Farmers, fishermen can play roles in solving declining resources, say experts

By George S. Chappell | May 21, 2013

Camden — Blues singer Fats Domino once asked in a song, “Whatcha gonna to do when the well runs dry?”

His solution, in the song at least, was to take a walk.

The 86 or so registered attendees at the food and climate change symposium at the First Congregational Church of Camden May 4 had pretty much the same question as Domino, but they were looking for better answers to a complex question.

Sponsored by the Congregational Church, the Midcoast Friends Peace Center of Damariscotta and the 2014 Camden Conference, the all-day symposium focused on the most pressing food and environmental issues coming up in the next few decades.

The Camden Conference, founded in 1987 as a nonprofit non-partisan educational organization, took part because its next conference in 2014 will be on “The Global Politics of Food and Water.”

Organizers put together a slate of experts from Maine and across the nation.

“The symposium is part of the Peace Center’s environmental activities,” said Rockland resident Brewster Grace, one of the organizers and a member of the Midcoast Friends Meeting. “The Congregational Church collaborated with us because of similar interests and concerns.”

Joined by Quaker Anne D. “Andy” Burt and Congregationalists John Hufnagel and Bruce Cole, the group gathered an array of speakers that kept the audience listening and asking questions all day.

Speakers included keynote presenter Molly Anderson, Partridge Chair holder in Food and Sustainable Agriculture Systems at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor; Seth Shames of EcoAgricultural Partners in Washington, D.C.; and Doreen Stabinsky, professor of Global Environment Politics at College of the Atlantic.

In addition, Julia Olmstead of the University of Wisconsin spoke on the U.S. Farm Bill and global warming.

Timothy Griffin of Tufts University spoke on the effect of climate change on farmlands and Jeffrey Runge of the School of Marine Sciences at University of Maine’s Gulf of Maine Research Institute talked about the effect on fishing resources. Runge included a 27-page Power Point presentation of graphs, charts and photographs to support his talk.

Robin Alden, former Maine Commissioner of Marine Resources and current director of the Penobscot East Resource Center serving 50 fishing communities, and John Jemison of the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, addressed challenges and responses to climate change in the fisheries and on the farms.

First District Congresswoman Chellie Pingree participated through her field representative Kyle Moulton, who talked about what must be done in response to climate change.

What can be done?

Keynote speaker Anderson summed up the problem of feeding ourselves when the population is growing, critical resources per capita are shrinking and distribution of food is deteriorating.

“Our food system is completely reliant on fossil fuels at every stage — fossil fuels that we cannot burn without increasing global climate change,” she said. “We burn seven calories of fossil fuel for every calorie we produce.”

Adding to the complexity of the problem is biofuel production taking over land that was previously used for growing food in poor countries. Soy and corn, previously staple crops in poor countries, are now being manufactured into alternative biofuels.

Anderson said dealing with climate change and food insecurity also require understanding of public education on contraception in remote parts of the world, with a goal of stabilizing the population at 9 billion, restoring degraded landscapes or fisheries, changing people’s behavior by encouraging them to consume less or consume differently, coping with rising numbers of refugees from natural disaster areas and growing adequate amounts of healthy food.

Anderson said food prices have surged during the past five years to place food out of reach for many poor people.

Griffin, of Tufts, cited a local example of change: earlier “ice-out” dates, earlier spring floods, a longer growing season and more rain.

“Maine does not exist in a bubble,” Griffin cautioned.

Climate change will affect agriculture through higher temperature, greater crop water demand, more variable rainfall and extreme climate events such as heat waves, floods and droughts, according to a study by the international Food and Agriculture Organization.

The FAO said agriculture can become part of the solution by farmers addressing climate change. They can sequester, or absorb, carbon into the soil rather than emitting it. Such intervention would add greater resilience to drought and heat.

Ironically, the farmers who are under the greatest threat could be the major players in making the soils more productive, with such practices as adding organic content through conservation tillage and better planning of land use.

Countries such as China, Brazil and Kenya already practice “climate-smart agriculture,” said the FAO study.

Ocean waters changing

Oceanographer Runge presented a picture of a changing ocean in the Gulf of Maine, bordering Maine and Canadian waters. The changes prompt oceanographers to observe how the physical characteristics are changing and cite examples of possible ecosystem effects on the coast, particularly in primary production — zooplankton, fish and shellfish.

The mean sea surface temperature has been increasing in the past 100 years and more quickly in the past 10 years, Runge said, citing studies and graphs to support his statements.

Other changes include increased amounts of rainfall and river discharge. Four of the eight highest annual rainfall years in the past 100 years have occurred since 2004, Runge said.

Scientists are concerned about the effect of temperature on northern shrimp, Atlantic cod, American lobster and shellfish.

Oceanographers note the changing Gulf of Maine environment leads to uncertainty in local production of food from the sea and a need for information to make better management and business decisions.

The goal is to engage the fishing community, who are out on the water every day, to report what is changing and where better management can be made.

As with farmers, the practitioners — fishermen — can become part of the solution by observing conditions and managing the yield.

George Chappell is a contributing writer for Courier Publications.

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