Last week I attended the Ninth Annual Rhode Island Local Food Forum, organized by Farm Fresh Rhode Island. The forum’s theme was “Center of the Plate,” reflecting its focus on local protein production. Particularly enlightening was a panel discussion whose moderator, academic chef Bill Idell, posed questions that resonate across the region. These questions ultimately boil down to two big ones: First, what does a sustainable food system look like? And second, how can we make one happen?
The panel’s meat experts – local guru Pat McNiff of Pat’s Pastured and Mel Coleman from national good-meat powerhouse Niman Ranch – agreed that sustainable meat means raising animals in their natural habitats (not concentrated feedlots) and in a way that feeds both animals and soil. The panelists also highlighted that sustainable food systems require local capacity because geographically concentrated animal operations are at risk from extreme weather: last summer’s drought, for example, “force[d] livestock producers to liquidate herds because feed [wa]s too expensive.” All this means that local meat is not just grown in a place, but it also grows that place by enriching both land (ecologically) and community (economically).
Building capacity for local meat is tough, however, when farmers have limited access to land. This is the case in Rhode Island. Not only is land itself expensive here (as throughout New England), but property and estate taxes can make it almost impossible to keep productive land in agricultural use when it is more valuable as land for development (and is assessed as such for tax purposes). We at CLF are looking closely at this issue.
Moving from the land to the sea, the discussion yielded different insights from the panel’s seafood experts. “Eating with the Ecosystem” founder Sarah Schumann and seafood-aggregation specialist Jared Auerbach of Red’s Best noted that sustainability means something much different for seafood than for meat, because so many fish and shellfish stocks are wild. They agreed that a sustainable seafood system should be biodiverse – instead of a singleminded focus on cod, for example, a sustainable system would mean sending more fluke, skate, scup, and squid to market. Diversifying the types of seafood we typically eat would allow overfished stocks to recover, and would also contribute to the resiliency of ocean life in the face of climate change and ocean acidification. Furthermore, a sustainable seafood system would mean – to borrow from Sarah Schumann – eating with the (local) ecosystem. Seafood brought in to local ports is easy to trace and to verify species, boat size, and fishing method – factors that are federally regulated but relatively easy to lose track of as more steps are added to the supply chain. Encouraging demand for diverse seafood products, localizing seafood markets with robust tracing and verification systems, and streamlining state and federal fisheries regulations would all help foster local, sustainable seafood systems.
All four panelists, farmers and fishers alike, agreed on another point: we need local, sustainable food systems both to limit and to respond to harms wrought by carbon dioxide emissions. These emissions cause climate change, leading to droughts and other extreme weather that disrupts agriculture; these disruptions, in turn, require robust local systems to add resilience to the global food system. And carbon dioxide emissions also cause ocean acidification, which poses an immediate risk to shellfish and a long-term risk to all ocean life.
All this highlights the importance of CLF’s farm-and-food and climate-change programs. Our work shutting down coal-fired power plants and promoting renewable energy helps to limit emissions that threaten our current food system (not to mention our planet). And our farm-and-food program promotes local and regional food systems that provide a broad range of environmental benefits. As CLF’s newest staff attorney, I am excited to be joining these efforts here in Rhode Island. The Local Food Forum made it clear that there are many good ideas brewing here – we just need to do the work to get our food policy right.