Balancing food, energy and water requirements in the Corn Belt
By Celeste Arbogast
Illinois researchers will develop a numerical modeling tool to help Corn Belt communities balance the interrelated needs of the food, energy and water sectors, under a project headed by CEE at Illinois Professor Ximing Cai. The four-year, $2.4 million project is funded by the National Science Foundation.
The food, energy and water system, dubbed the FEW system by researchers, is complex and increasingly under pressure, with competing demands and great importance nationally and internationally. In the Midwest, a key issue is the release of phosphorus into surface waters from wastewater treatment plants as well as agricultural production and processing grain into fuel, animal feed and human food. Phosphorus is a key component of fertilizers and a significant environmental pollutant that can be expensive for communities to remove through their water treatment processes. Technologies exist to recycle phosphorus, but no system currently exists to help communities examine the issues and accurately weigh the costs and benefits, according to Cai.
“This kind of situation really requires new ideas and a systems approach to solve the problem – to combine energy, water and food issues together at the regional scale,” Cai said.
To help decision-makers in Corn Belt watersheds assess the challenges and opportunities, the team will develop an Integrated Technology-Environment-Economics Modeling (ITEEM) tool that will enable users to determine the effects of various demands, proposed interventions and policy changes on the FEW system, with the goal of maximum FEW system resilience. Researchers will develop the tool with stakeholder input, field-testing it along the way to maximize its applicability in a number of watersheds in the Midwest. The tool will be customizable to the particular needs of any given region. The modeling development will incorporate input from stakeholders to ensure the relevance and usability of the model.
In addition to civil and environmental engineering researchers, the project team also includes agricultural engineers, social scientists, economists and policy analysts.
Co-investigators on this project from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign include CEE Assistant Professor Roland Cusick; Assistant Professor Jeremy Guest; Associate Professor Benjamin Gramig of the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics; Associate Professor Emeritus Gregory McIsaac of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences; Professor Vijay Singh of the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering; and Stephen John, Executive Director of the Agricultural Watershed Institute. Brain Pianfetti of CEE serves at the project manager.