Society has a legion of unfortunate examples in which a 'solution' to an environmental or development challenge ends up creating new, often unforeseen problems and dilemmas. Let us consider the example of palm oil (figure 1). The oil palm tree originates from Africa but flourishes in any tropical climate and produces higher yields per hectare than any other oilseed crop (Woiciechowski et al 2016). Oil palm, an ingredient in an array of products (e.g. shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, and toothpaste), is becoming the edible oil of choice for much of the world (USDA—Foreign Agricultural Service 2017). Palm biodiesel is also a popular, cost-effective substitute for carbon emitting fossil fuels (Obidzinski et al 2012). However, to plant it, Indonesia has cleared rainforests and carbon-rich peatlands, helping the country become the world's fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Oil palm plantations negatively affect the water quality of freshwater streams, upon which millions of people depend (Carlson et al 2014). Then there are the impacts on biological diversity, as conversion from tropical forests to plantations has greatly reduced habitat for species such as the endangered Sumatran Orangutan (Fitzherbert et al 2008, Kubitza et al 2018).
The palm oil tale is not unique. Rather, it typifies the perils and folly of developing policies and technologies for one sector (e.g. palm as low-carbon energy source or developmental cash crop), without considering the impacts in other realms (Searchinger et al 2008). It exemplifies the tradeoffs and cascading effects between food (e.g. palm oil), energy (e.g. biodiesel), and water (e.g. water pollution). Unfortunately, these resources have traditionally been managed as independent sectors. Similarly, research streams—food supply and use, water supply and use, energy use, ecosystem health, socio-economic welfare, land use considerations and governance—reflect particular disciplinary silos and topical foci and have often emerged in isolation from each other.
Past failures in managing FEW resources underscore the importance of considering interconnections between food, energy, and water. As a response to these failures, scholars, planners, and policy makers have proposed a nexus approach to understand tradeoffs, spillover effects, and synergies. FEW-nexus scholarship first appeared in 1988 and through bibliometric analysis we identified six distinct communities in this rapidly expanding area of research. Broadly speaking, these communities theorize the FEW nexus as a system of systems that requires analyses of interdependencies. Like other reviews, we found a deficit in terms of theorizing and analyzing the socio-economic dimensions of the nexus (Albrecht et al 2018, Boyer and Ramaswami 2017), particularly the actors and institutions that shape access, distribution, and use of FEW.
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by IOP Publishing Ltd