Linking energy, food security and health can help face COVID-19

As the novel Coronavirus known as COVID-19 continues to spreads in developed and develop-ing countries alike, not all might have the privilege of applying basic prevention measures such as physical distancing. Often living in cramped housing, almost 1 billion poor have little or no ac-cess to reliable, affordable energy to stay connected, or to remotely communicate with public services and one another.

Additionally, as the pandemic and associated lockdowns reduce mobility in the Global South, many households that rely on collected fuelwood to cook are not able to prepare food properly. This directly affects food quality and therefore health.

Water further illustrates the close link between energy, food and health under COVID-19. En-ergy is essential to pump water, which is fundamental to grow food but also to maintain personal hygiene, not the least washing hands; which is imperative to limiting the spread of COVID-19.

Indeed, COVID-19 is forcing us to re-examine the global food system, especially for the most vulnerable communities in developing countries. The possible disruptions of food supply chains and surge in related unemployment would increase food insecurity, with millions of rural people unable to get adequate daily quality nutrition.

With great uncertainty about when, or even if, the global economy will reboot , governments and donors should be considering how to enable a “re-localization” of food supply chains that is both equitable and sustainable, and reduces higher greenhouse gas emissions and related to dis-ruption of longer food chains.

This would require a number of policy redirections, involving both technology and financing, that balance globalization with self-reliance.

Renewable energy has a critical role to play in achieving this balance. Improved access to en-ergy for food production, processing and storage and, from a circular perspective, the use of ag-ricultural residues from local food chains (for instance for bio-fertilizers and bioenergy), can strengthen local self-sufficiency in agricultural inputs, resulting in better resilience to future pan-demics and other environmental and climate threats. Moreover, renewable energy mini-grids being built in different parts of the Global South are not only powering food chains and improving nutrition, but also rural health clinics that previously lacked power. For instance, using biogas to power milk refrigeration results in better quality food, reduced food loss, and higher local incomes; it can also produce local bio-fertilizer that can improve soil carbon sequestration, and power a local clinic.

Re-localization of food supply can also bring environmental and economic benefits.

For example, more local jobs are created with the introduction of renewable energy. Research released last year shows that private sector companies delivering solar solutions to rural com-munities are creating tens of thousands of direct jobs, but there is also a 5-fold number of pro-ductive use jobs being created in the communities gaining access, and those jobs are largely agricultural.

Increasing yields, productivity and prolonging food shelf life through better processing and storage
thanks to better access to energy, also result in greater income for farmers.

Environmental benefits from local sustainable bioenergy include reduced deforestation through
sustainable woodfuel production and use, soil carbon sequestration through the use of biogas
slurry and biochar, as well as mixed cropping system that combine energy and food crops, and
fewer emissions through the use of residues from food chains to produce bioenergy and other

Ensuring adequate supply of nutritious food is part of the immediate health response to COVID-
19, and ensuring sufficient local access to energy is crucial to achieve it. Investing in local access
to clean energy is therefore an investment in increased food security and health, both immediately
and in the long term.

Olivier Dubois, Senior Natural Resources Officer & Leader of FAO’s ‘Energy-Smart Food’ Programme