The Nexus by the Numbers

Food, water and energy - they may not seem like they’re connected but the systems that help produce and bring fresh food and energy as well as clean, abundant water to all of us, are intertwined.  The three systems are often in conflict with one another and under great strain due to a changing climate, extreme weather events (e.g. drought), population growth and poor resource planning.

Looking for evidence of how the food, water and energy are connected in the United States? Here are a few statistics to illustrate the intersections:

Water is Used for Energy:

  • Nearly half of all water withdrawals — both freshwater and ocean water — in the US are used for thermoelectric power plant cooling.
  • Coal and nuclear plants use 2 and 212 times more water than natural gas, respectively, but photovoltaic solar and wind plants consume virtually no water.
  • The hydraulic fracturing process requires an average of 5 million gallons of water to drill and fracture a typical deep shale gas well.

Energy is Used for Water

  • 3 percent of US electricity is used to pump, treat and transport water.
  • The cost to move, treat and heat water accounts for up to 60 percent of the energy bill in some US cities, and 90 percent of the energy bill on some farms.
  • California uses 20 percent of its electricity, 30 percent of its natural gas and 88 billion gallons of diesel fuel a year for the sourcing, moving, treating and heating of its water.

Water is Used for Food

  • Irrigating crops accounts for 31 percent of all of the water withdrawals in the US.
  • Irrigation and livestock represent 84 percent of freshwater consumption in the US.
  • About 25 percent of total US freshwater consumed each year goes toward food that never gets eaten.

Energy is Used for Food

  • 10 percent of the US energy budget is associated with producing, distributing, processing, preparing and preserving the plant and animal matter we consume.
  • Approximately 2.5 percent of the US energy budget is "thrown away" annually as food waste.
  • It typically takes three units of fossil fuel-based energy to produce one calorie of food energy for most US agricultural products combined. That ratio soars as high as 35:1 for beef produced in feedlots.

Food is Used for Energy

  • In 2010 nearly 40 percent of US corn was converted into ethanol.
  • Even if 100 percent of the US corn harvest were dedicated to ethanol, it would displace less than 15 percent of national gasoline use.
  • Between 2006 and 2011, 2 million acres of grassland — an area nearly the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined — were plowed and converted to soy and corn fields thanks in part to federal corn ethanol mandates.

Food Impacts Water

  • The EPA identified agricultural activity as a source of pollution for 48 percent of stream and river water, and for 41 percent of lake water.
  • Nitrogen fertilizer applied to cropland in the Mississippi River Basin makes its way to the Gulf of Mexico, where it becomes one of the leading causes of the 8,000 square mile – almost the size of New Jersey – Gulf "Dead Zone" in which no fish can survive.
  • An Ohio study revealed that 67 percent of water taken near poultry farms and 31 percent of water near swine farms contained antibiotics.