—most typically either a temporary, short-term nutritional imbalance, a foot or leg injury, or weakness or nerve damage related to giving birth—has caused them to lie down and refuse to get back up. Survey data from USDA have estimated that just over 1 percent of mature dairy cows face this condition. Other estimates have put that number as high as 2.5 percent of cows.

But what the average viewer may not understand is that, in contrast to humans who are comforted by lying down, such inability to get up is often not only uncomfortable to the large cow that's evolved to live its life on its feet, it is actually dangerous. Left unchecked, it can actually make their chances of recovering from what could be a simple condition worse, leading to unnecessary death. The longer cattle remain down and not walking, the more muscle and nerve damage occurs, damage that decreases their likelihood of ever recovering. Research has suggested a farmer or vet has a threshold of only about three to six hours to get a downer back on its feet. Therefore, dairy farmers who understand the issue always treat cattle that can’t rise as medical emergencies.

Seen in that light, the use of heavy equipment like a forklift or front-end loader, as the dairy worker in the activist video does, is less about being cruel to the animal than it is about responding to that emergency. In most cases, the lift appears to be used properly: Either lifting the animal just high enough for it to bring its front feet underneath it for support, or using it to move the animal a short distance to a trailer without dragging it along the ground--a practice that would be considered cruelly unacceptable.

“No method of moving or handling downers is fast and simple, yet getting them up off the ground quickly gives their best chance of survival,” California veterinary professor John Madigan, a specialist in animal emergy response and rescue equipment, has said in the past.

Faced with coaxing to its feet an animal weighing on average three-quarters of a ton, farmers usually have little recourse than to lift them. In the case of the activist video, the worker is using a set of hip clamps or Bagshaw hoists, equipment made specifically to do exactly what’s being done. Although, in fairness, there is some argument, particularly between U.S. veterinarians and European veterinarians, whether the use of such hips lifts are the best tool, they are still a common means to get downed animals back on their feet as quickly and efficiently as possible in U.S. dairies. And despite the video narrator’s contention the animals are being loaded in a trailer “to be killed offsite,” it’s just as likely they are being moved to more hospitable housing where they can be tended to.

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