Food for the future: A vision for New England farming and food production

Brian Donahue co-authors perspective on meeting the region’s future food needs

Photo/Mike Lovett

Cut down trees to benefit the environment and improve human health?

That may seem counter-intuitive, but Brian Donahue, professor of environmental studies, says in the long term converting some of New England’s forests into farmland and pastures could create a food system that is healthy, sustainable and prevents global warming. It also is a critical step in enabling New England to produce half its food needs by 2060.

Donahue is the lead author of "A New England Food Vision," a perspective on the future of the region’s food needs. Calling access to food a basic human right, he and co-authors, who include researchers from the University of New Hampshire, College of the Atlantic, University of Southern Maine and University of Vermont, propose changes in food production and distribution across the region.

At present, five percent of New England’s land is used to produce food while 80 percent is forested. The researchers call for using 15 percent, or six million acres, of the region’s land for food production. 

“We are not talking about running out and cutting down a bunch of trees,” Donahue explains. “It would be gradual, happening over a half of century or more. We need adequate conservation. You want to be careful about how you go about this, as forests give us immense benefits.”

The proposal also assumes that more people will practice healthier diets in the future, one more in accordance with USDA recommendations. Donahue says the benefits of society at large making such a dietary change would include lower healthcare and environmental costs.

“We want people to move toward eating healthier,” says Donahue. “We don’t tell people how they should eat, but nutritionists broadly agree that we should be eating more vegetables and fruits. We should decrease how much we consume in calories, highly-processed carbohydrates and meat.”

While "A New England Food Vision" calls for the region to produce more of its own food, Donahue acknowledges some of the plan's shortcomings. According to Donahue, some dietary staples, such as orange juice, coffee and most grains would still need to be transported into New England from elsewhere.

However, Donahue believes this regional planning approach can be used elsewhere in the United States.

Whether it's in California, where the soil is fertile but water is becoming scarce, or in the Midwest, where the bountiful production of grains pollutes waterways, Donahue sees the need for other parts of the country to adopt similar food production practices for environmental and health gains.

“You can take any part of the country and ask ‘What do we need here in the way of natural ecosystems and how can we accomodate sustainability and agricultural production in the way local people live?’ and the answer you come up with will be different depending on where you are,” Donahue says.

For now, the next step for Donahue and his colleagues is to generate greater awareness and support of the goals outlined in "A New England Food Vision." It has already been promoted in some New England states, and will be rolled out to Massachusetts at the Boston Local Food Festival on Sept. 14. The festival, like Donahue’s vision, promotes sustainable food production, developing local farms and increasing access to healthy local food.

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