Elena Irwin: Spotlight on Food-Energy Water Systems (FEWS) Researchers

Elena Irwin OSU

Elena Irwin, The Ohio State University

In November, 2015, Dr. Elena Irwin, Faculty Director of Sustainable and Resilient Economy and Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Environmental, and Development Economics at The Ohio State University, organized a NSF-sponsored FEW workshop. The workshop, titled Environmental Change, Migration, and the Resilience of Regional Food, Water, and Energy Systems, focused on the resiliency of FEW systems in areas of water abundance like the U.S. Midwest. These areas will likely receive migrants as a result of stressful climate conditions elsewhere. Irwin took time to answer some questions about FEW nexus research.


Ariela Zycherman (AZ): What is your disciplinary background and how do you see it relating to the nexus?

Elena Irwin (EI): I am an environmental economist studying land use and management in both urban and rural regions. Because land is so fundamental to ecosystems and ecosystem services, much of my work is collaborative with natural scientists.

An economics perspective on the FEW nexus is critical for understanding and modeling the trade-offs that arise from the fundamental interdependencies across Food-Energy-Water systems and capturing some of the feedbacks that may otherwise cause unexpected consequences. For example, greater land competition is likely to arise in regions in which land is used as an input into multiple production processes, e.g., biofuels, food, housing, and conservation.

These changes will increase land competition and bid up the price of land, making land-intensive activities more expensive. These changes could potentially lead to unintended consequences like a greater expansion of urban areas as people and businesses seek out cheaper land. This, in turn, will have a feedback effect on demand for resources and environmental impacts.

AZ: Do you have any advice for young scholars who are interested in pursuing Food-Energy-Water nexus research?

EI: Interdisciplinary collaboration is not easy — it takes years to develop the productive relationships with good communication in which collaborators are not “talking past” each other. Despite the higher costs, it is very rewarding. I would encourage young scholars to pursue these opportunities. The rewards come in seeing how your science fits as part of a broader framework, and the implications of your research for the bigger picture.

In my case, as an economist, I cannot fully model how consumption or production choices impact the ecosystem or ecosystem services. So interdisciplinary collaboration is critical for understanding these linkages. In addition, I really enjoy learning about ideas, theories, and methods from other disciplines. It is amazing how different the approaches can be, which of course adds to the challenge and learning.

AZ: What is the next step for you in terms of Food-Energy-Water Nexus research?

EI: Working with a broad team of natural and social scientists, I am currently pursuing research on the FEW nexus in the Lake Erie region. We are studying the behavioral, economic, and environmental factors that affect farmer decision-making.

We find that, while factors vary with the specific best management practices (BMPs), that one factor, perceived efficacy, is consistent across many BMP adoption decisions. Perceived efficacy is the belief that a particular practice will actually achieve its intended purpose (in this case, reduce phosphorus runoff from farm fields to Lake Erie).

We will be exploring how this kind of behavioral response can be incorporated into our integrated land-water model so that we can investigate its implications for policy and the effectiveness of voluntary versus regulatory approaches to nutrient management.

Learn more about Elena Irwin, and read the white paper from the Ohio State workshop.

Dr. Irwin was interviewed By Ariela Zycherman, PhD, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow, Division of Chemical, Bioengineering, Environmental, and Transport Systems, Directorate of Engineering, National Science Foundation.

Image courtesy Elena Irwin.


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