F.A.O. paper encourages ‘energy-smart’ agriculture

by Eric Schroeder
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ROME — The global food system needs to cut back its dependence on fossil fuels and shift to “energy-smart” agriculture if it hopes to feed a growing world population, according to a new report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

The report, “Energy-smart food for people and climate,” was published Nov. 29 as part of the U.N. Conference on Climate Change.

“There is justifiable concern that the current dependence of the food sector on fossil fuels may limit the sector’s ability to meet global food demands,” the report said. “The challenge is to decouple food prices from fluctuating and rising fossil fuel prices.”

Although the global food system requires energy, it also is able to produce energy, and according to the F.A.O. it is necessary for the food sector to take advantage of the dual relationship.

“The global food sector needs to learn how to use energy more wisely,” said Alexander Mueller, assistant director-general for environment and natural resources at the F.A.O. “At each stage of the food supply chain, current practices can be adapted to become less energy intensive.”

Mr. Mueller said industry may achieve efficiency gains at relatively little additional cost at the farm level, including through the use of more efficient engines, the use of compost and precision fertilizers, irrigation monitoring and targeted water delivery, adoption of no-till farming practices and the use of less-input-dependent crop varieties and animal breeds.

Post harvest, efficiency gains may be achieved through improved transportation and infrastructure, better insulation of food storage facilities, reductions in packaging and food waste, and more efficient cooking devices, he said.

The F.A.O. report also described how agriculture may provide more of the energy needed to feed the planet and help rural development. Specifically, the F.A.O. noted solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass energy resources should be tapped whenever possible.

“Using local renewable energy resources along the entire food chain can help improve energy access, diversify farm and food processing revenues, avoid disposal of waste products, reduce dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions, and help achieve sustainable development goals,” the report noted.

While noting the need to be “energy-smart,” the F.A.O. acknowledged the transition will be a “huge undertaking” that will require long-term thinking. To that end, the F.A.O. at the conference advocated an “energy-smart” approach based on three pillars:

 providing energy access for all with a focus on rural communities;
 improving energy efficiency at all stages of the food supply chain; and
 substituting fossil fuels with renewable energy systems in the food sector.

“The key question at hand is not, ‘If or when we should begin the transition to energy-smart food systems?’ but rather, ‘How can we get started and make gradual but steady progress,’” Mr. Mueller said.

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