Because of the interconnectedness of energy, food, and water systems, a vulnerability in one can hold serious implications for the others.
Recently, the Sustainability Institute and School of Public Leadership in Stellenbosch, South Africa published a report, “Mitigating Risks and Vulnerabilities in the Energy-Food-Water Nexus in Developing Countries.” The report was compiled for the United Kingdom Department of International Development, and it outlines the dynamic interactions between energy, food, and water systems to identify vulnerabilities and propose policy solutions. The linkages described in the report include energy and water inputs in the food system; crops and water which are used to produce energy in the form of biofuels, fossil fuels, and hydroelectricity; and energy and agricultural production which adversely impact water quality.
According to the authors, “this escalating tension between increasing demand and limits on resources and environmental sinks threatens to create energy and food price shocks that ripple across integrated global markets and result in local shortages of key resources. This, in turn, threatens to undermine energy, food, and water security, and thereby reduce human welfare and possibly lead to social tensions and geopolitical conflict.” If these systems are addressed independently of one another, rather than holistically, it could result in policies and measures which are ineffective or even harmful to other parts of the nexus.
While resource availability and environmental space might not be an immediate obstacle to global economic growth, resource constraints and climate change have been identified as crucial challenges in the twenty-first century which have the potential to impact political security and stability. According to the World Bank, some 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity while 1.2 billion people have unreliable access and over 780 million people lack reliable access to clean and safe water. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), at least 800 million people suffer from chronic undernourishment. Demand for these resources is projected to increase significantly in the next half century, driven by increased population, global economy expansion, rising living standards, and a continuing process of urbanization. Most of the increased demand is expected to happen in developing countries, and the lack of available resources will increasingly limit the ability to meet demand.
This study is composed of a literature review of documents on the energy-food-water nexus, a qualitative analysis of vulnerability indicators, and a policy analysis to produce recommendations for mitigating those vulnerabilities. In addition to global analysis, specific case studies in Malawi, South Africa, and Cuba were conducted to understand the systems of different types of regimes. Malawi is a primarily agrarian system which depends on low productivity, rain-fed agriculture, and biomass energy and has low access to electricity, improved water sources, and adequate nutrition. South Africa is heavily dependent on fossil fuels to power high energy industry and agriculture, and complex water supply infrastructures which are threatened by fossil-fuel-intensive energy and food systems. Cuba incorporates extensive agroecological farming and a growing use of renewables, but it is weak regarding reliance on imported grains and fuels.
The identified risks and vulnerabilities faced by developing countries include extreme events such as droughts or floods, oil price shocks, food price shocks, geopolitical tensions, and financial speculation in commodity markets. The result of food, energy, and water insecurity is the potential for heightened social instability in countries and throughout regions. Concerning policy strategies moving forward, it was noted that any mitigation strategy has to begin with the creation of well-functioning institutions, efficient government systems, and integrated policy frameworks to design and implement effective policies. In rural areas, the critical issue is to optimize land use to provide necessary services, and in urban areas, the emphasis should be on creating resource efficient low carbon cities. For primarily agrarian regimes, the recommendation is to expand access to water, food, and energy while limiting the adverse environmental impacts, and in industrial countries, the greatest challenges are to minimize the vulnerability to international energy prices, reduce resource and energy intensity, and reduce the negative impacts of fossil fuels.
The food system depends on a healthy environment, but poor agricultural practices are responsible for environmental degradation. Beekeepers continue to lose 30 percent of honeybee colonies during an average winter—likely due to pesticides and other agrochemicals. Soil degradation is occurring at staggering rates, with soils being depleted 10 to 40 times faster than they are being replenished. And up to 100,000 plant varieties are currently endangered worldwide.
The increase in food prices in 2008, Russian wildfires brought on by excessive heat and drought in 2010, and, most recently, the worst drought in more than 100 years in California—all are warning signs that farmers and farmers’ groups, global food producers, industry leaders, researchers, and scientists must address the planet’s food security in the face of weather volatility and climate change.
provides the vital tools needed for fixing the food system.
Farmers depend on just a handful of crop varieties: according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA), approximately half of farmland—more than 60 million hectares, or 150 million acres—in the U.S. is planted with corn or soy. This lack of diversity limits farmers’ ability to adapt to varying weather patterns and climate change.
“The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word,” wrote food author and activist Michael Pollan.
A more resilient agricultural system is needed, especially in the face of climate change. “With 80 million more mouths to feed each year and with increasing demand for grain-intensive livestock products, the rise in temperature only adds to the stress. If we continue with business as usual on the climate front, it is only a matter of time before what we [saw] in Russia becomes commonplace,” said Lester Brown, U.S. environmental analyst, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, and founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute.
Family farmers and food revolutionaries are working to create this paradigm shift by restoring ecological resilience in their local communities. Many farmers are diversifying their cropping systems and working together on projects to preserve biodiversity in fields and on plates.
According to Dr. Bianca Moebius-Clune, Soil Health Division director for the U.S. National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), farmers are improving soil’s “ability to take in and hold ‘water in the bank.’ They’re even creating wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while decreasing risks from extreme weather and harvesting better profits and often better yields.”
Here’s how family farmers, food heroes, and organizations around the world are working to create resilient local food systems that are immune to the shocks of climate change and ecological disturbance.
Adapt-N is an interactive tool developed by researchers at Cornell University, designed to help corn growers reduce nitrogen applications based on site-specific recommendations. The website is part of a suite of decision-support tools from Cornell to help farmers mitigate and adapt to climate change in the U.S.
DivSeek, an international partnership launched in January 2015, use big data to catalog the physical and genetic information held within international gene banks, and to make it available online. The initiative, involving 69 organizations from 30 countries, enhances the productivity and resilience of global crops by giving breeders and researchers access to information through an online portal.
In the Philippines, Dr. Wilson Cerbito, Assistant Regional Director of the Department of Agriculture, addressed the First Agriculture Summit on May 7, 2015, noting the Philippines is the third most vulnerable country in the world to climate change. The event outlined strategies for improving productivity of rice and root crops through technologies and practices that promote ecological resilience.
Full Belly Farm received the California Leopold Conservation Award for its land stewardship and conservation efforts. Judith Redmond, a manager of the farm, demonstrated resilience in the face of extreme drought by changing her crop choices, implementing drip irrigation, and reducing her reliance on groundwater. The creek that usually irrigates her crops ran completely dry last year, but Redmond was still able to water her land using micro-irrigation.
La Red de Guardianes de Semillas (The Network of Seed Guardians) is preserving rare plant varieties and culturally important seeds in Tumbaco, Ecuador. The community model for seed-saving fosters the exchange of cultural knowledge between small farmers, trains growers on permaculture techniques, and works to preserve biodiversity throughout Ecuador. The coupling of cultural heritage and biological heredity in something so small as a seed gets at the heart of the resilience concept: the more biologically and culturally varied a system, the more buffered it is against disturbance.
The Lexicon of Sustainability is spreading the word about agricultural resilience through information artworks and inventive media campaigns. Douglas Gayeton, multimedia artist and the organization’s founder, emphasizes that “there are farmers who believe in biodiversity instead of monoculture. Farmers who build soil fertility without depending on chemicals. Farmers who go beyond organic.” By defining terms such as true cost accounting, The Lexicon of Sustainability seeks to describe a vision for resilience through engaging stories.
Who do you know about that is creating a resilient local food system? We want to know! Share them with me at Danielle@foodtank.com.
Source: Food tank
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