Looking for sustainability halfway through: Energy and organic small-scale farming systems in the Czech Republic

Harvest of carrots at the case study farm (Holubí Zhoř, Czech Republic). Photo by Eva Fraňková

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Editor’s Note: This is part of a series showing the work of the Sustainable Farm Systems project.SFS logo

Eva Fraňková and Claudio Cattaneo

During the last two centuries, agriculture in Europe has gone through a major transition. From traditional organic farming systems based exclusively on solar, animal, and human energy inputs, with a significant share of subsistence production and typically heterogeneous land uses integrated on a local or regional scale, to current industrial, “high-external-input” forms of agriculture which are capital-intensive, characterized by high specialization and distant supply chains, and based mainly on inputs of fossil fuels, fertilizers, biocides, and advanced (bio)technologies.[1]

Figure 1: Combining research and practice; fieldwork at our case study farm (Holubí Zhoř, Czech Republic, 2015). Photo by Eva Fraňková.
Figure 1: Combining research and practice; fieldwork at our case study farm (Holubí Zhoř, Czech Republic, 2015). Photo by Eva Fraňková.

Although yields and labour productivity have grown under industrial agriculture, its energy efficiency dropped significantly. In certain regions with particular management practices, more energy is invested in growing specific crops than they produce in terms of calorific energy.[2] Also, the absolute growth of industrial food production has come at a high environmental and social cost. As part of existing critiques of agro-industrial systems, the issues of food security, food sovereignty, and sustainable food production have gained momentum amongst both activists and academics. Many initiatives are practiced and researched under the frameworks of Local Food Systems (LFS), alternative food networks, and agroecology, which are perceived as promising ways to tackle many of the environmental and social problems connected to globalised agro-food chains. (Figure 1) Traditional organic systems, practised both historically and in the present day, also offer possible inspiring models for more sustainable forms of agricultural production.

Figure 2: Location of the case study farm and village of Holubí Zhoř, Czech Republic.
Figure 2: Location of the case study farm and village of Holubí Zhoř, Czech Republic.

In our research, we contribute to the debate on both historical and current energy efficiency of local agricultural systems with the aim to look for concrete, potentially more sustainable models of local food production.[3]  We use the methodological framework of social metabolism, combined with Energy Return On Investment (EROI) calculations for agriculture to compare current and historical organic agriculture at the village and farm level.[4] Our case studies are the pre-industrial mid-nineteenth century agricultural village of Holubí Zhoř, Czech Republic (at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and a current small-scale organic family farm based in this village. (Figure 2) This farm integrates animal and crop production, which is distributed locally in part via a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme. Because of the different size of the two systems – agricultural land in the village was 594 hectares (about 20 times larger than the 28 hectares of the current farm), we use mostly indicators which are related to physical units such as one hectare of land, one livestock unit (LU500), or one hour of human labour time.

Figure 3: Historical map of the centre of Holubí Zhoř (Zhorz Holuby in German) as created during the Franciscan cadastre mapping around 1824. : Zhorz Holuby. Catastral Schätzungs Operat, signature 715, filing (“Karton”) 280, file (“značka”) D8, fund “Stable cadastre – Schätzungoperaten”. [Archive material] Moravian Provincial Archives in Brno, Czech Republic.
Figure 3: Historical map of the centre of Holubí Zhoř (Zhorz Holuby in German) as created during the Franciscan cadastre mapping around 1824.
Zhorz Holuby. Catastral Schätzungs Operat, signature 715, filing (“Karton”) 280, file (“značka”) D8, fund “Stable cadastre – Schätzungoperaten”. [Archive material] Moravian Provincial Archives in Brno, Czech Republic.
Our contemporary data are based mainly on direct field research (participant observations, time-use analysis, farm-related accounting documents, etc.) conducted in 2012 and supplemented with data from 2011, 2013, and 2014. The historical data are based on the Austro-Hungarian Franciscan (stable) cadastre which was created between 1824 and 1852. For our case study village, mapping was completed in 1824, but the related data on population, land use, yields etc. refer mainly to 1843.[5] (Figure 3)

The methodology studying EROI in agroecosystems enables us to capture both the internal and external flows of energy in agroecosystems by distinguishing three main categories: External Inputs (EI) – inputs coming from outside the agroecosystem such as human labour, synthetic fertilizers, seeds and fossil fuels; Biomass Reused (BR) – biomass produced and retained within the agroecosystem, such as own seeds, feeding crops to own animals or ploughing stubble back into cropland; and Final Produce (FP) – products leaving the agroecosystem to be used and consumed elsewhere. From a farmers’ perspective, there is a trade-off between maximizing output (the Final Produce), and investing part of the harvest back into the farm (Biomass Reused) to maintain its viable resources such as soil fertility, livestock and farm associated biodiversity. In turn, farmers face a trade-off between maintaining these viable resources through Biomass Reused or through External Inputs, with the former being a labour intensive effort and an opportunity cost in term of harvest which is not sold as final Produce the latter implying higher monetary costs.

As shown also in our data, in the traditional organic farming systems, prevailing locally-based subsistence agriculture featured little Final Produce because of the need to recycle a significant part of biomass for maintaining draft animals to ensure enough power for working the land. For this significant Biomass Reuse, much human labour was required. Moreover, the low surplus above fulfilling the needs of local agrarian community meant that only small portion of the population could be specialized outside the agricultural sector. The huge development in agriculture during the last 150 years focused on overcoming these limitations – on maximizing the Final Produce and minimizing the necessary human labour input. The current industrialized forms of agriculture have been extremely successful in this respect. Since machines are “fed” from external inputs, there is no need for draft animals, so a larger part of cropland produce is destined as Final Produce and the amount of Biomass Reused has been minimized.[6] However, the highly industrialized and specialized farming systems (see for instance the study by Lluis Parcerisas[7] in this series) became dependent on External Inputs – not only fossil fuels but also artificial fertilizers and biocides with many environmental impacts, and also impacts on energy efficiency of food production.

In this context we consider the current case study farm – a current organic agro-ecosystem – to be a very important and exciting example because it combines some characteristics of both historical organic and contemporary industrial systems: it does use machinery and related fossil fuels to a moderate extent, but does not use other fossil-based External Inputs (artificial fertilizers and biocides). Instead, it relies on significant Biomass Reuse as in the traditional systems to maintain soil fertility, and its heterogenous land-uses support farm-associated biodiversity. In energy terms, this translates to a significantly higher Final EROI (the ratio between the Final Product and the sum of External Inputs and Biomass Reused internally) of the current system in comparison to the historical system. From a farmer’s perspective, the current system is more labour efficient since the recycling effort has decreased dramatically. Less inputs are required, including less labour (labour hours per hectare decreased from 491 to 314) and a larger output is obtained.

For these reasons, we claim the present farm to be a case of sustainability in between: neither so energy inefficient as with industrial agriculture, nor so labour intensive as in traditional organic systems. We find great value in comparing industrial and organic agricultural systems with the past as it helps in situating the present models in a long-term perspective. Far from assuming that we should go back to the past, from this comparison we learn that present organic agriculture is a more realistic alternative for future sustainability than industrial agriculture. In fact, rather than being a less productive and more labour intensive agricultural system it is a system that combines the best from the past and from the present. For a more detailed explanation of the results, please see our forthcoming paper.[8]

[1] Tello E, Garrabou R, Cussó X, Ramón Olarieta J and Galán E. (2012). Fertilizing methods and nutrient balance at the end of traditional organic agriculture in the Mediterranean bioregion: Catalonia (Spain) in the 1860s. Human Ecology 40, pp. 369-383. Doi: 10.1007/s10745-012-9485-4; Giampietro M, Mayumi K, Sorman AH (2013) Energy analysis for a sustainable future: multi-scale integrated analysis of societal and ecosystem metabolism. Routledge, London.

[2] Pimentel D and Pimentel M (2008) Food, Energy, and Society. 3d ed. CRC Press, Boca Raton, USA; Smil V (2013) Harvesting the biosphere. What we have taken from nature. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge, Massachusetts; Gliessman SR (2015) Agroecology. The ecology of sustainable food systems. 3rd edition. CRC Press. Boca Raton.

[3] Our work is funded by the Czech Science Foundation, grant no. 13-38994P: Quest for sustainable food production: Social and financial metabolism of selected local food systems (Eva Fraňková), and by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, grant no. 895-2011-1020: Sustainable Farm Systems (Claudio Cattaneo). We are grateful for cooperation with some local SFS groups, especially those in Vienna and Barcelona.

[4] See the methodology proposed by: Tello E, Galán E, Sacristán V, Cunfer G, Guzmán GI, González de Molina M, Krausmann F, Gingrich S, Padró R, Marco I, Moreno-Delgado D (2016) Opening the black box of energy throughputs in farm systems: A decomposition analysis between the energy returns to external inputs, internal biomass reuses and total inputs consumed (the Vallès County, Catalonia, c.1860 and 1999) Ecological Economics, 121: 160-174. doi:10.1016/j.ecolecon.2015.11.012; Galán E, Padró R, Marco I, Tello E, Cunfer G, Guzmán G.I, González de Molina, M, Krausmann F, Gingrich S, Sacristán V and Moreno-Delgado D. (2016) Widening the analysis of Energy Return on Investment (EROI) in agro-ecosystems: Socio-ecological transitions to industrialized farm systems (the Vallès County, Catalonia, c.1860 and 1999). Ecological Modelling, 336:3-25 doi:10.1016/j.ecolmodel.2016.05.012.

[5] The historical cadastral data and historical maps were provided by the Moravian Provincial Archives in Brno, Czech Republic. The detailed reference to the cadastral data is the following: Zhorz Holuby. Catastral Schätzungs Operat, signature 715, filing (“Karton”) 280, file (“značka”) D8, fund “Stable cadastre – Schätzungoperaten”. [Archive material] Moravian Provincial Archives in Brno, Czech Republic.

[6] As a proportion of total population in the Czech Republic, the agricultural population has declined from 59% in 1850 to 8% in 2000. Kušková P, Gingrich S and Krausmann F. (2008) Long term changes in social metabolism and land use in Czechoslovakia, 1830–2000: An energy transition under changing political regimes. Ecological Economics 68: 394-407

[7] Lluis Parcerisas: From mixed dairy farming to intensive feedlot agriculture: The evolution of agrarian landscapes in Quebec, available at: http://niche-canada.org/2016/10/21/from-mixed-dairy-farming-to-intensive-feedlot-agriculture-the-evolution-of-agrarian-landscapes-in-quebec/  (2016-10-26)

[8] Fraňková E and Cattaneo C. (Forthcoming) Organic farming in the past and today: sociometabolic perspective on a Central European case study. Journal of Regional Environmental Change.


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Claudio Cattaneo

I am a post-doc researcher at the Barcelona Institute of REgional and Metropolitan Studies of Autonomous University (IERMB-UAB) on energy and landscape analysis within the SFS project. My PhD is in ecological economics and i have studied the lifestyle of squatters and neorural settlements in Catalonia, in which i have undertaken energy analysis of organic farm systems. As a hobby I participate in a collective managing an olive farm near Barcelona.

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