Bringing the Food-Energy-Water Nexus to Life

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Agriculture is intricately linked to opportunities and challenges we routinely lump into baskets labelled “water,” “energy,” “nutrition,” “resilience,” “climate change,” and so on. When we talk about agriculture and agricultural policy, we are actually talking about the nexus of food, energy, and water.

The agriculture sector accounts for 70 to 80 percent of consumptive domestic water use and requires energy inputs in production, harvest, transport, etc. In response to drought, California farmers are using cutting-edge water saving technologies, such as underground soil moisture monitoring devices and water-pump monitors that notify them of irrigation equipment leaks. On the energy front, farmers and ranchers are also innovators; roughly 65,000 U.S. producers report generating solar power on their farms or ranches.

In late January, AGree had the privilege of hosting a symposium at the National Council for Science and the Environment’s (NCSE) National Conference and Global Forum; the annual event is one of the most preeminent scientific associations in the country. This year’s conference theme was the “Food-Water-Energy Nexus.”

Drawing nearly 1,400 registrants, including academics from diverse disciplines as well as educators and stakeholders from industry, government, and civil society, the NCSE symposium was an opportunity to bring attention to AGree’s work and discuss how policy can and should address the food-energy-water nexus as we strive to support a healthy economy, healthy people, and a healthy environment. A cross-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder approach is encoded in AGree’s DNA. My fellow panelists – AGree Co-Chair Jim Moseley and Advisors Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and Paul Guenette of ACDI-VOCA – outlined the complexities of food system challenges along with compelling policy visions for the future.

Conference participants were eager to hear how AGree involves experts across sectors to generate policy ideas, build consensus, and develop solutions that confront challenges at the nexus of food, energy, and water. We discussed how agriculture – a critical piece of the nexus puzzle – is sometimes left out of discussions. Slowly, this paradigm is changing as leaders from academia, industry, government, and civil society see the interconnections and opportunities.

At the crux, however, we need greater public investment in research and education on the food-energy-water nexus. The National Science Foundation’s recent request for proposals, in collaboration with USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, to support $50 million in research on the nexus is an important contribution. We must leverage resources from diverse federal agencies and the private sector to better understand and ultimately address these interconnected issues that are so critical to our wellbeing. Research illuminates, for example, how food production and consumption, water quality and quantity, and renewable energy are tied to seemingly disparate goals – such as the health of fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico or women’s empowerment in the developing world.

AGree’s work with leaders across disciplines is building upon these connections. With partners, we’ve launched a pilot watershed-scale conservation effort involving producers, supply chain companies, NGOs, and regulators in Minnesota. We are supporting groundbreaking research on the relationship between agricultural conservation practices, productivity, and risk management. And, we are working to involve U.S. production agriculture in discussions about the importance of U.S. government support for global agricultural development and food security programming.

As NCSE noted in the conference program, we will fail to meet present and future human needs unless the food, energy, and water sectors are “fully understood as a system of interdependent components, and solutions developed based on multi-stakeholder engagement.” Yes, and yes.

I’m proud to say that AGree is doing its part to bring that nexus to life.

Kathleen Merrigan is an AGree Co-Chair and Executive Director of Sustainability at the George Washington University (GW), where she leads the GW Sustainability Collaborative, GW Food Institute, and serves as a Professor of Public Policy.