Small Farms Key to Addressing Climate Emergency

Transformative initiatives such as paying farmers to conserve land and practice sustainable soil management are needed to solve the climate crisis. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos)

Transformative initiatives such as paying farmers to conserve land and practice sustainable soil management are needed to solve the climate crisis. (Frank Carini/ecoRI News photos)

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Farming and the climate crisis are no doubt interconnected even in relatively farm-scarce southern New England. But local farming operations, including fishing and aquaculture, are increasingly considered part of the climate-adaptation solution and may even help to mitigate global warming.

“How are we going to be more sustainable in our region and continue to feed ourselves?” asked Sue AnderBois, moderator of a panel on climate and food at the Oct. 4 Rhode Island Energy, Environment & Oceans Leaders Day hosted by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

As director for food strategy with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, AnderBois looks for business opportunities that advance food and farming policies in the state. There is definitely room to grow.

Rhode Island produces less than 5 percent of the food it consumes. This means that the Ocean State, and much of New England in fact, rely on food from places suffering from severe climate impacts such as drought-stricken California and the Amazon rainforest, a tropical region being destroyed to raise meat for fast-food restaurants.

Some of our local food sources are also moving away. Lobsters and other popular seafood staples are leaving Rhode Island waters because they are too warm. To counteract this change, the state is supporting businesses that market and process underutilized fish and plants and seafood moving into Rhode Island waters such as Jonah crab and black sea bass.

One of the panelists, Bonnie Hardy, canceled her appearance at the event to tend to work at her planned crab-processing facility in East Providence. A business processing local kelp is opening soon at the food incubator Hope & Main in Warren.

Consumers can contribute to the climate solution by buying local seafood, especially bivalves. A 2018 study found that eating local clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops is akin to a vegan diet when considering the carbon footprint.

On land, insects will be a growing climate problem for farming. Rising temperatures, a changing climate, and more frequent and intense rains will bring more pests. The state’s Division of Agriculture was overwhelmed this summer by efforts to address the spike in eastern equine encephalitis (EEE). The outbreak is a possible omen of future demands on state agencies, according to AnderBois.

Thanks to public pressure, food service companies such as Sodexo and Aramak are offering more local food at schools and hospitals. Locally caught and processed dogfish is being used to make fish nuggets for public schools. Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, and Johnson & Wales University are all ramping up local food procurement for their kitchens and cafeterias, AnderBois said.

Nationally, however, such practices aren’t trending.

Government support for big agricultural operations at the expense of small farms hurts both local economies and the environment.

Government support for big agricultural operations at the expense of small farms hurts both local economies and the environment.

Jesse Rye, co-executive director of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, was appalled by the Trump administration’s recent decision to relocate federal research agencies such as the National Institute of Food and Agriculture from Washington, D.C., to the heart of “Big Ag” territory in Kansas City, Mo.

He said the actions by Trump favor large “commodity” farmers at the expense of small farms. The loss of research on nutrition and food insecurity is undermining the support structures for local food systems in southern New England, according to Rye.

”This way of disconnecting urban and rural communities is really going to erode the trust that we have in institutions, and I feel plays into the narrative that currently our government or this administration really only cares about the people that own food companies or own large-scale farms,” Rye said.

Any plan to address the climate crisis should take into account the most vulnerable, he said. It will require a “gigantic lift” to change consumer behavior and restructure the food system. He noted that a greater appreciation for scientific research and the true price of food is also necessary.

“We need to have a frank conversation as Americans about what cheap food is and how it’s possible and what are the costs that aren’t actually rolled into the costs we see at the supermarket.” Rye said, adding that society needs to recognize the environmental damage caused by continuing to do business as usual.

Rye urged the public to demand action from local, state, and national officials.

“If you have more time and energy for advocacy and outreach around issues for small farms now is the time to let your representatives hear that,” he said. “We need to let people know on a regional and national level that this is totally not acceptable.”

Brown University professor Dawn King, an expert on local food policy, agriculture, and the climate crisis, suggested that farms adhere to regulations for greenhouse-gas emissions as other businesses do. Farming, she noted, accounts for 10 percent of greenhouse gases in the United States and up to 25 percent of global emissions if deforestation is included.

Fertilizers, livestock, manure management, and tillage are the primary emission sources. King has researched manure as a source for compost and energy production. And farms, she said, if managed properly, can be one of the most effective carbon sinks.

“There is a lot we can do with carbon storage,” King said. “And even in Rhode Island that can be part of preserving the farmland that we desperately need to preserve here. Specifically, because we are not a farm state.”

Local farms can store carbon by growing grasses for small-scale beef production. Growing perennials and practicing forestry also capture and store carbon dioxide.

“Unfortunately, we are doing the exact opposite worldwide,” King said.

To get there, King called for a transformative initiative such as the Green New Deal combined with paying farmers to conserve land and practice sustainable soil management. Renewable-energy incentives should also be offered to help farmers earn additional revenue.

“We need to be sure we are protecting small farms,” she said.