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Innovation of the Week: Creating farms that produce food and energy

In a recently released report entitled Making Integrated Food-Energy Systems Work for People and Climate, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggests that small-scale farmers who grow crops for food and fuel can help reduce both food and energy insecurity.

Around 3 billion people, or half of the world’s population, rely on unsustainable biomass based energy sources, including wood, and around 1.6 billion people still lack access to electricity. With an Integrated Food Energy System (IFES), FAO believes that people will have access to sustainable and reliable energy.

Farmers can incorporate IFES in two ways. The first type of IFES uses intercropping or agroforestry, where farmers utilize the same plot of land to grow food and fuel-generating crops; the second type focuses on maximizing the connection between food crops, livestock, and the production of energy by using manure and crop residues.

In addition to improving food and energy security, IFES hopes to enable farmers to use their resources more efficiently and address the effects of climate change on agriculture, by focusing on soil conservation and increasing biodiversity.

In this report, FAO points to various examples where IFES has helped communities around the globe. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, farmers of the Mampu Plantation in Kinshasa are incorporating food crops along with acacia trees. They convert the wood from the acacia trees in to charcoal and sell it in the neighboring towns. On a yearly basis, these farmers produce between 8,000 to 12,000 tons of charcoal in addition to 10,000 tons of cassava, 1,200 tons of maize and 6 tons of honey. Each farmer earns an income of about $9,000 a year or $750 per month.

In Colombia, Tosoly Farm uses a more complex and highly-integrated approach to produce food and energy for family consumption and for sale. Their primary crop, sugar cane, is used for multiple purposes: the juice is used as a sweetener for cooking; the stalks are used as fodder; and the bagasse, or the substance left after the stalks have been crushed for juice, is used as a fuel source. Pig and human excreta flow in to biodigesters which then provide natural fertilizer for crops. In this way, the farm creates and runs on its own energy, making it nearly self-sufficient.

While IFES provides numerous benefits, such as food and energy security, there are still multiple barriers that inhibit farmers from taking advantage of the system. Some of the energy conversion equipment is costly and many farmers lack the financial support to acquire these technologies. Furthermore, limited access to information and technical support create additional disincentives for small-scale farmers.

FAO, however, is trying to improve government policies and provide the necessary information and technical knowledge to promote the spread of integrated food and energy systems worldwide.

Can you think of ways that governments and organizations can help provide the necessary information and technical knowledge to promote the spread of food and energy systems worldwide? Let us know in the comments!

Supriya Kumar is a communications associate with the Nourishing the Planet project.

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