Definition of productivity: units of outputs achieved per unit of inputs. "Units" refer to energy: outputs are the calories of the yields, inputs englobe all the steps required for production, mainly energy used by machines and required to manufacture fertilizers.
Argument: organic farming is more productive than conventional farming because it uses less inputs. It is also more sustainable because our economy is based on oil, which is becoming scarce.
This argument is mentioned very often in defense of organic farming and its place in a post-peak-oil world. But how important is this as we head towards a carbon neutral economy (hopefully) by the mid of the century? If primary energy comes will be come from renewable energy sources (wind and sun), then all the tractors will be running on renewable power; the nitrogen necessary to manufacture the fertilizers will come from electrolysis done in renewable energy powered machines. Is the future greener for Big Ag?
I just started reading an interesting book called Farmers of Forty Centuries about an American's travels through China, Japan and Korea around the turn of the last century (around 1907 I want to say?) At that time, the author claims that the population of those nations number around 500 million - and they were sustaining themselves using essentially human labor and a very sophisticated farming system that made use of essentially every available patch of land. Clearly organic farming can be made to produce enough food to feed us; the issue is finding the labor to do it.
We are going to have to transition our economy to sustainable energy, there really is no alternative in the long run, and so big ag will also have to adapt. With something like 900 million acres of farmland in the US, 400 million of which is arable land, the workforce needed to farm it with traditional methods would be mind boggling. Building an electric tractor, or a solar powered fertilizer plant sounds like it is going to be a lot more realistic than drumming up a few hundred million willing farmers.
Regardless of how you power it, modern agriculture does have a lot of other problems, though. I suspect that researchers will keep plugging away at the problems that mechanical mono-culture farming creates, and maybe in another hundred years they will be approaching a level of sophistication that will allow the system to be called "sustainable."
Maybe I am wrong, though. Perhaps I overestimate how happy people are with their modern lifestyles. Maybe if there was a viable way to return to an agrarian lifestyle while maintaining some of the refinements in medicine and technology that people have become so accustomed too, they would be willing to return to a simpler life.
With my experience of Organic farming it has a higher energy use, it uses a lot more fuel for mechanical weed control, in the case I know about 5x the amount of diesel, plastic usage went up from just bailer twine and frost netting on potatoes, to single use weed plastic, and/or insect net for about half the crops. It doesn't take many more people than conventional a few extra man hours for the extra driving and laying and removing plastic.
This is of course not the only way to do organic, but it is what most of the farms around here do. The small intensive operations only seem to work if you can sell salad leaves and other fast turnover crops. no one wants them here.
Thanks for sharing. Your point though challenges at least one of the pillars of organic farming (at least for a large part within the permaculture movement). Specifically it raises the question of organic farming using more energy. Besides, organic farming in a large farm yields in principle lower yields, so we could say that productivity is lower regarding both lower outputs and higher inputs?