Three sustainable energy solutions for food production and places where they are used

How FAO is helping widen access to clean energy around the world

Wind, sun and water are all renewable sources of energy that could help us reach food productivity targets. ©FAO/Alessia Pierdomenico


Energy: it is used for cooking, heating, electricity and transport in many places around the world. But did you know, it also has a central role in putting the food on your plate?

Globally, the agri-food value chain consumes 30 percent of the world’s available energy. Energy is needed in the production of crops, fish, livestock and forestry products, food storage and processing, food transport and distribution and, of course, in food preparation.

Though the availability of fossil fuels has made a significant contribution to feeding the world, these energy sources are finite and, in general, environmentally problematic.

The most viable solution for reducing agri-food systems’ use of fossil fuels while reaching food productivity targets is a shift towards more sustainable, renewable energy sources. This includes solar energy, wind energy, hydropower and bioenergy. By widening access to clean energy, actors along the agri-food value chain can produce more and better quality food and reduce food losses, improving incomes and livelihoods.  In short, renewable energy is key to food security and a climate-friendly, sustainable transformation of agri-food systems.

So, what are some of these clean energy solutions and how is FAO helping widen access to them globally?

1)     Solar-powered irrigation in Rwanda

The Rulindo district of Rwanda is a farming district known for many crops like cassava, maize and beans. Most of the water for growing these crops comes from the Yanze River. Farmers traditionally irrigate using manual treadle pumps that need at least three people to peddle, requiring a lot of labour and exertion.

Through the KnoWat – Knowing water better project, FAO set up solar-powered irrigation systems to increase the efficiency of irrigating fields and support the livelihoods of farmers in the area. The project delivered three portable solar pumps and accessories to farmers in the Yanze Horticulture Production Cooperative of Vegetable Growers. This is the first time solar-powered irrigation systems have been introduced in Rulindo district.

Unlike irrigation equipment with motorised pumps, farmers don’t have to buy expensive fuel to run them. Each solar-powered irrigation system can supply 40 litres of water per minute, with the solar panel collecting up to 500 watts of energy per day. The system can irrigate fields more than four kilometres from the dam. Cutting down on some of the time-consuming manual labour, the solar-powered irrigation system also allows farmers to use their time more efficiently, increasing the productivity of their farms.

Solar-powered irrigation systems save time for farmers, increase efficiency of farms and support local livelihoods. ©FAO/Teopista Mutesi

2)     Biogas digesters to keep milk fresh in Tanzania

Biogas is a renewable fuel produced by the breakdown of organic matter, such as food scraps and animal waste, and it can be used as a clean energy form in a variety of different ways. Through the Investing in Sustainable Energy Technologies in the Agrifood Sector (INVESTA) project, FAO has worked with government, financial and private sector entities to promote the use of milk cooling systems powered by biogas digesters.

Biogas digesters are large tanks in which biogas is produced through the decomposition of organic matter by a process called anaerobic digestion. They are called digesters because bacteria eat and digest this organic material to produce biogas. Biogas combustion can be used to generate power.

These digesters are great solutions for off-grid households with a small number of cattle. Close to 90 percent of rural households in Tanzania do not have electricity. Therefore, when dairy farmers have problems delivering the evening milk, the raw milk is usually left unrefrigerated overnight. Between 30 to 40 percent of milk is lost, largely for this reason. The milk cooling systems powered by biogas digesters make the dairy value chain more efficient and sustainable, as milk can be preserved for longer, allowing more time for it to be used or sold. The biogas technology can cool two milk cans of up to 5 litres each.

Burning crop residues is one of the causes of smog in New Delhi. FAO is working to turn crop residues into bioenergy instead. © SH SD

3)     Crop waste as bioenergy in India

Each year, in late September and October, farmers in India’s Punjab and Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh regions usually burn an estimated 35 million tonnes of crop waste after harvesting. This has many negative consequences, including a spike in pollution levels that can lead to thick smog over New Delhi.

FAO is now working with the government of India to provide technical support through the Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Approach for the development of a crop residue supply chain, so that discarded rice straw can be collected, stored and turned into other products.

A team of FAO sustainable energy experts are using the BEFS tools to identify machinery that can harvest, collect, bail and store crop residues. These can then be turned into briquettes and pellets that can partially replace coal in thermal power plants. Rice straw can also be used to produce compressed biogas, which could replace natural gas in transport fuel. The BEFS approach has been developed by FAO to support countries in taking advantage of this technology and design and implement sustainable bioenergy policies and strategies.

If we want to produce enough food to feed our growing population, making a gradual shift to energy-efficient agri-food systems is key. This means embracing innovation, taking advantage of renewable energy technologies and creating more efficient food value chains to boost sustainable development globally.

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