Renewable energy can play a key role in adjusting the global food systems at the time of COVID-19.
A “re-localization” of food supply chains is needed, and renewable energy can greatly contribute to the necessary policy interventions needed to achieve it.
As the novel Coronavirus known as COVID-19 continues to spread in developed and developing countries alike, not all have the privilege of applying basic prevention measures, and energy and food play a key role in several of these.
Almost one billion poor people worldwide have little or no access to reliable, affordable energy to remotely communicate with public services, such as food assistance. Households that rely on collected fuelwood amid reduced mobility during a lockdown are not able to prepare food properly. Energy is needed to pump water – to grow food and to maintain personal hygiene such as washing hands to limit the spread of COVID-19.
COVID-19 is forcing us to re-examine the global food system, especially for the most vulnerable communities in developing countries. The possible disruptions of food supply chains and surge in related unemployment would increase food insecurity, leaving millions of rural people unable to get adequate daily quality nutrition.
With great uncertainty about when the global economy will reboot, governments and donors should be considering how to “re-localize” food supply chains. This shift would mitigate potential disruptions affecting longer food chains. It would likely also reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, almost 30% of which is attributed to the global food system.
To re-localize food supply chains, policies must be redirected to balance globalization with self-reliance. Renewable energy has a critical role to play in achieving this balance. Improved access to energy fosters food production, processing, and storage and, from a circular perspective, the use of agricultural residues from local food chains (for instance for bio-fertilizers and bioenergy). This would strengthen local self-sufficiency in agricultural inputs, resulting in better resilience to future pandemics and other environmental and climate threats.
Another benefit awaits communities that are able to re-localize food supply chains by improving access to energy. Renewable energy mini-grids being built in different parts of the Global South are not only powering food chains and improving nutrition, but often also rural health clinics that previously lacked power. For instance, using biogas to power milk refrigeration results in better quality food, reduced food loss, and higher local incomes. It can also produce local bio-fertilizer that can improve soil carbon sequestration, and power a local clinic.
Re-localization of food supply can also bring economic and environmental benefits. For example, more local jobs are created with the introduction of renewable energy. Research released last year shows that private sector companies delivering solar solutions to rural communities are creating tens of thousands of direct jobs, but there is also a five-fold number of productive use jobs being created in the communities gaining access, and those jobs are largely agricultural.
Increasing yields, productivity and prolonging food shelf life through better processing and storage thanks to better access to energy, also result in greater income for farmers.
Environmental benefits from local sustainable bioenergy include reduced deforestation through sustainable woodfuel production and use, soil carbon sequestration through the use of biogas slurry and biochar, as well as mixed cropping system that combine energy and food crops, and fewer emissions through the use of residues from food chains to produce bioenergy and other bioproducts.
Adequate supply of nutritious food is part of the immediate health response to COVID-19, and sufficient local access to energy is crucial to achieve it. Investing in local access to clean energy is therefore an investment in increased food security and health, both immediately and in the long term.
The author of this guest article, Olivier Dubois, is Senior Natural Resources Officer and Leader of the Energy Programme of the Climate and Environment Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO). The views in this article are written in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of FAO.