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3 Integrated Food-Energy Systems

One of the two major focuses of FEN was the analysis of systems designed to integrate, intensify, and thus increase the production of food and energy by transforming the by-products of one system into the feedstocks for the other. Such integrated food-energy systems (IFES) can operate at various scales, ranging from the industrial-sized operations in Brazil designed to produce primarily ethanol and fertilizer (La Rovere and Tolmasquim 1986), to the village-and even household-level biogas systems in India (Moulik 1985). A conceptual outline of such systems, including the long-ignored but vitally important component of water for biomass-based production, is shown in figure 1.

This valorization of agricultural by-products plays an important role in the design of IFES for specific agro-climatic regions, designs which should closely follow the paradigm of natural ecosystems. These modern, ecologically sound systems are characterized by their closed loops of resource flows. In a sense, they incorporate the same rationality of traditional peasant farmers, albeit at a completely different level of scientific and technical knowledge.

The study of such systems, adapted to the diversity of natural environments and responding to a wide spectrum of needs in terms of size, technological sophistication, and capital intensity, became the main thrust of FEN research activities in this field. Earlier UNU work on patterns of resource use and management in Asian villages (Ruddle and Manshard 1981) provided a very useful starting point for this research.

Two international conferences in this field were held in Brasilia (FINEP/ UNESCO 1986) and New Delhi (Moulik 1988), organized with the co-operation of UNESCO as well as that of Brazilian and Indian authorities, research organizations, and universities. They provided a valuable forum to review ongoing work on IFES and to discuss future research priorities (Wiener 1986). These conferences were complemented by a subsequent symposium in Changzhou, organized by the Chinese Association for Science and Technology, which compared IFES in seven ecologically diverse regions of China.

Such events were instrumental in showing that this concept had attracted considerable attention in many developing countries, leading to both research and practical implementation. These meetings were also very important in fostering South-South co-operation between researchers and government officials in the countries involved.

Fig. 1. A systems approach to rural development

Integrated Systems

For our purposes, the word "integrated" has three superimposed meanings: multiple sources of inputs (including energy), multi-task devices, and time sharing of devices (such as engines). Techniques of different vintages are also used in an attempt to accommodate heterogeneity rather than to impose a homogenizing modernity across the board resulting in a massive displacement of labour.

The design of IFES requires a simultaneous consideration of the biophysical components of resource management, of the social and ecological impacts of the technologies used, and of the institutional settings involved. For each site-specific configuration of climatic and environmental conditions, several socially desirable, ecologically sustainable, and economically efficient production systems are conceivable, differing in output mix, forms of social organization and community participation, size of operation, complexity of design, and technical sophistication. Ideally, they should have a modular structure, allowing for a progressive implementation by adding new modules to the initial structure.

By comparing several systems, observing their performance, and exchanging experiences and results between projects situated in similar ecosystems and different cultural areas, development planners would come as near to a social laboratory setting as it is possible. In order to adapt proposed solutions to the specific local conditions and needs, community involvement is required at all stages: to identify not only the pressing problems but also the latent resources, then to progressively build the system, and finally to manage it in a proactive way.

Special attention should also be given to integrated systems designed for ecologically vulnerable areas and for reclaiming wastelands. Socially responsive and ecologically sustainable agroforestry systems, protecting both the local people and the trees, should receive maximum attention. Agroforestry is possible even under adverse climatic conditions, although the repeated failures of ambitious schemes in the Amazon region should teach us modesty and patience.

As for wastelands, considerable scope exists for establishing fish farms as part of mixed farming systems. In many maritime states of India, for example, large areas of saline soils, marshy swamps, and mangroves are lying fallow. Their reclamation for agriculture may be costly but such resources could be used for brackish water aquaculture generating both food and work for landless peasants.

Ecosystems, Food, and Energy¹

The 1984 Brasilia seminar described IFES as the adoption of agricultural and industrial technologies that allow maximum utilization of by-products, diversification of raw materials, production on a small-scale, recycling and economic utilization of residues, and harmonization of energy and food production. Such systems imply the need for comprehensive land-use planning as well as planned interrelations among soil, water, and forest resources in relation to agricultural residues. Major advantages are their minimal negative environmental impact, and their decentralization and efficiency, which often have positive social and economic side-effects.

In Brazil, IFES notably include micro-distilleries for alcohol production from sugar cane, sweet sorghum, maniac or sugar beets; fattening of stall-fed livestock; biodigestors for decomposition of livestock manure and/or sugar cane bagasse and/or stillage; generation of electricity and agricultural mechanization on the basis of the fuels thus produced; and the application of biofertilizer to cultivated lands (fig. 2). La Rovere and Tolmasquim (1986) note the possibility of extending this to include various ways of enhancing the water management system, including the production of aquatic plants, fish, and zooplankton as well as the retention of water for sedimentation and irrigation purposes.

Fig. 2. Flowchart of the "pronatura" food-energy integrated production scheme proposed for the petrochemical complex of Camaçari, Bahia (reproduced from the Food-energy Nexus Newsletter 2, no. 2 [September 1985])

As is noted above, IFES can be put together in various configurations and at various scales. A fundamental distinction, however, can be made according to their ultimate purpose. One kind is "farm-centred", or in the case of agribusiness, enterprise-centred, although any surpluses might be used to satisfy the non-production needs of workers or farmers (see fig. 3). This is not the purpose of the system, however; it is only a spin-off.

Another system is the "energy farm" unit designed for the production of energy, usually for distribution via conventional means to distant urban markets. This type of system could be expanded into a kind of "public utility" system in order to include a social purpose other than food production, for example, waste water treatment in a manner that simultaneously produces food and reduces the environmental load. Moulik (1985) describes an urban latrine system in India that, coupled with a biogas generator, produces both hot water and street lighting while reducing the sewage treatment problem.

Fig. 3. Flowchart of the integrated production of food, raw material, and energy proposed for the "agro-energy community" of Tabuleiros de Valença, Bahia (reproduced from the Food-energy Nexus Newsletter 1, no 1 [September 1984])

A third type of IFES is the "community focused" system. It seeks to energize daily life in a variety of ways that answer domestic and community needs, such as cooking and sanitation, as well as individual and community productive needs in agriculture and industry. Moulik (1985) described the features of this type of system as including:

It should be noted that IFES do not necessarily offer a fundamental departure from conventional models of "trickle down" and "modernization" development. Thus those designers who wish to put big-energy systems at the service of "another development" should pay close attention to the local patterns of food and energy provisioning in addition to other basic needs such as clean water.

The same situation applies to the ability of IFES to balance economic, social, and ecological evaluations. Although an analysis shows that environmental degradation can be prevented by using IFES, it remains to be seen whether or not this is actually happening. This raises the question of whether or not IFES that are environmentally sustainable can be promoted instead of energy-intensive agricultural modernization projects that aggravate social and economic conditions.

Analytical Trade-offs

To date, most IFES research that has been done suffers from an engineering bias. Although this provides systems with a solid foundation, such research needs to be complemented with increased contributions from interdisciplinary teams, notably from the biological and social sciences. While most systems take advantage of biofertilizers, there seems to be a "black box" approach to the material that goes into and comes out of biodigestors. There are few studies of the biological, chemical, and physical properties of digested material or of their impact on the soil treated. Little work appears to have been done on the microbiology of biofertilizer. This is particularly true for small-scale systems, notably composts, that have been all but ignored by major research and development organizations (Silk 1988).

There is also a need for nationally or internationally standardized ways of measuring the parameters of biofertilizer systems and of evaluating their performance. Basic comparability is not currently possible because of the differences in the manner of reporting data on IFES. Another problem is that costs can rarely be taken as absolute values but must be related to local, regional, national, and international markets that are constantly changing.

The Chinese Energy Village described by Zhang et al. (1986) is a community-oriented system that seems to transcend some of these problems. Because it was designed in co-operation with the residents of a "natural village", the results allow for a complex, transitional pattern of energy use. Coal, diesel, and kerosene continue to share a place with the new and old renewable energy sources.

Production techniques for both market and subsistence needs are addressed simultaneously by this system. The latter include both family requirements (lighting, cooking, space heating) and social purposes (new fuels). Both productive and non-productive uses are thus served and there seem to be advantages for everyone in the village. Unfortunately, such a balanced system is hard to obtain in real life as IFES are not sealed off or protected from the rest of the economy (and this is increasingly the case even in China).

Most research on IFES has been based on the energy profile because of the much greater experience with energy studies. Indeed, among the early initiatives of FEN was an analysis of the entire chain of food production activities "from the farm gate to the food plate" (Parikh 1985). It naturally paid special attention to the intersections with energy flows, the by-products produced and the losses at each stage, thereby focusing attention on ways to increase efficiency by reducing wastes.

In this context, Alburquerque (1986) identified five basic steps:

  1. description of the system to be studied;
  2. an energy analysis of the system;
  3. identification of possible technological paths for the supply of energy to it;
  4. an assessment of alternative technological paths; and
  5. a plan for the introduction of the chosen project.

Given the complexity of such an analysis, there is usually a trade-off between the quantity of detailed information one would like to have and the amount one can afford, given constraints on money, personnel, and time. One must thus determine the minimum amount of information necessary to understand an existing agro-energy system well enough to make an intelligent intervention. This leads to the question of how long reasonable baseline research must take at the micro-regional or community level.

The answer, of course, depends on the amount and nature of background data already available. Where baseline data exist, they can certainly be useful, but there are caveats. First, relevant data are sometimes to be found in places where many energy planners would not think of looking, such as nutrition surveys or anthropological studies. Second, all relevant data are not necessarily quantitative. An understanding of the historical background of a community is vital as it is the historical experience of underdevelopment that conditions what the local population perceives as a resource. Deeply-rooted social relations often define access to these resources, which are perceived by everybody but only accessible to some. There is also the problem of studies that have omitted the poorest groups because of various spatial, social, and seasonal biases (Chambers 1983).

With regard to the minimum amount of information needed, it must be noted that local factors are too complex for sweeping generalizations. The practical consequence for the policymaker is that only a very much strengthened, decentralized, retrained, and highly-motivated extension service can possibly monitor the situation sufficiently closely and continuously to provide the necessary data for policy decision-making.

Among the social impacts of IFES, attention should be given to highly seasonal employment patterns, particularly in large-scale sugar cane production, and the poor quality of life of rural families living on vast plantations. The inclusion of other crops and economic activities in these systems would help to provide year-round employment.

A related concern is the consequence of "creating" a wide variety of "new resources" in rural areas. What will happen, for example, when marginal pasture resources (which may be vital to local users) become potentially valuable as wood fuel plantations or energy farms? More emphasis also needs to be given to the impacts of IFES on women and children.

Regenerative Agriculture

Attention should be given here to the potential of IFES to contribute not only to the sustainability of rural resource-use patterns, but to their "regeneration".

As Freudenberger (1988) has aptly observed:

The word 'sustainable', which is frequently used in reference to new agricultural futures, too often is interpreted to mean that, given necessary resources, even a poor system can be sustained for a long time, provided only that a community has the ability to obtain the needed resources. To move beyond this ambiguity, the word regenerative is used.

The idea of regenerativeness goes beyond conceptualizations of conservation, for this latter word usually just conjures up the idea of being careful about using a resource in order to extend its time horizon as much as possible. Regeneration, in contrast, and particularly in the case of agriculture, refers not only to the replacement of the essential resource, but, hopefully, to its enhancement.

In this context, carefully developed IFES could actually enrich the natural resource base by restoring stability and integrity in both the socio-economic and biophysical sense. An analysis of the traditional management system of the Spanish dehesa (Perez 1986) shows the possibility of applying this approach to other regions suffering from desertification and/or conflicts between food and energy production.

The dehesa is the result of centuries of interaction between farmers and their environment which has resulted in open, savanna-like woodlands with a rich diversity of flora and fauna, thus giving it stability and resilience. It allows sustainable harvesting of fuelwood from periodical pruning and clearing, which also improves the quality of the trees and pastures, thus increasing food production.

Apart from cereal crops for human consumption, dehesas mostly produce fodder crops to supplement the natural grazing resources. The carefully cultivated oak trees provide not only fuelwood but forage and acorns for livestock fattening in addition to cork, which is used as an industrial feedstock.

According to Perez (1986), this analysis shows that "an agro-silvo-pastoral combination producing food, energy and forest products is possible" and can provide a "balanced diet and all the products rural populations may need". This resource-use pattern shows that sustainable resource exploitation is not only compatible with ecosystem regeneration but actually part and parcel of it.

In hoping that the lessons to be learned from the Spanish dehesa will contribute to improving living conditions in many rural areas of third world countries, Perez (1986) reminds us that "the different environmental and socio-economic characteristics of each region necessitate specific solutions and it must be borne in mind that the dehesa example cannot be transported per se to other areas without taking into account these considerations."

Agricultural Refineries²

The situation of third world countries can perhaps best be understood by an examination of the experience, both positive and negative, accumulated in this respect by Asian and Latin American countries. The two largest, land-scarce countries, China and India, are still predominantly rural, in contrast with Brazil, where the abundance of land goes hand in hand with premature and very costly urbanization. Both China and India have an excess labour force in agriculture; their problem, therefore, is to promote the agricultural exodus.

The official Chinese policy is aimed at releasing some 150 million workers from agriculture by the end of the century. The slogan is thus: ''The Chinese peasant leaves agriculture but stays in the village". As for India, Chakravarty (1987) makes it clear that in spite of the Green Revolution and surplus food production,

agriculture cannot absorb fully the surplus labour even if the existing regional unbalances in agricultural growth are overcome. On the other hand, neither can industry absorb the migrant labour force even with a high rate of industrialization. It would, therefore, be necessary to adopt policies which would generate adequate off-farm employment in the rural areas and small towns so that migration to urban and metropolitan cities and the consequent accentuation of urban social problems could be avoided.

The basic problem, therefore, for all developing countries with a rapidly growing population and increasing rural-urban migration, both permanent and seasonal, is how to promote off-farm migration through "industrialization without depeasantization" (Abdalla 1979). For China and India, this is a necessity, and for a country like Brazil, it is an opportunity to use land productively while avoiding the unnecessary costs of excessive urbanization.

Rural industrialization is usually associated with intermediate or even simpler technologies. But it need not and should not necessarily be so. Recent advances in communication, agricultural, and chemical technologies have made the problem of economies of concentration and scale somewhat obsolete because they allow many secondary and tertiary activities to be deployed in rural areas.

To the extent to which underdevelopment is a "co-existence of asynchronisms", selective modernization, based on an endogenous project, calls for skill-ful management of technological pluralism. No developing country can sustain across the board the deadly rhythm of accelerated obsolescence imposed by competition on world markets. Neither can it afford technological stagnation. Hence the need to plan sectoral modernization and to design public policies that can offset the homogenizing effect of market forces.

It is in this context that the relevance for rural areas of decentralized IFES based on biomass should be understood. Such industrialization should start with using existing resources and raw materials. Agricultural residues and biomass production are the obvious choices. In tropical countries, this is particularly true for "agricultural refineries" designed to produce a broad range of industrial products from biomass (Munck and Rexen 1985). The key element in this alternative rural development strategy is a process based on valorizing biomass as a dynamic anchor activity around which organizations and other development activities can work.

The "agricultural refinery" concept can be illustrated by the case of sugar cane production. Its central anchor activity is a modern processing industry around which all other activities could be oriented. An average sugar factory with a 2,500 tonne-per-day capacity in India commands an area of about 10,000 to 12,000 ha spread over 30 to 40 villages, employing about 700 to 800 people on a permanent basis and about 2,500 people on a seasonal basis for about 150 to 180 days per year. It also generates secondary and tertiary employment in the service sector. The full potential of such an industry, however, can only be achieved if all of the possibilities of by-product processing are exploited.

This alternative is particularly relevant to Brazil where its National Alcohol Programme is the largest such endeavour in the world, with over 11 billion litres produced per year. But the current low oil prices are causing intense controversy over its cost-effectiveness. The rationalization in the use of existing distilling capacity by improving the productivity of the entire plantation is thus imperative. Turning alcohol distilleries into "agricultural refineries" for overall sugar cane processing is one of the best ways towards this end. This is being shown by experiments now underway in some installations where sugar cane bagasse is being used as an input for cattle raising and electricity generation.

It should be noted that a similar "agricultural refinery" system can be designed for almost all agricultural commodities, such as rice, wheat, cotton, maize, etc. Such IFES would obviously depend on the agricultural and other natural resources available from local sources in the area concerned.

Given recent advances in science and technology, particularly in chemical processing and biotechnology, the exploitation of biomass for IFES opens up new vistas for alternative development. in fact, with the emergence of such a rural industrialization process, and new rural-urban configurations, one can visualize the end of the costly urbanization process and a chance for third world countries to leap-frog into the 21 st century.

Food-Energy Nexus and Ecosystem

The 1986 FEN conference in New Delhi (Moulik 1988) shared the interest in methodological themes introduced in Brasilia but placed more emphasis on issues of public participation in the design, implementation, and evaluation of IFES. It also identified a number of policy questions:

  1. Have rural energy programmes supported or detracted from equity-oriented development programmes such as land reform and the provision of rural infrastructure and services?
  2. Is there a built-in bias in favour of urban systems at the expense of rural systems ?
  3. Are agricultural extension services giving sufficient attention to resource-conserving methods capable of increasing yields without significant extra energy inputs?
  4. Can existing "high output agricultural systems" be modified to include the production of rural energy as well?
  5. Is enough being done to promote agroforestry?
  6. Can forestry, agriculture, water supply, and energy not be better finked by using a watershed management concept?
  7. Is experimentation with big-energy and other technology for IFES being carried out in the context of the whole socio-environmental systems within which potential users really live and work?

Compared to Brasilia (FINEP/UNESCO 1986), the conference in New Delhi advanced to the point of discussing technical obstacles to retrofitting specific agro-industries; rationalizing specific problematic features of current intensive agriculture in Asia (notably energy for irrigation, soil fertility, pest control) or of bottlenecks in specific national programmes (slurry disposal problems or energy crop choice for reforestation). This suggests that IFES research has reached the stage of "early maturity" that warrants focus on obstacles that stand in the way of quantum leaps in the mass application of such systems.

The emergence of "sideline", "real" or "parallel" markets and activities de mands a reassessment of how one carries out "village ecosystem" studies. Although impressive competence at estimating energy flows in villages has been developed over the past few years, there still is little formal understanding of these micro-macro connections. Energy-based definitions of "efficiency" are certainly important, but they need to be complemented with the viewpoints of local people based on their daily lives. Otherwise, there is a distorting influence that leads one away from questions of food quality, welfare, and health benefits of alternative uses of a carbohydrate source such as sugar cane (Seshadri 1986).

Another methodological theme to emerge was the value of "participatory action research" that exploits local knowledge of micro-environments and emphasizes the importance of building on the skills and knowledge that exist in villages.

There is no doubt that everything is in place for large-scale, rapid progress in meeting human needs through IFES innovations. The scale of the potential benefits is enormous: an ESCAP (1985) study concluded that a biomass production/industrialization scenario for India would generate 2,000 million work days of employment and 90 million tonnes of charcoal, serve as a reliable energy base for rural industrialization, and put 20 million ha of wasteland under forest cover, while still being a strictly bankable proposition.

Other elements for rapid progress are also available. As noted above, the engineering side of IFES has clearly reached a degree of maturity with designs, prototypes, and functioning systems now available. Two missing links, needed to make effective use of this experience, have begun to be forged: rapid advances in biotechnology and breakthroughs in the social organization of effective community participation. What is needed is more focus by IFES proponents on integrating their work with these two links.

What is also needed is to translate the political will at a governmental level into the first steps in actually reworking some of the distorting macro-economic and social policies inherited from the past. Such action need not be all that revolutionary but could include some steps towards reforming price, taxation, and subsidy policies needed to implement IFES systems. Another important move would be to give concrete meaning to the verbal commitment to women's equality through such things as day care facilities for rural women engaging in new employment schemes.

A major recommendation emanating from the New Delhi conference was for the establishment of a permanent working group for the study of the Food-Energy Nexus and Third World Development Strategies to be entrusted with the following tasks:


In order to understand the problematique discussed above and to promote this development strategy, it is necessary to examine the following key planning parameters on a cross-cultural, comparative basis:

Detailed need assessments and inventories of local resources have followed national energy balance studies in a number of countries. There is preliminary experience in the design of agro-energy systems for and with communities. A consensus is also emerging about the types of information needed for such design work, although there are differences concerning "how" to go about getting it. it is also generally agreed that nationally dominant ideas about the nature of development as well as specific government policies (legislation, credit, etc.) have a strong influence over the nature and pace of food-energy development in rural areas.

A number of interesting small-scale technologies are under development in various experimental programmes in several countries. Some of these systems or sub-systems are already being popularized, while others are within a few years of such implementation.

Most experience so far concerns biodigestors. There are still questions of optimal scale for a given purpose, continuity of production, the mix of raw materials, and construction with low-cost materials and local skills. Work on micro-distilleries is well advanced, as is that on small-scale electricity generation using biomass fuels of various kinds. Numerous systems now incorporate gasifiers, but further work is needed on the range of energy values represented by different kinds of vegetable residues.

Small hydro-power and animal traction power sources seem yet to be fully utilized as components of IFES. Aquatic sub-systems, however, have been widely included in experiments and designs, although more data on their costs and benefits are needed.

On the whole, small-scale agro-processing technology seems to be keeping pace with the development of new energy sources and possibilities of conversion. However, there is a divergence between food industries oriented towards export and luxury urban markets and those whose products fit directly into the local diet.

In general, there seems to be little systematic analysis of the possible linkages between new food-energy systems and the institutions representing other basic need sectors, such as schools and health centres. Domestic water supply is the one exception. Intriguing work in a few countries suggests, however, that IFES can be of use not only in meeting the function-specific needs of health centres and schools, but in enabling these centres to become energy centres in their own right through the diffusion of food-energy innovations.

Such possibilities require that food-energy designers situate their work more fully in a "rural development" perspective. This, in turn, suggests the need for more direct involvement by researchers in broader debates about the social priorities implied by national policies. In this way, potential beneficiary groups, such as the urban poor and the rural landless, who currently feature in such systems only as consumers and labour power, might be drawn more directly into IFES. The full potential for techno-social integration, implicit in the food-energy approach, could thus be realized. This would complement the realization of big-energetic integration and socio-economic integration.

In an analysis of the social impacts of food and energy technologies, Peemans (1987) offered several recommendations for future work in this field:

  1. developing a maximum number of synergies between food crops, livestock, fish production, and new sources of renewable energy (biodigestion of wastes, biomass production and treatment) in order to increase the local energy potential for household purposes, irrigation, biofertilization, and transport;
  2. focusing greater attention on the role of small-scale rural industries oriented towards the processing of local staples for "export" to urban consumers. This could include the enrichment of local flours with vegetable protein and the production of soybean milk, both of which would help to reduce imports;
  3. giving attention to a variety of technologies assessed for their utility in every local context;
  4. assessing carefully the institutional framework, including the feasibility of a network of rural and urban co-operatives to support community-based integrated development schemes;
  5. promoting the participation of local authorities and central agencies in such a network, in which they could take initiatives and give support.

He concluded that "such a strategy is a slow process and is not a short-term solution to the crisis of the dominant food and energy system. But to help its emergence would probably have more rewarding results in the long term than previous 'hit and run' activities".

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