By Steve Pueppke, Director of Global and Strategic Initiatives, CANR

With several others from MSU, I recently attended the National Council for Science and the Environment’s conference on “The Food-Energy-Water Nexus.”  We convened for almost three days in Washington, narrowly escaping a snowstorm that barreled down on the Capital City as we were leaving.  The conference program included plenary sessions, symposia, and workshops, and since the venue was inside the Beltway, I had anticipated learning how federal funding agencies are preparing to respond to what has become something of a FEW Craze.  This was not to be.  Representatives of the usual suspect agencies were at the podium, but we learned more of current and past activities than future plans.  This was a disappointment.

The conference nevertheless stimulated much thought on my part.  I came away armed with several new pithy sayings, including “Stop treating soil like dirt” and—this one from a venture capitalist— “If we are the smartest ones in the room, then we know that we are in the wrong room.”  There were also surprises.  Who would have guessed that US water withdrawals for agriculture are actually declining?   Or thought that at current rates of obesity increases, the world will not have to feed 9 billion people by 2050 but rather the equivalent of 10-11 billion people crammed into 9 billion overly large bodies?  Or who has heard farmers measuring productivity per cubic foot (this from the vertical agriculture crowd)?

Mostly, though, I was and still am intrigued by the results of a survey taken by an NGO and reported to us on the second day.  This was not just an informal poll.  The survey instrument was carefully designed, and it was distributed to a variety of stakeholders and others in the “FEW space” – academics, governmental people, NGOs, and those working in the private sector.  The No. 1 finding, one that caught the survey takers off guard, is that few stakeholders can identify topics that hit the nexus of FEW as opposed to those that lie within the F or the E or the W.  This was apparent from the talks, including many of the plenaries.  With few exceptions, speakers would state or imply that they are comfortable in the F or the E or the W space, confine their comments to this space, and leave the other spaces and indeed the nexus to someone else.  I came away with the crazy sense that while many intuitively feel that FEW is important and can mouth words about it, few are capable of actually articulating the concept.  Here we were at a conference billed as the FEW Nexus, yet the FEW nexus was off in hiding!

The survey also pointed out that while we tend to think about F and E and W, underlying issues are crucial.  In particular, policy and human behavior underlie the entire nexus concept.  We can arrive at the best articulation of the nexus and apply ourselves to problems, but unless enlightened policies are in place, and unless people are will to respond, all could be for naught.  Misguided agricultural subsidies were often cited as examples of bad policy.  Nutrition came up as an example of a behavioral problem where what people do is misaligned with what the experts know they should do.  And a final point from the survey:  the experts believe, and I agree, that the nexus of FEW is fraught with uncertainty and vulnerability.  Climate change cast a long shadow over the conference, and it is clear that actions based on just the F or just the E or just the W can hurt vulnerable people and damage the environment.

Given our collective strengths at MSU, we may be able to help address the challenges revealed by the survey.  Could we collectively refine the concept of a FEW nexus and then articulate problems that lie at its center?  Could this low boundaries institution find a way to mix policy and behavior into our FEW activities, rather than consigning underlying make it or break it issues to someone else?  These are questions now being addressed not just by the MSU Water Science Network, but across campus.