‘Food is part of the solution’ when it comes to climate change

8th Annual Rhode Island Food System Summit considers innovative practices that power environmental stewardship ‘From Seed to Shore’

KINGSTON, R.I.–Feb. 1, 2024–Hundreds of people from across the nation tuned in to learn more about how innovative food system practices might be able to stave off the impacts of climate change as part of the 8th Annual Rhode Island Food System Summit.

Hosted by the University of Rhode Island, “From Seed to Shore: Powering Environmental Stewardship Through Innovative Food Practices,” featured informative panel discussions with academic experts and local industry leaders as well as a keynote address from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Assistant Administrator for Fisheries Janet Coit. Coit, a former director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, spoke about NOAA’s plans to implement a national seafood strategy, including efforts to sustainably manage marine fisheries and produce seafood responsibly. Julianne Stelmaszyk, director of food strategy for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation, also spoke on building resilience within the state’s renewed food strategy and provided an update on its development.

URI’s Business Engagement Center and the Rhode Island Food Center at URI organized the event. “Farmers and fishermen are experiencing significant impacts due to climate change so we wanted to look at these issues more closely through this year’s event,” said BEC Executive Director Katharine Hazard Flynn, who emceed the day’s events. “And while agriculture does contribute to global warming, there is also a lot of great work happening across the food system to mitigate this issue. We wanted the audience to come away with new ideas and practical applications to address the growing threat of climate change.”

“As the state’s land and sea grant public research institution, URI began as the state’s agriculture experiment station and agricultural school. For more than 130 years, URI has been supporting farmers and producers through our research and programs and has always been at the forefront of critical advances in food production and sustainability in the state,” said URI President Marc Parlange. “Today’s event truly captures the expertise of our institution and this is why we are so pleased to host stakeholders from across our food system as we discuss the issues that are most important to our state, our region and our nation.”

Coit spoke about the dramatic impacts of climate change on marine life and ecosystems, which, in turn, affect the businesses and coastal communities that depend on them. According to Coit, the United States’ seafood sector supports hundreds of billions of dollars of economic activity, 1.2 million jobs and generates $165 billion in sales of seafood across the broader economy. 

“Climate change is affecting the sustainability of our marine life, including the seafood that we eat and grow,” she said. She detailed how warming waters are affecting the location and productivity of fish stocks worldwide, citing lobsters leaving Narragansett Bay, the collapse of the commercial winter flounder industry in Rhode Island, and the growth of cobia–a tropical fish–as an emerging fishery, as local examples.

The United States is recognized as a global leader in terms of sustainability for wild-caught and farmed species. NOAA Fisheries works to advance and export the United States’ sustainable management practices to the rest of the world. 

“Most Americans are unaware that more than 50 percent of the seafood produced globally for human consumption is farmed, not fished–so seafood farming and aquaculture is one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce protein and it has helped to improve nutrition and food security in many parts of the world. But, it is seriously underutilized in the U.S.,” said Coit.

In addition to supporting a thriving domestic seafood economy now and into the future, NOAA’s national seafood strategy is committed to leveling the playing field for U.S. fishermen and seafood farmers. Its four pillars are: maintaining and/or increasing the United States’ sustainable wild capture production; increasing sustainable U.S. aquaculture production; fostering access to domestic and global markets for the U.S. seafood industry; and strengthening the entire sector with an eye toward infrastructure (e.g., ports, hatcheries, vessels, processing facilities).

Coit spoke about kelp farming as a sustainable crop and innovative practice that has been shown to help reduce ocean acidification­–a byproduct of human activity and another consequence of climate change–and also gave a nod to URI’s PRESS Initiative (Partnership for Research Excellence in Sustainable Seafood) as a great example of a collaborative science-based approach to responding to the challenges of our coastal communities.

A panel on sustainable seafood production challenges and solutions detailed several projects funded through the PRESS Initiative. Funded by a four-year, $1 million NOAA grant and led by Marta Gomez-Chiarri, professor of aquaculture/fisheries in URI’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, the program provides funding to projects proposed by teams of industry members and researchers that seek to solve challenges to addressing seafood security.

Stelmaszyk discussed the need to build a more resilient food system as 90% of the food we eat comes from outside New England­­–and much of it comes from climate-risk areas such as California and the Midwest. Disruptions in the supply chain that result in higher prices and shortages tend to hit communities of color harder than white households. Black and Latin-X households in Rhode Island are three times more likely to experience food insecurity, she said.

“The good news,” she said, referring to regenerative farming practices, “is that food is part of the solution. We know that healthier top soil can hold water better during times of drought and filter it like a sponge during flooding. It’s a great example of a nature-based solution.”

Representatives from Newport’s Ocean Hour Farm discussed regenerative practices on their farm as they relate to ocean health. According to NOAA, 80% of pollution to the marine environment comes from the land. The farm was founded in December 2021 with the idea that ocean stewardship begins on land with the mission to be a center for education, scientific research and demonstrations and trials around regenerative agriculture and land management practices.

Stelmaszyk also moderated a panel on regenerative agriculture featuring URI’s Patrick Bauer, assistant professor of food systems policy and innovation, as well as representatives of Little Compton’s Sweet and Salty Farm, Earth Care Farm in Charlestown and Ashawaug Farm in Hopkinton, which are all employing regenerative practices in their work such as composting and crop and pasture rotation to help improve soil health. 

The panel discussed some of the challenges to implementing regenerative practices, including criticisms that it is not scalable and is skill and labor intensive­–but also noted increased interest among young people in becoming involved in tangible solutions to big picture environmental crises. After more than a century of taking people out of agriculture, however, moving people back in and creating highly diverse food systems is also a process.

“It is incumbent upon us,” said Bauer, “to think about how we frame the kind of work and careers that young people can have–that this is an exciting and innovative field to go into that encompasses a lot of different kinds of work.” From infrastructure and supply chain to marketing, cultural and educational work, he said, “there is so much work that needs to be done and so many opportunities.”

Prior to closing the summit, Flynn announced several upcoming sessions scheduled in the coming months that are designed to build on and offer additional opportunity for discussion on a variety of important topics discussed during the summit. For more information, visit: uri.edu/food-center/foodsummit24.