Konar receives grant to study food-energy-water nexus in US

10/3/2016 10:28:19 AM

CEE at Illinois Assistant Professor Megan Konar is part of a multi-institution interdisciplinary research group that has been awarded a four-year, $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (NSF INFEWS) program to study the connections between food production, energy production and water supply in the United States.

Food, energy and water (FEW) systems are complex, interconnected networks in which the benefit of using one resource may result in costs to another. For example, tapping water sources to irrigate farm land may lead to increased food production, but that in turn may require increased energy production in order to harvest and transport the crops.

Understanding these connections can help decision-makers identify trade-offs between policies and technologies related to FEW systems. The researchers will collect decades of food, energy and water data from locations across the U.S. and create a detailed mapping of the nation’s FEW system. In her role as the institutional principal investigator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Konar’s focus will be on food-water systems and the transfers of these resources through infrastructure. Her team will lead the development of a database of domestic climate shocks and intra-national food and water transfers, and build a network model of these transfers in order to identify potential vulnerabilities and find opportunities for improvements.

Since local events and policy decisions can cause a ripple effect throughout the FEW system, studying the wider impact of stressors that happen at a local level can help highlight areas where additional analysis and resource management is needed. Citing the recent drought in California as an example, Konar explained how a disruption to the system in one area, as well as the way that disruption is managed at a local level, can have a far-reaching effect.

“Agricultural production in California is important to consumers throughout the United States, as well as the world,” Konar said. “During the recent drought in California, farmers have increasingly relied on groundwater resources to maintain agricultural production. Without this aquifer, much agricultural production would not have been possible during the drought, likely reducing the availability and increasing the price of California produce in the short term for consumers.”

Since groundwater is being used to buffer the impact of the drought, the long-term effect of this should be considered, Konar said. “Given the importance of California food production to the rest of the country, we may want to implement policies to manage groundwater resources so they are available in the event of another drought.”

These are the types of decisions that can be informed by a better understanding of the connections and trade-offs between food, energy and water systems. The database and network model Konar will develop could be used by government officials, academics and the general public to further study the FEW system.  By examining how past events such as natural disasters, wars and economic crises have affected the system, this project is developing the capacity to anticipate the impacts of future events.

“We know that food, energy and water systems are some of the most critical resources of the future. For this reason, it’s important to understand trade-offs between all three resources in order to develop solutions to manage our resources sustainably,” Konar said. “With this project, we aim to do just that: figure out vulnerabilities and trade-offs in the system and work towards a more food, energy, and water secure future.”

The INFEWS program is a new initiative by the NSF, designed to support research on the complex connections between food, energy and water systems. In the face of increasing stresses, including population growth, climate variability and land use change, INFEWS encourages an interdisciplinary approach to research that will improve system function, increase resilience and ensure sustainability. Konar's research group has received one of the first grants awarded under the program. Other members of the team include associate professor Benjamin Ruddell, principal investigator at Northern Arizona University, a CEE at Illinois alumnus who was a doctoral candidate under professor Praveen Kumar.