Can Fossil Fuel and Agri-Food Systems Link be Broken with Sustainable Technologies?

Global agriculture is heavily dependent on fossil fuel resources – directly for crop production and indirectly to produce fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery for crop production, processing, transportation, storage, etc. It is estimated that 30% of global energy is consumed within agri-food systems. The energy consumption in agri-food systems increased by more than 20% between 2000 and 2018. The key drivers were farm mechanization in Asia and increased processing and inputs such as fertilizers. The fuel prices have fluctuated wildly in the last decade either due to the decision of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to reduce production[1], the COVID-19 pandemic, or, more recently, the Russia-Ukraine war leading to fluctuations in the food prices. The Food Price Index (FPI) measures the monthly change in the international prices of a basket of food commodities. FPI in October 2021 averaged 133.2 points, the highest since July 2011. In May 2021, the outbreak of COVID-19 led to FPI collapsing to a four-year low of 91.1 points in May 2021. A roller-coaster ride in oil prices also affected FPI. In April 2020, Brent crude prices crashed to an average of $25.27, and it was $84.38 a barrel in October 2021. These are challenging times, and it is time to transform the linkage between fossil fuels and food systems to meet the current and future demands in a fair, environmentally sustainable, and inclusive manner.

Technological developments and renewable energy can increase the energy efficiency of agriculture and reduce the reliance on fossil fuels. Renewable energy can be used across the agri-food value chain as the current energy use pattern is unsustainable due to high dependence on fossil fuels and inefficient biomass use. The way forward will be to utilize renewable energy applications along agri-food chains. Some of the applications that can displace the current and future fossil fuel use are

  1. Solar irrigation can be widely adopted to improve access to water, thus enabling multiple cropping cycles and increasing resilience to changing rainfall patterns. Solar irrigation pumps have raised farmers’ incomes by 50% or more in India than rain-fed irrigation.
  2. Renewables-based agro-processing systems, either stand-alone or based on mini-grids, can provide a cost-efficient alternative to reduce environmental impact, promote decentralized processing infrastructure, and reduce labor-intensive processing activities. Several African countries have piloted processing using renewables that can be scaled up globally. Geothermal energy can also meet thermal and electricity needs for agri-processing, e.g., Mokai geothermal field in New Zealand supplies steam from two of its wells to a dairy factory processing 250 million liters of milk annually.
  3. The lack of cold storage and refrigeration facilities reduces shelf life, increases food losses, and reduces the product quality from crops, livestock, and fisheries. The losses are 37% in the “first mile” between harvesting and processing. Renewables-based solutions for cold storage and refrigeration provide decentralized storage capable of benefiting smallholders and have the potential to transition existing infrastructure to more environmentally friendly and affordable energy solutions. Additionally, solar dryers are another opportunity for processing (dehydrated) fruits and vegetables for increasing their shelf life and marketability through value addition.
  4. Sustainable bioenergy[2] produced from biomass by-products from agri-food activities can meet the needs for electricity, heat, and transport fuels within the agri-food sector. It can be used for processing, storage, and cooking as the residues generated from crop production and livestock are an important source of bioenergy. Biogas can be produced at various scales from manure and agro-processing materials and used in cooking and lighting at the domestic/community level and in commercial and industrial establishments.

These applications provide a holistic approach by identifying energy gaps across agri-food value chains and then designing the targeted energy interventions unlocking the full spectrum of socio-economic and environmental benefits. The challenges for scaling up renewable energy applications in food systems are siloed policymaking and planning, techno-centric approach to the deployment instead of the value chain, lack of access to end-user and enterprise financing, insufficient technical and management capacity among agri-enterprises, poor awareness, and the particular difficulties that women-led enterprises have in accessing solutions.

The replacement or complementing the fossil fuel use in agri-food systems by scaling up renewable energy needs concerted action by the governments, the private sector players, international organizations, financing institutions, academia, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Some of the critical elements for the successful transformation of energy use in agri-food systems are

  1. Improving the data and information base to guide renewable energy investments in food systems and inform policymakers,
  2. Improving access to finance for enterprises (the supply side of the energy equation) and end-users in the agri-food systems (the energy demand side),
  3. A stable and supportive enabling environment that includes policies and plans; and cross-sectoral coordination of all stakeholders in the agri-food ecosystem,
  4. Prioritization of low-risk, high-impact actions like reducing food losses, enhancing circular economy effects, and strengthening the links between energy for food and energy for health as part of the green recovery, and
  5. Promotion of innovation in developing technologies and energy-efficient applications and appliances through high-risk innovation funds and multi-stakeholder partnerships.

If fossil fuels and agri-food systems can be delinked, the price fluctuations can become less prominent. In  India, efforts have already begun. The farmers in Gosaba Island in the Sunderbans region of West Bengal cannot cultivate crops in the rabi season due to tidal rivers bringing in saline water (more than 30 dS/m). They can cultivate crops in the post-monsoon season by utilizing water from ponds collected using rainwater harvesting. In 2017, The solar-powered drip irrigation system was installed at one farm where the farmer could cultivate crops round the year and achieve 20-30% higher yield. Pradhan Mantri Kisan Urja Suraksha evam Utthaan Mahabhiyan (PM-KUSUM) project, launched in 2019, intends to provide farmers with better financial security and more sustainable water access by generating solar electricity on their farms. The project aims to give farmers control over water and electricity supply through solar water pumps (SWP). Such initiatives will help agri-food systems become energy-efficient, eco-friendly, and sustainable.

[1] OPEC reaches the final deal to cut oil output by 10M BPD. April 2020.

[2] Sustainable bioenergy: a framework for decision-makers. January 2007.


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