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Regional food analysis

My absolute favorite kinds of presentations to give (even though they are by far the most work) are the one's I've been doing increasingly often, giving analyses of regional food security.

I focus on both present and prospective food issues in a lower energy, less economically stable and warmer future. in them I set out both the historical crops and food source of the region, and what is currently produced there, and explore what steps a community or a bioregion might take to enhance their food security. I examine underutilized resources, and what else might be brought into play. I consider how climate change, energy depletion and economic volatility may affect the region. I examine lines of transport and connections to other regions and consider what might be brought into the area. At the end, sometimes I issue a formal report (if an organization has asked me to) or I give a talk that provides and overview and some suggestions for the most effective ways to leverage what you have to ensure security in the present, the near-term future and the longer term future. We talk about distribution, processing, food justice and current issues of food security as well, so that there's a full understanding that the issue is not just amounts, but access and infrastructure.

Doing these talks or writing these reports is incredibly demanding but one of the most fun and fascinating things I've ever done. The research is incredible - to do a good job I need to have an in-depth understanding of a variety of agricultural and related industries (fishing, wildlife management, shipping and water transport, rail, etc...), detailed maps with land-use policy in place, a long term agricultural, cutlural and political history of the region, as well as information about current crop trials and possible future models. I need to understand how climate change may impact that particular area, how energy is used, generated and transported in the region, what projected rainfall and flooding may bring, and what the historic sources of income have been. Getting to know a place like this is a true joy.

I did my first one for my own home region, and am still refining it as I get to know it more closely. While I've done a couple of local talks on this subject, I am hoping to issue a formal report soon, and do some more. I've done others for towns and cities or regional Transition or food security groups.

Why do I do these? Part of it is the food geek in me who enjoys a really good research project - I want to know whether it will be economically viable to re-open the Erie Canal to barge grain transport, or how coastal regions historically dependent on fishing stocks might have the best outcomes as ocean acidification continues. I want to know what crops grow best in what places, and how to adapt those crop choices to global weirding.

More importantly, however, almost no one does this kind of synthesis in any coherent manner. For most agricultural researchers, the idea that the just-in-time delivery system and our oil intensive agriculture could have to change is alien, so modelling doesn't take energy meaningfully into account, even if it address climate. Even though the Stern and Hirsch Reports respectively make the credible case for major economic instability as energy supplies get tighter and climate change eats up more of our resources, most models simply don't imagine a world where we aren't growing and getting richer.

From 2006-2009, Cornell University researcher published papers in Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems that explored the question of whether New York could feed itself right now. The conclusion was fascinating, New York can feed about a third of its population - and slightly more when very moderate consumption of animal products is included, mostly milk and beef raised on land suitable only for grazing.

This was not a projection - and adding it to my collection of other studies, both of what New York has produced historically during various times, and research on how land utilization might proceed, this set me on the path to trying to understand what other resources could be brought to bear in New York state. How would that change if and when we had the incentive to bring in almost universal home gardens? How will it change based on climate projections? How might it change if urban food wastes were shifted to livestock production? How will population centers in New York draw food off from producing areas - what will stay in farming regions and what will go? How do we think about the relationship between city and countryside?

After working on this for various regions of New York for some time, I was asked to apply it to other regions - North coastal Massachusetts, Central Connecticut, parts of Western Pennsylvania and around a major city in Illinois (I'm being somewhat opaque here because not all the reports are done). My hope is to not only do these reports, but also to begin to help other people do even more in-depth regional food analyses. If I can (mostly from outside) see parts of the historic picture that maybe aren't obvious to people who have always lived there or who have not taken the time to ask "What did native peoples eat?" or "What were the economically productive crops of the past and why?"

Too often, I think the models and thinking about this have been too simple - either they fail to take into account the real and serious challenges we face because of an excess of optimism, or they leap, in an excess of pessimism, to disaster. The fact, for example, that New York City can't feed its present population or itself at all does not mean that New York City will cease to exists in a lower energy future. And yet, many analysts have stopped there, or allowed a long-term conclusion (ie, eventually we might find some kinds of shipping and transport interrupted by shortages of fossil fuels) to lead them to skip over the nearer term likelihoods (period interruptions, higher prices, less refrigerated shipping) and assume "we're all doomed."

We add in additional layers of complexity - how can present sustainable agriculture increase the food security of people who are ALREADY hungry in the region? What about the cost of food in the near term? How do we keep land protected for wildlife habitat and human pleasure? How do we create reciprocal relationships between cities and surrounding suburbs and rural areas? What can we do to restore topsoil and fertility? What are likely factors affecting population and migration in the region? I bring into play a mix of tools from permaculture, demography, social welfare and a whole host of things to ask a question that is necessarily too big for a perfect answer but still needs one - what's the best we can do?

I work from the assumption that while every region has stresses and strains, every region also has strengths that can be channelled and used. Some of these are universal - the capacity to divert urban and suburban food waste now going into landfills to fertility and small animal meat and egg production, for example. Some are regional - the reinvention of historic agricultural trends like wool and lamb production in the cold, rocky places where there is underutilized grazable land, clothing and meat on land, or the recreation of barley and hop production in some other places where local beer may provide calories, good cheer and a primary tradable resource that is likely to be desired, Some involved exploration of potentials - what kinds of corn or new crops should be grown in places where summer rainfall is likely to dry up?

It isn't an exact science, and it never will be - but it is both fascinating and necessary. We can't be blinded to the real and functional food challenges facing us, but neither can we despair based on those challenges - if only because if we don't act, we will create the disaster we fear. There is much to be hopeful and optimistic about as well, and what we really need is a clear and honest picture of what can and can't be accomplished, and where we can create the greatest impacts and best infrastructure now to pass down in an uncertain future.

My hope is that my work on this will also inspire other people to begin gathering and doing this work - some people already are, as in the area around Totnes in the UK. But every area where people live needs this kind of analysis, and a plan for the future and the present. While I enjoy doing this work for others, love the in-depth exploration of regional food systems and meeting the people taking the steps for their place already, the people who will do it best are those who live in the places doing the analysis already.

The learning curve on this is not small - my own background in demography, food, agriculture and energy has been stretched here - but then again, what's life for if you don't stretch yourself. I'm thinking about ways to share my experience here, and hopefully enable others to do this work for their place. I'd love to see every local sustainability group putting together a real sense of what their place can contribute to the larger project of keeping people fed. In that interest, I wonder - would there be enough interest in a class on how to do such analysis for me to run one?


Editorial Notes: Graphic is from Eat Local resource guide and directory for Boulder, Colorado. -BA

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