Corporations Are People (Concerned About the Nexus), Too!

The food, water and energy nexus has been a growing interest of global and national policymakers. The nexus concept is gaining traction at corporations, too, even more so, generally, than within environmental nonprofit and activist circles despite its connections to climate change, strains on natural resources and ecosystem health. So it makes perfect sense that The Wharton School, the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, held a Nexus of Food, Energy and Water workshop back in March.

Given GRACE's interest in the nexus, we regret to have  missed the event but were happy to learn that Wharton and UPenn's Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership produced a report which gives an excellent overview of the key issues that emerged from the workshop.

With its detailed notes and quotes, the report provides a unique opportunity to hear directly from leaders of numerous corporations about why they consider the nexus of food, water and energy to be so important. Here are five particularly interesting quotes from the conference, along with some context and – we couldn't help ourselves – a few of our own thoughts.

"If the water runs out, it will be more important than if the oil runs out."

-Former US Attorney General John Ashcroft

John Ashcroft? Yes, it was really him, and now that he works with Rubicon Global his focus has moved from covering naked statues in federal buildings to strategizing ways to reduce resource waste. (Nice career shift!) While we don't like to give greater weight to any one part of the nexus over another, Ashcroft is dead-on. There are energy options apart from oil, but water can never be replaced.

"Desalination is the only hope to produce new water for future generations at affordable prices." 

-Leon Awerbuch, Director, International Desalination Association

Awerbuch is referring to the Middle East and other parched regions of the world. While "affordable" is debatable, the energy efficiency of desalination does appear to be improving, at least on the technology's cutting edge. Australia is setting a more sustainable example by powering its desalination plants with wind and solar power. But conservation, water recycling and better management are even more cost-effective.

Solving the issue of the nexus is "the greatest business opportunity in our generation."

-Neil Hawkins, Dow Chemical Company

Hawkins is talking about tapping into the growth of desalination, as you can tell a big topic at the conference. Yet he also makes references to the big increase in global middle class consumers on the way and their growing demand for resources, particularly meat. Is there business opportunity in meeting these growing demands? Of course. But is there also opportunity in helping businesses and individuals be more efficient and lower their resource demands? Absolutely.

Animal agriculture consumes "enormous amounts of water and plant resources. If we keep increasing our meat production and dairy production it’s just not sustainable." 

-Mariola Kopcinski, FMC Corporation

In the previous quote we noted the expanding middle class hunger for meat; now it's time to consider the consequences. Animal agriculture is one of the least efficient modes of farming, requiring far more energy and water to produce than plant-based protein. Those of us whose diet contains meat can help by cutting back some, but the Wharton report finds that a combination of reducing food waste and encouraging local – not industrial – agriculture is essential if we're to meet the challenge of building a community-based, ecology-oriented global agricultural system.

"We ought to label food with its energy content."

-Carl Pope, former Sierra Club Executive Director, current energy consultant

Pope calls the food vs. fuel controversy (the debate over the wisdom of converting food crops like corn into fuel) a diversion from the bigger problem of fossil fuels. Because of fuel’s intensive use in mechanized farming – for transportation and as a key ingredient for fertilizers and pesticides – the cost of food is often driven up by increases in fuel costs. Of course, the solution to this problem, according to Pope and several ethanol industry representatives, is…ethanol! (Along with methanol and natural gas.) Since the more sustainable cellulosic ethanol option still suffers from slow commercial growth despite federal mandates and subsidies, corn ethanol, and its high lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions and water use, would be left to pick up the slack. So yes, let's follow Pope's call for energy labels on food, as long as we can include water and emissions, too!

While we may take issue with some of the details within their plans, it's great news that many corporations see the food, water and energy nexus as a useful guiding strategy. Kudos to The Wharton School for coordinating this important gathering of business leaders, and for producing its related report (which we’ve already used as a tool to spreads the nexus message).