Climate Smart Agriculture Sourcebook

Management of energy in the context of CSA

Production and Resources

Moving forward - possible energy solutions for climate-smart agriculture

B9 - 5.1 Technologies for energy-smart food chains and climate-smart agriculture

This chapter deals with generic considerations on energy-smart food chains. Energy solutions regarding specific agricultural  production and post-harvest practices and technologies are found in module B.1 and module B.10, respectively. 

In farming communities, a mix of appropriate energy technologies, equipment and facilities is necessary to make the gradual shift to food chains that are both energy-smart and climate-smart. The nature of this mix will depend on biophysical conditions, infrastructure and the capacities of the labour force. There are many technologies that can be part of energy-smart food chains. These include: wind mills, solar collectors, photovoltaic panels, biogas production units, power generators, equipment for bio-oil extraction and purification, fermentation and distillation facilities for ethanol production, pyrolysis units, hydrothermal conversion equipment, solar-, wind or bioenergy-operated water pumps, renewable energy-powered vehicles, monitoring chains, information and communication technologies, fuel-efficient cooking stoves, and equipment for water supply, distribution and purification. These technologies add value to agricultural production near the source of raw materials. They can also be combined on the same farm in integrated food-energy systems, which are briefly presented in module B5

With the data that are currently available, it is difficult to identify energy-smart food 'hot spots' and intervention priorities. Different agrifood chains require different types of energy inputs. More research is particularly required on the relationships between energy use, yields and production costs in various agricultural chains and settings.

Farming systems with generally low energy needs and extensive crop and/or livestock production systems, like those in Australia or New Zealand, can operate with energy requirements as low as two or three gigajoules per hectare. The energy requirement for input-intensive agriculture in countries such as Israel or the Netherlands can reach up to 70-80 gigajoules per hectare (Smil, 2008).

On a per calorie of food output basis, China, with its high cropping ratio , extensive irrigation and intensive fertilization, now has a more energy-intensive crop sector than the United States or the European Union. In China, after the 1978 farming reforms, nitrogen (half of which comes from inorganic fertilizers) has provided about 60 percent of the nutrients for crops. Over 80 percent of the country’s protein requirement are derived from crop production. Agriculture is highly dependent on fossil fuels, but has been able to feed about 8.5 people per hectare and up to 15 people per hectare in populous provinces. This result is also attributable to a national diet with relatively little animal proteins.

A number of technological solutions exist to optimize energy use. For example, in crop production, reducing the rolling resistance and slippage of tractors, combine harvesters or other motorized agricultural machinery (e.g. by improving tractor tires or optimizing tire pressure according to soil conditions) would improve energy efficiency of mechanized systems. Energy conservation in greenhouses, animal houses and agricultural buildings is another major area of intervention. Energy use can be minimized through a greater deployment of heat pumps (mostly of the mechanical compression type, which are driven by electric motors) and heat recovery systems, both of which can also be used for dehumidification and cooling. Air-to-water heat pumps or water-to-water heat pumps, possibly combined with geothermal energy sources, can significantly increase energy efficiency in all operations that require heat. Pipe heating, heated floors, infrared heating and air heating are also technological options that can be considered. Some of the most economic energy-efficient interventions involve the proper construction, insulation and correct ventilation of buildings and greenhouses.

A best and worst assumption of energy intensity per unit of produce can be made for all activities in the agrifood chain. In the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) greenhouse gas accounting system, these activities are included under industrial processes or energy sectors, not under the crop and livestock sectors. These intensities are presented in Figure B9.6.

Figure B9.6. Best and worst assumption of energy intensities in the post-harvest stage of the food chain

Source: FAO, 2011a

Solar power (photovoltaic or solar heaters), wind and geothermal energy are all sources of energy that are currently available for both large and small applications. These energy sources are particularly suitable for remote rural areas.

Worldwide, the use of biomass for heat and power could save significant amounts of carbon: up to 1 gigatonne of carbon could be saved annually by 2030 (FAO, 2010). However, this bioenergy would have to be carbon-neutral, and there is debate as to whether this would be the case (see Box B9.1.). Co-firing of biomass with coal could save nearly 0.5 gigatonnes of carbon per year at fairly modest costs (FAO, 2010). Savings in the traditional biomass and charcoal sectors could amount to another 0.5 gigatonne of carbon. Considerable efforts would be required to obtain the higher investments required, address the complex socio-economic and cultural issues and cover the transaction costs associated with equipment and the reliable supply of biomass (FAO, 2010).

The transition to energy-smart food practices is already under way. However, the pace of change is slow. For these practices to have a large-scale impact, significant scaling up is required.

B9 - 5.2 Policies and institutions for energy-smart food and climate-smart agriculture

The promotion and scaling up of food practices that are both energy-smart and climate-smart require innovative supportive policies and institutions. Many climate-smart practices promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. For issues related to modern energy services, particular attention should be paid to ensuring participatory that gender-sensitive decision-making processes are followed. In the case of bioenergy, it is especially important to consider the security of land tenure for local farmers. Some examples of policies specifically related to energy efficiency and renewable energy are summarized in Table B9.3.

Table B9.3. Examples of policy instruments to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy

Energy efficiency

Renewable energy


  • The introduction of freight truck fuel economy standards and payload limits
  • Minimum energy performance standards (MEPS) for machinery is used in agrifood chains
  •  Energy performance labels on appliances
  • Vehicle speed restrictions
  • Packaging recycling regulations
  •  Higher charges for landfill disposal of organic wastes
  • Capacity building, research, education and communication



  • Promotion of renewable energy markets
  • Financial incentives, such as tax exemption, feed-in tariffs and tradable certificate-based renewable energy obligations
  • Standards, permits and building codes
  • Alternatives to landfill with an energy component (e.g. incineration with energy recovery methane capture from landfill)
  • Capacity building, research, education and communication


Interventions promoting energy efficiency and/or energy-smart food production, which reduce carbon dioxide emissions through the increased use of renewable energy, can tap into many of the climate change financial mechanisms discussed in module C4 on financial instruments and investments. There are also financing sources especially targeted for renewable energy use, energy efficiency and increased energy access, including: innovative business models, such as energy service companiesvi; financial instruments, such as feed-in-tariffs; tradable certificates; integrated municipal arrangements; and public-private funding schemes. 

Thailand is a country that has enacted several policies that favour renewable energy. Regulations adopted in 2002 simplify the grid connection requirements for small electricity generators up to 1 megawatt (World Bank, 2011). These regulations and other policies led to the development of integrated sugarcane and rice biorefineries that produce food, ethanol, heat and electricity. Organic residues were also returned to the soil, increasing soil fertility. By 2008, 73 biomass projects using a variety of residues, including bagasse and rice husks, had been developed with an installed capacity of 1 689 megawatts (Chum et al., 2011).

Implementing these types of policies requires innovative institutional mechanisms. Again, it should be noted that agricultural institutions that promote low-carbon agriculture also contribute to the production of energy-smart food. The division of labour and financial instruments are other elements that must be taken into account by institutional mechanisms promoting integrated food-energy chains (FAO, 2011a). Examples of such mechanisms are listed below. 

  • In a wheat-producing area of the United Kingdom, a bioelectricity plant buys the farmers’ straw through a subsidiary company. Seventy percent of the fuel needed to run the bioelectricity plant comes from the straw feedstock; the rest from another type of feedstock and natural gas. In this system, farmers produce wheat and leave the energy matters to more competent players (Bogdanski et al., 2010).
  • At the district model biogas farm in China, farmers cultivate crops, can raise pigs but are notresponsible for producing the biogas. Instead, farmers contribute money to the district pig farm for purchasing the pigs. The district farm is responsible for raising the pigs and generating the energy from biogas. The farmers get in return yearly dividends from any sale of pigs, inexpensive biogas and liquid fertilizer from the district farm.
  • In Bangladesh, two innovative business schemes are tapping into the private sector’s needs for biofertilizer to drive the development of household biomass production for energy (ISD, 2010). One scheme seeks to create a steady supply of bioenergy through a cattle-leasing programme. Programme participants, who are mainly women, receive funding to purchase a cow and a calf from an organic tea farm. The women then repay the loan through the sale of milk and dung. In the second scheme, still in its pilot phase, households receive loans from the organic tea farm to pay for setting up a biogas system. The households repay the loan by selling dung and/or the slurry to the tea farm. Once the biogas installation has been completely paid for, the households have the option to continue selling the slurry and dung to the farm. 
  • 'Fee-for-service'vii schemes are payment models where services are unbundled and paid for separately. These include, for example, energy service companies. Leasing schemes or concession arrangements are other options for financing energy-smart food.

The need for cross-sectoral coordination is a requirement for successful bioenergy development. Box B9.3 provides an example from Sierra Leone.

Box B9.3  Bioenergy addressed through a cross-ministerial platform in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone, a post-conflict, resource-rich country, is classified as a low-income food-deficit country. Seventy percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and 35 percent are undernourished. Agriculture is a key sector of the economy. The country depends heavily on imported fossil fuels, fuelwood and charcoal for household energy. The population has minimal access to electricity. Currently, modern bioenergy is not produced in Sierra Leone, but a number of investors are moving into the country. Bioenergy development in such a fragile environment can involve major risks, but it may represent an opportunity to attract much needed agricultural investment. Agriculture-led growth through bioenergy investments could reduce poverty, stimulate the economy and increase access to energy. However, the process for achieving this needs to be clearly understood and carefully managed. The inclusion of smallholder farmers, social protection mechanisms, and sustainable resource management are key elements in the process.

Sierra Leone's Ministry of Energy and Water Resources formally requested the technical support of FAO to assess the potential for sustainable bioenergy development in the country using the Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) approach. A first step was the establishment of an inter-ministerial working group, the Bioenergy and Food Security Working Group. The group's first activity was to identify the country’s main concerns and challenges for bioenergy development, and its immediate needs and longer-term requirements. One of the immediate needs is to have information that would allow Sierra Leone to screen and direct investors coming to the country. The working group is currently developing a set of guidelines for sustainable bioenergy investment. As land grabbing is becoming a major concern in Sierra Leone, the guidelines will address the issues of community inclusion in decision-making and conflict management. In the longer term, there is the need to identify the country’s potential for sustainable bioenergy development, fill in data and information gaps, and address long-term institutional requirements and training needs at both the policy and technical levels.

B9 - 5.3 A multipartner programme for scaling up energy-smart food

Shifting to more energy-smart food chains is an important step towards reaching the broader goals of climate-smart agriculture. Decision-makers need to adopt a long-term view to make the needed paradigm shift to food chains that are energy-smart, contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation and strengthen food security. Although this shift will not be fully accomplished in the short term, there is no time for delay. The key question at hand is not, “If or when we should begin the transition to energy-smart food chains?”, but rather “How can we get started and make gradual but steady progress?” The shift towards energy-smart food chains will progress by degrees and can only be achieved through sustained efforts. Understanding and implementing energy-smart food chains is a complex multidisciplinary task that requires a multipartner programme (see chapter C2-1.1). Towards this end, the Energy-Smart Food for People and Climate Programme was launched in 2012, with the aim of helping countries promote energy-smart agrifood chains through the identification, planning and implementation of climate-smart measures that integrate efforts to achieve energy, water and food security.