Sustainable Food Systems: Framing Collaborative Research at UNH

6 Jun

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to be able to attend a meeting at the Browne Center with the UNH Sustainability Institute for a meeting titled “Sustainable Food Systems: Framing Collaborative Research at UNH”, under the primary research pillar at the Sustainability Institute entitled the Sustainability Research Collaboratory (SRC).  The meeting began with an introduction to sustainable food systems by Dr. Tom Kelly, Chief Sustainability Officer and founding director of the Sustainability Institute, including an introduction to Food Solutions New England, a learning/action network focused on New England state food planning.

Brian Donahue, Associate Professor of American Environmental Studies at Brandeis University, presented ideas and findings on a New England food and farm vision as a kicking off point for group discussions. In Brian’s presentation he discussed the idea that it takes roughly 1 acre of land to feed each person, with beef and dairy the largest part.  He also discussed the fact that 5% of New England is in farming, producing 10-15% of our food, so in order to increase locally grown food; we must increase the amount of farmland that there actively is.

This vision is based off of 5 main assumptions:

1)   There will be a slow population growth to about 17 million, urban and suburban being the majority.

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2)   The diet eaten by this population will be a healthier diet—less meat, fewer calories, and more fruits and vegetables

3)   The energy used will be more expensive energy

4)   Sustainable farming will minimize negative impact on the environment, including intensive agriculture in urban and suburban areas

5)   The farmland will increase from 2 million to 6 million acres, tripling New England farmland to 15% of New England

The preliminary findings discussed were that with 6 million acres, all 17 million New Englanders could grow half of their food, using a diet Brian called the “omnivore’s delight”.  This vision had an end date goal of 2060.  With a vision stretching across almost 50 years, there was obviously a lot of discussion to be had.  We broke from the larger group and were divided into 5 smaller groups to form research questions pertaining to the presentation we had all just seen.

After a brief, and might I add delicious, lunch break where we were able to network with those not in our groups, we returned to a larger grouping to discuss the main research questions that each group thought of.

Groups 2 and 4 thought of ideas pertaining to the larger, state level changes that need to take place.  Group 2 worded their question as follows “What are the local, state, and federal policies and practices that impact the food system?” Group 4 asked, “What shifts are needed in the structure and/or function of systems (market, policy, financial/capital, distribution, education, health, etc.) to implement the plan?” Both of these groups focused on how a new food system in New England must include policy makers and a larger systematic change.

Group 3, the group I was actively in, asked the question “How much urban/suburban/periurban land is available for food production (plants and animals) and how much is currently used in comparison to how much was used in the past. Who can or will provide the services of these new farms (and who is now)”. During our smaller group discussion, we discussed the idea of victory gardens during the war, and how self-sustainability was achieved in those times to a larger extent than it is now.

Group 1 presented us with the hypothesis that “Managing food system waste will improve food access, availability, productivity, and environmental resilience.”  This point sparked a larger discussion about the idea of having a more focused meeting on this topic.

Group 5 brought up the idea of community food producer co-ops (CSA, CSF, food hubs). They discussed what has worked, what hasn’t worked, how these co-ops can be made more efficient and effective, what education and support is needed, and the opportunity for a “co-ops’ co-op”. Further explained, this would be a place where groups keep local feel and independence by benefit from economies of scale such as purchasing, marketing, and data management.
This collaboration of ideas allowed for a grouping of people from all different areas to focus on one issue and attack it from different angles.  From environmental historians to economists, professors to Seacoast Eat Local members, it shed light on an issue that is important to all and proved that through collaboration, systemic change is possible. As my first “official” meeting setting, it was interesting to have a group discussion dynamic where all ideas were heard and deliberation took place. I’m anxious to attend other meetings with the Sustainability Institute in the future with progress being made.
Mikaela DiGesu
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