ROME, ITALY — Producing food and energy side-by-side may offer one of the best formulas for boosting countries' food and energy security while simultaneously reducing poverty, according to a new UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report published on Feb. 17.

The study, "Making Integrated Food-Energy Systems (IFES) Work for People and Climate - An Overview,” draws on specific examples from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as from some developed countries to show how constraints to successfully integrating production of food and energy crops can be overcome.

"Farming systems that combine food and energy crops present numerous benefits to poor rural communities," said Alexander Müller, FAO assistant director-general for natural resources.

"For example, poor farmers can use leftovers from rice crops to produce bioenergy, or in an agroforestry system can use debris of trees used to grow crops like fruits, coconuts or coffee beans for cooking," he explained, noting that other types of food and energy systems use byproducts from livestock for biogas production.

"With these integrated systems farmers can save money because they don't have to buy costly fossil fuel, nor chemical fertilizer if they use the slurry from biogas production. They can then use the savings to buy necessary inputs to increase agricultural productivity, such as seeds adapted to changing climatic conditions — an important factor given that a significant increase in food production in the next decades will have to be carried out under conditions of climate change. All this increases their resilience, hence their capacity to adapt to climate change," said Mueller.

IFES are also beneficial to women as they can eliminate the need to leave their crops to go in search of firewood. Women in developing countries can also significantly lower health risks by reducing the use of traditional wood fuel and cooking devices — 1.9 million people worldwide die each year due to exposure to smoke from cooking stoves.

Integrating food and energy production can also be an effective approach to mitigating climate change, especially emissions stemming from land use change. By combining food and energy production, IFES reduce the likelihood that land will be converted from food to energy production, since one needs less land to produce food and energy.

Additionally, implementing IFES often leads to increased land and water productivity, therefore reducing greenhouse gas emissions and increasing food security.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo an agro-forestry IFES is currently being implemented on a large-scale. The 100,000 hectare Mampu plantation, located about 140 km east of Kinsasha, combines food crops and acacia forests, enabling farmers to grow high yielding cassava and other crops at the same time that they process wood into charcoal.

Total charcoal production from the plantation currently runs from 8,000 to 12,000 tonnes per year, while farmers produce 10,000 tonnes of cassava, 1,200 tonnes of maize and six tonnes of honey annually. Each farmer, using 1.5 hectare of land generates an income of about $9,000 per year ($750 per month). In comparison, a taxi driver in Kinshasa earns between $100 and $200 per month.

In Vietnam, an IFES program combines crop, livestock and fish production with the generation of "biogas" used for cooking. In addition to providing them with fuel, the program has allowed farmers to save money by replacing chemical fertilizers with the compost generated from the production of biogas. This enabled farmers to earn at least three to five times more income compared to what they derived from growing two rice crops per year over the same area.

"Promoting the advantages of IFES and improving the policy and institutional environment for such systems should become a priority," said Olivier Dubois, an FAO energy expert. "FAO is well placed to coordinate these efforts by providing knowledge and technical support for IFES implementation."