ENERGY FOR THOUGHT

ENERGY FOR THOUGHT: FOOD SECURITY CAN BE OBTAINED THROUGH AN INCREASE IN ENERGY SUPPLY

by Elise Ringwaldt, 6th November at 2:44 PM

In 2017, I was invited to visit The Breakthrough Institute and attend their Dialogue: Democracy in the Anthropocene. Discussions at this event incorporated how human population is the driving ecological force on the planet, and decisions made about agriculture, energy and resources will influence the future planet. In reflection, I describe in this article how there are concerns for the growing human population food requirements, especially for developing nations. One way we can improve the food wasted right now, is through growth in the energy sector, which can improve technology throughout the food supply chain – saving food and corresponding resources.


Human population is estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, and with it, rising demand for food and energy. To feed our expanding population it is estimated we would need to increase the production of food by ~70 percent! However, few people realize that we could feed billions of undernourished people right now just by reducing the amount of food wasted or lost after harvesting. In the United States alone, 31-40% of the food produced for human consumption is wasted, which is enough to feed 1 billion people. So, there is an obvious paradox here – we need more food, yet we waste enough to feed the undernourished? Where does the problem lie, and what can we do about it?

Food is lost and wasted along the food supply chain; starting from where the food is produced (e.g., farms), packaged, transported and then consumed (purchased and eaten by us). Where it is lost along this chain differs for developed and developing countries, mainly due to differences in access to technology and energy. In developed countries, modern technology and infrastructure help to reduce the amount of food wasted post-harvest along the food supply chain (Loss in developed countries can be as low 1-2% for some commodities, compared to developing countries with an average of 40%). Most developed countries depend on easily accessible energy (e.g., grid-supplied power) to run large scale operations with specialized machinery, high-tech post-harvest treatment, and secure storage facilities to reduce spoilage during post-harvest and transport.  On the other hand, developing nations typically have insufficient electricity supply and inadequate technology and/or storage mechanisms, and because of this they have greater food loss and waste post-harvest. In developing nations, one of the most successful ways to achieve food security and reduce food loss is through an increase in reliable energy. But through what mechanisms?

Energy sources, including fossil fuels, nuclear power, hydro-electricity, and renewable energy (solar and wind) are the basis for modern human activities; in the past increases in energy supply have improved standard of living, economy, and growth. Electricity supply in developing nations is scarce, with only about 40% of the population having access to energy, while in industrialized countries it is closer to 100%. Electricity is especially limited in sub-Saharan Africa where only 24% of the population have access to electricity. Furthermore, in 2013 the entire sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), which is made up of 46 countries and a population of more than 900 million, was only supported by 28 Gigawatts; this is the same electricity supply as the one country Argentina, which supports 43 million people and is a little over one-tenth of the land size of sub-Saharan Africa. In summary, many developing nations are currently relying on primitive technology and energy supplies (such as basic traditional fuels of firewood and dung cakes) to support their growing nations demand for food. Adequate power supplies will be pivotal for developing nations.

Increasing access to energy in developing nations is, however no easy feat. Lately, there have been attempts to help rural farmers reduce waste and increase the lifetime of foods by using advanced power systems, such as solar energy and biogas. However, while these technological developments are improving food security, they are only effective at small scale, and so longer term solutions are required. Grid-supplied energy is the perfect example of a stable, more wide-reaching alternative for developing nations. Grid-supplied power would provide energy for technology, to build infrastructure such as grain facilities and roads for transportation of foods, provide energy to use modern machinery during harvesting and packaging of foods, and air conditioners to power cool stores. Adequate cooling and storing of food post-harvest has the potential to reduce global food loss by at least 25%. For example, better grain storage facilities in Africa could reduce the amount of annual grain loss, potentially to feed the requirements of 48 million people a year. Additionally, 96% of India’s fresh produce is not refrigerated during storage and transport resulting in losses of over US$5 billion a year. In short, increases in energy supply has enormous potential to influence food security in developing nations.

Modern energy facilities are key to reducing food loss and waste in developing nations; and some organisations are already recognizing this need and are making a difference. Currently, there are 126 independent power projects within 18 sub-Saharan Africa countries, specifically to increase people’s access to electricity; totaling a possible 13 percent of the total power generated and 25 percent if South Africa was excluded. Policies to address future food demand are increasingly in the spotlight, with a focus on holistic investment in technology, infrastructure, and electricity. For example, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (ADS) and of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda emphasizes food security, nutrition, and sustainable agriculture among their goals, with focus on infrastructure, industrialization and innovation, impacting the 65 percent of the world’s poor whose livelihood is farming. Investment into increasing a developing country’s energy supply has clear benefits, not just through reducing food loss and waste, but also by strengthening economic opportunities.

In summary, energy increases in developing nations will feed some of the poorest due to development in infrastructure and technology which saves food along the production line. Even though developed countries may have sufficiently minimalized food loss post-harvest, consumer standards (such as the aesthetics of food produced) and the overwhelming supply of foods in supermarkets creates a paradox of food waste. Consumer, production, and the oversupply of food in developed countries means that just as much (40%) of food is wasted as developing countries. There needs to be a balance, where policies are in place so that developing nations don’t start to waste food pre-harvest at the consumer level and learn from the industrialized world mistakes to feed people adequately but sustainably.

(All posts are personal reflections of the blog-post author and do not necessarily reflect the views of all other DEEP members).

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