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No food security without fire

How do you cook your food? I usually first prepare the ingredients and then turn the stove on, but not for all of us does a blue flame appear at the click of a stove switch.

Now try to imagine that you spend one day every week to collect wood for cooking. You have to wake up early and trek long distances to reach the source of fuelwood. Once you find the suitable trees, you have to cut them and gather the wood pieces to make a sufficient headload. Then you have to make the way back home carrying the wood twice your weight on your head or your back. Often you are also balancing the weight of your child with the wood. Most probably you reach home in the evening, and only after that can you start cooking. But when you run out of fuelwood, in less than a week, you have to go through the process again. That’s the reality for an average rural woman in Africa.

The fuelwood problem

The fact that people in many African countries do not have gas or electricity for cooking is not news; the fuelwood problem has been around for decades. In the 70s and early 80s, the main concern was deforestation, and a “fuelwood crisis” was declared with projections of rapid and total destruction of the biomass resource. This theory was later questioned by research that demonstrated that deforestation is a more complex phenomenon in which agriculture is the primary driver and that the fuelwood problem goes beyond a simple supply-demand equation. Consequently, there was a sharp decline in projects that sought to boost fuelwood supplies, and the forestry sector shifted attention away from wood energy issues.

Concerns about fuelwood have however remained. Now, the most prominent worry is the health impacts of inhaling cooking smoke. The Global Burden of Disease report shows household air pollution from the use of solid fuels is a leading risk factor for disease, responsible for 4 million deaths annually, almost all of them in the developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa it is the second major health hazard, exceeded only by malnutrition. What is more, this indoor problem is also an outdoor problem because cooking smoke also contributes to climate change.

But does the challenge really stop there? 

This week the 14th World Forestry Congress has gathered the most prominent actors in the area of forestry to discuss a vision for forests and forestry for 2050. For the first time ever the congress is hosted in Africa, and its theme is about forests and people. The inclusion of “people” prominently in the forest debate has ensured that the issue of fuelwood has come across in several sessions during the conference, and has once again brought energy access back to the forestry debate.

At the thematic session on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition, I presented the results of a new study on the connection between fuelwood access and food security. This review is the first attempt to draw a link between these two prominent issues, since it was raised by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO in the 1990. At that time the connection between food security and fuelwood access was considered intuitive, but warranted further investigation before action could be taken.

Surprisingly enough, two and a half decades later the review we performed could not find many studies that explore how food security and energy access depend on each other. While 43 out of 131 articles reviewed alluded to the link, less than 5 had concrete data to support the existence of the connection between energy access and food security.

However, is the absence of evidence in this case an evidence of absence?

Our study highlights some of the links between energy access and food security, and, in my view, it is hard to prove them false, even without sufficient research.

Simply put, we cannot cook food without energy. And because people cannot survive without food, they will use any means to secure fuel. If there is no reliable fuel source, then families, instead of investing in their livelihoods, tend to reallocate their resources into procuring fuel. Women, who are usually the wood collectors, spend significant amount of their time on fetching fuel – time that could have been spent on gainful economic activities. Another example of such resource re-allocation comes from the refugee camps, where it is well known that people quite often exchange food for fuel.

Lack of energy access also affects nutrition. In Kenya, for instance, people switch from fuel demanding foods such as githeri, a traditional Kenyan meal of maize and beans mixed and boiled together, or mokimo, potatoes, corn, peas and onions cooked in one pot and mashed together, to less fuel demanding options like porridge, ugali, the polenta like corm mesh, or raw beans and grains. Another coping strategy is reducing number of meals. That means that apart from nutritional impacts, people would have less physical energy for work to produce food.

Insufficient energy access has yet another public health dimension. In most low-income countries water has to be sterilized which is still usually done by boiling. Where fuel is limited and cannot be stretched beyond the main cooking activity, the water is not boiled, with far-reaching public health consequences.

Scarce energy also affects agricultural productivity and leads to even more deforestation. Families that do not have enough resources to purchase fuel or enough labor to collect the fuelwood try to get the energy by burning anything they can get their hands on, like twigs and dung, which could instead be used on farm to increase soil fertility. Burning these resources for energy cascades into soil degradation and reduces agricultural productivity. Moreover, it could lead to further deforestation because farmers may need to expand into forested areas if the soil becomes less fertile. And in its turn, higher rates of deforestation mean lower fuel wood availability, creating a vicious cycle.

Securing fuelwood for food security

Securing fuelwood to ensure food security and nutrition is not a farfetched argument in the light of these scenarios. We have to acknowledge that fuelwood is the primary source of energy for one third of the world’s population, and it is unlikely to go away. But if supplies continue to dwindle, the sorts of coping behavior described above may increase, leading to food security and nutritional consequences.

The forestry sector should therefore once again pay closer attention to fuelwood.  It should build on successful efforts to boost fuelwood supplies through agroforestry; secure land tenures to allow people to plant trees on farms; and promote fuel efficient stoves.

The fuelwood crisis is not over, it has simply acquired much broader dimensions. Securing fuelwood supplies means better food security and nutrition, and has benefits for public health and economic development. It even has implications for climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies.

These insights provide a new space for engagement with other sectors to tackle this historical problem. The forestry sector has a key role to play in designing policies that learn from the lessons of past successes and failures.

Unfortunately the sector is often left out: rarely do forestry issues feature in food security and nutrition debates or forestry, or in the discussion around Energy for All or in debates related to public health. And rarely do energy access issues feature in food security debates.

The lack of scientific evidence about the link between food security and energy access should be interpreted as an urgent call for more research; not a reason for inaction. Through this research we will be able to learn how to tackle the two issues jointly; we can find out what type of species can be promoted for fuelwood production; how to secure tenure rights for women so they can plant and own trees; how to change behaviors so that clean and efficient cooking technologies would be widely adopted in in Africa.

Putting people at the center of forestry is a first major step in the right direction.

by Caroline Ocheing, SIANI Expert Group leader on Food Security and Energy Access, Research Fellow at Stockholm Environment Institute.