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Peter Holmgren, Director of FAO's Climate, Energy and Tenure Division on energy-smart food

In Focus

Energy-smart food systems

Q&A with FAO Bioenergy Officer Erika Felix

FAO Bioenergy Officer Erika Felix took some time out of her busy schedule during a recent visit to Washington to speak with us about her work on “energy-smart” food systems and the Bioenergy and Food Security project.



What are energy-smart food systems? Can you explain briefly? 

Erika FelixFirst of all, it is important to realize that the agricultural sector (including fisheries and forestry) can be both an energy producer and an energy consumer. This unique hat provides an opportunity to simultaneously address the challenges of energy and food security in the context of climate change. According to a recent study by FAO the agrifood chain consumes about 30% of global energy and generates about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. Looking at the entire agrifood chain from field to plate, there are also opportunities to improve energy efficiency and incorporate renewable energy sources that can help reduce reliance on fossil fuels and improve energy access through integrated energy and food systems.

Second, while the use of fossil fuels by agriculture has made a significant contribution to feeding the world over the last few decades (largely because of the availability of cheap oil), FAO now estimates that we will need to produce 60% more food to meet the growing food demands by 2050. Most of these gains will need to come from intensification, but with energy prices moving upward we need to decouple the agrifood chain from energy markets, and find solutions different from those applied in the past.  

Finally, access to modern energy is an important issue. Close to 3 billion people rely on traditional bioenergy to meet their basic needs; these are often poor quality fuels that are used inefficiently. The agrifood chain as an energy producer can help increase the efficiency and cleanliness of energy resources while simultaneously improving food security.
 

How would you define success in integrating food and bioenergy production? Are there examples where you feel FAO has been successful?

The debate on bioenergy has largely concentrated on the food vs. fuel issue, mainly focussing on liquid biofuel for transport. However, bioenergy is broader than that and includes other fuels, such as biogas, sustainable charcoal and sustainable fuelwood. The poorest segment of the population is both energy poor and food insecure. Integrating food and energy production is not a new concept, as it has been practiced successfully in biogas systems at both small and large scale.

An FAO review of Food and Energy Systems has determined that successful implementation of Integrated Food and Energy Systems needs to take into account the specific context and pay close attention to institutional, technical and economic needs. This means bringing all the stakeholders to the table in order to align programs and policies. When FAO works in countries, we are trying to match up the supply and demand – the type of biomass and technologies available with the needs of the local people.

There are a number of examples, but one that comes to mind is in the Altiplano region of Bolivia. This area is afflicted with high levels of poverty and significant constraints on agricultural productivity. FAO promoted the use of manure from llamas to produce solid organic fertilizer and bio-slurry for use on the agricultural fields and biogas for cooking and indoor lighting. This was produced through the process of anaerobic digestion, where the digester was designed in close proximity to the house.

This simple intervention has helped improve farmers’ productivity and increased access to energy. Furthermore, the technology helped address some gender-specific concerns in the community. Women, who typically had to walk for hours to collect fuelwood and who suffered respiratory ailments from cookstove fumes, now have a much cleaner, more accessible and healthier option for cooking. In order to create a self-sustaining solution, FAO linked up with a local NGO to develop the technical capacity on the ground and reach out to other communities who could benefit.

Where does bioenergy fit into the suite of alternative energy options?

We do not promote bioenergy as the only solution, but rather see it as one alternative in the energy portfolio of a country. Bioenergy may work in some contexts, but it may not be the most appropriate solution in other countries. Our work focuses on developing a country’s understanding of the potential for bioenergy development, the risks and the opportunities so that they can make informed decisions.  To assist countries on this quest, FAO has developed the Bioenergy Support Package that consists of a number of guidance documents and policymaking tools to help promote a sound and integrated approach to bioenergy.


Food and energy systems don't just focus on production of crops. What other areas along the supply chain between farm and table are exploring?

Indeed the agrifood chain covers many aspects of production – fisheries, livestock, and forestry. Capture fishing is one of the most energy-intensive methods of food production. There are certain livestock production systems that are also very energy intensive, particularly when external inputs such as animal feed are needed. In our work on integrated food and energy systems, we are exploring opportunities for agro-forestry systems to meet local fuel needs, as well as improved stove interventions.

FAO has also realized that about 30% of food is lost or wasted, and energy is used to produce this food. In developing countries food is lost due to inadequate post-harvest operations. This is one of the key areas we are looking at now – how to improve post-harvest operations to reduce losses and what implications this may have for energy.