Household energy: a missing ingredient in nutrition debates

A growing body of research is tackling the nutritional and environmental outcomes of food systems together, but is it time to look at the role of household energy in this debate?

Giulia Nicolini's picture
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21 February 2022

Giulia Nicolini is a researcher in IIED’s Shaping Sustainable Markets research group

Zenital view of a woman, wearing a headscarf, holding a spoon and a bowl with greens in front of a pot with more greens.

Woman cooking in Sani village in Zanskar valley, India (Photo: sandeepachetan, via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over recent decades, concepts such as ‘food miles’ and ‘carbon footprints’ have entered the mainstream, spurring popular interest in the connection between what we eat and the fuels we burn. These ideas are part of a wider cultural conversation about dietary change, and how people around the world might best meet their nutritional needs without harming the environment.

There are growing calls to integrate environmental sustainability and nutrition science. But research on the links between energy use and food, especially nutrition, tends to focus on agriculture and transportation.

There is little evidence connecting food consumption and nutrition with home energy access and use. Given the importance of the household as a space for consuming both energy and food, this seems an important omission.

The link between energy and nutrition

The fuels, technologies and appliances we use to cook shape what and how we eat. Energy is an ‘enabler’ of food and nutrition security: we need it to cook many of our staple foods, including those deemed essential for a healthy and nutritious diet. There is ample empirical and anecdotal evidence on why people choose particular fuels or appliances to cook specific foods.

For example, firewood may impart a particular flavour to the food, or new appliances might not be suitable for tried-and-tested cooking techniques. But few studies consider how these choices link to nutrition.

When experts look at the intersection of energy access and nutrition, they often focus on situations of crisis or precarity, including humanitarian settings. In such contexts, people often have to make trade-offs between food and fuel, which can have negative repercussions for health and nutrition.

But while it is important to understand these situations of acute insecurity, they are only part of the food-energy nexus picture, and are therefore just one piece of the puzzle worth investigating.

Cooking, culture and society

Biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham argues that cooking our food distinguishes us from other species and explains how we evolved. But cooking is about more than burning fuel to transform raw ingredients.

Beyond its most basic, life-giving function, it is a sociocultural practice shaped by myriad norms, beliefs, rituals, tastes, traditions and relationships. The cookstove itself is both a functional technology and a source of cultural meaning. Yet at the same time, cooking is a mundane, everyday activity, as much a source of drudgery as it is of joy for many people.

In many cultures, household food preparation is gendered, and viewed as women’s work. When solid fuels are burned during meal preparation, often in unventilated spaces, women and girls are more exposed to indoor air pollution. They are also often responsible for sourcing fuel for cooking, a time-consuming activity that can put them at greater risk of experiencing gender-based violence.

A joined-up approach

A more nuanced understanding of cooking as a gendered, sociocultural practice, and the role of energy within that, could help improve the success of policies and interventions aimed at improving diets and nutrition. For example, food-based nutrition programmes could benefit from more detailed evidence of people’s fuel and appliance needs when promoting new or different foods.

Likewise, cleaner cooking interventions must ensure that transitions to alternative energy sources or cooking technologies do not worsen dietary outcomes.

Development practitioners and donors have spent millions of dollars spurring a transition away from traditional fuels such as firewood and animal dung among the resource-poor, largely in the rural global South. But these interventions have had limited success, and rarely consider implications for nutritional health.

There is real appetite among experts and policymakers for addressing complex global challenges such as climate change holistically, breaking out of intellectual silos to look at connections between – and within – different systems.

Bringing together research agendas on energy and diets through the lens of home cooking could create new partnerships, and shift established ways of thinking about how to move towards universal energy access, nutrition security and women’s and girls’ health.

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