Do You Know the Food, Water and Energy Nexus?

What do food, water and energy systems and a slice of pizza have in common? The systems are part of what’s called the “nexus” and they come together in that slice of pizza you’re about to eat. They’re also part of the water we drink, the products we buy and the energy we use to power our lives. The GRACE Communications Foundation’s new paper, “Food, Water and Energy: Know the Nexus,” describes how, why and where these systems intersect. The paper also illustrates how these systems rely upon each other to function and how they impact each other, the natural world and our lives.

Let’s think about how these systems interact. You already know that crops used to make our food have to be watered. In fact, agricultural processes in the US account for 80 percent of fresh water consumption. You may not realize how much electricity is required to pump and move all of that water. In the state of California, water-related energy use accounts for 20 percent of all electricity use in the state. Californians move a lot of freshwater around the state to meet their needs, and 15 percent of it goes toward irrigation.

Creating electricity is also water intensive: Nearly half of all water withdrawals – both freshwater and ocean water – in the US are used for cooling at thermoelectric power plants. In addition, if you’re familiar with ethanol then you’re also familiar with the nexus. The main feedstock for ethanol in the United States is corn, and in 2010, nearly 40 percent of US corn was converted into ethanol. Using potential food supplies for energy generation can have disastrous results on other parts of the food system, as we found out last summer when drought killed a lot of the corn crop and many livestock producers who rely on corn as a feed source found themselves in direct competition with ethanol producers.

The paper describes how our national policies and management (or lack thereof) on topics such as fracking and food and energy subsidies affect food, water and energy systems in both positive and negative ways. Three case studies are provided to illustrate the nexus:

  • Food Waste: When we waste food, we also waste the water and energy required to grow crops and raise livestock.
  • Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta: Competing demands for food, water and energy are increasing, and the complex mix of stakeholders, agencies and regulations that govern the Delta needs to be simplified.
  • Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant: Our current energy system is overly dependent upon water resources and vulnerable to extreme weather shifts and climate change.

The nexus concept isn’t confined to the US. The connection between the systems is gaining national and international recognition. “In recent months, government agencies and major corporations have identified the food, water and energy nexus as a global priority from a planning and management perspective,” according to Kyle Rabin, Director of the GRACE Water and Energy programs. “As we enhance access to food, water and energy, we must do so in an environmentally and socially responsible manner.”

We hope after reading this paper, you too will become an advocate for sustainable food, water and energy systems. To that end, we’ve offered positive approaches and solutions to readers to help you make the connections you might never have realized existed.