There was always a simple agrarian equation that farmers must produce more energy as food than the energy they spent on growing it. They needed to produce energy for themselves, for their young (reproducing the labour force), their old and sick dependants, for other trades people and for the rulers, who offered protection in return for taxes or a labour tithe. For a long time this energy equation remained the same. Gradually, through technical innovations, productivity increased and new lands could be tilled, thereby allowing a slow increase in population. Overall productivity per worker didn't increase so much; slash and burn farming, almost without tools, is almost as productive as farming with oxen and a plough. Three things, all linked to each other, changed this dramatically: the emergence of the capitalist market economy, industrialization and fossil fuel energy.
The production per agriculture worker in the most advanced economies has now reached 2,000 tons of grain per person year, compared to historical times when it was just a few tons; an increase in labour productivity of about a thousand fold. In the poorest countries the average value produced by a farm worker is just above 100 dollars per year. In France it is some 40,000 dollars per year. And, the gap in productivity between the rich and the poor is widening. Labour productivity in modern farming can largely be explained in terms of the command of energy resources. The modern farmer is de facto in command of a massive army of "energy slaves"; a barrel of oil represents the energy of 25,000 hours of human toil – the equivalent of 14 people working a year under normal Western labour standards. This shows that the energy efficiency of modern farming is considerably lower than in pre-industrial farming systems. Our ancestors would have starved to death if they their energy ratios were as bad as ours; industrial countries use between 10 and 15 times more energy in the food system than is contained in the food they end up eating. Organic farming is somewhat more efficient than non-organic, but organic farmers in industrialized countries also have a very energy-inefficient production.
Farmers in developing countries, have almost no access to fossil fuel energy resources. Yet they are supposed to compete with their colleagues in developed countries who use energy resources that are the equivalent of hundreds of labourers. Perverse subsidy systems, trade and food policies further bend the rules in favour of farmers in rich countries. And to make matters even worse, various kinds of "climate" or "carbon" standards are now being imposed on poor farmers. But the reality is that (with the exception of slash and burn farmers) they are performing much better than industrialized farms, regardless how we measure (per hectare, per man hour or per kg crop or meat). The organic sector should avoid repeating this way of penalising those who are already disadvantaged, and we should realise that the energy use of modern farming is highly inefficient. The only more disturbing feature in modern farming is the destruction of natural capital in the form of soil erosion. Organic farming began with a concern about the soil issue. We now need to take the energy challenge much more seriously.
This article will soon appear as a column in the magazine Ecology and Farming