According to a recent article published by Anthropocene1, adopting a flexitarian diet could be a way to help keep warming levels below the 1.5°C target of the Paris Agreement. The publication argues that reducing agricultural emissions and freeing up former farmland could be so powerful that such dietary shifts could significantly increase the remaining global carbon budget we have left to achieve that goal.

Now, if your reaction to this news was: how come? Believe me, you are not alone.

So, I thought this could be the topic for the first delivery in this blog post.

Have you ever heard about the water-energy-food (WEF) nexus?

For roughly a decade, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has promoted the nexus between water, energy, and food to support sustainable agriculture and food and water security. The WEF nexus is considered fundamental to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because it includes the three basic resources for achieving human well-being. Stressors such as population growth and movements, increasing urbanization, or climate change have and remain impacting these resources (e.g., water, food, energy) included in the WEF nexus.

We know now that water is not an infinite resource and that it is the most significantly exploited. Agriculture-related activities account for the largest freshwater consumption (estimated 70% of all freshwater withdrawals globally1,2), and a significant amount of water is used to produce electricity. When considering the water footprint (e.g., the amount of water required for producing one kilo) of beef is 15,415 L (ca. 4,072 gallons), while producing one kilo of rice would use 2,497 L (659 gallons) of water, reducing beef consumption to once a week start make sense, right?

Water consumption is not the only concern related to food production but also pollutant release or greenhouse gas generation. For example, excessive use of fertilizers in farmland has created a flow of nutrients being washed out by rain into water bodies. The excessive presence of nutrients (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorous) generates dense growth of plant life and death of animal life because of oxygen depletion in water in a phenomenon known as eutrophication. The excessive richness of nutrients because of agricultural runoff taint water quality and may, under extreme scenarios, lead to the water body to cease to exist.

Related to greenhouse effect gases production, 154-264 pounds of methane are produced per year by a single cow resulting from its digestive process. Considering an estimate of 1.5 billion cattle raised for meat production, that means that, at least, 231 billion pounds of methane are produced annually by dairy farms. Methane is 28 times more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide (CO2). Wastewater treatment is also necessary to avoid dairy farm effluents impacting water resources, but it consumes large amounts of energy.  Estimated as high as 0.5-2.0 kWh per cubic meter of treated water, the yearly energy consumption for wastewater treatment is estimated 30 terawatt-hours (BTW, one terawatt-hours equals 1,000,000,000 kilowatt-hours). Just for comparison, on average, the AC unit we run at home during summer consumes between 1,000-2,000 kilowatt-hours per year.

All the energy required to produce our food or clean our water impacts water resources. For example, in agreement with the water footprint calculator web page4 90% of electricity in the United States is generated by thermoelectric power plants, where fossil fuels are used to boil water to generate steam to turn the turbines and generate electricity. After the steam is used, it needs to be cooled using freshwater that is, eventually, released back to the environment from which it was withdrawn but at a higher temperature. Total U.S. freshwater withdrawals for thermoelectric power have been estimated to account for 41% of the total water withdrawals. Besides water usage, energy production also generates air pollution that may lead to acid rain, greenhouse gases, and health risks. Acid rain, particularly, is an interesting example of how the WEF nexus loop closes because of its effect on water ecosystems causing harm to fish and other aquatic organisms, damaging the hydrologic cycle, and affecting soil productivity. The major energy production-related pollutants involved in acid rain are sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, which, by dissolution in the water droplets on the clouds, will generate sulfuric and nitric acid molecules (respectively) that precipitate with rain generating the acid effect observed.

In a few words, despite the complexity of the WEF nexus relationships, there are several ways that you can contribute to reduce the risk and support sustainable development goals. Adopting a flexitarian lifestyle may be one of them, probably, but there are many others.

We, at DASCO, are producing solutions that not only create opportunities for addressing the WEF nexus issues described above, but also to do that using carbon-negative, biogenic, environmentally friendly materials/technology. For example, we are using biogenic calcium-based materials to assist in minimizing power plant emissions and acid precipitation. We have strategic partnerships to develop next-generation food supplements for dairy farmers and highly effective fertilizers that reduce nutrient leaching into water courses.

If you are interested in sharing thoughts or chatting about exploring business opportunities, we are always open to hearing from you. Please contact us. We will be happy to have a conversation with you.

 

  1. https://www.anthropocenemagazine.org/2024/04/a-global-shift-to-flexitarian-diets-would-buy-much-needed-time-to-meet-key-climate-targets/
  2. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/water-in-agriculture#:~:text=Currently%2C%20agriculture%20accounts%20(on%20average)%20for%2070,share%20of%20%E2%80%9Cconsumptive%20water%20use%E2%80%9D%20due%20to
  3. https://www.oecd.org/agriculture/topics/water-and-agriculture/#:~:text=Agriculture%20irrigation%20accounts%20for%2070%%20of%20water,and%20over%2040%%20in%20many%20OECD%20countries.
  4. https://watercalculator.org/footprint/the-water-footprint-of-energy/