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The urgency of food and energy problems

Edouard Saouma

Edouard Saouma, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, gave this address to the United Nations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy which took place at Nairobi, 10-23 August 1981.

· Industrialized nations have the capacity and the responsibility for developing new technology and helping the poorer countries to apply it.

· The international community, including oil exporters, must ensure that the poorest countries have the fossil fuels that they need for agriculture.

· The fuelwood crisis must be treated as an emergency calling for immediate and strong measures.

· Governments of developing countries must establish and strengthen the policies and institutions that will enable them to bear the primary responsibility for solving their food and energy problems.

Food and energy are two of the most urgent problems of the eighties. They raise a host of separate issues, but they are nevertheless, at certain key points, closely connected. I would like, today, to speak of three specific questions which are of major concern both to this Conference and to FAO.

The first is the need for a dramatic increase in the use of commercial energy by developing countries in order to speed up the rate of growth of their food production - and this at a time of high energy costs.

The second is the fuelwood crisis, which affects developing countries in all regions.

The third is the question of how far agriculture itself can produce commercial energy, particularly liquid fuel, without prejudicing its primary role of feeding the world's population.

The drama of the world food problem lies essentially in the enormous difficulties of passing from tropical agriculture of the traditional type to modern farming systems capable of a sustained growth in production. No alternative has yet been found to the formula that bases high yields on high inputs. These inputs are energy intensive. Unless and until there are major research breakthroughs, and they are not at present in sight, increased productivity of tropical agriculture, like that of the temperate zones, will thus continue to depend largely on an increased use of commercial energy.

Fertilizers and farm machinery ac count together for about 85 percent of the commercial energy now being used on farms in developing countries. The balance is needed for irrigation and for pesticides.

Let us look at what has been happening in the developing countries, and what faces them over the next twenty years. Their food production has been growing by about 3 percent per year. This is an extraordinarily high rate of growth by historical standards, but it is insufficient to cover their needs.

It is necessary to keep the energy requirements of agriculture in perspective. In the total energy economy, agricultural production is a rather modest consumer. We estimate that it accounts for about 3.5 percent of all commercial energy used in the world, and for about 4 percent of that used in developing countries. The proportion may be small, but for agriculture - and thus for food supplies - its importance is vital.

To adapt a phrase generally used in a quite different sense, the present state of agricultural technology requires the developing countries to undergo an energy transition - from traditional, low-input farming systems to high-energy, high-yielding modes of production. If this is not successfully accomplished, the outlook for feeding the world's population, and especially those in the poorest countries, must be considered bleak indeed.

The basic question of concern to this Conference is how far the additional energy can be supplied from new and renewable sources.

FAO has been active in this area for some time, and I would like to say categorically that we shall do everything possible, in following up on the Conference recommendations, to help governments maximize the use of energy from these sources. There are many techniques that can be useful, and they are mentioned in the documentation and the Plan of Action before you.

50 years of research

For the longer term, there is a need for more research on technologies that would lessen dependence on energy-intensive inputs.

Nevertheless, we must face the fundamental fact that the high-input agricultural technology based on fossil energy, that is now in general use, is the result of half a century of research and development. Alternative systems based on new and renewable sources of energy are still in their infancy. They can supplement, but cannot substitute, the classic technological package. It is, above all, essential that national energy planners be aware of the growing energy requirements of agriculture, and ensure that they are met.

Agricultural production, however, is not an end in itself: the ultimate aim is consumption. Agriculture should be thought of as only one element in a food chain or food system, extending from the plough to the plate. It is estimated that in OECD countries the food system as a whole accounts for 15 to 20 percent of the consumption of commercial energy.

The firewood crisis

The second issue on which I wish to speak, namely the firewood crisis, is less complex - though no less important.

For some years, FAO and other organizations have been warning of the problems being created by pressure on firewood resources. Ironically, the Malthusian nightmare threatens to become reality in respect not to food but to the fuel for its preparation. According to the figures we have made available to the Conference, more than 100 million people live in areas where there is already an acute scarcity of fuelwood. Over a far wider area, the felling of trees and scrub currently exceeds regrowth. In the unlikely event that present trends were allowed to go unchecked, shortages would affect over two thousand million people by the turn of the century. The magnitude and location of the problem are clearly illustrated in the map of the fuelwood situation which FAO has prepared for the Conference.

The problem also has a multiplier effect. The clearance of trees and vegetation permits erosion, thus reducing fertility and food production, and in cases of severe damage compromising the viability of agricultural land. The burning of dung and other wastes as a substitute for wood reduces the amount of natural fertilizer available on the farm.

Find the resources

This is an issue on which I believe the Conference can make a major contribution. The dimensions of the problem must be brought home to all. Action must be started or strengthened. Resources must be found.

The approaches to the problem are outlined in the papers before the Conference, and I do not need to recapitulate them. But I think it is important to keep a sense of the time perspective. We are dealing with an issue which affects very large numbers of people, at the level of the family and village, over very large geographical areas. It must inevitably take many years for remedial measures to reach all affected localities.


Thus, the improved conservation and management of fuelwood resources, and technological improvements such as more efficient stoves, are indispensable measures, but they can be expected to have an effect only in the medium term. I would place particular emphasis on the massive planting of woodlots for fuel, using quick-growing species. FAO estimates that, on average, a five-fold increase in current planting levels is urgently needed. Such programmes are by no means easy: they require a great deal of organization, and they usually fail if local populations are not involved. Where governments so wish, I believe this is an activity toward which non-governmental organizations, both national and international, could make a very significant contribution. But even on the most optimistic assumptions, it would take five or ten years before replanting efforts on the scale we envisage could reach the stage of pay-off.


Not only is the well-being of millions already affected, the environmental damage in the world can result in losing a significant fraction of its soil resources. Food production would be reduced and the livelihood of future generations could be compromised.

Fuel substitutions

In the meantime, we must recognize that many areas will face a fuelwood emergency - or indeed may find themselves in it already. An emergency situation calls for emergency action. The only short-term measures that can be envisaged involve the substitution of other fuels for wood. In urban and some rural areas, especially in Latin America, kerosene is being utilized. Where there is no other option open, governments should be ready to promote and subsidize an approach of this type. The international community should be ready to assist low-income countries in areas of fuelwood emergency.

Mr President, the stakes involve not only the well-being of many millions of people today. The environmental damage resulting from over-exploitation of fuelwood resources may cause the world to lose a significant fraction of its soil resources. Not only will the scope for food production be reduced, but the livelihood of future generations in the affected zones may well be irreversibly compromised. I am confident that action by this Conference can stimulate the global community to move, more quickly, toward decisive action.

Production of commercial energy

The last of the three issues which I have raised is the extent to which agriculture can itself provide commercial energy, notably in the form of liquid fuel.

As yet, no straightforward answer can be given. The production of commercial fuels from woody plants and from vegetable oils is at present technically but not economically feasible. Rather, the distillation of ethanol from sugar cane, maize and other crops is the main focus of attention. At this stage, the extent to which "energy cropping" of this type is undertaken appears to depend on government policies rather than on market forces.

The question of main concern to the Conference is, I imagine, whether this form of "energy cropping" can make a significant contribution toward global energy needs. By way of illustration, let us take an arbitrary figure of one million barrels of oil a day, corresponding to just under one percent of the world's total consumption of commercial energy in all forms.

To produce the equivalent of one million barrels of oil a day in the form of ethanol from sugar cane would require more than twice the area now under sugar cane in the whole world. To produce it from maize would need about 250 million tons in a year, well over twice the entire maize production of all developing countries in 1979.

I think we can conclude, therefore, that the potential contribution of liquid fuel from agricultural crops is strictly limited. There may be a greater potential for producing fuel from other forms of biomass, such as the cellulose of trees and shrubs, provided, of course, that the interests of rural populations are effectively safeguarded, including their supplies of fuelwood.

In concluding I would like to say how pleased we have been in FAO to cooperate with the Conference Secretariat in the preparation of this event.

To everyone's interest

I have emphasized the difficulty of the problems facing agriculture in its interaction with the energy sector. There are powerful trends which will make agriculture - in developing countries at least - far more dependent on commercial energy over the next twenty years. Present technology offers only limited scope for directing this hunger for energy toward new and renewable sources. In this and in other problems I have described, the interests of all countries, rich and poor, are deeply intertwined. The industrialized nations have a particular capacity and responsibility for developing new technology and helping the poorer countries to apply it. The major cereals exporters must exercise restraint in using agricultural crops for the production of fuel - or they may endanger the world's food supplies. The international community as a whole, including the oil exporters, must ensure that the poorest countries have the fossil-based energy they need for their agricultural production. The fuelwood crisis must be tackled as, in part, an emergency problem calling for immediate measures. Finally the governments of the developing countries themselves must establish, or strengthen, the policies and the institutions that can enable them to bear the primary responsibility for all the problems I have analysed.

Immediate measures, medium-term action and long-range solutions must all be set in train. The international community - of governments, of organizations, and of peoples - can work together vigorously and effectively if there is a genuine desire to achieve results. I wish this Conference every success in crystallizing the world's will to act.

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