Aerial view of the Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison

Principles for Policies to Advance Food, Energy, Water, and Ecosystem Security

One big challenge for achieving goals for food, energy, and water (FEW) security is a history of uncoordinated policies that tend to focus on single goals – such as energy independence or increasing crop and livestock production – rather than taking a bigger picture that accounts for the complex and inherent connections between food, energy, and water systems. In our previous post, we described how an unfortunate result of this uncoordinated approach has been negative unintended consequences – such as erosion, runoff, and degraded water quality and wildlife habitats.

These unintended consequences have not only disproportionately harmed ecosystems and underserved communities, but they have also made FEW systems more vulnerable to shocks, such as flooding, drought, and supply chain disruptions – a precariousness that will persist without a change of course, especially as the world continues to experience the impacts of climate change.

In the FEWscapes project’s first official paper, published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the research team highlights the urgent need to consider the unintended consequences that can happen when food, energy, or water policies are developed in silos, especially in a world where shocks may become more common. They offer three principles for how policies could be developed differently to reduce the risk of negative unintended consequences and increase FEW resilience.

Principle #1: Integrate ecosystems into FEW policies

Let’s start talking about them as FEWE systems, with that last-but-not-least E standing for Ecosystems.

Food, energy, and water are considered provisioning ecosystem services, meaning they are “goods” that people extract from nature in order to live. But human life would also not be possible without other basic services that nature provides, particularly regulating ecosystem services, such as pollination, flood and erosion control, and pest suppression.

What this means is FEW systems are inherently interconnected with ecosystems. The problem is ecosystems have been chronically left out of the equation in FEW policymaking.

By incorporating ecosystems into FEW policies as standard practice, we would be essentially creating insurance policies for agricultural landscapes. For example, encouraging farmers to put forests, prairies, wetlands, or riparian buffers on marginal farmland can arm their farm fields against erosion and runoff, while enhancing habitats for birds and beneficial bugs, like pollinators, without sacrificing food or bioenergy production.

Put another way, developing policies that foster multifunctional agricultural landscapes, providing us myriad goods and services, increases the capacity of both people and nature to adapt to change.

Principle #2: Target and tailor solutions that can scale

When it comes to making changes that can enhance FEWE security, getting the most bang for the buck is often about location, location, location. This means creating policies that target places where small changes can yield big gains at the watershed scale.

For example, incentivizing farmers to transition underperforming or over-eroding fields of annual crops to perennial crops or managed grazing can maintain food production while decreasing erosion and runoff and storing carbon. Or by installing drainage water recycling on annual cropland – when excess water is captured, stored, and used for crop irrigation – farmers can reduce nutrient loss and buffer food and bioenergy production against floods or drought.

As GIS technologies continue to advance, so too does the capacity to identify local “hot spots” where installing best management practices would have a significant positive impact for the greater watershed. Targeting and tailoring solutions will also require considering local and Indigenous knowledge in decisions.

Principle #3: Take the long view

With the growing threat of more floods, droughts, and economic shocks under climate change, future planning must take the long view.

Current standard practice in policymaking has been to rely on historical analogs – e.g., how the climate has behaved before – to guide our understanding of how FEWE systems could respond to future shocks. But the climate of the past will not be the same as the climate of the future, rendering historical analogs irrelevant for planning ahead.

Models and scenarios, like the ones we’re using in the FEWscapes project, can help us take the long view. They can help us think outside the box of what seems “normal,” anticipate surprises that could happen, test transformational solutions, and avoid potential unintended consequences.

Policies designed with the long view in mind could incentivize farmers to adopt practices that will make them resilient in wet or dry years, for example. They could also help shift the focus from maximizing agricultural productivity to ensuring profitability as the dominant barometer of a farm’s success.

Fundamental to taking the long view is adopting a more holistic approach to governing FEWE systems. That means facilitating coordinated efforts to integrate FEWE policies and invest in food and energy production, clean water, and ecosystem protection in a more balanced way.

As the FEWscapes team states in the paper, “now is the time” for transformative thinking and doing. With the shock of COVID-19 still fresh in our collective memory, and the climate warning us with more and more extreme weather events, society is poised for taking a different approach.

The FEWscapes team hopes this paper makes a meaningful contribution to conversations about how we can prepare for a tomorrow that will be much different than today.

Read the full paper here.