What's the Food, Water and Energy Nexus? And Other FAQs

"Nexus? What the heck are you talking about?"

Ever since I started talking up the food, water and energy nexus, I've gotten a lot of similar questions about what it is, why we should care and what we can do about it. I decided to take four of the most common questions and create a nexus FAQ.

It's impossible to ignore that the food, water and energy on which we depend upon for survival are interconnected in many ways. GRACE’s new guide, Meet the Nexus, illustrates where and how these three systems interact. For instance, it takes water and energy to produce the food we eat. Energy is used to move water to our homes, to heat that water and then to clean up the water that flows down the drain. Water is required to run power plants safely and to produce oil, gas and coal. Some food crops are turned into fuel for vehicles; the production of these crops can negatively impact water quality as well as water availability.

How well these three systems are working together greatly influences the sustainability and resiliency of our communities, businesses and society as a whole; as well as environmental and public health.

1. Okay, food water and energy are connected. How does that impact me?

While it may sound like an academic discussion, the food, water and energy nexus has everything to do with our lives. Government policies and actions and the choices we make as consumers greatly influence supplies, prices and security for all three.

When we discard food – Americans waste about 40 percent of all edible food – we are also squandering energy and water. There are many ways individuals and households can reduce food waste, and municipalities can lend a hand too.

Heavy reliance on drilling for domestic natural gas in the name of energy security can jeopardize our water security by polluting increasingly strained supplies of fresh water. As consumers and constituents, we can influence energy policy, and we have a choice where we get our power and fuel.

2. Is anyone else thinking about food, water and energy this way?

Corporations, think tanks and local, state and federal governments are all beginning to take the food, water and energy nexus very seriously. We are seeing more and more conferences focused on this topic including one that is taking place next month at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This conference will tear down the silos and bring together scientists and practitioners working in government, civil society and business to focus on the questions of how and why the nexus approach is — and should be — used on international and local levels.

3. I'm almost afraid to ask, but are there any other factors affecting food, water and energy?

There are many factors that influence our food, water and energy systems and the complex web interconnecting these three systems. The list includes climate change, population growth, government and economic policies. A recent World Economic Forum report puts it this way: "A drought can lead to increasing food prices, or to power plants, which need water to function, shutting down. Similarly, water production, distribution and treatment are all energy intensive functions and can be affected by energy shortages and pricing. Climate change today is placing increasing stress on this nexus. The major hike in food prices in 2008, for instance, was due to changes in weather patterns which led to water shortages and hence food shortages."

4. These sound like big issues. Can I really do anything about it?

There is plenty for us to do at the household level to use food, water and energy more sustainably.

We can choose energy options that are water-friendly (and energy-friendly):

  • Go renewable. By installing solar electric panels and other water-friendly renewable electric systems at your home (or elsewhere), you can reduce your dependence on electricity produced by water-guzzling (and fish-killing) nuclear and fossil-fueled power plants. In addition, consider purchasing energy- and water-efficient appliances when you replace older models, because saving energy saves water.

We can choose water options that are energy-friendly (and food-friendly):

  • Avoid purchasing bottled water. The Pacific Institute estimates that in order to meet US demand for bottled water in 2006 alone, the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil were required, and that doesn't even include the energy required to transport all those bottles. 
  • Saving water saves energy. By using less water at home – e.g. by taking shorter showers and repairing leaks right away – you will use less water in the first place, which means less energy is required to transport that water. You will use less energy to heat the water and you'll send less water down the drain. Wastewater treatment is energy-intensive so less water being treated means less energy being consumed.

We can choose food options that are water-friendly (and energy-friendly):

  • 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.
  • Eat less meat. Animal production requires large volumes of water for livestock feed irrigation, 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. Try Meatless Monday. In addition to reducing your water footprint and decreasing your impact on the nexus, eating less meat can improve your health. Knowing the resources that go into meat should encourage us all to treat it like the valuable food that it is, so when you do eat it, opt for better quality (pasture-raised) meat. While it may sometimes be more expensive, its production is less polluting and better for you. And of course, never, ever waste it!

In addition to these choices, we can also urge our officials at the local, state and federal level to take the "nexus approach" and develop smarter policies and plans that take the three systems/resources into consideration.  There are too many instances in recent history of policies that have had unintended consequences because they were not well thought out, where one system was pitted against the other(s) – jeopardizing national water security at the expense of bolstering national energy security.

The list goes on. Can you think of more ways to reduce tension in the nexus? Share them in the comments section below!