If significant climate change occurs in the United States, it may be necessary to change where certain foods are produced in order to meet consumer demand, researchers say.
In a paper published online this week in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University provide an overview of current farmland use and food production in the Northeastern U.S., identifying potential vulnerabilities of the 12-state region.
“Food production in the United States is concentrated in certain areas, but it is important to explore the ability of all regions to produce food. This is certainly the case in the Northeast, which has both a high population density and a declining agricultural land base,” said Tim Griffin, Ph.D., associate professor and director of the Agriculture, Food and Environment program at the Friedman School. “For example, most of the country’s pork products come from Iowa and North Carolina, and most of the lettuce is grown in California’s Salinas Valley. Looking ahead, there is the potential for climate change to disrupt food production in those key areas. If irrigation in the Central Valley of California was reduced due to climate change, could other regions make up for that drop in production? And what is the capacity of the Northeast region to produce more?”
The authors evaluated the degree to which the Northeast can satisfy the food needs of its residents, a concept known as regional self-reliance. Their results are based on calculations of regional agricultural land use and production between 2001 and 2010. In that time, over 100 crops were harvested and livestock production involved all six major species. The authors’ estimates also include fish and shellfish.
Griffin led the research team that noted substantial diversity in the Northeast food system, for crops in particular.
“A different picture emerges when you look at the farmland acreage,” Griffin said in a statement. “A small number of crops occupy a large portion of the cropland acreage and almost 40% of that is corn, most of it used for animal feed. A small proportion of that acreage produces foods that people eat, such apples and potatoes, although much of it contributes indirectly by supporting livestock production systems.”
Griffin and colleagues found regional self-reliance to be highest for animal-based products, particularly milk and eggs. The region produces about as much fluid milk as it consumes and about 70 percent of the amount of eggs consumed. For seafood, the region produces 45 percent of the amount of shellfish it consumes and 23 percent of fish. Just under 30 percent of the amount of chicken consumed in the region is also produced there.
For vegetables, the region produces 26 percent of the amount of it consumes and for fruit, 18 percent. The vegetable crops grown in the largest amount are starchy products such as potatoes and corn. Within the fruit category, the region is most self-reliant for berries, primarily blueberries and cranberries.
Regional self-reliance in the Northeast will likely be impacted by two other factors: population growth and dietary choice. The U.S. Department of Commerce predicts that there will be an additional two million people living in the Northeast by 2030 (an increase of about 3 percent). “
Regional self-reliance would be impacted if there were to be a shift toward eating more in line with the federal dietary guidelines, which emphasize fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products,” Griffin noted.
The authors say that agricultural growth in the region will be challenging because of land use patterns. More than half of the region’s total farmland is located in Pennsylvania and New York, with Maryland accounting for an approximate additional 20 percent. Another barrier is the limited supply chain infrastructure, which hampers packaging and distribution.
The 12 Northeast states included in the study are: Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia.