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Research // NSF awards $36.6 million in new food-energy-water system grants

The US National Science Foundation supports research into how to provide food, energy and water security for Earth's increasing population.

Press release by NSF - Today, the number of humans alive on our planet is 7.5 billion. By 2087, projections show, 11 billion people will be living on Earth.

How will we continue to have a sustainable supply of food, energy and water, and protect the ecosystems that provide essential "services" for humans?

To help answer these questions, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has partnered with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to award $46.6 million in new grants through the joint NSF-NIFA program on Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS).

NSF grants total $36.6 million; NIFA awards, $10 million. NSF directorates and offices supporting INFEWS are the Directorates for Geosciences; Engineering; Computer & Information Science & Engineering; Mathematical & Physical Sciences; Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences; Office of International Science and Engineering; and Office of Integrative Activities.

"Food, energy and water have long been studied independently or in pairs, but not all three at once," says William Easterling, NSF assistant director for Geosciences. "Now, novel ways of examining all three together are yielding important new knowledge that will help us achieve food, water and energy security even with further population growth."

Adds Dawn Tilbury, NSF assistant director for Engineering, "Research at the food-energy-water nexus enables us to build more resilient and sustainable systems while maintaining the vitality of ecosystems. To create innovative solutions to food, energy and water-related challenges, we must understand the interconnections and interdependencies involved in the complex and highly coupled systems and processes that affect society and the environment."

Researchers have found that food-energy-water systems are intricately linked to each other and to the planet’s ecosystems through complex interactions. With an increasing human population, there is a growing need for new approaches to understanding these interactions and how they will respond to population growth, land-use change, climate change and other factors.

Food, energy and water are, at times, in a three-way tug of war. Land-use decisions, climate change and increasing urbanization often pit one against the other. The goal of the INFEWS program is to minimize simultaneous risks to the security of food, energy and water supplies.

Hotter summers, for example, mean more power demand from air-conditioning use and, in drier climates, less water in rivers for hydropower production and for ecosystems.

Studying food, energy and water systems independently has shifted to looking at them as a linked system. The change was prompted by drought and the depletion of aquifers, shifts in farm production between food and fuel crops, concerns about food and livestock waste, and energy demand for food production, food processing and transportation.

How these systems interact, say scientists, has become an area of frontier research with results that are quickly transferable to government agencies and private companies.

INFEWS projects are designed to address such goals as:

  • Significantly advancing the understanding of the food-energy-water system through quantitative, predictive and computational modeling, including support for relevant cyberinfrastructure.
  • Developing real-time, cyber-enabled interfaces that improve understanding of the behavior of the food-energy-water system and increase decision support capability.
  • Enabling research that will lead to innovative solutions to critical food-energy-water system problems.
  • Growing a scientific workforce capable of studying and managing the food-energy-water system through education and other professional development opportunities.

Outcomes of the INFEWS awards aim to help decision-makers at every level better address human needs, and protect the natural world. Goals are for scientists and policymakers to gain a new understanding of the food-energy-water system, gather insights from innovative modeling, and develop new capabilities from cutting-edge technologies to reduce waste and increase efficiencies.

INFEWS investigators will incorporate physical, engineering, geological, biological, social and behavioral processes, as well as cyber elements, into their projects.

INFEWS awards will also prepare graduate students to understand the complex interactions of the food-energy-water system and to draw upon and integrate knowledge across disciplines.

To foster new discoveries, this year's INFEWS awardees will conduct research on such topics as linking current and future hydrologic change to hydropower, human nutrition and livelihoods; reducing the environmental impacts of the food-energy-water system in and around cities; and working toward a resilient food-energy-water system in response to droughts and socioeconomic shocks.

Source: NSF website

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