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Road to Rio: Improving energy use key challenge for world’s food systems

FAO advocates for energy-smart food systems during UN Conference on Sustainable Development

14 June 2012, Rome – Agriculture’s heavy dependence on fossil fuels is undermining the sector’s ability to feed the world, perpetuating poverty and undermining efforts to build a more sustainable world economy, FAO said today.

The warning came as the UN Food and Agriculture Organization released a study on “energy-smart” food production and use ahead of the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, where global energy challenges will figure high on the agenda.

Together, the world’s food production systems — from the farms where food is grown to further along the processing and marketing chain — consume 30 percent of all available energy, FAO’s study shows.

Most of that energy consumption — 70 percent — happens after food leaves farms, as it is transported, processed, packed, shipped, stored, marketed and prepared.

And a significant amount of all energy used in the food chain — about 40 percent — is simply lost due to food losses and waste (globally one third of all food, around 1.3 billion tons, is thrown away or lost to spoilage each year.)

Meanwhile, almost 3 billion people have limited access to modern energy services for heating and cooking, and 1.4 billion have zero or limited access to electricity, FAO’s report notes.

“Higher costs of oil and natural gas, insecurity regarding the limited reserves of these non-renewable resources and the global consensus on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, could hamper global efforts to meet the growing demand for food, unless the agrifood chain is decoupled from fossil fuel use,” it says.

The report also points out that without access to electricity and sustainable energy sources, communities have little chance to achieve food security, and no opportunities for securing productive livelihoods that can lift them out of poverty.”

Food and energy, intertwined

“To feed the planet, the world’s food production systems require energy. At the same time, food production isn’t just using energy, it is also wasting it. Yet there are huge opportunities to improve energy efficiency in the food chain, as well as to produce sustainable energy within agriculture — these opportunities must be boldly explored, and I hope to see them figure prominently in discussions at Rio+20,” said FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva.

At the upcoming Rio Sustainable Development Summit, governments are expected call for a scaling-up of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which aims to ensure universal access to basic energy services, improve energy efficiency, double the share of renewable energy in the global energy, and promote low-carbon development.

New paradigm for energy use in agriculture needed

“Cheap energy sources are becoming progressively scarcer, and energy markets more volatile,” said Alexander Müller, FAO Assistant Director-General for Natural Resources and the Environment.
”Feeding a growing world population will require a 60 percent increase in food production by 2050, but we are not going to be able to meet that goal the way we did during the Green Revolution, relying on fossil fuels,” Müller said. “A very different approach is required.”

‘Energy-smart food’ production

According to FAO, the energy-smart model of food production involves:

• Increasing the efficiency of direct and indirect energy use in agri-food systems, without lowering productivity

• Using more renewable energy as a substitute for fossil fuels in the agri-food chain

• Improving access to energy services, in particularly renewable energy, for poor households to promote economic development through more integrated food and energy production

At each stage of the food supply chain, practices can be adapted to become less energy intensive, according to FAO’s new paper.

Soil tillage for land preparation is typically the single most energy-consuming operation in a cropping cycle — conservation agriculture, zero tillage and other sustainable intensification farming techniques can reduce the amount of energy used on farms.
Additional steps available at the farm level include greater use of fuel-efficient engines, relying less on non-organic fertilizers and pesticides by adopting integrated pest and weed management techniques, and shifting to crop varieties and animal breeds that require fewer inputs.

Another area for action: addressing water losses and other inefficiencies in irrigation systems, which decrease farming's overall energy efficiency and increase production costs.

Finally, there are several examples where the use of renewable energy (solar, wind, mini hydro and bioenergy) in farming systems and villages improves agriculture and rural livelihoods.  

Post-harvest efficiency, energy from food production

With most energy losses in the food chain happening beyond the farm gate, there is great scope for improving food transportation and related infrastructure, better insulating storage facilities, cutting down on packaging, reducing food waste, and cooking more efficiently, FAO’s paper notes.

Agrifood systems can also produce a lot of energy. Biomass residues from food and forest production and processing, and other renewables such as wind, solar, mini-hydro and geothermal are possible sources of renewable energy that can be harnessed in energy-smart food systems. So far efforts to capture animal waste and other organic by-products to generate energy production have focused on farms, but the same could be done in food processing facilities. However, the risks and benefits of producing energy along the agrifood chain must be weighed carefully..

New partnership

To help advance this model, FAO has launched an Energy-Smart Food for People and Climate (ESF) Programme, a multi-partner initiative that aims to assist member countries make the shift to energy-smart agri-food systems.

The programme focuses on three thematic areas: energy efficiency, energy diversification through renewable energy and improving energy access and food security through integrated food and energy production.

Photo: ©FAO/Johan Spanner
Tractors in Armenia. Tilling the soil is the most energy-intensive part of cropping.