Blog: Addressing northern food insecurity

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Food security is an issue in communities across the North. Here, Pauline Kadjuk, 1, is carried in a Amautik by her mother Brittany Ikulik, middle, while paying for groceries at the Northern store in the small town of Baker Lake, Nunavut. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)
Food security is an issue in communities across the North. Here, Pauline Kadjuk, 1, is carried in a Amautik by her mother Brittany Ikulik, middle, while paying for groceries at the Northern store in the small town of Baker Lake, Nunavut. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)
The challenge of northern food security is not new, but awareness on the issue has been growing, thanks to efforts from local activists.

The main reasons for current food insecurity in the North can be narrowed down to a few main factors: the transition from subsistence to wage economies and the resulting decline of local harvesting of meat, fish and berries; the high cost of groceries due to small, remote markets and difficulty of transport; local preferences for salty, sugary and fatty processed foods; and the relative poverty of northern inhabitants.

One recent response to the problem has come from the Council of Canadian Academies, which was asked by Health Canada to put together an expert panel to assess the state of knowledge on the issue. Amongst its many findings was that northern indigenous households experience some of the worst food insecurity in the developed world, particularly in Nunavut, where 35% of households are severely food insecure. The panel, disappointingly, failed to offer policy recommendations. But it usefully documented the spectrum of food security solutions being adopted across the North. These fall broadly into short term, medium term and long term solutions.

Short Term Reactions, Long Term Solutions

Short term solutions tend to address hunger, and include things such as school lunch programs, food banks, and community freezers. While these are critical in addressing the most immediate needs of the northern poor, they address only the symptoms of food insecurity, not its root causes.

Medium term solutions include nutrition awareness programs that seek to promote healthier eating choices; and Nutrition North Canada’s subsidy program, which reduces the retailers’ costs of importing healthy perishable goods to the North with the savings passed on to the consumer. Nutrition North Canada replaced the federal food mail program in 2011 and has been a lighting rod for criticism. The Canadian Auditor General is set to provide a full review of the efficacy and impact of the program; however early academic reviews indicate it has succeeded in decreasing the cost of perishable goods, though previously subsidized non-perishable and household items have gone up sharply in cost.

Long term solutions aim to address the sustainability of the northern food economy. It is frustratingly obvious that we have had very few successes on that front to date. Traditional harvesting activities continue to decline, and are lowest among the North’s bulging youth demographic, ensuring the trend will continue. The dominant policy discussion in northern Canada revolves around improving, enhancing and/or expanding food subsidies, a solution which would do little more than perpetuate the status quo for the next generation. Is there a better way?

In broad strokes, a long term solution would do one of three things: 1) increase the amount of country food that is harvested and consumed; 2) establish a local agricultural sector; or 3) drastically improve the efficacy of importing southern foods to the North.

Country Foods

Consumption of country foods has been going down dramatically in northern Canada. One study found, for example, that between 1999 and 2008, it declined from 23% to 16% of total energy contribution in Inuit households.

There are a number of reasons for this decline. Harvesting is extremely time consuming, and not conducive to an increasingly urban/settled modern lifestyle that expects children to be in school and adults to be in wage employment. It is also an expensive activity that often relies on income generated from other sources, such as wages, to subsidize the expense related to snow machines, gasoline, trucks and bullets. Finally, it is a skill that younger generations are less practiced in and subsequently not as adept at as their forebears. In short, in a modern economy, country foods will at best complement, not replace, market foods.

That said, just about everyone recognizes the importance of country food from both a cultural and nutritional standpoint and so it makes sense to devise a food system in which it plays a more prominent role. Introducing a market system for traditional foods may provide a way to make it more economically sustainable. The James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, for example, established a Hunters Income Security program in the 1970s to support harvesting activities. However participation in that program has dropped from 45% of eligible participants in the late 1970s to just 15% in the late 2000s. Perhaps a better model can be found in Greenland, where the commercial harvesting of local products, for example with their Kalaaliminerniarfiit and food processing industry, has led to less reliance on food imports and an opportunity to earn income.

The idea of selling country foods is anathema to many indigenous groups, where sharing the harvest amongst the community, and ensuring no one goes hungry, is a cultural and spiritual imperative. Realistically however, relying on a food sharing system is not working, especially in larger communities, and especially for women and children, who are much more vulnerable to hunger.

Local Agriculture

While interventions that reverse the decline of traditional harvesting should be a priority, they would not be a solution in and of themselves. Developing a local agricultural sector has tremendous potential not only in addressing food security issues but in improving the regional economy and creating jobs.

There are two good reasons northern Canada has an extremely limited agricultural sector: culture and weather. First, there is little tradition of agriculture in northern Canada, as indigenous groups long sustained themselves across the region through hunting and gathering – an inherently nomadic activity. Looking at the history of humankind, agriculture is something that societies do when they settle. Northern Canada has only been settled for a few decades and imports of southern food started to arrive as soon as that happened. So uniquely, we now have villages and towns with no local agricultural food production.

It has been argued that agriculture is foreign to traditional ways. However there are many interesting examples of indigenous agriculture across North and South America before contact, and many Arctic societies in Europe and Asia centre around reindeer husbandry, a type of agricultural production. So it is certainly conducive to an indigenous worldview.

What would agriculture in the Arctic look like? There are excellent examples in Iceland, Alaska, Russia and elsewhere – just about every Arctic country except Canada has a substantial northern agricultural sector, and there are pockets of it here too, especially in the Yukon and increasingly the NWT. Cold weather crops like potatoes, cabbage and carrots are already common features of northern diets, a relic of gardening at early Christian missions.

As for the weather, new technologies allow us to grow anything anywhere using greenhouses. With the right amount of light and heat, we could grow bananas in Frobisher Bay. The key of course is the cost of the energy it would take to do so, but improvements in LED lighting, construction insulation, and non-hydrocarbon energy development will make greenhouse production in the North increasingly practicable. A number of community greenhouses have already sprung up across the north, demonstrating its feasibility; more sophisticated operations could contribute substantially to food security in the medium term. We literally have the technology, developed in Canada, to grow crops in outer space. We need to start applying it in the Arctic.

Importing Food

There are few communities left in the planet that don’t import some food stuffs – our plates would be pretty boring without it. Since perishable goods are particularly difficult and expensive to transport and market to the Arctic, it makes sense to concentrate on harvesting and growing fresh foods, while continuing to import non-perishables. But it would help tremendously if the cost of those goods decreased dramatically too. This would require huge investments in infrastructure and shifts in northern economies of scale that are largely dependent on global trends and activities. A growth in Arctic shipping, use of drones, and more efficient market systems have potential impact, but it is hard to predict, and even harder to influence, such trends.

A Ministry for Food

The catch in all of this is that no one – no office, no ministry, and no level of government – has responsibility for food, with the consequence that food policy is not only difficult to articulate, but almost impossible to implement. At the federal level, the Departments of Health, Agriculture & Agri-Food, and Aboriginal Affairs & Northern Development all assume some responsibility, but subsequently no one has assumed enough to provide real leadership on the issue. The same problems arise in provincial and territorial governments. Food policy is an obvious arena for government intervention but in Canada, a sorely lacking one, demonstrating the many pitfalls of a federated system.

Expecting the status quo of moderate transportation subsidies to produce different food security outcomes in the North is not a policy. Our best hope, therefore, is probably for market solutions to emerge at the local level. But this could take decades unless and until some coordinated public leadership is shown on this issue. The challenges around northern food security are no longer a mystery; the way forward remains one.

To read more of Heather Exner-Pirot’s blogs, click here

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Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot

Heather Exner-Pirot is a Research Associate at the Observatoire de la politique et la sécurité de l'Arctique (OPSA) and the managing editor of the Arctic Yearbook. She has held positions at the University of Saskatchewan, the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development and the University of the Arctic. She completed her doctoral degree in political science at the University of Calgary in 2011. She has published extensively in Arctic and northern governance, human security, and Indigenous economic development. Read Heather Exner-Pirot’s articles

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