Going Green? 12 Ways to Reduce Your Impact on the Food, Water and Energy Nexus

Note:Superstorm Sandy's devastating impact has served as a climate change wake-up call, as noted by Bloomberg Businessweek, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and just about everyone but Donald Trump, but none more pointedly than Bill McKibben. This unprecedented storm should also push us to take a closer look at our food, water and energy systems and evaluate how to meet our needs sustainably while incorporating the resiliency necessary to bounce back after future disruptions. This is something for all levels of government to consider - local, state and federal alike. In regards to the latter, President Barack Obama, Congress and federal agencies should swiftly but thoughtfully produce a road map to guide and better coordinate the nation's food, water and energy policy in a manner buttressed by the pillars of sustainability and resiliency.

But what can you or I do?

There are countless ways through which we as individuals can lessen our impact on the earth. While the range of options is long and can be daunting the oft-repeated good advice is to tackle a few actions at a time. But which ones?

In the US and around the world, our food, water and energy systems are under tremendous strain (e.g. drought and its impact on all three) and are often in conflict with one another where they intersect - the nexus. Poor policy making and reckless management of resources are partly responsible, but so too are the everyday choices we make as consumers.

So we encourage you to get to know the nexus and take actions that help reduce the pressure on, and ease the tensions among, our food, water and energy systems. This nexus line-of-attack is a great way to get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to going green.

The nexus approach is premised on the fact that food, water and energy are essential to civilization. In a nutshell:

  • We use a lot of water.
  • We use a lot of energy.
  • We grow - and eat - a lot of food.
  • We use a lot of water to produce energy.
  • We use a lot of energy to move and treat water.
  • We use a lot of water and energy to produce our food.
  • In some cases, we unwisely use food crops to make energy.

While complex, the nexus is essentially the water in our food and energy, the energy in our food and water AND the food in our energy and water. Factored into this basic way of describing the nexus is the pollution produced by and associated with our food, water and energy systems which can harm the environment and deplete and degrade the natural resources that support the three systems, our economy and society in general.

This profound interconnection - also known as the food, water and energy nexus - is emerging as a critical issue for government officials, business leaders and the public.

There is growing understanding that food, water and energy security - as well as ecological security - are most effectively achieved together rather than individually.

Many factors contribute to the increased pressure on the three systems: population growth, economic growth, ecological degradation, climate change, policy and resource management decisions, and consumer choices .

Suggested Actions:

Here are just a few things you can do to ensure that our food, water and energy systems operate more efficiently and much more in sync with one another:

Choose energy options that are water-friendly (and energy-friendly).

    1. Go renewable. Installing solar electric panels and other water-friendly renewable electric systems at your home or elsewhere can reduce your dependence on electricity produced by water-guzzling (and fish-killing) nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants. Going renewable can therefore reduce your indirect use of and impact on water resources (both from a quality and availability perspective).
    2. If installing a solar electric system on-site is not an option, consider the community or crowd-sourced (aka "crowdfunding") solar model. One company to keep in mind is One Block Off the Grid. If this isn't an option either, you may be able to purchase green power through your electric provider to meet some or all of your electricity demand.
    3. Install a solar hot water system to replace or supplement your fossil-fueled water heater. Given the environmental impacts of fossil fuel extraction, transportation and consumption, reducing your usage of fossil fuel can help protect the natural resources and ecosystems that support our food, water and energy systems.
    4. Purchase energy-efficient products when replacing the old models. Saving energy saves water.
    5. Get around by mass transit and bicycle when feasible.
    6. If driving is a must and you are in the market for a new car, the ideal option is an electric vehicle. There are many good reasons to go electric like steering clear of corn-based ethanol, which has never been an ecologically viable option; also, the corn ethanol mandate has exacerbated the strain on food supplies and contributed to recent spikes in food prices. (Hello, Nexus!) But if an electric vehicle isn't the best option for you, choosing a hybrid or a more fuel-efficient vehicle is a step in the right direction.

Choose water options that are energy-friendly (and food-friendly).

    1. Saving water saves energy. By using less water at home - e.g. by taking shorter showers and repairing leaks right away - you will be sending less wastewater to treatment plants. Since wastewater treatment is an energy-intensive operation, less water being treated means less energy being consumed. Also, using less water from the local municipal system or reusing water means less water that needs to be transported to your home which, in some parts of the country like California, requires a lot of energy.
    2. Reduce your overall consumption. Every product we buy goes through often extensive production and distribution processes before reaching us. These processes include water use which can adversely affect water availability and quality. By reusing and recycling products, you can reduce your indirect water (and energy) use and subsequently lessen your negative impact on water resources which, in turn, can adversely affect food and energy production.
    3. Avoid purchasing bottled water. The Pacific Institute estimates that in 2006, the production of plastic bottles (for bottled water) for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation. (The Pacific Institute also found that the process of bottling water produced more than 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide and that it takes three liters of water to produce one liter of bottled water.)

Choose food options that are water-friendly (and energy-friendly).

  1. Reduce food waste. Wasted food translates to wasted energy.  Approximately 2.5 percent of the US energy budget is "thrown away" annually as food waste. In addition, 25 percent of all freshwater consumed annually in the US is associated with discarded food - about as much as the volume of Lake Erie. Natural Resources Defense Council has some helpful tips on how to reduce food waste.
  2. Eat less meat. Animal production requires large volumes of water for livestock feed, drinking water and maintenance. Beef can be the biggest culprit. An estimated 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water can go into a single pound of beef; that's far above the water requirements of vegetables and grains. (In addition to reducing your water footprint and decreasing your impact on the nexus, eating less meat can improve your health.)
  3. When and where possible, buy grains, fruits and vegetables grown with water-friendly best practices, like drip and other "micro" irrigation methods.

This list of suggestions, while not exhaustive, can help you play a key role in reducing the tensions within the nexus which can enhance food, water, energy and ecological security. (Oh and by the way, many of these actions can also help you save money and reduce your carbon footprint!)

Can you think of more ways to reduce tension in the nexus? Share them in the comments section below!