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Saturday, January 18, 2020

“We import 95 percent of the seafood we eat, and export 97 percent of the seafood we catch”

By GRACE KELLY/ecoRI News staff

Image result for rhode island aquacultureLocal food entrepreneurs, activists, and foodies recently gathered at the University of Rhode Island for the 2020 Rhode Island Food System Summit to discuss the intertwined nature of food production, consumption, climate change, and environmental justice.

While the talks on Jan. 15 varied from the scientific to the social, four themes emerged that promise to dominate the local food systems scene this year.

Our local aquaculture industry needs an overhaul: Of the tons of seafood local fishermen are hauling from Rhode Island waters, only a small fraction is actually sold and eaten here. According to Jeremy Collie, a professor at the URI Graduate School of Oceanography, Ocean State fisheries catch 100 pounds of seafood per capita annually, but only 15 pounds of said seafood per capita per year are consumed in Rhode Island.

“We import 95 percent of the seafood we eat, and export 97 percent of the seafood we catch,” he said.

Part of the reason that local fish isn’t being eaten locally is that fish is a product that requires a lot of processing, and Rhode Island doesn’t have the large-scale processing facilities to prep local fish for the market in a reasonable time frame.

“Wastewater is also an issue when processing fish,” said Diane Lynch of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council

“But we’re looking to find ways to not only create more processing facilities here, but also to see if we can take the wastewater byproduct and make into a specialty protein product that we could make into a food product or fertilizer.”

Speakers also talked about the challenge of getting the public to eat abundant but undervalued local fish, such as scup, and the challenge of paying fishermen fairly for an abundant species with little demand.

We need to integrate diverse voices and knowledge into our food resilience plans: Of the many panelists and speakers at the summit, there was a notable lack of people of color. Loren Spears from the Tomaquag Museum was one of the few exceptions. She spoke about how Native American connections to the land are being threatened by the climate crisis and centuries of industrialization.

“We are the land; what we do to the land, we do to ourselves,” she said. “Industrialization hurt native foodways; when you dammed the rivers, we lost our access to the fish. Quahogging has become challenging, our way of life has become challenging.”

Spears has also seen firsthand the impact the changing climate is having on native lands. “Weather shocks have been great, and during the 2010 floods our projects to reintroduce sweet grass and black ash were decimated.”

The takeaway from Spears was that we can’t just have scientists and people in power at the table when it comes to talking about food systems and resilience; we also need the people who are being impacted by these issues.

The push-pull of local farming: Rhode Island has the most expensive farmland in the country, making it difficult for small-scale farmers to succeed. But even if success was achievable, farming also faces the challenge of becoming sustainable in a time of climate crisis.

“We need to multitask our land,” said Emily Cole of the American Farmland Trust. “We can’t just use land for farming, we need to integrate climate-forward solutions.”

For Viraj Puri, of recently opened Gotham Greens in Olneyville, indoor farming in urban areas is the way of the future.

“We use 95 percent less water and 97 percent less land than traditional farming,” he said. “And our product reaches stores faster, making for a fresher product and less food waste.”

Fighting food insecurity will be a growing challenge: Nearly 48,000 Rhode Island households are food insecure. 

To combat this, multiple local organizations have introduced incentives programs where people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) can get rebates for buying fresh vegetables and fruits. But these benefits are only available for food bought at farmers markets or through the Rhode Island Public Health Institute’s Food on the Move mobile market program.

“And people don’t typically shop at a farmers markets, they shop at retail stores,” said Kerri Connolly, RIPHI’s food access manager. “So that’s why we’re hoping to expand the program to retail stores.”

However, proposed changes to SNAP by the Trump administration could threaten benefits for thousands of Rhode Islanders, meaning less access to healthy foods.