Energy and environmental technology Environment

Posted September 1999

The multi-functional character of agriculture and land: Bioenergy


This page presents the executive summary of "Bioenergy", a paper prepared by David Hall and Frank Rosillo-Calle of Kings’ College London and finalized under the supervision of Gustavo Best, FAO’s Senior Energy Coordinator. The paper represents one of the background documents of the Conference on the Multifunctional Character of Agriculture and Land in Maastricht (MFCAL, 12-17 September 1999, Maastricht, The Netherlands). The full paper is available for downloading (PDF, 120K).


AGRICULTURE is intrinsically multifunctional in character. Furthermore, all agricultural activity and related land use lead directly to other non-agricultural functions ranging over social, environmental, economic and cultural goods and services, which can result in significant benefits or costs. However, there is abundant evidence that, beyond food security, the multifunctional character of agriculture makes significant contributions to achieving rural development, energy and environmental sustainability at local, national, regional and global levels. An improved and more systematic understanding of this "multifunctional character" can lead directly to even greater benefits. The significance of this multifunctional character constitutes a major issue for contemporary policy-makers and practitioners alike. This document is an attempt to assess the energy function of agriculture.

The role of agriculture as an energy consumer related to the energy needs for irrigation, fertilization, transport, processing and conservation is quite well documented, even if it is still necessary to view the energy/food nexus more systematically. The role of agriculture as a major energy producer is neither recognized nor mobilized. Recent considerations regarding global climate change and the realization of the potential of biomass energy as a motor for rural development have triggered new attention. This study draws from these new concerns and understanding.

Bioenergy production and use is an important agricultural activity particularly in many rural areas of developing countries. Currently biomass energy provides about 55EJ (equivalent to 25 million of barrels/day of oil, and providing 14% of the world’s energy while being number one (34%) in developing countries as a whole), both in its traditional and modern forms. It can represent over 90% of total energy use in many developing countries, and as much as 20% in some industrial countries. Much of this energy originates from various types of agricultural and forestry residues, although in the future various types of energy crops and plantations are expected to provide the main source.

Biomass was the main source of energy until the early 20th century. It was only during the past few decades, the so-called "oil era", when biomass energy was relegated and largely ignored by policy makers and energy planners alike. Current trends indicate that the amount of bioenergy used remains stable (or even growing) with an increased use in industrial countries such as EU members and USA, mainly for environmental rather than purely energy reasons. Since the early 1990s the increasing interest in biomass for energy has been manifested in most energy scenarios showing biomass as a potential major source of energy in the 21st century, ranging from 59 to 145 EJ by 2025. This expected increase of biomass energy could have a significant impact for agricultural development.

Despite the high energy intensity of agriculture in industrial countries, in global terms the agricultural sector consumes little energy in comparison to other industrial sectors. In fact, in many developing countries these inputs are very low. This means that: i) by adopting western patterns for modernization of agriculture higher amounts of energy would result and, ii) the potential of C mitigation in agriculture from decreased energy use is much smaller than other sectors. The combined potential of agricultural systems for mitigating CO2 has been estimated at between 0.94 and 2.53 PgC/year compared to present global emissions of 7.0 PgC/yr.

In the short to medium term, residues will continue to be a major sources of bioenergy and thus would have less direct implications for agriculture than would be the case if large scale energy crops and plantations were established on agricultural land. Thus guidelines for residues use are urgently needed to determined what "is" and what "is not" renewable to ensure maximum environmental advantages, as has been done with energy forestry/crops/plantations. The large-scale use of animal manure for energy is questionable because their non-energy uses may have greater value, except in specific circumstances where surplus manure poses environmental problems for agriculture such as in Denmark where surplus manure is treated to produce biogas and also fertilizer as a by-product.

Energy technology has been improved over the past two centuries to meet certain economic and also environmental criteria but not for sequestering C. Large-scale use of bioenergy, when it reaches market maturity, offers the most effective alternative to C sequestration. The conventional view that use of biofuels were often a cause of land degradation, deforestation and health hazards, is not supported by evidence. For example, health hazards of biofuels are a more direct consequence of cultural practices, underdevelopment and poverty than to the nature of biofuels themselves. Most of these negative impacts could be eliminated by improved socio-economic conditions such as better housing, and improved technology such as improved cooking stoves.

Agricultural development has been very unequal around the world, which is expected given the differing level of development, resource endowment, climatic conditions, policies, etc. In many developing countries a major reason has been the lack of political support to farmers for, for example, infrastructure, markets, R&D and extension, despite the fact that agriculture is often the main source of livelihood for the majority of the population. Some of these shortcomings are now being addressed through more consultation with the farming community, greater recognition that traditional farming knowledge has a role to play, that modernization of agriculture needs good technical skills, the role of women in food production, etc. There is also greater recognition of the potential role of bioenergy in socio-economic development and in food production. Bioenergy can be a large (if normally secondary) source of employment and income for many farmers in remote rural areas. The potential implications of large-scale production and use of bioenergy for the rural economy are significant and thus should not be overlooked.

Climate change and the potential implications for agriculture poses many questions for which there are still very few answers. Simply not enough is known to make any meaningful predictions. Much more long-term research is needed before any unequivocal recommendations can be made. The intricacies of land availability, food and fuel competition are being addressed more seriously, and it is now more widely accepted that land availability is not at the core of the problem but agricultural mismanagement, waste, land tenure, policy interference, etc, are more crucial problems. The potential role of bioenergy has been addressed more seriously since the early 1990s when global concerns about sustainability and environmental impacts of development were put high on the political agenda and privatization of the energy sector started to be a mayor issue.

Farmers have demonstrated their capacity for change and innovation if they see clear opportunities. With proper support (extension services, infrastructure, financial services, etc.), farmers will be able to produce far more food and energy, provided that the necessary changes are put in place. It is important to remember that production of food and energy in agriculture are mutually interrelated and complementary. Bioenergy programs which couple with agroforestry and integrated farming can improve food production by making energy and income available, where it is needed, in a more environmentally and sustainable manner.

However, bioenergy production is a complex issue that depends of many and varying factors. Bioenergy should not be regarded as the panacea for solving agricultural and energy problems in the rural areas, but as an activity which can play a significant role in improving agricultural productivity, energy supply, the environment and sustainability. Its final contribution will depend on a combination of social, economic, environmental, energy and technological factors. The multifunctional character of agriculture and its potential role in bioenergy production should receive greater recognition, together with the need for positive political encouragement, and socio-cultural adaptations.

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