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Recent PLOS research at the food, water, energy nexus

While the roots of ecology may have focused on how many animals there were or, where those animals were located, ecological theory and methods are now increasingly informing public policy and resource management. One of the latest results of this trend is ecological work in the study of the food-water-energy-nexus.

Water, food, and energy are inextricably linked in our modern world. There are trade-offs associated with energy use and food production that have wide-ranging consequences. Let’s say we choose to grow bioenergy crops on a set area of land (corn or switchgrass would be a good example). This is good, right? We can use those crops to create energy, perhaps offsetting fossil fuel consumption. These bioenergy crops are likely going to need supplemental irrigation. That water will need to be pulled from another area. That area of land where we are growing bioenergy crops directly removes land that could be used for food production. If we are growing crops for energy, that is space we can’t use for food. Further, irrigation could move water from one area to another that could affect river flows and in turn reduce water supplies for other drinking or reduce the potential for hydropower production. Intensive agricultural practices may also result in water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

Global food demand is expected to rise by 70% 2000 levels (UN FAO 2009)
Global food demand is expected to rise by 70% over year 2000 levels by 2050 (UN FAO 2009).

The industrial scale of agriculture and food production required to meet global food demands needs energy to produce food in the first place. In turn, there are subsequent effects on water and the environment. What we are left with is a nexus where water, energy, and food intersect.

This space is where ecology can be helpful. By viewing this as a system, much like any other ecological system, some of the tools and methods used by ecologists can be beneficial to evaluate the demands and needs of each sector along with how they interact and intersect. On the surface, it does sound a little bit like species interactions and competition, doesn’t it? Today, some recent research from PLOS journals focused on the food-water-energy-nexus.

Mladenoff and others, in their February, 2016 PLOS One article, “Recent land use change to agriculture in the U.S. Lake States:  Impacts on cellulosic biomass potential and natural lands,” use remote sensing data to look at the conversion of non-agriculture land to agricultural use in the Great Lakes region of the US. You may be familiar with the ethanol produced from corn or sugarcane, but the production of ethanol from cellulosic biomass crops is a bit different. Most cellulosic biomass crops are perennial woody plants with higher concentrations of lignin (the tough-to-breakdown molecule that helps make woody plants strong and rigid). Producing ethanol from these crops is more intensive and requires more grinding and crushing and chemical/microbial digestions than producing ethanol from starchy sources, like corn.

Recent scientific advances coupled with investment in infrastructure, make cellulosic bioenergy a more viable option. Cellulosic biofuels also have the benefit of providing animal habitat, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and an added beneift of surviving on degraded or marginal lands not typically suitable for food production. However, corn and soybean production accounted for 65% of total agricultural area of the Great Lakes region in 2013—and, as the authors point out, has increased steadily and significantly in total area and proportion since 2008. Much of this expansion of has been on to marginal lands where perhaps cellulosic biofuel cultivation would be a more sound ecological appropriate option.

The shift in global dietary patterns towards higher consumption of fats, sugars, meats, fruits, and vegetables puts a stress on global resources and on food-producing countries to meet this global demand. From 1980 to 2010, countries in Latin American and the Caribbean have doubled their agricultural market share according to Flachsbarth and others in a January, 2016 PLOS One article, “The role of Latin America’s land and water resources for global food security: Environmental trade-offs of future food production pathways.” The authors show that the reduction of trade barriers results in lower global prices for many food products and resulting shifts in where food production is occurring. By modelling varying scenarios of food production, ranging from business-as-usual to sustainable intensification, the authors show that for each modeled scenario there are trade-offs not only in supply and demand of food products, but for water usage, water quality, biodiversity, and carbon losses.
Related research from recent PLOS publications:

Towards a Spatial Understanding of Trade-Offs in Sustainable Development: A Meso-Scale Analysis of the Nexus between Land Use, Poverty, and Environment in the Lao PDR,”from Peter Messerli, Christoph Bader, Cornelia Hett, Michael Epprecht, Andreas Heinimann, deals with managing broad sustainability goals a the local level.

In their article, “Is Yield Increase Sufficient to Achieve Food Security in China?,” Xing Wei, Zhao Zhang, Peijun Shi, Pin Wang, Yi Chen, Xiao Song, Fulu Tao deal with challenge of meeting current and future food security goals for China given climatic and technological limitations.

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