Location: Food Systems Research Unit2021 Annual Report
Objective 1. Develop the intellectual framework for an integrated program that addresses how animal food systems can provide nutritious and culturally appropriate foods that may be used to create healthy diets and reduce the risk of chronic disease while maximizing economic return to producers. The program will emphasize human nutrition/health, animal agricultural production, and value-added processing within the context of economic, environmental, and social sustainability. [NP 107: C1 PS1a, C2 PS2b, C3 PS3b] Objective 2. Ensure integration of research with project “Increasing Small-Farm Viability, Sustainable Production and Human Nutrition in Plant-Based Food Systems of the New England States” in a manner that allows connectivity between all components as well as overall analysis, assessment, integration and modelling of all data. [NP 107: C1 PS1a, C2 PS2b, C3 PS3b] Objective 3. Develop appropriate linkages and cooperation within and between the USDA-ARS and the University of Vermont, for the purpose of forming an integrated Food Systems program. These include integrated data systems, analytical capabilities, and the capacity to conduct human clinical trials. [NP 107: C1 PS1a, C2 PS2b, C3 PS3b]
Food systems are interconnected sets of elements that work together to produce, process, distribute, store, sell, and prepare food. They include the upstream activities that support production, such as the creation of farm inputs. They also include downstream activities, such as human nutrition, consumer choice and the disposal or recycling of food waste. This project addresses the ecological sustainability and economic vitality of animal systems in the New England region with the goal of enhancing both public health and sustainable farming practices. To this end, this project will determine how the environmental and economic outcomes of animal systems can be improved while simultaneously enhancing the quality of human diets and improving health outcomes. Research activities will focus on a range of scales, from individuals, such as farmers and consumers, to geographic regions, such as watersheds and foodsheds. In addition, the project will explore how systems change over time. Three overarching questions will guide the Unit’s research on animal systems. First, how can animal systems leverage opportunities for ecological synergies, such as relying on perennial forages or food byproducts, while maintaining or improving economic viability? Second, how can inclusion of animal products in diets encourage consumption of foods lacking in the U.S. diet, such as whole grains, complete protein sources, fruits, and vegetables? And third, how can plant based farming systems interact with animal-production based systems, to improve sustainability and reduce environmental impacts? Research scientists on this project will utilize systems thinking and participatory approaches, like group model building. In addition, the Unit will develop a state-of-the-art facility for computational modeling and data visualization with the ability to link to other data sources and computing resources. To create effective collaborations with the University of Vermont and stakeholder partners, the Research Unit will identify on-going efforts to understand and improve the ecological, economic, and social sustainability of New England food systems. This process will help ARS staff to design strategic research that answers key questions or integrates data in new ways that lead to transformative improvements in U.S. Food Systems.
The Food Systems Research Unit (FSRU), Burlington, Vermont, was established in December 2020. In pursuit of Objective 1, the Research Leader (RL) wrote a concept note to sketch the general direction for research he will direct under this project. This work will use computer models to explore how food systems must change to support good nutrition, public health, and rural economies while keeping livestock production within ecologically sustainable boundaries. The concept note outlines the research goals and approach, and these ideas will be described in greater detail in FY2022 as part of developing a Project Plan. In pursuit of Objective 2, the RL and National Program Leaders (NPL)s for Human Nutrition and Natural Resources initiated a biweekly meeting schedule to ensure that the research plans for this project are integrated and complementary to those of the project, “Increasing Small-Farm Viability, Sustainable Production and Human Nutrition in Plant-Based Food Systems of the New England States.” In pursuit of Objective 3, the University of Vermont (UVM), the Northeast Area office Associate Area Director (AAD), and the RL work together on the Objective 3 research goals. The AAD oversees the research and strategic planning and implementation of UVM activities related to the Center and works closely with the RL of the FSRU. The AAD and RL initiated weekly meetings to coordinate their efforts towards creating an integrated food systems program across the two organizations. UVM has also identified two faculty members to serve on interview panels for the FSRU nutritionist and social scientist positions. Additionally, UVM has initiated three research activities that will foster the development of an integrated research program: First, UVM has worked collaboratively with ARS to coordinate dairy system sustainability projects that would jointly engage ARS and UVM scientists through joint post-doctorate hires. A search for six post-doctorates was announced as a cluster hire in May 2021, and the recruitment is underway. Second, UVM recruited three additional post-doctorates to work on food systems projects relevant to the goals of the Unit and the Cooperative Agreement, including (a) food systems sustainability metrics and indicators, (b) food systems, food security, and nutrition impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and (c) grass-based dairy systems productivity and nutrition. Third, UVM began inventorying all food systems research at UVM over the past ten years to understand available datasets better, facilitate networking between UVM and ARS scientists, understand UVM research strengths, and identify areas of potential research focus.