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FAO says ‘energy-smart’ agriculture needed to escape fossil fuel trap

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A paper published by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) at the ongoing COP17 in Durban, South Africa has highlighted how the food sector can tackle energy challenges to safeguard a food-secure future.

The FAO said the global food system needs to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels to succeed in feeding a growing world population.

“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 challenge is to decouple food prices from fluctuating and rising fossil fuel prices,” said the paper titled “Energy-Smart Food for People and Climate.”

According to the paper, high and fluctuating prices of fossil fuels and doubts regarding their future availability mean that agri-food systems need to shift to an “energy-smart” model.

The food sector both requires energy and can produce energy — an energy-smart approach to agriculture offers a way to take better advantage of this dual relationship between energy and food, it says.

FAO notes that the food sector (including input manufacturing, production, processing, transportation marketing and consumption) accounts for around 95 exa-Joules (1018 Joules), approximately 30% of global energy consumption — and produces over 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The paper adds “On-farm direct energy use amounts to around 6 exa-Joules per year, if human and animal powers are excluded — just over half of that is in OECD countries. On farms, energy is used for pumping water, housing livestock, cultivating and harvesting crops, heating protected crops, and drying and storage. After harvest, it is used in processing, packaging, storing, transportation and consumption.”

“The global food sector needs to learn how to use energy more wisely. At each stage of the food supply chain, current practices can be adapted to become less energy intensive,” said FAO Assistant Director-General for Environment and Natural Resources, Alexander Mueller in a statement published on the agency’s website.

Such efficiency gains can often come from modifying at no or little cost existing farming and processing practices, he added.

The Organisation said steps that can be taken at the farm level include the use of more fuel 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.

After food has been harvested, improved transportation and infrastructure, better insulation of food storage facilities, reductions in packaging and food waste, and more efficient cooking devices offer the possibility of additionally reducing energy use in the food sector, indicates the FAO.

Adding up both on-farm and post-harvest losses, around one-third of all food produced — and the energy that is embedded in it — is lost or wasted, the paper notes.

In making agriculture less fossil fuel dependent, the paper says “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.”

By Ekow Quandzie

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