Farmers markets: shrinking food’s footprint

Corn growing just steps from the National Mall.

Corn growing just steps from the National Mall.

by Jennie Saxe

On a sightseeing trip to Washington, DC, my family and I observed two unexpected sights, just steps from the National Mall: a busy farmers market in some valuable downtown parking spaces and huge stalks of corn growing in a small garden plot right next to the sidewalk. Farmers markets and urban gardens are a great way to feed your family healthy foods and protect natural resources at the same time. Reducing the number of steps between you and your food means that less water and energy are needed to get the food onto your dinner table.

The close connection between energy production, water supply, and food production has been described as the “energy-water-food nexus.” In fact, over 94% of water withdrawals in the United States are to support these three sectors. The energy-water connection has been the subject of past Healthy Waters blogs.  And we’ve talked about the work that the agriculture community is doing to protect water quality, as well, since our farms are a vital part of our economy that rely on clean water supplies for their livelihoods and to feed the country.

Let’s follow the food to find out how energy, food, and water connections all come together, by focusing on one of a cook’s favorite ingredients: butter. When you think of all of the steps that are involved in producing a stick of butter – from irrigation for the crops that feed the cows, to the processing of the butter itself, and its transport to your supermarket – energy and water are intricately involved in every step along the way. Globally, the water footprint of butter is estimated to be 5,553 liters of water per kilogram of butter. That is equivalent to about 167 gallons per quarter-pound stick – enough water to fill about 4 standard-sized bathtubs!

What if there were fewer steps in the process? Imagine that the cows are grazed on grass pastureland, instead of on delivered feed and that the butter was made locally. Farmers markets bring fresh, local food right into the heart of communities, while minimizing the impact on our natural resources.

While doing some research on the miniature corn field and farmers market that I stumbled upon, I found out that this week, August 2-8, was proclaimed National Farmers Market Week by the US Department of Agriculture. This week, get out to meet the hard-working farmers that grow your food at a farmers market near you!

About the author: Dr. Jennie Saxe joined EPA in 2003 and works in the Water Protection Division on sustainability programs. If your community is looking for assistance in developing a local food system, EPA’s Smart Growth program is accepting applications for Local Foods, Local Places technical support. Check out the announcement for details; applications must be received by September 15, 2015.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

NEXUS-FLEXUS: Exploring the Intersection of Big Challenges and Innovative Solutions

By Alan Hecht

Illustration of interlocking rings of food, water, and energy.The world today faces a host of daunting and inter-related challenges which collectively impact us in an equally diverse set of ways: thwarting economic growth, threatening public health and social wellbeing, and undermining existing environmental protection efforts.

For example, as a result of climate change we face more frequent extreme weather events, extended droughts, and increased health risks due to deteriorating urban air quality. Other dynamic problems include burgeoning urban communities, aging water infrastructure, land loss and ecosystem decline due to sprawl, and projected increased demands for energy, water, and food. It is estimated that by 2030, population growth and consumption together will spark the need for 40% more fresh water, 50% more energy, and 35% more food worldwide.

I recently blogged about such “mega trends” and how colleagues and partners from within EPA and beyond are embracing sustainable development to meet these urgent challenges. Administrator Gina McCarthy in her short dialog of issues for 2015 noted that “envisioning and responding to future problems is a critical need” that Agency science and public dialog could fulfill.

That is why I’m thrilled to be representing EPA at a public webinar organized by the Security and Sustainability Forum on Mega Trends and Food-Energy-Water Nexus on July 30, from 1:25 pm to 2:45 pm (EDT). Joining me will be Dr. Steven Cohen, Executive Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and Robert Engelman, Senior Fellow and former President of the Worldwatch Institute.

The webinar will explore emerging trends and the challenges and opportunities in meeting food, water and energy goals in developed and developing nations on a changing planet. Discussions will focus on the innovations in science and technology needed to improve the practices of farmers, engineers, resource managers, and policy-makers to meet human needs in a far more sustainable manner.

Together, we will explore several important and interrelated concepts:

  • Food-water-energy-land nexus which emphasizes the need for a systems approach to problem solving.
  • Resilience which emphasizes the capacity for complex, adaptive systems (e.g., cities, companies) to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change from extreme weather events and other potential disruptions as a key to stemming the impact of emerging mega trends. Resilience is now a prerequisite for achieving sustainable outcomes.
  • Achieving Sustainability which describes outcomes that respond to mega trends, adopting a nexus and systems approach, and building a resilient response. We must go beyond the traditional risk paradigm that has driven much of our environmental protection actions over the past decades and instead adopt a systems approach that accounts for the combined economic, social, and environmental impacts. We must make decisions that recognize the linkages (nexus) of air-water-land use and social wellbeing.

Please join me and my fellow panelists as we discuss these important concepts and how innovation and public dialog can offer solutions to today’s daunting mega trends.

Sign up for the webinar on the Security and Sustainability Forum website: www.ssfonline.org.

About the Author: Alan Hecht is the Director for Sustainable Development in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.