Researchers examining food security possibilities

Managing Editor

DOVER, Del. (April 12, 2016) — The northeast region of the United States — from Maine to West Virginia — has about 23 percent of the nation’s population but less than 4 percent of its farmland.
Amid soaring energy prices years ago and an ongoing drought in California, researchers at USDA and universities in the region began to investigate how the region’s food production could change if those trends continued.
Initial discussions in 2007 led to USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative funding a $5 million, five-year project to examine the food security in the region from the perspectives of production, distribution and consumption.
Talking to a group of Delaware Extension specialists, state lawmakers and other agriculture representatives last week, Dr. Tim Griffin and Dr. Dave Fleisher ,who are involved in the production perspective, said the expansive project, named Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast, is perhaps the first to look deeply into how the perspectives are integrated with each other across a large amount of land.
“We actually need to get to a point where we’re talking about all those things together,” Griffin said. “We’re right at the beginning of that.”
Griffin, associate professor and director of the agriculture, food and environment program at Tufts University, took on the task of determining through data collection how much food the region can produce and to what degree it can meet the needs of its residents. That started with he and his production team calculating the “regional self reliance” of more than 100 crops and animal products in the region. Griffin explained it as a net balance between the amount of a crop produced in the region and the amount consumed, but the balance doesn’t assume that what’s produced in the region is consumed there either. For some crops, like corn and milk, data was fairly easy to get and plentiful but other crops had very little data to work with, he said.
“It allowed us to at least get to a starting point,” Griffin said.
Griffin said the calculations could be useful in making production decisions as economic and environmental factors change in the region and nationwide.
Another potential decision making tool developed through the project were regional-scale crop models that can estimate future production under different scenarios of land use, water and changes in climate.
Fleshier, an agricultural engineer at USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, combined that spacial information with existing crop models for growth and yield to make a broader computer program to look at the regional impacts of aspects like sustained temperature increases, wider irrigation use, loss of farmland and many other factors.
The researchers stressed that the tools are not intended to dictate changes in production or policies, only serve as additional information.
“We’re not trying to prescribe what the future should be,” Griffin said. “But there hasn’t been a strong cohesive framework that allows alternates to be evaluated. So that’s what we’re aiming for.”
The AFRI grant was extended for a sixth year to February 2017 for the project team of more than 50 to better pull together its findings for more presentations, papers and outreach.
For a Delaware perspective a panel of speakers discussed how they are working on some of the state’s food ecurity issues.
Jim Waddington, Kent County’s director of economic development, talked about his office’s work in designating Food Innovation Districts in the county that could help farmers, food processing and manufacturing. He said the concept builds on assets the county already has; productive farmland and a food manufactuing base and with DowDuPont announcing it’s agricultural company will be located in the state and more production shifting to the Kraft Foods plant in Dover, the state and county is a prime spot for more projects to come.
“Right now, we have a pretty high visibility from a food innovation perspective and it’s to our advantage to try to drive projects to it,” Waddington said.
Ann Mattingly, Delaware Center for Horticulture director of programs talked about the impact community gardens have had in parts New Castle County and some of the challenges in getting people engaged the urban agriculture and sticking with it.
Dave Marvel, a Harrington, Del., farmer who’s involved with the state’s efforts to get more Delaware-grown food into schools said there was some reluctance at first but now more farmers have found ways to make it work for them and school nutrition managers in every public school district has participated.
“It’s a way for them to publicize that they are part of the education system,” Marvel said of the nutrition managers. “A hungry kid cannot learn.”