Energy is needed in all steps along the agrifood chain: in the production of crops, fish, livestock and forestry products; in post-harvest operations; in food storage and processing; in food transport and distribution; and in food preparation.
Direct energy includes electricity, mechanical power, solid, liquid and gaseous fuels. Indirect energy, on the other hand, refers to the energy required to manufacture inputs such as machinery, farm equipment, fertilizers and pesticides.
The type of energy we use in the agrifood chain and how we use it will in large part determine whether our food systems will be able to meet future food security goals and support broader development objectives in an environmentally sustainable manner. Agrifood systems not only require energy, they can also produce energy. For this reason, agrifood systems have a unique role to play in alleviating ‘energy poverty.
The ‘green revolution’ of the 1960s and 1970s addressed food shortages, not only through improved plant breeding, but also by tripling the application of inorganic fertilizers, expanding the land area under irrigation and increasing the use of fossil fuels for farm mechanization, food processing and transport.
However, cheap energy sources appear to be becoming progressively scarcer and energy markets more volatile, and this has triggered higher energy prices. Our ability to reach food productivity targets may be limited in the future by a lack of inexpensive fossil fuels. This has serious implications both for countries that benefited from the initial green revolution and for those countries that are looking to modernize their agrifood systems along similar lines.
Modernizing food and agriculture systems by increasing the use of fossil fuels as was done in the past may no longer be an affordable option. We need to rethink the role of energy when considering our options for improving food systems.
- Globally, the agrifood chain consumes 30 percent of the world’s available energy – with more than 70 percent consumed beyond the farm gate.
- The agrifood chain produces about 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. . More than one-third of the food we produce is lost or wasted, and with it about 38 percent of the energy consumed in the agrifood chain.
Improving energy access to impoverished communities is essential if the poverty reduction targets set out in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are to be met.
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 (UNDP/WHO, 2009). 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.
Renewable energies such as bioenergy, solar, wind, hydro and geothermal can be used in agrifood systems as a substitute for fossil fuels to generate heat or electricity for use on farms or in aquaculture operations.
If excess energy is produced, it can be exported off the property to earn additional revenue for the owners. Such activities can bring benefits for farmers, landowners, small industries and rural communities.