The competing paradigms of sustainability: Food or solar?

Published October 20, 2021, 12:03 AM

by Manila Bulletin

Sustainability paradigms are shifting and these are being driven by technology innovations, emerging industries as well as the re-calibration of global commerce that will then result in transformation of consumer-preferences.
On the core of all these developments, however, is the urgent need for  humanity to reverse the trajectory of an increasingly warming planet.
As global scientists raised the “code red alarm” on climate change risks, paramount of the solutions laid on the table would be “energy transition pathways” that must significantly decarbonize not just new and brownfield power fleets, but even the supply chain of the other segments of the energy sector and affiliated industries.
In the country, solar power installations definitely are at the center when it comes to re-designing the energy mix to a “low carbon future” – and in the next 20 years, the splendid plan is to remodel it into a green energy fulcrum.
But the result of a recent study integrated by the Department of Energy (DOE) in its updated Philippine Energy Plan for 2020-2040 had been both prescriptive and revealing: that solar development in the country has been “devouring” lands that could have been allocated for agriculture.
That is where policy collisions on food-versus-energy rivalry will come forth; and the disturbing precept to it as stipulated in the DOE’s energy plan, is the lack of regulation that shall clearly demarcate which lands shall be devoted to food production and which domains shall be designated for solar farm development.
As cast in the country’s energy plan, solar plant installations are targeted at 31,600 megawatts by 2030 — and a further push to “clean energy scenario” will have that ramped up to 45,100MW by 2040. Such massive integration of solar capacities into the country’s power system will require 325.9 to 461.4 square kilometers of land (32,590 hectares to 46,140 hectares) for the projects’ locations.
For the Philippines, which is already leaning heavily on importation of agricultural products — including rice and vegetables — this is adding to the bad news already eroding the country’s other major pursuit on the avoidance of depletion of resources  — and that is on food sustainability.
The DOE study forthrightly stated that the planned solar power projects will “reduce agricultural land since it’s also the most viable land for solar use, as it is under flatlands, where solar radiation is easily captured.”
That being the case, the energy department conveyed a high-priority step to be taken. There must be land-use policy for agriculture vis-à-vis energy to mitigate the negative impact of variable renewable energy on food security.” Greening the energy system is certainly a just and virtuous strategy, but by all means, it shall be balanced with the compelling need for food security.
If the government fails to address that, should Filipinos prepare to be served with these choices for their hearty lunch — a strip of solar panel or salad?