Energy and environmental technology Environment

Posted July 1996

"Energizing" the food production chain for the attainment of food security

by Gustavo Best
Senior Energy Co-ordinator
Environment and Natural Resources Service (SDRN)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division

Prepared for the International Conference on Sustainable Agriculture for Food, Energy and Industry, held from 22-28 June 1997 in Braunschweig, Germany, organized jointly by the Federal Agricultural Research Centre (FAL), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the Society of Sustainable Agriculture and Resource Management of India (SSARM).

ENERGY USE PATTERNS in most countries are non-sustainable from both the natural resource management and environmental points of view. In the rural areas of developing countries, relying for their household and productive energy needs mainly on fuelwood, agricultural residues and human and animal power, sustainability is even farther removed, with human drudgery exacerbating poverty. All stages of food production require energy inputs in a variety of forms, (mechanized power for soil preparation planting and harvesting, energy for water lifting, irrigation and pumping, fertilization, transportation, processing and conservation). The "energizing" of the food production chain in both quantitative and qualitative terms, is necessary for the attainment of food security.

Two are therefore the challenges facing energy development in rural areas of developing countries. The first relates to the need to fulfil the energy requirements for household and food production activities. The second is to warrant that these new energy inputs sanction an effective advance towards higher levels of social equity, food security and sustainabffity.

For over three quarters of the people of the World, changes in oil prices or in international energy politics, and even the environmental awareness which is shaking modern societies means nothing, means no change in their daily struggle to obtain the energy needed for survival. These are the rural populations of many developing countries which have been left outside the thrust towards modernization being enjoyed by the industrial, transport and commercial sectors. Few changes have occurred since the rural energy problems were first raised in the late 1960s; the traditional energy sources mentioned above (fuelwood, biomass residues and human and animal power), continue to be the main and only energy resources available for millions of rural families; cooking, heating and rudimentary agricultural practices continue to be the main energy consuming activities; no energy is at hand for promoting income-producing activities. A change in the energy scenario in rural areas of developing countries is long overdue. Energy is not a goal in itself, but a necessary mean and input for human activity; thus, energy-related efforts must be immersed in broader efforts to promote rural development as a whole, and in particular, to achieve sustainable rural development.

In facing comprehensively the challenges identified, an important opportunity becomes evident: rural areas of developing countries could "leapfrog" to more sustainable energy systems, and, in fact, to more stable food security conditions. By utilizing the potential offered by renewable energy sources, by tapping on agro-ecotechnologies and by putting into action innovative institutional, financial and other machinery, these rural areas can become examples to other sectors of society, both in developing and industrialized countries. This will require political will and the effective mobilization of resources.

Recent advances

Since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, UNCED, and coinciding with important changes in the socio-economic and political spheres, such as privatization, structural adjustments and further stress on environmental and social participation questions, some progress has been achieved in various countries, regions and technological areas. Many countries have accelerated the rate of introduction of renewable energies into their rural areas. A few examples of progress in the application of energy technologies include: India, where a very ambitious wind energy programme has increased several fold the contribution of that energy source in electrifying rural areas; Nepal, where several thousands of biogas digesters have been built with energy, sanitation and fertilizer benefits; Zimbabwe, where a solar photovoltaic programme has made an impact on a large number of rural dwellers; Argentina, where decentralised renewable energy systems based on solar, wind and biomass energies have been promoted.

Perhaps the most interesting progress achieved at the national level is in relation with innovative financial schemes which are slowly but steadily finding their way into national and international policies and strategies. Partly as a reaction to reduced governmental intervention and to policy decisions related to achieving cost-reflective pricing of energy carriers (electricity, natural gas, LPG, kerosene, solar panels, wind turbines, etc.), and therefore to the abolishment of subsidies and other economic means of promoting rural energy systems, governments and the private sector have opened new avenues for diffusion of decentralized energy systems. Local credit schemes, liberalized energy markets, energy services leasing systems and co-operative arrangements are among the most important. At the international level, the ratification by 159 countries of the Framework Convention on Climate Change opens opportunities for new energy programmes leading to higher levels of sustainability. International financing through the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), and others, directed specifically to a net reduction of greenhouse gases emissions, GHG, has increased substantially.

These signals of progress are nevertheless punctual and isolated, and very small compared to the urgent challenges identified before. The scale of these advances is minute compared with the scale of the problem. Only from the food security point of view, it becomes clear that if the targets of the World Food Summit are to be achieved, a 4-7 fold increase in commercial energy will be needed, depending on the local situation. This will, obviously, not happen under business as usual.

Key issues

Only local economic, environmental and social conditions can guide the identification of energy problems and solutions in rural areas. Strategies to advance towards sustainable development through planned energy inputs, must rely on a convergence between overall national development policies and goals and locally perceived and identified priorities. With the purpose of illustrating some of the critical issues which inhibit the developmental role of energy in rural areas, and the recommended action, the following list is presented:

Policy issues

Technological issues

Institutional Issues

Financial Issues

The Role of FAO

FAO's energy activities aim at assisting developing countries to meet their energy requirements in agriculture, forestry and fisheries, as a means of achieving sustainable rural development. A transition from the present energy supply of mainly firewood and animal and human power, to a more diversified base and a better use of commercial energy, is key to improving the living conditions of rural populations. In line with the various energy-related concepts and calls for action in Agenda 2 1, its activities have emphasized the integration of energy as a tool towards attaining sustainability, the development and promotion of renewable sources of energy adapted to the socio-economic needs of rural populations, and the efficient use of conventional energy sources.

The following are brief statements of examples of energy activities carried out by FAO in different fields of work:

Assessment and planning

In the area of energy assessment and planning, FAO's activities focus on developing an integrated approach to incorporate energy into rural and into agricultural and forestry planning, and on assistance to countries in establishing a framework for activities in this field. Regarding technological issues, FAO promotes the use of mature and promising energy technologies. These two elements, assessment and planning, and technological development and application, are complementary in that the first provides a framework for identifying priorities and strategies to enable the second to be set in its proper perspective within the national context.

FAO has developed an integrated approach to the assessment, planning and implementation of rural energy activities. This approach has been discussed in Interministerial Consultations organized in Indonesia, Laos, Mongolia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Uruguay and Vietnam, where National Frameworks were discussed and actions launched to accelerate energy for sustainable rural development. A Latin American Working Group on Energy Planning for Sustainable Rural Development, GLAERS, has been established in co-operation with experts from 19 countries. Since 1996 this group operates from its Permanent Secretariat, hosted by the Government of Uruguay through its power utility company, UTE. A methodological approach in this field for the Latin American and Caribbean Region has been formulated, and several Regional Meetings have been held to discuss a Regional Plan of Action in co-operation with ECLAC, OLADE and IDB. A package of more than 60 projects is presently being finalized and will be presented to potential donors.

A Regional Study has been finalized and published in co-operation with the African Energy Programme of the African Development Bank which discusses the energy needs of the agricultural sector of African countries in the year 2010. Its conclusions and recommendations are at the base of a series of planned meetings at the national and subregional levels in Africa.


FAO's strategy to improve the supply of wood for energy includes the following measures: i) conservation through more efficient use of fuelwood; ii) increase productivity of existing forest resources by creating high yield fuelwood plantations, iii) inter-fuel substitution. Although fuelwood programmes are underway in many countries, activities need to be intensified on a scale proportional to the need, with emphasis on major fuelwood-deficit areas and on direct participation of rural people in developing their own fuelwood supplies.

The main priorities of FAO's wood energy programme are a) to develop activities and programmes for fuelwood-deficit areas; b) to promote an integrated approach in order to use wood as an environmentally friendly source of energy. Wood energy is one of the five priority areas of the Tropical Forestry Action Plan, which addresses the most urgent aspects of tropical deforestation. Activities include production of charcoal and wood-based commercial energy for industrial as well as rural community needs, such as decentralized electricity generalization.

FAO sponsors various regional wood energy networks in Latin America and Asia.. The Regional Wood-Energy Development programme - RWEDP based in Bangkok and supported by the Dutch Government is actively pursuing a more systematic approach to wood-energy in Asia, and a move towards a more efficient end use of wood as a modem energy carrier. The Latin American Dendroenergy Network promotes collaboration among the countries of the region. A map of "wood-energy hot spots" is being presently prepared.


Bioenergy conversion is acquiring renewed importance, not only because of the excellent opportunities it offers for a new development thrust in rural areas, but also due to the role it can play in relation to the environment, in general, and to climatic change in particular. An International Expert Meeting on Biofuels for Development was organized in Rome by FAO in September 1993 to assess the latest thinking and programmes on biofuels, and to formulate a series of recommendations regarding the main issues guiding biofuel development and utilization. Participants at this meeting were internationally recognized experts from 19 countries. Their recommendations are at the base of FAO's programme on biofuels, which is becoming one of its major activities in the field of energy.

The programme on biofuels includes issues such as land use planning, employment generation, environment, technological and economic considerations. Among the technologies to be included will be: anaerobic digestion of organic wastes and residues; production of liquid fuels, organic recycling; gasification of wood and agricultural residues (such as rice husks, and coconut and peanut shells); the transfer of Chinese experience in rice-husk gasification to other countries; pyrolysis and briquetting, Particular stress is given to the rehabilitation of degraded and marginal lands through energy plantations.

Rural mechanization

The introduction of machinery, tools and alternative technologies to rural areas, taking into account various farming systems and agro-industrial activities, is an active field of action of FAO. An implicit treatment of energy inputs is present in many field projects.

Solar energy

Solar energy applications of interest for agricultural and rural development include solar drying of grain, other food crops and fish, solar cooking, water heating, water pumping, communications, lighting, pumping, solar greenhouses and refrigeration. Although several of these are mature technologies, their widespread adoption would be enhanced by improving efficiency and reliability. FAO's activities in this field are concerned with the promotion of promising technologies and the assessment of systems appropriate for rural areas.

Draught animal technology

Draught animals, estimated at over 400 million head, are used in many developing countries for both agriculture and transport. Draught animal power can alleviate human drudgery and increase agricultural production. However, efficiency needs to be improved through modernization of equipment, better breeding, husbandry, feeding and veterinary care, and improved infrastructures for research, training and credit facilities. FAO's activities in this area deal mainly with the draught animal equipment components of agricultural mechanization projects, with animal health and with the improvement of animal systems for food production, pumping, grinding, etc.

Integration of energy sources

The possibility of utilizing various energy sources towards the fulfilment of particular energy requirements is a topic of FAO's attention, as is the improved efficiency of use of energy in agriculture, forestry and fisheries. Activities in this area include a field project integrating alcohol production from sorghum with biogas, pyrolysis, solar and wind systems; energy conservation; and assessment of the potential of various renewable sources of energy in specific farm activities. A number of the projects identified by GLAERS in Latin America and the Caribbean have an integrated approach to energy sources, their supply and their utilization.


The World is undergoing a series of drastic changes in terms of technology, communications, transport and culture. The energy sector is no exception and will certainly transit to new horizons, some of which are already visible: high energy efficiency; renewable energy sources; lower intensity industry; material and energy recycling. The agriculture sector will also move towards paths of higher sustainability through the application of techniques and practices such as organic farming, better water and soil management, integrated pest management and plant nutrition, energy, mechanization and food-processing ecotechnologies, biodiversity and genetic tools and biotechnology.

The main challenge in the medium term in the area of energy for rural development is to mobilize the drastic changes occurring in both the energy and agriculture sectors, to the benefit of rural populations. The danger exists that these populations could be left behind in the drift towards higher levels of sustainability, and that the future would witness either famine and chaos in rural areas, or massive emigration to urban areas.

Energy must play its decisive role in combating poverty and attaining food security

Currently, the highest incidence of poverty is encountered in South Asia, where close to 50% of the population is below the poverty line, followed by 19% in sub-Saharan Africa, 15% in East Asia and 10% in Latin America and the Caribbean. However, poverty is projected to increase by 40% in Africa, which will then account for 27% of the developing world's poor. The rural poor make up more than 75% of the poor in many sub-Saharan and South Asian countries. The urban poor are a slight majority in Latin America, although the poorest of the poor are still found in rural areas.

In energy terms, the figures identified above can be correlated almost perfectly with what is called the "energy ladder". At the household level, the poorest people use manure, twigs and low grade biomass; as they become less poor they switch to fuelwood, and progressively they move to charcoal, kerosene, gas and electricity. The poorest of the poor use nothing but human force in their agricultural activities, integrating animals and simple tools as they move up economically; at a certain level of development they will manage to integrate some level of mechanization, irrigation and fertilization, to move if successful and in many cases lucky, to tractors, harvesters, etc. In both household and economic activities the "energy ladder" follows and influences the "economic ladder".

Attempts to alleviate hunger and to promote rural development and food security must be accompanied with efforts to promote the key role of energy, not as a goal in itself but as a key component of those attempts.

An approach considering energy and food security as a system must be applied to ensure that energy is appropriately considered and integrated into agricultural development programmes

This systematic approach should consider:

  1. development objectives

  2. the energy needs of each specific step of food production

  3. the best energy source and technological option to cover that need

  4. sustainability and environmental characteristics

  5. social and cultural issues

  6. economic and financial criteria

  7. institutional and human resources needs and responsibilities

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