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Food Integrity Campaign Blog

Bringing Attention to the Water-Energy-Food Nexus

Food Integrity Campaign | May 1, 2017

We’re wrapping up Earth Month here at FIC, but don’t think we’ll forget about the critical links between climate and food systems. We’re committed to standing for those who risk their livelihood to bring us truth.

At the recent March for Science, scientists from numerous disciplines gathered to support the broad notion of “science.” I was reminded of how important these truth-seeking scientists are and of their unwavering commitment to food integrity. And this past weekend, FIC attended the People’s Climate March. At both events we met with supporters and shared our message:  food, including its processing and procurement, shapes the planet.

It’s now time to bring what we have learned into focus and acknowledge the interconnectedness and synergies of our shared planet. In this month’s blog, we are discussing the Water-Energy-Food Nexus.

Sidetracked from Sustainability

For the most part, we go about our lives without fully understanding how our actions affect others. But that is the role of our government – to develop and enforce rules that keep one sector from inadvertently harming another. For the public to trust the government, though, there needs to be transparency, and watchdogs to guard that transparency.

We need energy to produce and transport food, but many of our energy sources pollute the air, soil, and water. Preserving clean water means limiting water use for food production, and limiting the use of chemicals in agriculture that may pollute our rivers, lakes, and oceans. And our agricultural practices – like our energy production – can impact the climate, causing ripple effects that risk our land, our water, and our air quality.

Our rapidly growing population, consumption choices, and the means we have developed to provide our basic needs have created complex interconnections that potentially threaten those very things – air, food, water, and energy – on which we absolutely rely. Indeed, the list of basic human needs is surprisingly short: edible food, potable water, breathable air. A “rule of threes” applies to how long a human being can survive without air (three minutes), water (three days), or food (three weeks). There is a relationship between these needs, and focusing on any one of them may easily compromise the others.

But understanding these connections may allow us to find a sustainable route to providing for our collective needs.

A Wasteful System

The Water-Energy-Food Nexus was initially discussed at length at a conference in Bonn, Germany, in 2011, but the gist is neither dated nor technical. It is simply a way of illustrating that the things we need and the ways we provide them are thoroughly intertwined. Examples of these interconnections can be seen with a brief look at the way we produce and provide food and water for our global human population.

Before growing a crop or raising livestock, we need a usable piece of land. We clear out the existing growth to plant some corn, wheat, or rutabagas, for example, or to graze a bunch of cows, sheep, or sundry livestock. Clearing out the indigenous growth means we are altering the environment, probably replacing something that naturally grows in the area with something from a different place. In the modern context, this is often a huge monoculture.

Replacing a complex ecosystem with something uniform like a wheat field or feedlot can have ripple effects that may prove disastrous. It may create an increased risk of erosion, a decrease in natural shade, or adversely affect the natural conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen. But our need for food requires that we clear some land and plant some crops, or breed some edible critters. Feeding billions of people requires agriculture.

And agriculture, in turn, needs water. If we haven’t started our farming operation where fresh water is readily available, we will have to dig for it, or transport water for the crops or the livestock. Inefficiency on a grand scale may harm local populations, especially if drought conditions become commonplace.

Growing crops on such a scale requires fertilizer and pesticides. These chemicals, used in small amounts, may have a negligible impact on the environment (though local food chains are disrupted even when pesticides are used properly). But use in large quantities or overuse can have a wide range of negative effects, as chemicals run off into rivers and leach into groundwater, harming plant, animal, and human health.

Weak regulation of the production and use of chemicals leads to bad, often unexpected consequences. Downstream areas – like the Gulf of Mexico near the mouth of the Mississippi River – receive incredible amounts of fertilizer and pesticide runoff. Fertilizer can be as problematic as pesticides when it disrupts ecosystems – such as by promoting the growth of algae that, in excess, can create dead zones by depleting oxygen in the water.

Without accountability, it becomes more affordable for food producers to overuse fertilizers and pesticides than to use them efficiently – and costlier for the public that loses access to resources. Those living downstream bear the consequences of inefficient use of chemicals upstream.

Once the food is produced we get it to market by burning fossil fuels to power trains, trucks, and ships, which affects air, soil, and water quality. Local production limits the damage, but most food is not grown locally. Processing and packaging require additional energy and resources, and cause additional environmental harm.

Providing clean water for all the world’s people becomes more difficult when that water is polluted by oil and pipeline spills, fracking, plastics, and chemicals, or when it is used inefficiently in agriculture. When we power our industries with unsustainable, dirty energy, we are risking our water supply, our land, and our air. Food production requires tremendous amounts of water and energy, and yet on average we in the US waste around 40% of the food we produce (the global average has been estimated at 33%), an appalling waste of energy and resources.

Meanwhile, the basic nutritional needs for nearly a billion people throughout the world are not being met.

Food Whistleblowers and Vigilance

We have rules, laws, and regulations to keep our food and water safe and available and our energy efficient and minimally harmful to human health and the environment. Yet we have political powers that want not only to defund the research that informs these rules, but also to eliminate as many regulations as possible. This is not the path to sustainability.

Where laws and regulations fail or are ignored, we need to be vigilant. Without people who are willing to blow the whistle on waste and inefficiency, to call out deliberate ignorance of science, and to speak up when they see rules being ignored to boost profits or hide scandals, our survival is uncertain at best.