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The impact of fuelwood scarcity on dietary patterns: Hypotheses for research

This article is based on a paper for FAO that surveys and synthesizes available information on changes in food-related behaviour that can be attributed to scarcity of fuelwood in sub-Saharan Africa (Fleuret, in press).

Fuelwood is the primary source of household energy for the developing world. More than 2 000 million people use wood or charcoal to cook and preserve their food. But in the face of population pressure and widespread deforestation, fuelwood supplies are being depleted rapidly.

How is fuelwood scarcity affecting dietary patterns and food security overall? It is easy to visualize a series of direct and indirect effects such as fewer cooked meals, shifts to foods that require less cooking time, higher incidence of parasitic diseases caused by the drinking of unboiled water and increases in the workload and economic burden for women (usually responsible for the collection or purchase of fuelwood). In fact, there are many references in the current literature to families that eat one instead of two cooked meals a day because they lack fuel. However, in most cases these citations are based on limited observations rather than on substantive research. Much more research is needed before the hypotheses regarding the fuelwood/food connection can be taken as fact and safely used as the basis for development efforts; some may actually be disproved by further study. This article briefly sets out 14 hypotheses regarding the relationship between fuelwood scarcity and changes in food-related behaviour, including production, distribution and consumption. References to relevant literature are provided and directions for further research indicated.

THE NUTRITIONAL STATUS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN: how is it affected by fuelwood availability?

1. Due to shortages in fuelwood supplies, fewer meals are cooked. Most often mentioned, although frequently as an aside without any documentation, is the likelihood that cooking fires simply may not be lit as often as they would be were fuel supplies adequate, and that consequently the frequency of meal preparation may be reduced. Casey (1981) for example, asserts that fuelwood shortages have'' some cases reduced households to one cooked meal a day" in South Africa. Similar statements are made by Adams et al. (1980), Cecelski (1984), Kamweti (1980) and the NRC (1981).

Although reduced frequency of meal preparation is often mentioned as a consequence of fuel shortages, it is probable that the relationship is not nearly so direct as is assumed, and that other variables play an equal or greater role. As Cecelski (1984) observes, " is difficult in many cases to separate reductions in cooking due to lack of fuel and those due to lack of time. The effects are similar...".

2. Shortage of fuel leads to reduced frequency of preparation of appropriate foods for infants, toddlers, and the sick. Fuel shortages have also been said to interfere with the frequency and timeliness of preparation of infant foods or of special foods appropriate for sick household members (Adams et al., 1980; Cecelski, 1984).

Most infant and invalid foods are thin gruels with short cooking times compared to those for the preparation of normal adult fare. In situations of food shortage the consumption c. these gruels by the entire household has been shown to increase (Fleuret, 1985). It is equally feasible to hypothesize that foods appropriate for infants would be more widely available rather than curtailed, in situations of fuelwood shortage, because adults can eat them as well, at a reduced fuel cost. In this situation too, more research is needed before the direct linkage between fuelwood shortage and the food consumption practices observed can be affirmed. While such relationships possibly exist, their directness is open to question; time constraints and culturally conditioned habits are likely to play important roles.

3. Energy shortages may lead to the consumption of raw or inadequately cooked foodstuffs rather than fully cooked items. There is ¡little direct evidence to support the argument that reduced cooking times are employed for foods with which consumers are already familiar. In large measure, eating vegetable products raw is inconsistent with the food beliefs and food habits of most African populations. In fact, the conviction that cooking is essential in preparing the vegetable relishes that accompany main dishes is so strong that even introduced Western salad is cooked by most rural Africans who include it in their diets (Fleuret, 1979a, b).

4. Shortages of fuelwood lead to a reduction in or abandonment of fuel-intensive food-processing and storage technologies. A number of food-processing techniques depend on the use of heat and/or smoke to preserve food for storage anal or marketing. Smoking fish and meat is commonplace (Pimentel and Pimentel, 1985). Parboiling rice prior to storage helps to conserve nutrients, particularly B vitamins (Jelliffe, 1966). Reduction in the use of such fuel-dependent technologies has the potential to reduce household food availability, particularly on a seasonal basis; to limit quantities of processed foods that can be offered for sale; and to increase the risk of contamination and/or deterioration of stored foods with agents that increase health risks. However, more research is needed to demonstrate conclusively the extent to which the risk of exposure to illness, food shortfalls, or cash constraints has actually been increased by shortages of fuel.

5. Foods with shorter cooking times are substituted for those with longer cooking times. It has often been asserted that an expedient response to situations of fuelwood shortage is the substitution of foods requiring less cooking for customary food items with prolonged cooking times (Adams, 1980; Kamweti, 1980). Two often cited examples are the substitution of greens for beans and of rice for sorghum (Cecelski, 1984; Devres, 1979).

Although relationships between fuel availability and food production, purchase and consumption choices have been posited, there is again little evidence that fuel requirements are the principal determinants of these consumption choices. The only exception is among urban dwellers who are dependent on both fuel and food purchases and who have, generally, a greater range of choices in foods available in urban markets.

Research on a case-by-case basis could help to identify appropriate food crops with short preparation times that might be introduced into local farming systems.

6. Shortage of fuel leads to the purchase of "street foods", usually processed and/or cooked items, from food shops, market-places, and/or itinerant vendors. The purchase of prepared foodstuffs is increasingly replacing home preparation of meals in urban areas and among the wage-employed. This is particularly the case among male migrant labourers. Consumption of wheat products particularly seems to increase in these groups (NRC, 1981). Schoolchildren who are unable to return home for lunch are also major consumers in urban areas.

The linkages between such food consumption practices and fuelwood availability do not seem significant. Most of these foods are cooked, or require energy-intensive commercial processing. While their consumption reduces fuel expenditures for the household, food expenditures are increased; certainly the cost of the fuel used in their preparation is a component of the price the consumer pays. Convenience, time constraints, the unavailability of home-produced foods and the inability to cook seem more relevant to the explanation of the adoption of such food items.

However, if shortages of fuel create such a market for fuelwood that supplies that were originally used for family cooking are sold instead, a link between fuelwood and nutrition could be established (see hypothesis number 11).

7. Shortages of fuel may dictate changes in crop inventories such that commercial production replaces food production and processed, cooked and/or marketed foods are purchased with the income generated from agricultural sales. Shifts to commercial production are determined by a combination of variables including access to markets, need for cash for both routine and extraordinary household expenditures, introduction of resettlement programmes or highly-targeted agricultural development programmes, land and labour availability, and proximity to processing facilities (particularly for such commodities as tea and sugar cane).

Adams et al. (1980) suggested that fuel availability is one factor underlying changes in production emphasis from foods for home consumption to commercial cropping. However, the existing research does not provide enough information to determine the extent that fuelwood shortage may affect such fundamental shifts in food production and income-generating patterns.

8. Fuelwood scarcity leads to increasing labour-time inputs to satisfy household energy demands and thus to the reallocation of individual female labour. This affects nutritional status because female fuel collectors have less time to devote to other activities such as food production or income generation. Further reductions in already inadequate labour supplies through increased work demands for fuel collection ultimately have the potential to affect food and/or cash crop production and other money-earning activities. When asked, women frequently state that the search for fuelwood is more arduous and time-consuming now than in the past. But such subjective data are not very useful in helping to determine whether patterns of labour-time allocation, and ultimately of production, consumption and nutrition, have been changed because of fuelwood scarcity. Thus, the power of the argument linking scarcity, labour-time reallocation and nutritional change is hampered once again by the lack of retrospective or comparative data.

9. Female labour-time reallocation as a consequence of fuelwood scarcity makes increased demands on human energy and increases the possibility of a negative female energy balance. Adult women in their childbearing years have always been considered at particular risk of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies because of the biological demands of pregnancy and lactation, the energy demands of their workload and their assumed subordination to men in access to food for consumption (Hamilton, Popkin and Spicer, 1984). Hence, it is thought that increasing women's workloads, lengthening their working day or substituting more physically demanding work for less intensive activity has the potential to affect negatively energy balance, energy reserves and nutritional status (Adams et al., 1980; Arnold and Jongma, 1977; Cecelski, 1984).

There have been relatively few studies | on actual energy expenditure by women engaged in specific physical activities. But at moderate levels, water collection, agricultural production activities and food processing all consume more calories per unit of time than wood collection. Therefore, if time is subtracted from agricultural or other work activities and reallocated to fuelwood collection, the result in terms of female energy balance may actually be positive rather than negative, with net calorie savings.

MARKET/NO FUELWOOD in the Central African Republic

10. Fuelwood shortage and consequent increased labour demands may lead to the reallocation of collection responsibility to others, particularly children. The implications of increasing fuelwood collection duties on children's welfare and nutritional status are dependent upon the amount of time and energy children are required to contribute to the task: this is a topic about which there is very little information available. Another major area for concern is in the impact of additional duties on children's school attendance. Barnes (1982) notes that sending female children to school has significant effects on their mothers' workload and time allocation because the result is net labour loss, particularly for domestic maintenance activities. To date, however, there is no conclusive evidence that children's energy balance, access to food or educational opportunities are being adversely affected by additions to their workload occasioned by increasing time inputs to fuelwood collection.

11. Fuelwood scarcity leads to its commercialization; purchase of fuel consumes an increasing proportion of the household budget and the possibilities of making other purchases, including food, is reduced. Almost all studies conducted in recent years indicate the development and expansion of a market in firewood. Shortages, often in conjunction with the privatization of land, have altered the status of woodfuel from free goods to a saleable commodity (Brokensha and Riley, 1978). Much of the rural population has not yet been affected by such changes, and still obtains its fuel from the environment without paying for it in cash or merchandise. But for a growing number of people, mostly in urban but also increasingly in some rural localities, fuel must be purchased, at escalating prices (Buck, 1980; Oleche, 1982).

Although there are clear nutritional implications if food expenditures are reduced through competing demands on available cash for other household necessities, there is no clear evidence that rising fuel costs have led to reduced food expenditures (Adams e' al., 1980). However, there is no doubt that changes in the supply, availability and costs of fuel as a result of scarcity and sale have the potential to affect household budget priorities.

12. As firewood becomes a commercial commodity its control and management shift from women to men; women's income generation and household food supply may be negatively affected. It is well documented that men and women have different spending patterns as a function of their different responsibilities in household provisioning and that these patterns have important implications for food consumption and nutrition (Carloni, 1984); the allocation of women's earnings to day-to-day expenditures suggests that food supply and consequently nutritional status may be more directly dependent on women's income than on men's, and relatively little affected by total household income.

The commercialization of firewood has the potential to affect women's income-generating opportunities negatively in two ways: by increasing women's fuel expenditures and thus reducing the net returns to their enterprises; or by compelling them to purchase fuelwood from male sellers, rather than gathering it free of charge. In either case one possible outcome is a worsening of economic and nutritional status. Although further study is needed to confirm or demonstrate that such effects have taken place, women's income-earning capacities are definitely linked with child welfare on the one hand and costs and returns to various kinds of economic activity on the other.

13. The use of dung and/or agricultural residues instead of woodfuel contributes to further declines in agricultural production since their value as fertilizers is lost. Arnold and Jongma (1977) and Mnzava (1985) both nosed that the use of dung as fuel is tantamount to burning food in order to cook food and they presented the following sequence: diversion of manure leads to lower yields, increases in the cultivated area, further forest encroachment, less fuel, and further manure diversion to fuel use.

Although it has been argued that the use of dung and residues as fuel occurs only when available wood resources have been exhausted, in the case of Lesotho it is clearly a matter of seasonality that determines the fuel of choice. Dung or residues may be preferred instead of wood or charcoal for particular tasks. It is therefore not always necessity, but preference and convenience as well, that may affect the decision to use a particular fuel.

The removal of dung from the agricultural system clearly has nutritional implications if this leads to reduced yields, and fuel shortage and consumption levels can be directly linked if the shortage is the reason for manure diversion. However, even in areas where fuel is in adequate supply not all farmers use manure to increase the fertility of their farm plots. A study of agricultural input use in one Taita community shows that a minority of a random sample of farmers, both male and female, uses manure as fertilizer during the principal growing season; and those who do, use it primarily on cash rather than food crops.

Before a direct link with declining productivity and fuelwood shortage can be made, careful investigation needs to be made to find out the causal factors in dung and residue consumption.

14. Competition between domestic fuel consumption and its extraction for other purposes can affect labour allocation and small income-generating enterprises, particularly those managed by women. Households are not the only consumers of woodfuel. Tea and tobacco curing; brick, pottery and tile making; baking and brewing; salt production; blacksmithing; cooking-food preparation for restaurants, food vendors, schools and prisons; and fish smoking are all commercial activities that require woodfuel.

In some areas, the combined effects of extraction for commercial and domestic use, plus forest-clearing for agricultural purposes, have effectively removed people from access to nearby sources of energy, and trucks may have to be used to collect fuel (Fergus, 1983). The shortage of fuel also means that supplies for income generation through food processing, cooking or brewing may be unavailable or too expensive for such women's activities to be undertaken. Again, further research is needed.

SENEGAL - children marketing fuelwood

CAUSAL FACTORS in dung and residue consumption as fuel need to be identified


Although many of the hypotheses advanced in this article seem to be intuitively logical, the food/fuel connection has not yet been conclusively established. Clearly, there is a strong argument in favour of further research, not to settle an academic question, but rather to help define directions for future action both in terms of increasing fuelwood production and improving nutrition. in the meantime, however, the temptation to accept these hypotheses as fact must be resisted. A poignant example of the dangers of this approach can be seen in the negative experiences of some projects aimed exclusively at increasing the production of fuelwood. These efforts were based on the assumption that full participation in reforestation efforts would be the result of simply offering local people the opportunity to produce more fuelwood. It was only after several such projects did not meet planting targets that research was undertaken; research which indicated clearly that local people were much more likely to participate in the planting of multipurpose species (e.g. fuel/fodder or fruit/fuel) than in those exclusively for fuelwood.

It is not the intent of this example or this article to suggest that attempts to increase fuelwood production should be halted until definitive information is available regarding the fuelwood/food connection. On the contrary, the magnitude of the fuelwood crisis demands a redoubling of activities. However, it is essential that research on and surveys of local people are an integral pan of these efforts; and that a flexible approach, which permits incorporation of new information, be adopted if these projects are to have a long-term positive effect on the nutritional well-being of rural people.


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