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close this bookFood and Energy - Strategies for Sustainable Development (UNU, 1990, 81 p.)
View the documentPreface
View the document1 Introduction
View the document2 Analytical Framework
View the document3 Integrated Food-Energy Systems
View the document4 Alternative Urban Development Strategies
View the document5 Urban Agriculture
View the document6 New Rural-Urban Configurations
View the document7 The Challenge of Biotechnology
View the document8 Sustainable Development
View the document9 Conclusion
View the documentAppendix I: FEN Programme Activities
View the documentAppendix II: FEN Publications
View the documentReferences

1 Introduction

For most people, the relation between food and energy problems first became evident as a result of the oil crisis in the early 1970s. While immediate attention was given by industrialized countries to ensuring adequate oil supplies to fuel their energy-intensive food systems, long-term concerns were raised about the plight of the rural and urban poor in third world countries with the realization that the high cost of energy and fertilizers would further limit the scope of the Green Revolution.

Beyond the oil price problem loomed the second energy crisis, with even greater social and ecological consequences for more than half of the world's population. In practically all third world countries the problems of getting food to eat began to be overshadowed by the problems of acquiring the energy needed to cook it. Apart from the financial sacrifices, there was a severe strain on time budgets, notably those of women and children, who spend increasingly long hours collecting fuelwood (Cecelski 1987). These problems are exacerbated by the seasonal imbalance in biomass supply and the vicious cycle of greater quantities of dung being used as fuel rather than as fertilizer for maintaining crop production.

These developments have already been amply documented, but much less research is available on the synergistic solutions to food and energy problems. The Food-Energy Nexus Programme (FEN) of the United Nations University (UNU) was thus created to help fill this gap through a two-pronged effort: to develop an analytical framework and planning methodology; and to stimulate the sharing of experiences between research teams working in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Speaking at an intergovernmental meeting of development assistance coordinators in Asia and the Pacific, held in February 1981 in New Delhi, the Rector of the UNU, Soedjatmoko (1981), first made reference to what was to become FEN:

Rising fuel prices, boosting transportation and agricultural costs, will inevitably push food prices beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of already hungry people. Rising populations, despite the best efforts to reduce fertility rates, will continue to increase the demand for both food and energy. The developing countries will not be able to solve their food problem without solving their energy problem and, without a satisfactory solution to both. their economic growth will be severely constrained. The centrality of the food and energy nexus calls for a comprehensive policy approach. Only through a clear understanding of this food-energy pivot can the situation be turned around.

The following year, Sachs (1982) described the food-energy nexus as a convenient entry point into the problematique of efficient resource use patterns for sustainable development and of local solutions to global problems.
FEN was thus initially designed to develop the following activities:

  • policy-oriented studies of the energy profile of food systems to identify options leading to a more efficient use of energy in the production, processing, distribution, preparation, and consumption of food;
  • analyses of integrated food-energy systems in diverse ecosystems, including studies of how different cultures manage to extract from similar environments their food and energy supplies; and
  • research on the household economy in both rural and urban settings and the role of women and children in the provisioning of food, fuel, and water.

Further attention to the conceptual development of FEN resulted in the sharpening of its focus around two axes: integrated food-energy systems as a catalyst for rural development and industrialization; and alternative urban development strategies based on greater self-reliance. The FEN description that was prepared in 1985 remained more or less unchanged during the lifespan of the programme:

FEN is predicated on the idea that positive synergies can be developed by addressing simultaneously the ideas of production and access to food and fuel and by building around these twin objectives self-reliant development strategies. It thus promotes action-oriented, interdisciplinary research in the following four areas:

  1. integrated food-energy systems based on closed-loop ecological models and adapted to site-specific environmental and cultural conditions;
  2. social innovations in the urban setting leading to greater equity, efficiency, and sustainability in the use of resources to improve access to food and energy by the urban poor;
  3. social impacts of food processing and energy-producing technologies; and
  4. adaptation of resource-use patterns in diverse ecosystems for the provisioning of food and energy to the rural and urban poor.

The broad scope of FEN and the modest resources that it had available pointed naturally to the significance of its "enzyme" role. It was thus active in inspiring projects funded from local sources, assisting third-world-based research organizations in the design of such projects, stimulating real-size experiments, collecting and disseminating information in the form of state-of-the-art reports, and promoting the exchange of scholars and bringing them together in workshops and through networks. Special attention was paid to the "third system" or citizens' organizations through, inter alia, the urban self-reliance project that was implemented with the International Foundation for Development Alternatives (IFDA) in Nyon, Switzerland.

From the very beginning, an effort was made to give a global learning dimension to FEN and to emphasize South-South co-operation. This began with a study tour by four Brazilian researchers to Senegal, India, and China and was facilitated by FEN conferences that were subsequently held in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. This policy of strengthening research capacities in third world countries and improving communication between people working on similar issues was also adopted by FEN projects in the urban field.