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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 efficiencyWhile 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 energyThe 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 productionAs 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.