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Food policy, solutions topics of COA conference

By Sharon Kiley Mack |

Experts on food issues helped participants at the Food For Thought, Time for Action seminar on sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, held Saturday at the College of the Atlantic on Mount Desert Island. They included (from left) Dr. Angelika Ploeger of Kassel University in Germany, Eliot Coleman, a Maine author and organic farmer, Ted Ames, a fisherman and fisheries researcher, and John Piotti (D-Unity), Maine's House Majority Leader and executive director of Maine Farmland Trust. Buy Photo

BAR HARBOR, Maine — Experts from around the world gathered this weekend at College of the Atlantic to find solutions to sustainable food, farming and fisheries production and to look for answers to feeding the people of Maine.

“We have gotten very, very good at describing the problem,” COA President David Hales said Saturday morning, referring to the gap between the world’s supply and demand for food. “We have been doing that for years.”

Rather than focusing on the problem, Hales said, the weekend seminars in the “Food for Thought, Time for Action” conference on sustainable food, farming and fisheries looked at taking the next steps.

Dr. Angelika Ploeger of Kassel University in Germany is an international expert on the supply and demand issue.

“America, Asia, Central Europe all consume more food than they produce,” Ploeger told a crowd of food experts, farmers, policymakers and educators. Compounding the problem, she said, is the loss of biodiversity and the depletion of global water.

“Fifty countries have severe to moderate water stress,” she said. Twenty-three percent of all global fresh water used is in agricultural production, 3.4 percent of that just to produce cane sugar, she said.

“We need to discuss what this means for agriculture,” she said.

Eliot Coleman, a Maine farmer and author, said that connecting the farmer with the solution is essential and that in Maine, the rebirth of small farms may be the answer. On his diversified organic farm in Harborside, he raises 35 crops and has gross returns of $80,000.

“Organic can feed the world,” he maintained.

Providing an overview of Maine’s fisheries was Ted Ames, a lobster, scallop and groundfisherman and researcher from Deer Isle. He talked of the importance of allowing the fishing communities to manage their own resources to restore stocks and refresh the fisheries.

“The freshest fish are caught locally, and access to local food is key to real freshness and quality,” he said.

Ames said one-third of Maine’s coast has been stripped of groundfish.

“All that are left are lobsters,” he said. “Without groundfish as a backup, Maine’s fisheries are doomed.”

Ames said Maine’s fishing industry is in transition, from a practice of just harvesting to making sure that the harvesting plan does not deplete or harm existing stocks.

He said a permit system is being created that would allow permits to be banked for local hook-and-line fishermen. Local markets also are being created.

“In the long term, we need area management here, from Port Clyde to Canada,” Ames said.

“We will eventually have a system of sustainable farming,” said state Rep. John Piotti, D-Unity. “We have no other choice.”

Piotti is the House majority leader and executive director of the Maine Farmland Trust.

“My fear is what will happen between now and then,” he said. “We know we need to grow and harvest more food, closer to home by more people. We need multiple distribution channels.”

But Maine already has a lot going on, he added.

“Maine is indicative of what is happening elsewhere,” Piotti said. “We have seen a great deal of growth in sustainable agriculture.”

Piotti said the number of farms in Maine is growing and the number of acres in production is increasing. “We may have the oldest population in the country, but we have the fifth-youngest farming population,” he said.

“There are a lot of players doing good things,” he said. “In Maine, the commodity and the local growers actually work together quite well, with the majority of the growth in the resurgence of local farms serving local markets. By and large, in Maine there is an understanding that agriculture has to embrace both sides.”

Some of the individual workshops held at COA were: food sovereignty, equitable access for all, research, education, food policies, sustainable grains, current food issues in Maine and community-based strategies.

The conference began Friday and was scheduled to wrap up Sunday afternoon.

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