Food production for a growing world population relies on application of fertilisers and pesticides on agricultural lands. However, these substances threaten surface water quality and thereby endanger valued ecosystem services such as drinking water supply, food production and recreational water use. Such deleterious effects do not merely arise on the local scale, but also on the regional scale through transport of substances as well as energy and biota across the catchment. Here we argue that aquatic ecosystem models can provide a process-based understanding of how these transports by water and organisms as vectors affect – and are affected by – ecosystem state and functioning in networks of connected lakes. Such a catchment scale approach is key to setting critical limits for the release of substances by agricultural practices and other human pressures on aquatic ecosystems. Thereby, water and food production and the trade-offs between them may be managed more sustainably.