Food processing

A significant part of agricultural production goes through some degree of transformation between harvesting and consumption to make food edible and digestible. Energy is required to preserve food, reduce post-harvest losses and to extend the availability of food over a longer period. Limited access to energy is one of the challenges that must be overcome for small- and medium-sized enterprises to establish themselves in rural areas.

Using biomass by-products for cogenerating heat and power represents an opportunity for food processing plants to meet this challenge. In addition, rising energy prices affect the competitiveness of existing food processing enterprises and highlight the need for the food processing sector to reduce energy consumption. Increasing energy efficiency and integrating renewable energies can do much to improve the sustainability and economic competitiveness of food processing industries.

Providing technical and policy support

FAO’s Rural Infrastructure and Agro-Industries Division (AGS) assists member countries to develop appropriate policies, strategies and methodologies for improving agricultural support systems; the delivery of services and technologies for production and post-production activities; and the efficiency of food chains.

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Food losses and waste

A recent FAO study, Global food losses and food waste – extent, causes and prevention has shown that around one-third of the food we produce is not consumed. A significant share of total energy inputs are embedded in these losses. In developing countries, most food losses occur during harvest and storage. For this reason, improving post-harvest activities in developing countries represents a priority area for increasing farmers’ income. Food losses are often caused by a lack of access to energy for adequate post-harvesting operations, such as drying, storage and processing, as well as a lack of transportation and distribution.

FAO is contributing to increasing the knowledge base in this area and transferring suitable post-harvest technologies for storage and drying to developing countries. As part of its work in this area, FAO has developed a web-based Information Network on Post-harvest Operations (INPhO) that provides information on a wide range of post-harvest issues. Work carried out by FAO and collaborating donor agencies on reducing post-harvest losses have led to the installation or construction of more than 60 000 metallic silos in 16 countries. More than 1 500 professionals, technicians and craftsmen have been trained in the construction and handling of these silos. In addition, FAO has set up revolving funds and loans to facilitate the diffusion of better storage technologies and make them more accessible to small farmers who cannot afford them. FAO is now considering another critical aspect of post-harvest operations, the drying process, with the focus on looking at the energy implications for various drying technologies. The objective is to identify energy-efficient, affordable drying technologies that can work in rural settings.

Small- and medium-scale food processing operations

FAO supports research for, and establishment of, small- and medium-scale food processing industries. The emphasis has been on food preservation in rural and semi-urban areas, on small-scale, labour-intensive industries with low-cost available materials and on import substitution. Specific energy-related activities include a programme operating in 35 African countries to support the local construction of fuel efficient smoking ovens and the introduction of insulated storage containers that can preserve ice longer.

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By-products, residues and waste for energy production

Another factor that influences the development of the agrifood industry is the need to manage industrial by-products, residues and wastes in an environmentally sound way. One management option is to use industrial wastes to produce bioenergy. FAO works to develop and adopt production systems that are productive, sustainable and leave the lightest possible environmental footprint. The Organization’s activities in this area include investigating the recovery of waste process energy from food factories.

FAO has also carried out assessment reports in China, India, Thailand and Viet Nam on the use of rice residues for energy purposes. These studies assessed the energy uses of rice straw, a field residue, and rice husk, a processing by-product.

last updated:  Wednesday, January 16, 2013