Ninety percent of New England’s food comes from outside the region, brought here by a global food system that produces abundant food but that also damages the planet’s soil, water, and climate. Consumers increasingly want local food, but that requires rebuilding New England’s food infrastructure.
In 2014, responding to these challenges and trends, Food Solutions New England, an environmental advocacy group, developed A New England Food Vision, a collaborative report that considers a regional future in which food nourishes a social, economic and environmental landscape that supports a high quality of life for everyone, including generations to come.
The same year, the American Farmland Trust, the Conservation Law Foundation, and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group collaborated on a report with similar findings, recommending stronger agricultural policy changes. The report echoed efforts across New England that promote a more regionally focused, healthier, economically resilient, and environmentally sustainable food system.
The report titled New England Food Policy: Building a Sustainable Food System aims to provide advocacy groups with information on how to promote local, state, regional and federal policy changes that could have the most significant impact on expanding production, strengthening food supply chains, and enhancing multi-state cooperation toward a more robust and resilient regional food system.
But a self-sustaining food economy in New England requires more than just legislative measures and agricultural reform. It requires a commitment from New Englanders to eat more diverse and healthier foods than they do today.
Food Solutions aptly named the ideal New England diet, Omnivore’s Delight which has a strong emphasis on reducing meat consumption. The report focused particularly on grain-fed beef, a highly resource-intensive protein source. Higher prices due to water shortages and other resource constraints is likely to reduce access to and consumption of beef in future. Changing diets now will prepare consumers for these market changes, and start to move consumer demand in the direction of more sustainable protein sources.
However, Christopher Bosso, a Professor at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, says getting New Englanders to eat less meat is easier said than done—especially if policy makers don’t provide adequate incentives for people to make healthier food choices, and even more difficult if those policies are not economically sound.
“No policy maker wants to be the person who gets blamed for meat prices doubling or tripling,” Bosso says, “So if New England is going to effectively reduce meat consumption, the government needs to incentivize improving personal health.”
Expanding farmland and recruiting farmers
According to the American Farmland Trust, New England needs 16 million acres of local farmland to feed its population of 15 million. Yet the amount of land currently producing food in the region today is just 2 million acres, or about 5 percent of what is needed. With the region’s population likely to grow to 17 million by 2030, the demand for new farmland will only increase.
Part of the challenge is that land values in New England are among the highest in the country. Current and aspiring farmers are finding it more difficult to expand their operations or to start a new farm. Those dedicated to farming are also aging, with 30% age 65 and older. As their children move away or show little interest in taking over the family business, farms that have existed for decades, even centuries, are in jeopardy of disappearing.
Expanding New England agriculture also raises concern for water quantity and quality. Forests are among the most important natural systems for protecting water.
Fortunately, 80% of New England’s forests have grown back over the past century, their increased growth rate benefiting from more temperate weather. The collective trees provide social and ecological benefits, including temperature modulation, carbon storage, recreation, and wildlife habitat.
Maintaining both quantity and quality are crucial for public and private water supplies, healthy streams and lakes, and coastal and marine ecosystems. Current and future landowners need to consider the nature of each site to help evaluate its suitability for retention as forest or conversion to farmland.
Since more than a quarter of New England’s farmers are at or above retirement age, encouraging a next generation of farmers is critical to expanding regional food production. Some of the problems unique to new and beginning farmers include lack of capital; access to credit; access to affordable farmland; and business planning and marketing skills.
To combat these obstacles, state agriculture agencies and the USDA are devoting additional resources to new and beginning farmers, both through their own programming and in partnership with a growing number of nonprofit organizations and agricultural service providers. Community colleges and land-grant universities are also significantly expanding educational options for aspiring and beginning farmers, and for students interested in food-related careers.
Food safety, processing, aggregation and distribution also present challenges to a sustainable local food economy. New England Food Policy advocates for changes to the Food Safety Modernization Act rules so that the regulations address food safety concerns, while minimizing the negative effects on farmers, food producers and the environment.
For dairy farms, the Building Sustainable Food Systems report promotes business planning to provide grants to develop additional on- and off-farm processing capacity.
With regards to meat and poultry, the study recommends methods of aggregation and distribution that can meet the region’s growing demand for local meat and poultry products. Finally for seafood, New England needs to expand efforts to educate consumers about other species of locally sourced fish available for consumption, and to continue policy efforts to market sustainably harvested fish.
There is no guarantee that local farming will automatically lead to healthier eating or to improved access to food for everyone. Boosting regional food production is just a means to an end, only useful if it delivers real social and environmental change.
–Sophia Fox-Sowell is a first year graduate student in Northeastern’s Media Innovation Program. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in English & Anthropology from Wagner College and currently writes for New York Moves Magazine, Cityist, and the Standard Culture.
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