Energy-Food Links to Continue Growing as Cost of Oil Spurs Higher Commodity Prices, Senior Expert Tells Second Committee Panel Discussion

2 November 2011

Energy-Food Links to Continue Growing as Cost of Oil Spurs Higher Commodity Prices, Senior Expert Tells Second Committee Panel Discussion

2 November 2011
General Assembly
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-sixth General Assembly

Second Committee

Panel Discussion (AM)

Energy-Food Links to Continue Growing as Cost of Oil Spurs Higher Commodity


Prices, Senior Expert Tells Second Committee Panel Discussion


Biofuels, Water, Poverty Feature in Interactive Dialogue with Delegates

The links between energy and food would continue to grow, with the high cost of oil contributing to soaring food prices, because demand for commodities was increasingly interconnected, a top Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) official said today during a Second Committee (Economic and Financial) panel discussion.

Food and energy security in each country depended on the food and energy security of other countries, said Eve Crowley, Deputy Director of FAO’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division, in her presentation, on “Food security and energy efficiency”.  Farmers and the agriculture sector would gain if the global economy was stable and transparent, guaranteeing stable demand for producers and stable supply for consumers, she added.  That would entail investing in sustainable technologies, building on local practices and knowledge, promoting productive partnerships among smallholders, researchers and other actors, and creating the financial incentives associated with carbon gas and improving infrastructure.

Accompanying Ms. Crowley on the panel were Vijay Modi, professor of mechanical engineering and faculty member at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and member of the Secretary-General’s High-level Group on Sustainable Energy for All; and Vineet Raswant, Senior Technical Adviser at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).  Vince Henderson, Permanent Representative of Dominica, was the Moderator.

To illustrate the close link between food security and energy security, Ms. Crowley recounted a story about a friend from Kenya who could only eat one meal a day in the 1990s, not because she could not produce enough, but because she could not afford the fuel with which to cook it.  Emphasizing that agriculture had an impact on everyone, she pointed out that it was the single largest sector and provided livelihoods for 2.6 billion people.  Consumer demand was expected to increase and agricultural production would be required to keep up, she added, urging the “greening” of the economy through agriculture while cautioning that there was no “one-size-fits-all” solution.

Underscoring the importance of reducing waste in the production and consumption chain, she said one third of all food produced around the world went to waste.  Less waste also reduced pressure on land, water and soil, she added.  However, strategies varied between developed and developing countries; food waste in the latter was connected to a lack of infrastructure whereas in the former, it occurred mostly at the consumption level.  Additionally, reducing the gender gap in agriculture could lift approximately 100-150 million people out of hunger, a 12-17 per cent reduction in the number of hungry people worldwide, she noted.  Empowering women in agriculture was also economically beneficial as wage-earning women invested in better health, nutrition and education, in effect building human capital and promoting economic growth.

Mr. Modi, discussing the food, water and energy nexus in India, said places without access to energy would need it in order to increase food production owing to the importance of irrigation.  He said India’s per capita food production had grown more than four-fold in the second half of the twentieth century and the gains had little to do with the expansion of the area under cultivation, but more to do with increasing efficiency and yield per unit area.  Fertilizer and better seed had helped, but irrigation had been the critical element, he said.  Pointing out that irrigation required electricity to pump the groundwater, he said that 71 billion extra tons of food production required 100 billion kWh of energy, which meant that approximately 1 kilogram of food production required a single unit of electricity.  Since electricity was subsidized in India, that risked over-use and reduced income for the exchequer, he said, noting, however, that subsidies had allowed food production to be ramped up a significantly.

Irrigation had changed cropping patterns, with increased rice production in Punjab although the state was ecologically better suited to pulses, he said.  He demonstrated the cropping pattern that would maximize the efficient use of precious water and energy, stressing the need for significant changes.  Policy means to help achieve such a reordering included incentives to encourage farmers to preserve water and thereby energy.  Government had worked with farmers and farming organizations at the grass roots to help teach about water conservation and other helpful techniques, including training in identifying when soil moisture was adequate and when watering was needed.

Mr. Raswant discussed issues relating to poverty, mostly in areas where agro-ecological processes were poor, saying that IFAD’s goal was to empower poor rural women and men in developing countries to realize higher incomes and improved food security.  For every five people in the world, one earned a livelihood in agriculture, he said, noting that despite that surplus of farmers, they could not move into other sectors due to a lack of jobs.  However, biofuel production provided an opportunity since it catered to a large market, he said, adding that the renewable energy sector could create jobs for young people.  He cited the example of Brazil’s sugarcane industry, saying it had created 4.1 million jobs dependent on the sugarcane agro-industry.

As for the food-versus-fuel debate, he said there was a widespread perception that biofuel production led to higher food prices.  Despite some major risks, including fuel-price fluctuation, unpredictable climate conditions, displacement from land, unsustainable production, environmental aspects and the diversion of water from food to fuel production.  At the same time, he called for a more balanced view of biofuels, especially if products derived from that energy source were used to address concerns.  Biofuels rather than policies had been blamed for increasing food prices, he noted.

Describing food security as a “noble” idea, he said that although it had been pursued for a long time, undernourishment and poverty figures remained high.  IFAD was interested in various renewable energy sources, including solar, wind and hydropower, as well as biogas from agricultural and animal waste.  Two different IFAD projects in China, using biogas from livestock waste, had benefited more than 260,000 farmers through the use of slurry as fertilizer, which had led to 73 farmer households increasing their grain production by 10-30 per cent, while helping reduce chronic and acute child malnutrition by more than 50 per cent.

As the relationship between food security, energy, and water was explored further, he recommended a shift in paradigm to ensure food security by avoiding a prescriptive approach to growing low-value crops.  Instead, the emphasis should be on supporting small farmers to respond to market forces.  IFAD was pursuing bioenergy to benefit the poor by enhancing their food security through diversification and by developing water efficient crops.

Interactive Dialogue

In the ensuing discussion, Mr. Crowley responded to a question from the representative of Kenya about developing an institutional framework relating to large land sales and leases.  She said there was a major question over how to safeguard small producers and residents against “land-grabs”.  She said the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) had developed guidelines for responsible land governance and informed Governments about the risks and benefits arising from particular investments in land, and about effective land governance.  The results of purchases were often not clear-cut, and where employment, infrastructure and access to processing were improved, there were clear benefits, she said, stressing, however, that they must be balanced against significant risks, including disenfranchising land that could be used for food production.

She also took up a question from the representative of Morocco about emphasizing the economic pillar of sustainable development at a time when the environmental pillar was receiving particular attention.  She said the balance between the three pillars was essential and that the FAO hoped for greening of the economy through agriculture, which would strengthen the social pillar through labour-centric, healthy and ecologically low-impact food systems as well as properly functioning markets.  Added to that balance, was the fundamental importance of promoting good governance, the absence of which had been a key factor in the food-price crisis.  She pointed to major institutional reform at FAO, which had undergone the biggest changes in its history and the biggest for a United Nations system body in recent years.

Interactive Dialogue

In the ensuing dialogue, a number of delegates asked about issues raised by Mr. Modi, who responded to a technology-related question from Nepal’s representative by saying that despite significant growth in the use of mobile telephones in low-income countries, weaknesses in the dissemination of knowledge remained.  There had been an excessive focus on core crops, he said, emphasizing that more work was needed to support place-specific agricultural needs.  It was therefore important to generate local knowledge of best practices, and the farmers themselves had the relevant information.  Best practices and data on yields, gathered in particular geographic areas, could be spread through mobile technologies, he said, adding that they could also be “crowd-sourced” and disseminated, although that was not a substitute but a boost for other methods.

Mr. Raswant responded to a question on Rio+20 from the representative of the Netherlands by saying that a key message to take to the conference was the need to make small farming profitable.  That would lead to people “chasing” technology, he said, reinforcing Mr. Modi’s point that increasing production in India was not due only to irrigation, but also to Government support for farmers, which involved an active price-support policy.  When farming was not profitable, farmers worked part-time, which meant that cheap energy was essential, he said, adding that its unavailability would have an impact on farmers’ profits.

Also participating in the dialogue were representatives of India, Australia, France, Belarus and Bangladesh.

The Committee will reconvene at 10 a.m. tomorrow, 3 November, to take up its agenda items “Towards global partnerships” and “Programme planning”.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.