Energy efficiency of conventional, organic, and alternative cropping systems for food and fuel at a site in the U.S. Midwest

Ilya Gelfand, Sieglinde S. Snapp, G. Philip Robertson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

39 Scopus citations


The prospect of biofuel production on a large scale has focused attention on energy efficiencies associated with different agricultural systems and production goals. We used 17 years of detailed data on agricultural practices and yields to calculate an energy balance for different cropping systems under both food and fuel scenarios. We compared four grain and one forage systems in the U.S. Midwest: corn (Zea mays) - soybean (Glycine max) - wheat (Triticum aestivum) rotations managed with (1) conventional tillage, (2) no till, (3) low chemical input, and (4) biologically based (organic) practices, and (5) continuous alfalfa (Medicago sativa). We compared energy balances under two scenarios: all harvestable biomass used for food versus all harvestable biomass used for biofuel production. Among the annual grain crops, average energy costs of farming for the different systems ranged from 4.8 GJ ha-1 y -1 for the organic system to 7.1 GJ ha-1 y-1 for the conventional; the no-till system was also low at 4.9 GJ ha-1 y-1 and the low-chemical input system intermediate (5.2 GJ ha -1 y-1). For each system, the average energy output for food was always greater than that for fuel. Overall energy efficiencies ranged from output:input ratios of 10 to 16 for conventional and no-till food production and from 7 to 11 for conventional and no-till fuel production, respectively. Alfalfa for fuel production had an efficiency similar to that of no-till grain production for fuel. Our analysis points to a more energetically efficient use of cropland for food than for fuel production and large differences in efficiencies attributable to management, which suggests multiple opportunities for improvement.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4006-4011
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Science & Technology
Issue number10
StatePublished - 15 May 2010
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Chemistry (all)
  • Environmental Chemistry


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