Energy efficiency in biomass production is a major challenge for a future transition to sustainable food and energy provision. This study uses methodologically consistent data on agroecosystem energy flows and different metrics of energetic efficiency from seven regional case studies in North America (USA and Canada) and Europe (Spain and Austria) to investigate energy transitions in Western agroecosystems from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth centuries. We quantify indicators such as external final energy return on investment (EFEROI, i.e., final produce per unit of external energy input), internal final EROI (IFEROI, final produce per unit of biomass reused locally), and final EROI (FEROI, final produce per unit of total inputs consumed). The transition is characterized by increasing final produce accompanied by increasing external energy inputs and stable local biomass reused. External inputs did not replace internal biomass reinvestments, but added to them. The results were declining EFEROI, stable or increasing IFEROI, and diverging trends in FEROI. The factors shaping agroecosystem energy profiles changed in the course of the transition: Under advanced organic and frontier agriculture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, population density and biogeographic conditions explained both agroecosystem productivity and energy inputs. In industrialized agroecosystems, biogeographic conditions and specific socio-economic factors influenced trends towards increased agroecosystem specialization. The share of livestock products in a region’s final produce was the most important factor determining energy returns on investment.
- Agroecosystem energy transition
- Energy efficiency
- Energy return on investment
- Long-term socio-ecological research
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Global and Planetary Change