WASHINGTON—When farmers tend to their crops, they regularly consider tradeoffs between how much water to use for irrigation and how expensive the energy needed to pump that water from local rivers will be.
Such considerations are part of what experts call the food, energy, water nexus. Earlier this week, during a workshop at The World Bank, scientists from across the globe called for more research and collaboration to address the looming challenges facing energy and water use both in and out of agriculture.
The Food-Energy-Water Nexus Workshop, a two-day event that concluded Wednesday, brought together nearly 150 attendees and more than 40 researchers and analysts, who presented data and technologies used to better understand the interactions among those resources.
Though studies into food, energy and water cycles have become better coordinated, they are often accomplished through three different types of computer modeling. The more the computer models are woven together, researchers say, the closer scientists can get to helping alleviate the strain on the environment.
“One of the problems that we are facing here is that there are three different pieces of this puzzle that need to nicely come together,” said Jelena Srebric, a professor in the mechanical engineering department at the University of Maryland.
A solution to that problem, according to Srebric, is getting researchers to recognize each other’s models and those models’ limitations.
“If we focus our conversation on a particular potential system, then we have a fighting chance because we can all plug our models and knowledge and understanding around a common topic,” she said. “Otherwise, these are three disparate fields.”
Collaboration among those disciplines has become especially pertinent for agriculture.
Agriculture uses 70 percent of total water withdrawal globally, more than any other industry, according to UN-Water, the United Nations’ agency responsible for freshwater access and water sanitation issues. Food production and distribution accounts for 30 percent of energy use worldwide.
Agriculture is also the largest industry in Maryland. It employs 350,000 people, and farm-based activities accounted for $2.7 billion of gross cash income in the state in 2014.
“Maryland is a big agricultural-producer state and one that is relatively favored with water resources in general,” said Fernando Miralles-Wilhelm, a professor in the University of Maryland’s atmospheric and oceanic science department and coordinator for the workshop.
“On the other hand,” he said, “because of the intense agricultural productivity, it may generate some nexus issues because of water quality, agricultural inputs into (polluted) water, and we have very sensitive ecosystems and waterways—the Chesapeake Bay and many others.”
In recent years, the state’s agricultural industry has become progressively entrenched with water and energy issues. The Maryland Farm Bureau, for example, has pressed the state for the construction of ethanol and biodiesel plants and the use of renewable fuels in state automobile fleets. And use of chicken poop, which serves as fertilizer for many state farmers, has been cut back by regulations and harshly criticized for contributing to water pollution.
At the same time, the state’s population is rising and its number of farms is declining, down 17 percent from 1987 to 2012, according to the state’s 2012 Census of Agriculture.
The growing global population—currently nearing 7.4 billion—has placed more demands on agriculture. Global food production through agriculture must increase 60 percent by 2050 in order to keep up with population estimates, according to the 2015 U.N. World Water Development Report.
At the workshop, researchers discussed the approaches and tools they employ when trying to balance global food needs with climate change concerns. They also shared results from studies on topics ranging from green roof technology to groundwater storage, and the implication those results have on food, energy and water relationships.
Case studies from water-strapped nations, for example, found energy needs often outcompeted water needs. In some regions of South Africa, energy industries take on more than 30 percent of available water resources, according to Pat DeLaquil, CEO of DecisionWare Group LLC, a policy analysis and energy system model company.
In response, DeLaquil and DecisionWare work with Thirsty Energy, a World Bank-created program that helps energy sectors in various countries factor water into their resource planning.
“Energy is required for water production, water is required for energy production,” DeLaquil said. “There’s a lot of pressure from population and it’s creating a lot of stress in these fields, and … what we’re really looking at is how as a society do we most optimally use the resources, the investments that we want to make.”