An increasing global demand for food is occurring at the same time that water shortages and energy restrictions are escalating in many parts of the world. Much of the attention has focused on supply side factors that can produce more food with less water and energy (e.g., adopting more efficient technologies or increasing the land under cultivation). This strategy bias is based predominantly on a perception that food preferences and habits are relatively immutable and that technology alone will continue to solve our food, water and energy challenges. Similarly, conserving scarce water resources has focused primarily on reducing direct water use in homes or business, as opposed to examining food choices and waste that can actually have a greater impact on water resources.
A consumer’s personal water footprint is dominated by food-related activities that have direct and indirect energy requirements controlling the demand side factors for food. For example, consumers and retailers account for most of the food waste in industrialized nations. Conserving water and energy has been a sufficient incentive for some consumers to alter their food habits, but there is an increasing array of nutritional, financial and health reasons why more consumers may be willing to do so. From the perspective of conserving water and energy, reducing the consumption of animal-based foods, altering the ways that foods are accessed/produced and reducing food wastage are among the most relevant. Whereas the direct energy requirements of food are relatively small compared to the direct water requirements, the energy required to capture, transport and distribute water for agriculture is substantial in arid regions of the world.
Although numerous interrelated factors influence the water-energy-food nexus, many of these factors are either beyond the control of consumers or are perceived to be so. This presentation focuses on actions that can be realized by people in industrialized nations. As such, examples are drawn from regions of Europe, Asia and North America, where water shortages, rising energy costs and a shifting agricultural sector are prevalent. The data focus on both worldwide and local trends in comparing various policy alternatives that address the nexus and that are quantified on the basis of water footprints and other means of assessing the virtual exchange of water inherent in goods, services and energy uses. The effectiveness and the feasibility of implementing those policy alternatives are discussed.