Dick McNider: Spotlight on Food-Energy Water Systems (FEWS) Researchers

In October 2015, Dr. Dick McNider, Distinguished Professor of Science in the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, co-organized an NSF-funded FEW workshop. The workshop, titled The Migration of Agriculture as One Path to a More Sustainable U.S. Food Production System, focused on whether or not a planned re-distribution of agricultural crop production in the United States could mitigate future climate-related disruptions to FEW systems. The workshop explored potential metrics and research questions necessary to evaluate the question. McNider took time to answer some questions about FEW nexus research.

Ariela Zycherman (AZ): What made you interested in the Food-Energy-Water nexus?

Dick McNider (DM): I originally became interested in the relationship between water and agriculture while examining the poverty in abandoned agricultural lands in Alabama.  The loss of agriculture in Alabama was due to a lack of competitiveness with western irrigating cotton producers and grain farmers in the deep water holding soils of the Midwest.

Short-term (7-10 day) droughts in the shallow and relatively poor water holding soils of the southeast made yields non-competitive. However, the ample surface water resources of the region could remove these drought losses through irrigation.

Energy was relevant to this relationship because, in the best agricultural areas, ground water was not available. Irrigation would depend on use of surface water, but energy companies control access to this water through riparian buffers on reservoirs.

AZ: What is the biggest challenge about working at the nexus?

DM: I think having to deal with all aspects of all systems in enough depth to avoid mistakes is important. As an example, it may seem silly to use valuable water in Southern California to grow alfalfa and ship it to Japan. However, because most containerships are running empty back to Asia, the costs of transportation may be insignificant and this does help reduce the trade deficit for the U.S. Thus, water costs and real transportation costs are needed to make the proper analysis.

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

DM: I want to develop a system that can optimize the geography of U.S. for agriculture with consideration for water, energy, climate, and transportation constraints. The significant migration of agriculture in the last century largely responded to immediate market forces. There was little consideration given to environmental impact or long-term sustainability.

With mathematical models, it is perhaps possible to determine the optimal location for agricultural production that includes environmental impact, the value of water, and costs of transportation for agriculture and water (for instance). For example, an optimization analysis early in the last century of irrigated cotton in California versus rain-fed cotton in the Southeast would indicate that California is the clear winner in terms of yields and costs.

However, today, with population and other higher value crops competing for water, combined with the realities of environmental protection, the economics and environmental impact may show the Southeast as the optimal place to grow cotton.

Learn more about Dick McNider, and read the white paper from the University of Alabama in Huntsville workshop.

Dick McNider 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.

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