9 Things to Know About the Food, Water and Energy Nexus

Superstorm Sandy was a stern wakeup call on many fronts. The never ending gas lines, the massive disruption to the metropolitan region’s mass transit system and the upheaval of thousands of lives will be forever engrained in my memory.

I will also remember Sandy for shining a bright light, not only on the vulnerabilities of our communities, but also on the vulnerabilities of our food, water and energy systems to extreme weather and a changing climate. The storm also underscored the interconnected nature (aka “the nexus”) of these three systems, a subject of increasing interest to the business community and policymakers. This profound interconnection is also emerging as a critical issue for the public.

These three interlocking systems form the backbone of our society. Understanding how they interact with each other is vital to achieving a more resilient and environmentally sustainable future. The post-Sandy fallout stresses the need to devote serious time and resources to rethinking how we grow food, provide water and produce energy – particularly in the context of a changing climate (among other factors). The goal is to meet humanity’s needs while at the same time balance these three systems with the natural world and the global climate. 

With this in mind, GRACE Communications Foundation released “Food, Water and Energy: Know the Nexus,” a report that examines where the three systems overlap, how they rely upon each other to function and how they impact each other. GRACE’s paper promotes a nexus approach to resource use and management as well as policymaking at all levels.

Drawing from the GRACE paper and other sources, here are nine things to keep in mind about the nexus:

  1. Understanding how and where the three systems intersect can help reduce our ecological footprint and enhance environmental stewardship. Want to know how you can reduce your strain on and between the three systems? See here. To foster a better understanding, the food/water/energy nexus approach should be included in education curriculum from elementary school through college.
  2. Managing these three systems together, given the many ways they interact, is key to environmental and economic sustainability and ecological and community resiliency.
  3. Water, food and energy shortages encompass one of four “megatrends” that US government intelligence analysts say could cause radical economic and political changes between now and 2030. On a related note, the cost of food, water and energy (whether in the form of products or services) is greatly influenced by supply as well as how the three systems interact.
  4. The three systems are 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. Here’s another way to look at it: The security of food, water and energy are not only dependent on one another, they are dependent on these other factors, particularly climate security.
  5. The nexus manifests itself in many of the biggest environmental issues facing the US (and the world). Take food waste for instance. When we waste food we are also wasting water and energy resources. At present, food is the single largest and least recovered waste stream in the US. Fortunately food waste consciousness is on the rise.
  6. Saving water saves energy and saving energy saves water. This relationship has prompted some efforts to collaborate. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) and the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) recently announced the first-of-its-kind awards for efficiency programs that jointly save both energy and water. “These awards highlight the huge potential for savings when you combine water and energy efficiency together," said Steven Nadel, Executive Director of ACEEE.
  7. The power industry withdraws more water than any other sector of the US economy. The country’s aging fleet of conventional power plants kill fish by sucking billions of gallons of water – and the fish that live in it – out of rivers, lakes, harbors and estuaries every day. Nearly all of this water is used for “once-through cooling,” an outdated process in which older power plants withdraw enormous volumes of water out of natural waterbodies, kill everything living in it, heat it and discharge it back into the environment at an elevated temperature.
  8. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), freshwater consumption for world energy production is on track to double within the next 25 years. What’s behind this increase? Two trends: “soaring coal-fired electricity” and the “ramping up of biofuel production.”
  9. Drinking water supplies and freshwater ecosystems have been adversely impacted and continue to be threatened by fossil fuel extraction and other stages of the fuel cycle.

Recent extreme weather events, oil spills and increasing food prices tell us that we can no longer view our food, water and energy systems in isolation. This means gaining a better understanding of how these three systems connect and then taking carefully considered actions to ensure food, water and energy security and sustainability for the future. Moving forward with a nexus approach is no simple task. Doing so will require the combined, society-wide efforts of individuals, businesses and government.