A woman hand watering her onion patch with a watering can. Image: Oxfam
A woman hand watering her onion patch with a watering can. Image: Oxfam

Day 4: Energy Efficiency and Diversification can Increase Access to Energy and Food Security

12 December, 2012 | Future of Agriculture: Online Discussion

Agriculture that uses less fossil fuel must be pursued actively. Renewable fuels, reduced waste and losses, and energy from farm by-products are all solutions that would allow for increased food supplies, while addressing climate change.

By José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

Agricultural and energy markets are closely intertwined in a relationship that has grown stronger over time as agricultural productivity has increased trough mechanisation, fertilization and increased trade. Globally, the agrifood chain utilizes 30 percent of world available energy with 70 percent of that use coming after the farm gate. 

“Globally, the agrifood chain utilizes 30 percent of world available energy.”

On the farm, fossil fuels contribute significantly to inputs both directly to power tractors and farm equipment and to dry grain, as well as indirectly in the form of non-organic fertilizers and electrical energy used to power irrigation systems and other equipment. After the farm gate, fossil fuels are used intensively for transport of agricultural commodities and food processing. Transportation of commodities is increasing with the growth of urbanisation and international trade. 

The abundance, diversity and resiliency of the world’s food supply today depend critically on energy inputs all along the production chain, right to the consumer’s plate. As a result, it would be virtually impossible for the agricultural sector to completely eliminate fossil fuel use without drastic reductions in food availability and affordability, and/or drastic increases in areas cultivated, with its associated increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

However, rising energy costs and concerns about environmental impacts mean that increased energy efficiency of agricultural production could provide benefits to producers and consumers of both food and energy alike. Growth of agriculture’s capacity to provide energy services, particularly the use of crop residues and other co-products from food production could similarly benefit both groups. The benefits of using food crops directly in biofuel production are less clear and pose a potential threat to the most vulnerable food consumers. 

Most of the 60 percent increase in food production needed to feed the world in 2050 will have to come from agricultural intensification. Increased energy needs for food production and agriculture’s significant dependence on fossil fuels are cause for concern with regard to sustainability, food security and climate change. Energy prices have been linked to increasing food prices and thus increases in oil prices are a direct concern for food security and price volatility.

“Increases in oil prices are a direct concern for food security and price volatility.”

Total energy demand is expected to grow by 33 percent over the 2008-2035 period with developing countries representing a significant proportion of that increase. Under current policies, fossil fuels are expected to provide 81 percent of the growth in energy demand in the coming decades. However, available oil supplies are expected to entail higher extraction costs, higher market volatility and greater environmental impacts. Higher oil prices lead directly and indirectly to higher costs of production for farmers, which is eventually passed on to consumers.

Primary food production and the food supply chain, including landfill gas produced from food waste, contribute approximately 22 percent of the total annual greenhouse gas emissions. An additional 15 percent of greenhouse gas emissions results from land use changes, particularly changes linked to deforestation brought about by the expansion of agricultural land. 

“Current food production and energy use patterns are unsustainable if climate change targets are to be met.”

Energy is essential for food security and development, but current food production and energy use patterns are unsustainable if climate change targets are to be met. In moving towards a reduced and more rational use of fossil fuels in the agricultural production chain, several opportunities present themselves to enhance producer income and thus food security, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving rural livelihoods. 

Energy efficiency
While energy use per unit of output in the agriculture sector has consistently fallen over the last several decades, further gains in efficiency can benefit producers by lowering costs and consumers who will see some of the benefit via lower prices. Fossil fuel use can be directly reduced by changes in tillage practices which not only cut energy use, but may reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing carbon in the soil and may reduce crop losses from drought events. 

Reductions in harvest, transport and processing losses along the entire supply chain as well as a rationalization of food use through reductions in consumer food waste, could be seen as direct energy efficiency gains, which increase available food supplies and reduce the land area needed to meet demand. 

Energy diversification through renewable energy
The diversification of energy use by the agricultural sector, through the production of renewable energy from the agricultural sector can also have wide-ranging benefits. Efficient “on-farm”, and more generally agricultural-sector production of renewable energy, can reduce costs and lower risks to price shocks coming form the energy sector. 

The production of liquid biofuels, for example, has the potential to improve income for producers and net-sellers of agricultural commodities. However, these tend to be larger and richer producers, while the price risks are often borne by the most vulnerable consumers. Production to date has been heavily dependent on policy intervention and care must be taken to coordinate energy and food security objectives. 

“Care must be taken to coordinate energy and food security objectives.”

While caution should be exercised in using food products for the production of energy, the use of some agricultural outputs—such as crop residues, forestry residues, biogas, woody biomass and dedicated energy crops in a multi-cropping system—broaden the options for producers to stabilize farm income. The production of renewable energy may also help mitigate the negative effects of volatility in fossil fuel markets.  

Energy access and food security though integrated food-energy production
As mentioned above, the use of co-products in agriculture/food production, such as crop residues like wheat straw, rice husks and corn stover, can actually enhance food security and farm income by improving returns to food crop production, adding an additional revenue stream, and boosting food crop output, while also potentially reducing fossil fuel use in the energy marketplace. 

Identifying potential technologies for energy production that are also economically feasible is crucial to ensure the system’s sustainability. Innovations that increase the efficiency of on-farm energy production can reduce cash outlays, decrease labour needs and improve access to energy within farm households and in the rural community at large, closing the gap between energy demand and energy access in developing countries. 

Reducing dependence on fossil fuels in the chain of agricultural production can have wide-range benefits for the sector and contribute to climate change mitigation. While zero use of fossil fuels in agricultural production and value chains is not feasible on a global scale, more efficient use of energy, reductions in fossil fuel consumption and partial displacement by renewable energy from the agricultural sector, by means of processes which do not threaten but enhance food security, should be actively pursued wherever possible.

Download: Energy Efficiency and Diversification can Increase Access to Energy and Food Security


Agriculture and energy - too closely intertwined

Yesterday's three essays on fossil fuels' role in agriculture provoked some thoughtful responses discussing, amongst other topics, the merits of nutrient recycling and whether it makes sense to look for a one size fits all approach to increasing yields.

Today the debate continues on agriculture and energy. Da Silva and Rengam show that agriculture and energy markets are too closely intertwined. They show that reducing agriculture’s dependency on fossil fuels will have global benefits for the climate, and local benefits for farmers, communities and biological diversity.

But is zero use of fossil fuels a technical challenge too far, or are the main challenges more political and societal in nature?

Population Growth and Food Security

The UN do not forecast a global population of 9 billion by 2050; they project somewhere in the range 8.1 to 10.6 billion - a range equal to the entire global population in 1950. Clearly the nearer to the bottom end of that range we can stabilise our numbers, the less difficult it will be to feed us all. That is why a population stabilisation policy - ie high priority and resources for comprehensive rights-based family planning and women's empowerment programmes in all countries - are an essential part of any credible food (or water, energy or biodiversity) security policy. As Kofi Annan has said, "Population stabilisation should be a priority for sustainable development". Oxfam does the world's poor no favours by ignoring this.

Renewable energy use in smallholder farming system

For smallholder farmers the potential of using renewable energey is immense but lot need to be done in terms of utilising its full benefit. Agicultural extensionists have to receive training in the appropriate use of renewable technologies for empowering local people to make decisions related to use of renewed energy at the community level. Governments need to be come up with variety of incentives, regulations and policies to ensure that farmers feel suppported in the use of energy efficient technologies in the agriculture sector.

holistic approach of renewable energy solution

 Thanks José Graziano da Silva for sharing us the current reality of Energy and Food Security issues .I am happy to read that you have indicated biogas technology could be one of the energy solutions in a multi-cropping system, which I posted in the yesterday discussion thread.

To address these challenges, we have to develop a holistic approach of renewable energy solution in to agriculture production system. The Current energy needs in agriculture sector is a key barriers. Therefore, we require a lot of technology innovations to convert waste to energy system and awareness on local use. In my opinion the renewable energy innovation and agriculture innovation should go together.  The Waste to Energy approach can fit in the inclusive business model where more unemployed youths, landless people could be employed for their living.


Not so easy

There are problems, as Umberto Eco said, which have to be solved by showing that they have no solution. This equation of more food needs while reducing power consumption has not solution. And it has not because the farms which are more energy intensive are also much more competitive (comparing performance per farm, not per hectare, as often it’s done erroneously). That's why the agribusiness production overwhelms the small ones, which are generally less energy intensive.

The solution may be make the agrobusiness pay for the negative externalities (ie charge agribusiness for the excess of energy they use) and pass in the form of subsidies to small farmers to be more productive, as well as being less energy intensive. This will not happen naturally: what happens naturally is that smallholder agriculture disappears because it is not competitive. Just look at Paraguay, Peru or Bolivia.

And it is unlikely to reduce agricultural energy consumption, it’s not goint to happen. What has to be presented to society is the choice between energy for agriculture or energy for air conditioning and private vehicles, ie between need (eating) and luxury (be cool and walk). Pretending to reduce consumption in a food system that works on the edge is deluded. It is true that you can contribute to the production of energy from agriculture. But as we approach 2050 and 9,000 million, agriculture increasingly work to the limit and the savings achieved through the use of energy products to be minimal: we will spend it all to replenish the fertility and irrigate to offset climate change.

Intensification and Climate Change - who defines what is fair?

It is great to read how Graziano presented in a gentle way the balance that has to be achieved between Energy and Diversification to increase Food Security in an urbanized world. It is impossible to eliminate fossil fuels, but it becomes evident that its consumption has to be regulated.

I liked a lot the way how he presents the lack of clarity of using food crops to produce bio-fuels, and in reality it depends on the role that can be played by the government in regulating the use of land, food security and the technological use.  

The strong battle between Agricultural Intensification and Climate change define like the battleground where the several actors will have to play, with the governments using the tools to guarantee that energy and food security objectives are respected simultaneously.

Graziano’s presentation opens the question on who defines the regulating systems. Is it something to be done by the algorithms of the globalised markets? Is it something to be defined by the governments? Is it something to be defined by a multi-stakeholder approach in which society can participate with its own voice?


a wicked problem not a no solution

The relationship between agriculture and energy is not a no solution problem, Gabriel. It is a wicked problem where breakthrough actions are needed, including addressing population issues as  Roger Martin points out. Is it possible to think that governments in developed countries in particular will find a way of addressing the negative externalities that agribusiness generates? Climate change will force companies to broaden their objectives from profits alone to include public goods. Billions are lost when a weather disaster hits as the recent Hurricane Sandy storm in the Northeastern US showed.  Consumers can drive change as well but they need to move away from  the cult of instant gratification. Eating patterns can change and education and policies can certainly help here. Governments can't drive this alone and I tend to lean to a broad platform that includes the public, academia, business, citizens groups, etc. as Consta notes.

Small-scale algae production; energy, food security, employment

Small-scale algae production can contribute to inclusive rural development by providing efficiently protein and / or bioenergy even in places that are not well-suited for agriculture (e.g. arid areas, eroded areas etc). By doing so it can positively contribute to food-security, renewable energy and rural development. It is much more productive than "normal" agriculture and doesn't compete with food. There are still technical problems to be resolved but in countries like Ecuador, Chile, Mexico, India, the Netherlands and others it is being tested with promising results. Networks are being formed to steepen the learning curve that could provoke a system innovation. For that to happen a more integrated social technological approach would be needed. I am doing research about such inclusive technological development and would like to learn about more cases. I am especially interested in the way technical and social networks interact (or not) and what stimulates / blocks an integrated approach. For further information, suggestions and contributions please contact alois.clemens@gmail.com

African Agriculture


I would like to say my view about the debate.  About African agriculture, it will be damaging to push too much and too fast our agriculture toward the agribusiness enterprise like in developed countries.  Most of the poor resource farmers are producers,  processors through their wife, retailers and consumers.  They have their own value chain.  If you want to change that chain, please try to know in detail that existing value chain in order to improve.

The high agroecology diversity, high cultural diversity, high food habit and others contribute to food security in a certain way.  Some food is eaten by some people not by others.  For example, in 2002, I conducted a study where I found that some farmers with some specific ethnic group in ivory Coast grow rice for cash crop but not for food; this specific group  eat only banana, cassava and yam obviously with soup for proteins and vegetables.  

 About the size of farmers , the smallest farmers in Europe or US is the biggest one in  Africa.  Most of the technologies developed are not appropriate to our farmers either too expensive r too complicated.  However, if there is any support ,the biggest should go the poor resource farmers in African countries using the PID approach. That approach is multiactors with strong partnership, it valorize the farmers because farmers is an innovator, he conduct “research” and monitor and evaluate for himself. 

Enterprise maybe but not transfer of enterprise from developed countries in totality. 

Farmers are economic..

The simple equation is that fossil fuels have been so cheap. A barrel of oil represents the energy of 25,000 hours of human toil, i.e. 14 persons working a year with normal Western labour standards (http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/2011/03/250-billion-energy-slaves.html). So, quite naturally we have built a farming system that waste this cheap energy, including by making chemical fertilizers. If fuel prices go up, there are other ways to intensify production. I am aware of that there are challenges ahead, but I don't think feeding the population as such is the main problem. I have worked with farmers in many countries and I see that they are able to increase production, also with organic methods, if there is a market, if there are not alternative income sources that rent better etc. Very few farmers produce to their maximum yield potential for the simple reason that it is mostly not profitable.

If fuel prices go up, either as a result of shortage or political action, I am sure food prices will follow suit, in fact there is already quite a correlation between oil and food price, see http://gardenearth.blogspot.se/2012/06/why-oil-price-and-grain-price-fol...

In the short run that might be problematic as poor net buyers of food, in both cities and rural areas, will suffer. However, farmers will respond with increased production, and utlimately rural economies will strengthen.

The real challenge is to re-balande the economy and farming into a re-generative system, which is truly sustainable. The linear thinking of high input-commercial farming-supermarkets-waste and pollution is not sustainable.  Agirculture must once again self re-generate its resources, from genes, to nutrients and people.

To use less water

To use less water in growing plants we need to do more research on soil mediums that retain water, but allow roots to grow. We also need to slowly feed mineral water into this medium so as not to waste water. Water shouldn't evaporate from the ground, but only from the leaves.


Another point of view

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Eli Cabe

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