Complex Dynamics within the Food-Water-Energy Nexus

Ensuring sustainable food and water security is an urgent and complex challenge. As the world becomes increasingly globalised and interdependent, food and water management policies may have unintended consequences across regions, sectors and scales. Current decision-making tools do not capture these complexities and thus miss important dynamics. This is the opinion of a group of researchers from Utrecht University who published a paper in the journal Earth System Dynamics, in which they set out a framework for modelling the complexities of food and water security under globalisation. 

The framework integrates aspects of existing models and approaches in the fields of hydrology and integrated assessment modelling. The core of the framework is a multi-agent network of city agents connected by infrastructural trade networks of road, rail and ports. The paper states that these infrastructural trade networks are key to many of the complex dynamics we see within the food-water-energy nexus (see figure). 

Complex Dynamics within the Food-Water-Energy Nexus

“The infrastructural networks we have built are central to almost all the resources we extract from the environment” says lead author Brian Dermody. “No infrastructure, no resource extraction” According to the paper, these networks bring about a coalescence of resources in cities, which in turn become crucibles for cross-sectoral interactions.  The paper states that the building of these infrastructural networks also drives regional interdependency for resources, whereby demand in one region of the world is linked with environmental change in another.

Brian Dermody

“Interestingly, these networks also play a key role in driving cross-scale socio-environmental interactions” says Dermody. “Infrastructural networks link local environmental resources to regional and global markets. As a result, cities lie at the intersection of scales between resources in their hinterland and regional and global markets.” The framework presented outlines how we can capture these networks in our models and thus we can begin to understand the complex dynamics described.

The paper concludes that a new wave of decision tools is required that capture complex socio-environmental change within our globalised world. These tools can contribute to illuminating pathways towards a sustainable future for humans, ecosystems and the resources they share.

Dermody, B.J., Sivapalan, M., Stehfest, E., van Vuuren, D.P., Wassen, M.J., Bierkens, M.F.P., Dekker, S.C., 2018. A framework for modelling the complexities of food and water security under globalisation. Earth Syst. Dynam. 9, 103–118.

Nature Sustainability News and Views piece on the article.