A dramatic, overall improvement in food security is one of the great success stories in human history. Especially since the Green Revolution of the mid-twentieth century, both the quantity and quality of calories supplied improved people’s day-to-day health, lengthened life spans, and boosted nearly every other aspect of well-being. Yet 1 in 11 people in the world in 2020 were unable to acquire enough food to meet their daily minimum dietary energy requirements. Energy is key to the history of improving food conditions, and to the elimination of the seemingly intractable undernourishment in many countries.
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Enhanced access to energy services can boost productivity across the entire food supply chain.1 On the farm, sufficient energy for mechanization and water pumping speeds land clearing and harvesting, and boosts crop yields. Indirect energy in the form of fertilizers also raises crop yields. Sufficient energy for milling, grinding, de-husking, and pressing increase food quality. Sufficient energy for refrigeration, drying, smoking, pasteurization, and canning and packaging reduce food loss and improve food quality. Sufficient energy for transport enables goods to reach markets and consumers. These changes not only improve nutrition, but also provide a slew of economic and social benefits to households. As I discussed in another article, improved access to clean cooking fuels can yield important health and social benefits for women and children.
In the home, poor cooking and refrigeration services are barriers to properly prepared food and water disinfection by boiling. The physical and economic scarcity of adequate energy lead to coping strategies such as bartering food rations for fuel as well as skipping or undercooking meals.1
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The animation illustrates a general decline in undernourishment over a roughly two decade period that occurred hand in hand with a general increase in energy use per capita. For example, the rate of undernourishment in Thailand declined from 17% in 2001 to just 8% in 2019. This was accompanied by a 78% increase in energy use per capita over the same period. But increased access to energy does not guarantee reductions in under nourishment. In Nigeria energy use per capita increased by 29% over this. Yet the share of Nigerians who are undernourished increased by one-third. In Venezuela, political tumult, civil unrest, and economic dysfunction produced dramatic declines in energy use per capita and increases in the rate of undernourishment.
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Countries with the highest rate of undernourishment tend to be countries with the lowest rates of energy use per capita. Increases in energy use per capita from extremely low levels (1 to 20 GJ capita) are associated with declines in the rate of undernourishment from as high 50% of the population to less than 10% of the population.
But energy use per capita is clearly only one factor affecting food security. Countries with similar rates of energy use have dramatically different rates of undernourishment. For example, Nepal (5.5 GJ per capita) and Yemen (5.8 GJ per capita) use energy at about the same rate, but the rate of undernourishment in Yemen (42.8%) is 9 times lower than the rate in Nepal (4.8%). Similarly, about 6% of the population is undernourished in both Cambodia and the United Arab Emirates, but the average Emirati uses 33 times the energy of the average Cambodian.
Improvements in nourishment show strong diminishing returns to energy use per capita, similar to other measures of well-being such as the Human Development Index, life expectancy, and self-reported life satisfaction. Beyond 30 to 40 GJ per capita, additional increases in energy use do not lead to significant reductions in undernourishment.
Access to sufficient quantities of clean, affordable energy services is essential to reducing undernourishment, but it is not a cure-all for food insecurity. Climate change, war and conflict, poverty, poor housing and transportation infrastructure, volatile food prices, race and gender inequality, and a raft of poor public policies are obstacles to adequate food. Improving access to safe, affordable, and clean energy will not only improve nutritional outcomes, but also lead to progress on many other social, economic, and environmental challenges.
1 World Food Programme. 2019. Energy for Food Security https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000106572/download/?_ga=2.137715192.9399893.1668284902-1194371100.1668284902