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New England Can Feed Itself. Here’s How.

Speakers Brian Donahue, Eva Aguedelo, Karen Spiller, and Brett Tolly

Speakers Brian Donahue, Eva Agudelo, Karen Spiller, and Brett Tolley

By Sarah Byrnes & Orion Kriegman

On Wednesday October 8, one hundred people gathered at a church in Jamaica Plain, MA, to consider: Can New England Feed Itself?

The answer is yes, New England can feed itself – halfway. Food Solutions New England’s Food Vision, a rigorous analysis of New England’s history and natural resources, claims that our region could produce at least half of our own food if we farm three times as much land (up from 5% to 15% of our landmass) and shift from a “Business as Usual” diet to the “Omnivore’s Delight.” In a different scenario, called “Regional Reliance,” the Vision finds we could produce 70% of our food within our six states. Either of these scenarios represents a vast improvement over the current system, where only 10% of food is produced regionally.*

But before we get any further, it’s important to remind ourselves why we want regional food. “If we want a local or regional food system,” says Brian Donahue, the evening’s main speaker, “it’s important to ask: Why? What values are we truly serving?”

AudienceBrian is a professor of American Environmental Studies at Brandeis and a sheep farmer. He is also a lead author of A New England Food Vision, and he answers his own question by explaining that a local/regional food system does a better job at providing healthy food for all, supporting sustainable farming and fishing, and supporting thriving communities. These are the core values of the Vision.

So let’s get specific. In the Omnivore’s Delight scenario, New England would produce:

  • all of its own vegetables (half of which would be grown in small plots in urban and suburban areas),
  • half its own fruit,
  • some of its grain and dry beans, and
  • all its own dairy, meat, seafood, and other animal products.

We would continue to import grain for our animals and ourselves, tropical fruits like bananas and oranges, and items like sugar, coffee, tea, chocolate, and spices.

The Vision makes use of New England’s natural strengths, such as pastureland for cows and sheep, orchards for apples, and bogs for cranberries, while acknowledging that it is quite difficult to grow grain here. Grains are also a relatively good food to transport – they are comparatively light weight, store well, and can be sent on barges to local ports.

The Omnivore’s delight scenario also acknowledges that few people will be inspired by a diet that has no oranges, coffee, chocolate, or sugar, and so creates a Vision that still allows for these imports. Rather than push people to sacrifice and give up specialty items, Omnivore’s Delight offers an attractive alternative that could be enhanced if real crisis requires us to push further toward regional reliance.

There’s value to imports beyond simply taste, according to Brian. He noted that historically, when people have relied exclusively on a small area for their food, they suffered periodic cycles of mass starvation. The lesson is that in order to be resilient, a food system must be linked to other regions through trade. No matter what the future holds, Brian argues, New England would do well to import some food.

Listen to the event’s introductory remarks from Orion Kriegman
Listen to Brian’s remarks:

How Farming is Like Baseball

In order to achieve this vision, we will need a lot more farmers. To make this point, Eva Agudelo of the National Incubator Farm Training Initiative (NIFTI) asked the audience if anyone was familiar with baseball. Everyone raised their hand (except the one Brit in the audience), though no one in the room was a professional baseball player.

Eva made the point that every American, if thrust onto a baseball field, knows the basics of what to do:  swing the bat, run the bases, etc. “Farming should be like that,” says Eva. “Only the most ambitious and talented people will ever be full-time, professional baseball players—or farmers.” But there are many other levels of involvement, from Little League to the City League to Triple A. If every American knew the basics of farming—as in, how to “run the bases”—and many were good enough for minor league farming, we’d go a long way toward producing the food needed for the Vision. (Not to mention how much fun we’d have digging in the dirt and making fresh strawberry pie.)

Listen to Eva:

What’s in that Fish Stick?

The Food Solutions New England Vision relies on seafood for protein. There’s no way around it. But Brett Tolley pointed out that the seafood in the Vision isn’t anything like the fish stick you encountered at your school’s cafeteria. Brett is the son of a fisherman, and when he was in school he found these fish sticks not only disgusting, but “somehow embarrassing.”

To make matters worse, Brett’s Dad told him that the “fish” in the fish stick probably came from “very far away,” while the fish he caught here in New England also went someplace “very far away.” And in fact 90% of the fish we eat in the United States is imported from other countries, while most of the seafood caught in New England doesn’t stay here.

We have an enormous, and enormously important, task ahead of us if we want to revive our fisheries and ensure living wages for fisher-folk. Luckily, the folks at Brett’s organization, the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, are working on this. You can read more and get involved at their website.

Listen to Brett:

Is 50% Enough?

Food QuestionAfter the event wound down, the buzz in the room centered on a question many were uncomfortable asking publicly: is 50% really enough? It’s a big question. Food Solutions New England has their reasons for landing on a 50% Vision, but the conversation is far from over.

There is widespread agreement that the “Business As Usual” food system needs to change. And in fact it will change, as pressures from a changing climate, resources shortages, and economic instability create a new landscape here in New England. The Vision offers us an opportunity to educate ourselves on what is possible for New England even as things shift, and to dream about what is desirable.

Furthermore, a vision can provide some guidance for getting to the system we want, but getting there will take the collaboration of millions of New Englanders. That’s why Karen Spiller, the evening’s final speaker, urged us to make the Vision a living document. She reminds us: “We all have a lot to offer to make this a living vision, building it together, and enjoying it together.”

Listen to Karen:
Like anything else that’s going to be sustainable, our food system must be a labor of love. Luckily, growing food and catching fish have long been enjoyable ways of life for New Englanders, from the native inhabitants to today’s permaculture and urban agriculture enthusiasts. If we continue in this spirit of experimentation and enjoyment, and help others find their roles in the emerging system, then we’re on the right track.

Read the Vision here. Tell us what you think below.

* The percentages come from the number of cultivated acres required for various diets – for example, in the Omnivore’s Delight, half the acres under cultivation would be in New England, and half elsewhere, thus 50%.

The ROCkers (Regional Organizing Committee)

Members of the ROCkers

Members of the ROCkers

New England Rocks! And to increase resilience in this historic region, a group of resilience-building rockstars have come together to form a “Regional Organizing Committee” (aka the ROCkers) to support the New England Resilience & Transition (NERT) Network.

The ROCkers is an open, flexible, and transparent group. Its purpose is to enhance local resilience in the New England region. We do that by:

1. facilitating horizontal communication among initiatives, both in-person and online, and
2. collaborating on local and regional strategies and actions.

The ROCkers:

1. Are each active in a local resilience, permaculture, green, energy, food, sustainability, environmental justice, new economy, time banking, Transition, or other group.
2. Support the purpose of the ROCkers (above).
3. Commit to supporting and attending one in-person gathering per year, which will vary in location from year to year per the group’s decision. They also commit to attending three remote meetings per year, via conference call or online platform.

The New England New Economy Transition program is providing support for the ROCkers. For more info, contact Sarah Byrnes at Read more at the NERT Network site:

Webinar Series: Building Community & Regional Resilience

Net Zero New England: How our Region Can Supply All its own Energy through Renewables
With Commissioner David Cash of the MA Department of Environmental Protection
Thursday, April 10, 2pm ET
Register here! 

According to experts, New England has the potential to supply all of its own energy needs through clean renewables. Maximizing off-shore wind turbines alone would produce so much energy that a surplus could even be sold back to the national grid. Find out more about this intriguing possibility during this webinar with David Cash, Commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection in Massachusetts. We’ll hear the case for “Net Zero New England,” and consider how grassroots groups can play a role in a transition to a self-sufficient region. Register here! 

A “Regionally Reliant” New England Food System
With Food Solutions New England
Spring 2014, Exact Date TBD

Join us for a conversation with Food Solutions New England, whose research shows that we can produce 70% of our own food within our six state region—even with a population of 17 million. Learn more about their vision for health, nutrition, and resilience in New England’s food system.

Bridging Class Divides to Create Community Resilience
With Betsy Leondar-Wright of Class Action
Tuesday, May 13, 12pm ET
Register here!

Does your community group want to engage people from diverse class backgrounds? Do you want to increase turnout at your events, and effectively engage the public to enhance resilience in your area? If you answered yes to these questions, you don’t want to miss this webinar. Building on insights from Betsy’s groundbreaking new book, Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures, this participatory workshop will enable participants to look through a class lens at their own community work. It will offer tools to draw on the strengths of all class cultures to build cross-class alliances for change. Register here!

How to Measure Progress? Replacing GDP with the “Genuine Progress Indicator”
Stories from Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, and the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub
Thursday, May 22, 12pm ET
Register here!

What if we defined economic success not by the money we spent and the goods we consumed, but by the quality of life we create? The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) does exactly that. From the costs of crime, pollution, commuting and inequality, to the value of education, volunteer work, leisure time and infrastructure, the GPI helps us understand the true impacts of our policies so we can create the sustainable economy that we want.

Did you know that Maryland and Vermont have adopted the GPI at the state level, and Massachusetts is considering doing the same? Join us to hear about the role grassroots groups and activists are playing in these states and beyond to support alternative economic measures. We’ll hear stories from Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and the mid-Atlantic Transition hub, and consider how our own states can continue—or begin—to measure what matters.

Concept Paper: Region-Wide Resilience in New England

Reflections for Consideration

Drafted by: Jennifer Atlee, Natalie Berland, Dale Bryan, Sarah Byrnes, Dan Jones, Orion Kriegman, and Conrad Willeman

This short paper offers some “grist for the mill” as we consider together what regional resilience could mean for New England.

Download this document as a PDF

New England has a long tradition of radical communitarian culture. The colonists came here as congregations or communities rather than as individuals. Communities banded together into state parliaments here and laid the groundwork for the American Revolution. The region has a tradition of social change, moral crusades and entrepreneurial invention which provides its unique character. It is no wonder that today New England is home to many thriving grassroots Transition and resilience groups. Our region has already organized three region-wide gatherings to share stories, lessons, inspiration and more, bringing together over 200 people from 50 communities and all six New England states.

While Transition and other grassroots groups focus on the vital task of local resiliency, it is becoming clear to many of us that the demands of our time, and the transition now unfolding, also require us to think regionally. What follows is an attempt to sketch out a rationale for thinking at a regional scale — as opposed to only the local, national, and global ones we are more accustomed to.

This document is offered in the spirit of provoking reflection and as a springboard for further discussion. We hope it sets the stage for a deeper dive into the ideas of regional resilience. We also hope it serves as an invitation for us all to collectively imagine the kind of region where we, our children, and our grandchildren, can grow and thrive.

“New Normals” and New Responses

Our lives are currently lived within a global economic system that is unjust and unsustainable. Those of us involved in the Transition effort, along with many others in our region, understand that we are living in, and must respond to, an era of “new normals” caused by climate change and deepening ecological, economic and political crises.

It is clear that the federal government and the other institutions of the past are incapable of the innovation and adaptation needed to even address the most pressing issues we face. As community groups and regional activists, we need to pioneer our own path and lead by doing.

Why a Regional Response is Necessary

Citizens can have the greatest impact closest to home through community-based, local action. The Transition movement, and many others, honor the principle of subsidiarity, which means that action should always be taken at the smallest, most local level possible. To this end, Transition, sustainability and resilience initiatives have created community gardens, community educational opportunities, local transportation improvements, local currencies, and much, much more. Now, some Transition activists are wondering if we should take the principles of re-localized communities and apply them to re-localizing New England.

The leap to regional thinking is happening for many reasons:

We recognize that none of us is resilient until all of us are. Equity and social justice are intrinsic to true resilience. Gated resilience that is only for the well-off may break down when neighboring towns and less privileged individuals seek to get basic needs met under challenging conditions. Both pragmatically and morally, we are profoundly interconnected with each other, and we recognize our obligations to be good neighbors both within and beyond our communities.

We are nested in large systems of culture, climate, and exchange, and many life-sustaining systems are larger-than-local. Sometimes it is not possible to effect change at the local level, so the principle of subsidiarity leads us to work at the next scale. We find that our drinking water is managed regionally, and so is energy production, waste management, and many of the “invisible” aspects of our lives. Rejuvenating the health of bio-regions that cross municipal and state boundaries is essential if we are to sustain the resources we need for our well-being and the biodiversity that fills us with awe and wonder.

A regional economy strikes the best balance between efficiency and resilience, and could circumvent the injustices of the global political-economy. We know that regional trade played a role in many low-energy, pre-industrial cultures to meet needs that cannot be met locally. Producing things within New England — rather than across the globe — reduces carbon emissions, makes us less vulnerable to energy shortages and price spikes, and produces local jobs and forms of livelihood. You might be amazed at how much is made and nurtured in New England. We urge everyone to start wondering: what might we stop importing from afar and start producing within our region?

Many New Englanders are also eager to withdraw from the global political-economy for moral reasons. This economy is based on a model of extracting wealth from the poor and transferring it to the rich, and many of us find this morally abhorrent, as well unsustainable.

A regional decision-making system is more accountable than a large national one. In our national political system, the average citizen’s voice is simply inaudible. We can have much greater impact at a smaller scale, and participate more fully in the decisions that affect our lives. New England’s communitarian history also supports a human scale decision-making system.

Why New England?

Many of us already lead regionally-based lives and feel some connectedness to “New England” as a whole. Depending on whether we are recent immigrants or have deep New England roots, we feel different levels of cultural affinity to this region. For some of us, our relatives are scattered throughout New England, we may regularly vacation Down East or on The Cape or in the Green Mountains, or we may have taken a meandering life-path that moved us from Boston to Maine to Rhode Island. Many of us even commute regionally to work. Our sports teams are another bond that helps knit us together (New England Patriots, Red Sox Nation).

We do recognize that working within the region of New England is somewhat arbitrary. The political boundaries of New England consist primarily of three “eco-regions” (the Northeastern Highlands, the Northeastern Coastal Zone, and the Acadian Plains and Hills). New England does not align with a single foodshed, watershed, or other natural designation. There is a good argument to consider a larger North East Region (inclusive of New York state, and parts of Canada) composed of smaller bio-regions. However, New England seems a handy starting point for a conversation, given the Transition gatherings that have already been held and in light of its established political identity. This discussion is in its infancy, and all options are worthy of more reflection and discussion.

Key Dimensions of Regional Resilience

As mentioned above, this list is offered in the spirit of provoking reflection and as a springboard for further discussion, and is not meant as definitive or comprehensive. The drafting team highlights questions about ten key dimensions that we have given some thought to, but there are surely others we have missed which you may want to add.

1. Skills, Livelihoods, and Knowledge – Challenges posed by “the long emergency” require different habits of mind than the past two hundred years, and new skills and forms of education. Many “high skill” crafts of the past have been devalued in our fossil-fueled industrial age, and the number of expert craftspeople has severely dwindled, along with their accumulated knowledge. For example, growing food is no trivial task, especially in a changing climate, and requires new forms of ecological agriculture suited to the landscape. How do we choose to re-skill ourselves to respond to the coming changes? How do we help our children learn skills useful to the world they will inherit? How do we foster experimentation and unleash innovation toward the new economy transition.

2. Manufacture – To stop importing goods from afar and establish a regional economy, New England will need to start producing its own supplies. Can we build our own wind turbines and solar panels? Who are the garden & farm tool manufacturers? Who makes nuts and bolts and building supplies?

3. Financial/Monetary – While the problems with the global financial casino are vast, we know that we will need to mobilize some recognized version of wealth and savings to be invested in a new infrastructure. This will allow us to make the transition to renewable energy while creating new jobs and businesses. A parallel or at least insulated regional monetary system would buffer us from the shocks of continued global financial collapse while facilitating trade within the region. State banks, like the one in North Dakota, proved particularly resilient in the last Wall Street crash and helped buffer the state from negative impacts. What interrelated financial system can we imagine in New England? How could we facilitate the coordination needed to support that effort?

4. Governance & Decision-Making – We know the corporate-capture of the federal government has led to national stalemate and stagnation. However, leadership and innovation is happening at state and local levels (albeit unevenly). Most of us remain alienated from supposed “democratic” institutions, and are unable to find ways to make our voices heard as participants in shaping our destiny. Historical boundaries of government often have no connection to eco-regions, and cross-boundary pollution of shared resources poses huge challenges for bureaucratic agencies unable to operate outside their jurisdictions. Can we carry forward the values of the American Revolution and renew a grassroots democracy rooted in liberty, justice, equality and freedom? As we organize our own movement, creating a regional network linking local initiatives, we create the seeds of future governance. We must keep alive within our work the values of transparent, accountable, and inclusive decision-making.

5. Transportation – Our region has the advantage of pre-car settlement patterns – we have ports still in use, waterways once used for moving goods and the potential to re-construct rail systems with sustainable rolling stock. Transit infrastructure could help knit our communities together, allowing tool manufacturers in Massachusetts and Connecticut to supply farmers in Vermont and Maine. In reverse, it allows these farmers to bring their food to urban markets. Coordinating land-use laws across different state jurisdictions is one of many challenges to rebuilding a robust non-fossil fuel dependent system of transportation.

6. Food – In their “Regional Reliance” diet, Food Solutions New England has shown that 70% of our food could be produced within New England. In this vision, a substantial portion would be grown in small lots in cities, suburbs, and towns. (FSNE is primarily advocating a “50X60” diet, where 50% of our food comes from New England by 2060.) Already, New England farms produce half of our dairy. The Champlain Valley was once the breadbasket of New England, and the Erie Canal was built to bring the grain from central NY state to the cities. Could we return to such a food reality? What are our visions for local and regional food production? What is the value-added of New England agriculture, what should be its focus in a resilient region? As we transition away from the industrial model of agriculture, what new infrastructure is needed? For example, slaughterhouses and meat markets closer to cities might be needed. What opportunities for re-skilling and new forms of livelihood emerge?

7. Energy – Some experts claim that New England has the potential to become completely self-sufficient through renewable energy production. Decentralized energy systems can be combined with larger publicly owned existing hydro-power and new off-shore wind developments to provide basic power to the region. Maximizing off-shore wind turbines alone would enable production of surplus energy that could be sold back to the national grid to recoup the costs of their construction. Models of cooperative community ownership, such as what has been achieved in Europe or more recently in Boulder, Colorado, or more locally in Scituate, Massachusetts, would strengthen local communities rather than large corporations. Net Zero New England will be difficult, but we need to get there eventually. Shouldn’t we start now?

8. Equity – While we seek to strengthen our local communities, not all communities have equal or sufficient access to resources to make a successful transition to a new economy. Some communities have more advantages and privileges than others. What are our obligations to help each other? Surely, we are not trying to replicate the grossly unequal system of gated wealth and private security keeping out the poor. We need to ensure that all of us have access to food, housing, health care, and education in the New Economy. This is not just a moral obligation, but is also in our self-interest; our resilience is stronger when everyone is healthy and people’s skills and talents are not going to waste.

9. Decreased Consumption – The current economy relies on economic growth, requiring ever-increasing extraction of Earth’s resources and an insatiable consumption of products and services, many of questionable use. Additionally, the primary objective of this economy is wealth accumulation for a global minority, where profit is based on the exploitation of the labors of the majority. By contrast we envision an economy that serves all people rather than people serving it to benefit few, where development and growth concerns humanity, all species, and Earth’s well-being. In a sustainable and just economy people engage in cooperative ownership of the means of production for enhanced sharing of needed goods and services for happiness and survival.

10. Climate Migrants – New England is blessed with many natural and cultural assets that will aid its transition to a new economy. Other regions are far more susceptible to greater disruptions such as droughts and flooding. What are our moral obligations to our brothers and sisters struggling to make a life in these areas? “Climate migrants” from abroad and from parts of America are already arriving in New England – and we can expect their numbers to increase as the world grows increasingly chaotic. How could we prepare to incorporate these and more new immigrants into our region? How do we have a democratic discussion about how to respond when chaos increases around the country?

Drafted by: Jennifer Atlee, Natalie Berland, Dale Bryan, Sarah Byrnes, Dan Jones, Orion Kriegman, and Conrad Willeman