Modelling nutrient flows in a simplified local food-energy-water system

Elsevier, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 133, Jun 2018, Pages 343-353.
Authors: 
Yuxi Yao, Elias Martinez-Hernandez, Aidong Yang

Sustainable use and management of nutrients is an important issue for food, energy and water systems. The close connections between the three systems, reflected by the “nexus” concept, warrant an integrated approach to nutrients management across the nexus. In this paper, dynamic modelling of nutrient flows in a local food-energy-water system is presented and applied to a simplified case study. The model was used to simulate several scenarios affecting nitrogen flows and stocks to assess the impact of a) the level of local wheat production, b) the selection of energy generation technology, and c) the management of available nutrient resources (digestate and straws). The simulation results showed that varying the proportion of locally produced wheat significantly affects the surface runoff and the nitrogen content in a local water body, with the latter increasing by nearly 70% in 50 years if about half of the wheat consumed is produced locally as opposed to being 100% imported. The introduction of anaerobic digestion as an energy generation option helps to supply more electricity, reduce the imported fertiliser, and also significantly reduce the landfilled nitrogen nutrient by up to 60 times, due to the reuse of the anaerobic digestate. On the other hand, a balanced consideration should be given between using the straw as fertiliser and as feedstock for energy generation. This work offers a first analysis of the food-energy-water nexus with a focus on nutrient flows and stocks. The modelling approach has the potential to inform holistic decision making with respect to nutrient usage, efficiency and the related environmental impact in the design of a local system for meeting the demand for food, energy and water.