KINGSTON, RI – January 27, 2022 – Nearly 600 people tuned in to watch the sixth annual Rhode Island Food System Summit hosted by the University of Rhode Island. Held on January 20, the virtual summit “Driving food innovation through sustainable partnerships“, brought together experts from agriculture, aquaculture and fisheries; policy experts; heads of government; and stakeholders from across Rhode Island’s food system to discuss ways to increase food production in the state and across the country with the goal of creating a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient food system.
The food summit was organized by the URI Business Engagement Center. “The Center is thrilled to host this event again and help connect food partners to university and state,” said BEC Executive Director Katharine Hazard Flynn, who hosted the events for the daytime. “The theme of this year’s event was especially meaningful as we welcomed the state’s new Director of Food Strategy, Julianne Stelmaszyk, and charted the future of Rhode Island as it relates to the food system.”
Opening the day, URI President Marc Parlange welcomed speakers and guests and highlighted the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on food systems globally, further exacerbating threats already posed by climate change and the economy. “The pandemic has forced us to make simple changes in our daily lives, but it has also forced us to think more critically about how to address these larger global issues as an institution of state on land. and the sea,” he said.
Parlange mentioned ongoing research at the University in the areas of agriculture and aquaculture and also noted that URI recently received a $500,000 award for the US Regional Build Back Better Challenge. Economic Development Administration. The Phase One Planning Grant is intended to 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 local food system, seeing a marked increase in the number of new and beginning farmers, young farmers and growers. food immigrants entering the field. Likewise, the state’s seafood sector continues to grow with aquaculture, which has grown tenfold over the past decade. However, as a state that still imports about 90% of its food, Rhode Island is not immune to domestic and global food supply chain disruptions.
While Rhode Island’s food sector is one of the state’s largest employers, altogether accounting for nearly $4.5 billion in economic output and supporting 70,000 jobs, the state is still overly dependent on food producers. distant. During the pandemic, restaurant and factory workers in Rhode Island have faced higher layoff rates and disproportionately higher exposure to the virus. As a result, along with the rest of the nation, Rhode Island has experienced labor shortages, food price inflation, and record levels of food insecurity, which the state still experiences.
That’s why continued investment in the state’s local agriculture and seafood infrastructure is critical 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 preserve more than 700 acres of farmland through green economy bonds and farmland preservation. Committee. Despite this, access to land 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,” Stelmasyk said. “We need to invest in our food infrastructure, our businesses and our workforce to ensure long-term food security. We need to connect more emergency food programs with our local food producers so that the people of Rhode Island can feed Rhode Island.
Stelmaszyk emphasized the importance of providing gathering space for members of the state’s food system and thanked URI for being such a vital partner over the past six years. As part of his work, Stelmaszyk will update “Relish Rhody,” the state’s food strategy, which includes five main goals: preserve agriculture and fisheries; improve the climate of food businesses; create new markets for Rhode Island products; divert excess food waste; and to ensure that all Rhode Islanders have adequate nutrition 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 to increase that goal to 50% by 2050.
Panel discussions during the morning included innovators from across the spectrum of the food system talking about ways to better achieve these goals, from agricultural advancements to the expansion of shellfish farming and fishing in Rhode Island, to by the financing mechanisms currently used to promote growth. in these industries.
Kenneth Ayars, head of the Agriculture Division of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management, spoke about the need to embrace technology and innovation in agriculture to achieve a more local food system. sustainable in a place like Rhode Island, which is in many ways an urban setting. State. Ayars cited the Netherlands, 237 times smaller than the United States but only 16 times larger than Rhode Island, as an example of a successful nation. In fact, the Netherlands ranks just behind the United States as the world’s largest agricultural exporter, thanks in large part to greenhouses and controlled-environment agriculture.
While Ayars and other panelists aren’t advocating for all agriculture to become 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 farming system, bringing farming to urban centers, rooftops, sidewalks and brownfields, shortening time to market and increasing this which is available locally. The advancements are intended to work with, complement and support traditional agriculture in support of the overall goal of a more localized food system rather than replacing it.
Conversely, there is no shortage of seafood in Rhode Island, whether as a result of wild harvesting or our aquaculture industry. Rhode Island’s Port of Galilee is one of the largest on the east coast and among the top 10 nationally. Still, Robert Ballou of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management notes that most Rhode Island seafood is exported. While this is positive in terms of the state’s ability to meet external demand and generate impressive economic returns, it is not without impact on our local food system. It turns out that most of the seafood eaten in Rhode Island is imported.
According to Diane Lynch, president of the Rhode Island Food Policy Council, and many others, this is partly due to the lack of sufficient wastewater treatment infrastructure in our state to allow us to process more seafood. In fact, over 80% of our calamari is frozen and shipped overseas for processing. This lack of infrastructure capacity needed to meet growing local demand is a specific area where additional blue economy funding can make a difference.
The University is also making significant progress 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 a local company, Greenfins. Fisheries and aquaculture professor Terence Bradley, lead researcher, focused on two high-end species, yellowtail amberjack and mahi mahi, and produced them in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Bradley says the next step is to establish a land facility in Rhode Island. He notes that the state’s central location near major markets such as Boston, New York, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, as well as its access to plentiful, quality waters and coastline make it ideal for the terrestrial aquaculture.
While panelists throughout the day noted that there is still work to be done to reach a goal of 30% by 2030 and create a more equitable food system for all Rhode Islanders, they agree that there is has made remarkable progress in recent years.
“With the past five years as proof, we know what it takes to build a more resilient and sustainable food system,” Stelmaszyk said. “Now is the time, as our previous speakers have said, to take advantage of this unprecedented time to invest in our food system.”
To stay up to date with the latest news and to learn about upcoming events, visit URI’s Rhode Island Food Center website.