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Imagining a Just Transition in Western Mass Part IV

Part IV: Food

By Sarah Field

Sarah Field’s five part series on imagining a just transition in Western Massachusetts will consider housing, land, transportation, energy, food, work and education over the course of the week. This is Part IV, which will cover food. You can read Part I, Part II, and Part III. This series is published in collaboration with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative by over 250 outlets to cover climate change in the lead up to the U.N. climate summit on September 23rd.


The production and distribution of the food we eat has a critical impact on the climate, and changing our food systems will play a key role in a just transition. Conversations about our food system exist at the intersections of questions about climate, land use, labor rights, equitable access, animal rights, and public health. While we wrestle with the question, “how do we transform our food system to mitigate climate change and other environmental problems?” we also need to hold the questions, “how do we make sure that everyone has affordable access to nourishing and appropriate food?” (15% of people in New England currently experience food insecurity) and “how do we consider the rights of workers, the humane treatment of animals, and the viability and adaptability of farms in a changing climate?” 

Claire Morenon, Communications Manager at CISA (Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture) emphasizes that, “in the long term, moving to a less extractive system and providing food to more people are not at odds.” Referencing the recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Land Use and Climate Change, she pointed out that moving to a plant-forward diet, reducing food waste, and shifting to agricultural practices such as no-till and silvopasture (see “Snapshot: The UMass Carbon Farming Project”) are some of the biggest levers for climate change mitigation, and that these actions would also change the way we allocate and use resources, providing more food to more people. 

Morenon points out that, in the short term, the cost of transitioning farming practices to more sustainable and climate-forward approaches is currently prohibitive for many local small farmers, who are struggling to survive in a global food system that suppresses food prices. “Change costs money,” she explains, “and local farmers are competing with farmers around the world, who are using highly extractive practices. Just saying ‘you should switch to no-till practices,’ is not helpful, because making this transition is not something that most farmers could immediately do and not go out of business.” Morenon emphasizes that structural programs such as agricultural subsidies impact farming practices, and that providing subsidies and technical support to farmers to help them transition to new practices in a way that is economically viable would be critical to any transformation of our food system. 

“Shipping food around the world is not a good environmental practice,” Morenon explains, referencing the emissions involved in transport. In 2014, Food Solutions New England released a report called A New England Food Vision, “A bold vision that calls for our region to build the capacity to produce at least 50% of our food by 2060 while supporting healthy food for all, sustainable farming and fishing, and thriving communities.” The report provides policy recommendations that included the redirection of federal agriculture subsidies, a living wage for workers, environmental regulations and incentive programs, the protection of farmland and forests through programs that purchase easements from landowners, and an investment in distribution networks that directly connect farmers and fisherpeople with customers. While this report offers a promising vision, it emphasizes that about three times as much land (15% of the region, or 6 million acres) would need to be used to produce food, and that this land would need to be densely focused in and around cities and on abandoned rural farmland in order to protect existing forests. It will also require a shift in what and how we eat.

Livestock emit between 14.5 and 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane), and the large-scale production of beef and other meats often requires extensive clearing of forested land, reducing the planet’s capacity to draw carbon back into the ground, and is also resource-intensive in other ways, including the use of water and transport. According to the New England Food Vision report, only about 5% of beef consumed in New England is produced here (mostly culled dairy cows), “but the feed grain for these animals is almost entirely imported, so their acreage footprint falls outside the region.” Project Drawdown, a global research organization that identifies promising climate strategies, states that “According to a 2016 study, business-as-usual emissions could be reduced by as much as 70 percent through adopting a vegan diet and 63 percent for a vegetarian diet, which includes cheese, milk, and eggs. $1 trillion in annual health-care costs and lost productivity would be saved.” On a local and individual level, this means that people with the privilege to make choices about their diets  could be taking steps to move toward reducing meat consumption and increasing our consumption of locally or regionally produced plant foods, including plant proteins such as beans and legumes. In addition to making personal choices about the consumption of animal products, one concrete shift we could make locally is to shift institutional food services, such as the meals provided in schools and hospitals, to emphasize locally sourced and nutritionally balanced vegetarian options. Not only would this contribute to climate mitigation, it would improve public health and animal welfare, increase our regional food security, and reduce our participation in a factory farming industry known for its harmful working conditions and exploitation of labor.

Snapshot: The UMass Carbon Farming Project

On a plot of land in Amherst, a small flock of sheep roam and graze near rows of small chestnut trees and a variety of other plants. This farm, led by UMass’ Stockbridge School of Agriculture faculty members Lisa DePiano and Nicole Burton and a revolving team of students, was established in 2018 as a research and demonstration site for the use of silvopasture in New England. Silvopasture is the combination of livestock, trees, and forage plants to create an integrated system that produces food while sequestering carbon in the soil. In the case of the UMass Carbon Farm, the chestnut trees will provide shade for the sheep, and the sheep will fertilize the chestnut trees and other plants. Through photosynthesis, the trees take in carbon dioxide and send it down into the soil, where it attracts microorganisms that help to keep the carbon in the soil rather than sending it back into the atmosphere. The trees, sheep, and other plants provide food for the local community.

Project Drawdown has ranked silvopasture as the third most promising food-related strategy for mitigating climate change (behind the reduction of food waste and the transition to a plant-forward diet), and the top agricultural solution. Currently, livestock production contributes about 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, largely due to the methane that cattle and other animals produce during digestion and the carbon released via overgrazing and clearing of land. Drawdown’s website states:

Pastures strewn or crisscrossed with trees sequester five to ten times as much carbon as those of the same size that are treeless, storing it in both biomass and soil…We estimate that silvopasture is currently practiced on 351 million acres of land globally. If adoption expands to 554 million acres by 2050—out of the 2.7 billion acres theoretically suitable for silvopasture—carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced by 31.2 gigatons.

While the UMass farm currently operates on a relatively small scale, it plays an important role as a research site and educational resource for expanding the use of silvopasture in our region. In addition to educating UMass agriculture students in silvopasture approaches, the project is also focused on identifying the best types of blight-resistant chestnut trees to grow in this region, sharing plants and knowledge with local farmers through workshops and technical support, and conducting research on the impacts of silvopasture to inform policy and state-level incentives. The farm is operating a small chestnut tree nursery, and plans to provide chestnut trees for free to people, with the request that people tithe chestnuts back. Lisa DePiano also shared the vision that regional farmers could pool resources to construct a cooperatively owned chestnut processing facility that can produce nutritious, gluten-free chestnut flour. She points out that chestnuts are a nourishing food source that used to be a regional staple until the chestnut blight in the early 1900s, and that 90% of the chestnuts we currently eat are imported from China.

DePiano emphasizes that silvopasture is not a new practice—in fact, it is a return to traditional food production and land management practices that Native people in this region were practicing before colonization. She also points out that the UMass farm is on occupied Native territory [Nipmuck, Wabanaki Confederacy, and Pocumtuc], and that the industrial farming practices that have caused the greatest harm to the soil and the climate are tools and products of colonization and ongoing exploitation. She explains, “Right now our food system is based on annual vegetables, which we have to till every year. And it’s an industrial food system that’s heavily mechanized and relies on machinery and exploitative labor. It’s actually one of the biggest contributors to climate change. So how can we grow food in a way that’s just, and in a way that is producing food and storing/sequestering carbon?”

Sarah Field is a person who likes trees, dogs, and snacks. She lives in Northampton. Artwork by Anya Klepacki, whose show “If the Future of This World Can’t Be Depended On, I’ll Make My Own” was featured in The Shoestring earlier this year.

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