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Vermont Has Developed America’s Most Comprehensive Food System Plan: How Did They Do It?
The burning of fossil fuels to power society—together with the clearing of carbon sinks such as forests for housing, agriculture, and other purposes—has created dangerous conditions for the resilience of food systems. Two reports from the US Department of Agriculture describe the anticipated detrimental effects of climate change on most crops, livestock, ecosystems, and human workers (these effects will vary somewhat by region):
Rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns will affect agricultural productivity. Crop sector impacts from weather in the United States are likely to be greatest in the Midwest, and these impacts will likely expand due to damage from crop pests. Moreover, because the impacts of climate change are global, the availability of food products that we have been accustomed to enjoying—and that US companies use as key ingredients—will diminish. For example, cocoa production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast is expected to decline, as is coffee production.
Livestock production systems are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and are also vulnerable to temperature stresses. Temperature stresses can be mitigated for animals raised indoors, but hotter summer temperatures may require new thermal environment control systems, and the cost and availability of animal feed will likely be a problem.
Climate change will exacerbate current stresses from weeds, diseases, and insect pests on plants and animals; it will also alter pollinator life cycles, which will impact all types of crop and livestock production.
Ecosystem services (e.g., ﬂood control) that food systems depend on will be damaged. Increased incidences of extreme weather events will affect food production around the world.
In addition, the possible human health effects of climate change are large, and farmers and farm workers will be especially affected because they spend most of their days outside. These effects include the following:
Injuries, illnesses, and deaths related to extreme heat and weather events.
Infectious diseases related to changes in vector and zoonotic biology (e.g., Lyme disease) as well as risks from water and food contamination.
Allergy and respiratory symptoms related to increasing plant and mold allergens and irritants in air.
Emergence of Alternative Food Systems
Among the goals of resilience management is to “nurture and preserve the elements that enable the system to renew and reorganize itself following a massive change.” Over several decades, pockets of alternatives that aim to transform industrial food systems have emerged at all scales, from global movements like Slow Food and practices like organic farming, permaculture, and fair trade certiﬁcation, to local grocery cooperatives and community gardens. These alternatives are often premised on the relocalization of food supply chains as well as on values such as authenticity, trust, soil health, sense of community, and sustainability. In particular, advocates of alternative food systems envision a world in which the following occur:
Agricultural activities preserve, reinforce, and revitalize the sustainability of working lands by farming in nature’s image: recycling nutrients, maintaining soil health, promoting crop diversity, and protecting water quality.
The elements of food systems—from soils, seeds, crops, and livestock, to processing, marketing, distributing, consuming, and composting—and the communities that depend on them are all systematically advanced by cooperation that expands the proﬁtability of all involved partners.
Farmers, farm workers, and food system workers are accorded safe and welcoming working conditions and are properly compensated for their work.
All people have a greater understanding of how to obtain, grow, store, and prepare nutritional food.
All people have access to healthy food they can afford, and food-related health problems decrease.
Consumer purchasing behaviors—particularly among millennials, the largest, most diverse age cohort in US history—have demonstrably shifted in recent years in favor of natural ingredients, locally sourced food, and better health. Because the emergence of alternatives to conventional food system practices “spells doom for outdated food products and behind-the-times retail outlets and restaurants trying to sell them,” the food industry is quickly moving to catch up. For example, even large corporations are now eliminating antibiotics in chicken or are selling cage-free eggs (e.g., McDonald’s), dropping artiﬁcial colors and ﬂavors (e.g., Kraft Macaroni & Cheese), and investing in organics (e.g., Walmart). Some product lines and corporations are experiencing declining sales (e.g., soda), whereas others are acquiring companies that exemplify the values of alternative food systems (e.g., Post bought Mom’s Best Cereals). Even so, some businesses and associations are ﬁghting back by undermining regulations.
More recently, alternative food systems are also emerging in the form of systems-level planning initiatives organized by cities, counties, regions, and states. One of the most advanced and comprehensive—and most relevant for building resilience at the level of communities—is Vermont’s Farm to Plate initiative, the subject of the remainder of this chapter. Although Vermont is a state, its relatively low population (about 650,000) makes its experience applicable to many communities and regions across the country.
Farm to Plate: Transforming Vermont’s Food System
In 2009, the Vermont state government passed legislation directing our organization, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), to develop a ten-year strategic plan to strengthen Vermont’s farm and food sector. The threefold aim was to increase economic development in Vermont’s food system, create jobs in the farm and food economy, and improve access to healthy local food for all Vermonters. Over the next eighteen months, VSJF and partnering organizations interviewed stakeholders, held regional public input events, and initiated new research on the major elements of Vermont’s food system.
As a result of this effort, in 2011 we released the Farm to Plate Strategic Plan, identifying twenty-ﬁve goals and dozens of strategies to strengthen and grow Vermont’s food system as well as the progress to reach those goals. Also in 2011, we launched the Farm to Plate Network, which now includes more than 350 businesses, nonproﬁt organizations, government agencies, capital providers, and educational institutions collaborating and aligning their activities in support of the strategic plan’s goals. The strategic plan, the network, and related projects are now collectively known as the Farm to Plate Initiative, with a common online home.
By many accounts, Vermont has developed the most comprehensive food system plan in the United States. How did Vermonters do it? We harnessed the power of networks to build trust, pursue new opportunities, and tackle long-standing problems across the state and have developed a comprehensive data collection, analysis, and visualization system for tracking progress and telling stories. All our products (from network reports to the Farm to Plate website) and processes (from the two-day annual gathering to network meetings) are designed to be great experiences and facilitate relationship building. In short, the Vermont legislature asked, “If more of what we ate was locally or regionally produced, would this strengthen our local economy, create more jobs, and lead to greater food security for all Vermonters?” The Farm to Plate Initiative answered “Yes!” by establishing the value proposition that food system development is sustainable development.
As with many alternative food systems, the foundation of Vermont’s food system is built on personal relationships among producers and consumers plus a collective desire to eat food that is healthy, is fresh, tastes good, and supports those who produce it. In many respects, Vermont had a head start: the social fabric of the state’s communities is largely intact, and Vermont has long been a national leader in promoting sustainable agriculture practices and local food. There are no billboards in Vermont, very little trafﬁc, and farms, forests, rivers, lakes, and independent businesses are easily experienced in daily life. Local raw and processed food is easily accessible and available to the majority of Vermonters through farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm subscriptions, farm stands, co-ops, specialty food stores, restaurants, and, increasingly, institutions, independent grocers, and chain grocery stores.
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