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ARS Home » Northeast Area » Burlington, Vermont » Food Systems Research Unit » Research » Research Project #440137

Research Project: Increasing Small-Farm Viability, Sustainable Production and Human Nutrition in Plant-Based Food Systems of the New England States

Location: Food Systems Research Unit

2021 Annual Report

Objective 1. Improving Production Systems: Develop data-informed small-farm strategies to improve the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of crop production systems based on research that considers feedback from value-added processors, informed consumers, and potential impact on nutritional/health outcomes. [NP 216 components 1c, 2a, 3b, 3c] Objective 2. Enhancing Value Added Processing: Develop innovative solutions for specialty value-added processes and products to improve consumer health outcomes as well as economic, environmental, and social sustainability of the food system, while informing consumer choice and diversified production system management. [NP 216 components 2b, 2c] Objective 3. Optimizing Consumer Outcomes: Production systems and value-added processing will be tied to consumer preferences, product nutrition, food safety and potential impacts on public health, thus enabling consumers to make safe, healthy, and informed food choices and facilitating targeted research for the improvement of production systems, food processing, and development and delivery of new products. [NP 216 component 3c] Objective 4. Data Integration: 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, including integrated data systems, comprehensive models, and submitting a proposal for becoming part of the Long-Term Agroecosystem Research (LTAR) network. [NP 216 components 1d, 2b, 3b, 3c]

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 the disposal or recycling of food waste. This project will contribute towards improving human nutrition, ecological sustainability and economic viability of plant-based food systems in the New England States. To this end, the project scientists will work together with the University of Vermont, and other collaborators, to explore how the region can simultaneously improve diets through delivery of satisfying, culturally-appropriate, plant-based foods that are simultaneously affordable, sustainable, and support viable farms and food businesses. Research activities will focus at a range of scales, from individual actors, such as farmers and consumers, to larger geographic areas, such as watersheds or foodsheds. In addition, the unit will explore how systems change over time. Three overarching questions will guide the Unit’s research on plant-based food systems. First, how can different components across sectors of the food system encourage intake of healthy foods, such as whole grains, pulses, fruits, and vegetables, while also improving the overall quality of the diet and associated health outcomes? Second, how can plant-based food systems increase biological productivity and economic viability while also leveraging opportunities for reduced environmental impact, such as exploiting ecological synergies from integrated crop-livestock systems? And third, how can plant based farming systems interact with animal-production based systems, to improve sustainability and reduce environmental impacts? 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 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.

Progress Report
The Food Systems Research Unit (FSRU), Burlington, Vermont, was established in December 2020. In pursuit of Objectives 1, 2, and 3, the Research Leader (RL) wrote a concept note to sketch the general direction for research he will undertake for this project. This work will explore the roles local and regional food systems play in increasing farm viability, enhancing the sustainability of production for plant-based foods, and improving human nutrition. 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. Additionally, the RL has begun collaborating with the New England Feeding New England: Cultivating A Reliable Food Supply Project (NEFNE). The New England State Food System Planners Partnership leads the NEFNE project intending to increase regional production for regional consumption. The RL sees strong potential for stakeholder-relevant research through this collaboration. Additionally, three other activities were initiated that will support data integration and collaboration between the FSRU and the University of Vermont (UVM). The RL coordinated with the National Program Leader (NPL) to explore the possibility of the Burlington location joining the Partnership for Data Innovation (PDI). This included meetings with the lead scientist of PDI and the Dean of the UVM College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the AD of the Food Systems Center. UVM awarded seven grants (up to $75,000 each) to enable interdisciplinary teams to develop white papers to envision the metrics and indicators necessary to measure and document sustainability outcomes in small and medium farms, food businesses and food systems. This research will help to determine a common set of metrics for FSRU scientists and UVM faculty to use in evaluating food systems.