Energy Issues in Organic Production and Marketing

Roy H W Johnston

(Paper published in Organic Matters (the IOFGA publication) in the July-August 2008 issue.)

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The author suggests some solutions to the food and energy crisis that could see organic production develop in a truly sustainable fashion.


As an organic food consumer, supporting a Dublin 'boxman', I have been uneasily aware of the high proportion of imported produce needed to support the service, and that this is not just due to seasonal effects. There is simply not enough organic horticulture going on in Ireland to support the expanding urban market.

As an energy consumer I am aware of our heavy dependence on imported fossil fuels, and I welcome the trend into wind generation of electricity; I look forward to increasing inputs from wave and tidal energy conversion. I am also aware of the biomass energy trend globally, and of the fact this this is encroaching on food production, with related substantial price rises in imported grain for food and fodder. The fossil fuel price rises also reflect themselves into increasing prices for artificial fertiliser.

The foregoing suggests that the organic movement is facing an unprecedented opportunity for rapid organised development. In what follows I offer what may be an outline of a development path.

Mixed Farming and Horticulture

Let us begin with horticulture. It needs an organic manure source, whether at the field or garden level. Therefore is should be positioned in association with a livestock farm, of which the output is being finished for the market, using protein-rich feed, generating an accessible source of manure.

The local production of fodder crops is looking attractive, given the increased price of imports. Fodder production can easily be rotated with vegetable field crops, and with annual energy crops (rape-seed oil being already a viable proposition).

In the above scenario the grass-tillage ratio will change, and the need to rotate will encourage the ending of 'permanent pasture' in land where tillage is feasible. Some years of grass-clover will enrich the rotation cycle. It looks like we are back to mixed farming, on a fairly large scale, such as to suggest a need for organised co-operation between neighbours. The marketing of a variety of products, having an increasing added value, will need to become a specialist function, and the organisation will need to adapt to this. We no longer have a group of specialising producers dealing separately with the market.

In this highly productive system, more organic fertiliser will be needed than the local livestock will be able to produce. The obvious source is biological waste from human habitation; basically the sewage system and urban food waste. This problem needs to be put to local government, which needs to organise to process all urban bio-waste into acceptable fertiliser, unpolluted by industrial waste. This involves anaerobic digestion, of which methane is a by-product, and this is a useful energy source.

Thus the organic movement, if it is to develop its productive capacity seriously, is going to have to influence local government in support of its requirements. In fact, there is scope for developing anaerobic digestion of all animal manure, giving a concentrated fertiliser and methane for energy; this however would need to be done on an adequate scale, perhaps in association with the urban sewage process. How best to organise this, taking into account the logistics problems, is a matter for research, analysis, pilot trials etc.

Wood as Energy Crop

Another energy source which has been promoted is forestry, including woody perennial field crops. This road, if followed, competes with land use for food production. It has however been suggested that wood and woody crops for energy can be combined with expanded organic food production if it is developed in the form of expanded hedgerows, which would act as shelter-belts for the field crops, and for the livestock when on grass. This is another development path requiring serious pilot analysis.

One possible concept is to have the central hedge as it currently is, though with trees interspersed, and managed, to provide a supply of quality timber for construction; this is standard practice in many continental countries. On either side of the hedge one plants a strip of willow or other coppicing species, and one harvests this mechanically on a 3 or 4 year cycle, with a machine that converts them directly to chips fit for combustion, after an air-drying phase. This would be a winter operation, and on one side only each occasion, so that the alternate coppice, and the trees in the hedge, would always provide shelter.

The current stock of moribund ivy-covered hedgerow trees would need to be taken out over a period, for fuel, and replaced. This is increasingly suggestive of a need for a wood supply management policy, and perhaps the organic movement can pilot it.


I have suggested several trails to follow, and each would require local leadership. As an urban consumer I have no idea how this may emerge, but I am aware that in the past, over a century ago, a local leadership emerged in the context of the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society, and the result was the co-operative movement, which thrived in some commodity marketing areas, primarily milk. The ICOS is its successor, and it is possible that if an organic co-operative group were to emerge, it could help to revive the pioneering spirit of the IAOS, reversing the current trend of the old-established co-operatives into plcs, and explore some of the trails I have suggested, perhaps with the support of the 'boxmen', who would appear to be a key element in the marketing system for organic horticulture.

[Dr Roy Johnston is a scientific consultant currently interested in the techno-economics in energy use in agriculture.]

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Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999