Perhaps no other region of the United States has as much character and history as New England. From Connecticut’s historic seaports and rolling hills to the summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, Maine’s rocky coast to Vermont’s Green Mountains, old Boston’s cobblestones to the mansions of Newport—New England is America’s birthplace and embodies the best this nation has to offer.
Advocates for local food and agriculture believe the region should be known for its sustainable food system as well—and that New Englanders fill their tables mostly from the bounty of its fields and waters. With the hope of making that goal a reality, several environmental and agriculture organizations have issued a report, New England Food Policy: Building a Sustainable Food System, that sets forth a plan to build a regional food system that would allow more than half of all food purchased in New England to come from within the region. According to the report, New England produces half the dairy products it consumes, less than 40 percent of the region’s vegetables, 10 percent of the fruit, and 1 percent of the meat.
“New England has historically been an agricultural region. It’s part of our story,” says Jenny Rushlow, staff attorney and director of farm and food initiative at the Conservation Law Foundation, which helped compile the report. “Given that the way we've sourcing much of our food is not sustainable, we need to consider alternatives.”
It helps that New England has the nation's best state for local foods. Each year, Vermont's Strolling the Heifers ranks the states according to their commitment to locally sourced foods by measuring the per-capita presence of farm-to-consumer programs such as community supported agriculture and farmers markets. Last year Vermont topped the list, with more than 42 farmers markets or CSAs per 100,000 people. The other five New England states all cracked the top 15 of Strolling's index.
Despite New England's starting from a strong position of locavorism, good food advocates know it can do better. Ramping up a region’s local food production requires more than just individual decisions to hit the farmers market every Saturday, sign up for a CSA, or check manufacturing labels at the supermarket. Advocates say state and federal policies must create a favorable atmosphere for sustainable agriculture and food systems to flourish. That's just what the Conservation Law Foundation, American Farmland Trust, and the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Working Group hope to do with the New England Food Policy report—it is a 50-year policy road map for the region’s food production.
The 210-page report sets forth policy proposals in five areas: land; food production; food safety, processing, aggregation, and distribution; markets; and waste streams. It provides policy focus for its companion document, New England Food Vision, an ongoing project of the “regional food systems learning-action network” Food Solutions New England.
In both reports, the availability and expense of arable land is mentioned as an especially serious barrier to a strong regional food system. The New England Food Policy report cites a loss of 300,000 acres of farmland and 1 million acres of forestland over the past three decades. What farmland is available in the region is too expensive for most beginning farmers to afford: $7,000 per acre, more than twice the national average.
But reform is needed throughout the region's food supply chain “if we are to make smart decisions about creating a sustainable food system with the limited state, local, and federal resources we have available,” said Cris Coffin, New England director of American Farmland Trust, in a statement. These include bolstering support for beginning farmers, promoting and creating direct-to-consumer markets for producers, and promoting policies and public awareness that keep the region’s historic seafood industry strong. Regarding fishing, Rushlow says that because of a decrease in the stocks of the more popular varieties of fish, there is a need to educate consumers and create the infrastructure for processing and promoting other, more prevalent fish species.
What’s more, climate change presents a singular challenge for many food-producing regions of this country, underscoring the importance of New Englanders' getting more food closer to home. One need only look to drought-stricken California, the report’s authors say, which “we depend on a lot” for food but whose agricultural future is very much in question because of climate change.
“Climate and food are inherently connected,” says Rushlow. “As climate change becomes more and more apparent, looking locally for food sourcing is going to become critical. In the future, we won’t be able to depend on these regions that are susceptible to the impacts of climate change.”