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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Sixth annual R.I. Food System Summit focuses on innovation

Seeks investment to build a stronger, more resilient state food system

Rhode Island’s seafood sector continues to grow with aquaculture – like this oyster farm on Narragansett Bay – experiencing a tenfold increase in the last decade. (URI photo by Ayla Fox)

By Tony LaRoche

Nearly 600 people have tuned in to watch the sixth annual Rhode Island Food System Summit hosted by the University of Rhode Island. Held Jan. 20, the virtual summit Driving Food Innovation Through Sustainable Partnerships,” brought together experts in agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries; policy experts; government leaders; and stakeholders from across Rhode Island’s food system to discuss ways to increase food production in the state and across the country in the interest of creating a more sustainable, more equitable, and more resilient food system.

The food summit was organized by the URI Business Engagement Center. “The Center is thrilled to host this event once again and help connect food partners to the university and state,” said Katharine Hazard Flynn, executive director of the BEC, who emceed the day’s events. 

“The theme for this year’s event was particularly meaningful as we welcomed the state’s new director of food strategy, Julianne Stelmaszyk, and we plan for Rhode Island’s future as it relates to the food system.”

Opening the day, URI President Marc Parlange welcomed speakers and guests and underscored the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on food systems globally, further deepening threats already posed by climate change and economics. “The pandemic has required us to make simple shifts in our daily lives, but it also has required us to think more critically about how to solve these bigger world issues as the state’s land and sea grant institution,” he said.

Parlange mentioned current research underway at the University in agriculture and aquaculture and also noted URI’s recently receiving a $500,000 Build Back Better Regional Challenge Award from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. 

The phase-one planning grant is intended to help advance blue economy research and initiatives in areas such as aquaculture, ocean engineering and offshore wind. It also makes the University and its partners eligible to apply for additional phase-two funding, which could provide up to $100 million for implementation.

According to Stelmaszyk, who works with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, over the past decade the state has steadily nurtured a more locally based food system, seeing a marked increase in new and beginning farmers, young farmers and immigrant food producers entering the field. 

Likewise, the state’s seafood sector continues to grow with aquaculture, experiencing a tenfold increase in the last decade. However, as a state that still imports approximately 90% of its food, Rhode Island is not immune to national and global food supply chain disruptions.

While Rhode Island’s food sector is one of the largest employers in the state, representing in aggregate nearly $4.5 billion in economic output and supporting 70,000 jobs, the state is still overly reliant on distant food producers. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Rhode Island workers in food service and factories faced higher rates of layoffs and disproportionately higher exposure to the virus. As a result, along with the rest of the nation, Rhode Island experienced labor shortages, food price inflation, and record levels of food insecurity, which the state is still experiencing.

That is why continuing investment in the state’s local agriculture and seafood infrastructure are essential to ensuring long-term food security in Rhode Island, says Stelmaszyk. Over the past five years the state has invested more than $25 million in food, farm and fish businesses through grants, small business loans, and tax credits, and helped to preserve more than 700 acres of farmland through green economy bonds and the Agricultural Land Preservation Commission. Despite this, land access and development pressures continue to be a major challenge. 

“Good food is a tool for better health outcomes, a cleaner environment, job creation, and more resilient communities,” said Stelmasyk. “We must invest in our food infrastructure, businesses, and workforce to ensure long-term food security. We must connect more emergency food programs with our local food producers so that Rhode Islanders can feed Rhode Island.”

Stelmaszyk stressed the importance of providing a space for members of the state’s food system to gather and thanked URI for being such a vital partner over the past six years. 

As part of her work, Stelmaszyk will be updating “Relish Rhody,” the state’s food strategy, which includes five overarching goals: to preserve agriculture and fisheries; to improve the climate for food businesses; to create new markets for Rhode Island products; to divert excess food waste; and to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have adequate food to lead healthy and fulfilling lives. 

The ultimate goal is to work collectively with other New England states to produce 30% of the food consumed in the region by 2030 and increasing that goal to 50% by 2050.

Panel discussions over the course of the morning included innovators from across the food system spectrum talking about ways to better meet those goals, from agricultural advancements, to expanding shellfish aquaculture and fisheries in Rhode Island, to funding mechanisms that are currently in use to promote growth in these industries.

Kenneth Ayars, chief of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture, talked about the need to embrace technology and innovation in agriculture to achieve a more sustainable locally based food system in a place like Rhode Island, which is in many ways an urban state. 

Ayars cited the Netherlands, at 237 times smaller than the United States but only 16 times larger than Rhode Island, as an example of a nation that has done this successfully. In fact, the Netherlands is second only to the U.S. as the largest agricultural exporter in the world, owing largely to greenhouses and controlled environment agriculture.

While Ayars and other panelists do not advocate all agriculture becoming controlled environment agriculture, he said: “We want to embrace the technology that allows us to be more productive per acre in this state.”

Controlled environment and vertical growing techniques can bring predictability to the current agricultural system, bringing farming to urban centers, rooftops, pavement and brownfields, shortening the time to market and increasing what is available locally. The advancements are intended to work together with, supplement and support traditional farming in support of the overall goal of a more localized food system versus replacing it.

Conversely, there is no shortage of seafood in Rhode Island, whether it is a result of wild harvest or our aquaculture industry. Rhode Island’s Port of Galilee is one of the largest on the East Coast and among the top 10 nationwide. 

Yet, Robert Ballou at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management notes that most of Rhode Island’s seafood is exported. While this is a positive in terms of the state’s ability to meet out-of-state demand and generate impressive economic returns, it is not without impact on our local food system. As it turns out, most of the seafood consumed in Rhode Island is imported.

Part of the reason for this, according to Diane Lynch, chair of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, and many others, is a longstanding issue of lack of sufficient wastewater treatment infrastructure in our state to enable us to process any more seafood. 

In fact, more than 80% of our calamari is frozen and shipped overseas for processing. This lack of necessary infrastructure capacity to meet growing local demand is one specific area where additional blue economy funding can make a difference.

The University is also making significant advancements in land-based finfish aquaculture, another blue economy opportunity capable of creating jobs and feeding Rhode Islanders. The University has established a public-private partnership with local company, Greenfins. Professor of Fisheries and Aquaculture Terence Bradley, principal investigator, has been focused on two high-end species, yellowtail kingfish and mahi mahi, and producing them in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way.

 Bradley says the next step is to establish a land-based facility in Rhode Island. He notes the state’s central location within easy range of major markets such as Boston, New York, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, plus its access to in abundant, quality waters and coast make it ideal for land-based aquaculture.

While panelists throughout the day noted there is more work to be done to reach a goal of 30% by 2030 and creating a more equitable food system for all Rhode Islanders, they agree there has been remarkable progress in the last several years.

“With the last five years as proof, we know what it takes to build a more resilient and sustainable food system,” said Stelmaszyk. “Now is the time as our previous speakers have said to take advantage of this unprecedented moment to invest in our food system.”

To stay on top of the latest news and to learn of upcoming events, visit URI’s Rhode Island Food Center website.