David Natcher, professor in the department of Agriculture and Resource Economics

Solving food issues in the Arctic

Wild food could help solve food insecurity in the North

Across the Arctic there is a food crisis. The hope of getting anything fresh is remote. If a shipment of food from the South is delayed, food prices steadily rise day after day—a can of tuna can sell for as much as eight dollars. For all the beauty found in the Arctic, the food crisis certainly paints an ugly picture. 

“For me, as a visiting researcher this is an inconvenience but these conditions are tragic for northern residents who have become increasingly food insecure,” said David Natcher, professor in the Department of Agriculture and Resource Economics.

Because of cost, quality or availability, “it is nearly impossible for northerners to purchase a healthy food basket from commercial outlets,” said Natcher, a research chair at the Global Institute for Food Security. “When Inuit elders are forced to scavenge in the Iqaluit dump, you know there is a problem.”

A plate full of problems

Food insecurity in the North is an issue Natcher has been looking at for a number of years. Back in 2014, he was part of an expert panel commissioned through Health Canada, which explored the issues of food security to determine the scope of the problem in the North.

Natcher said the panel’s report revealed a dire situation. “Some of the starker findings include that Aboriginal households across Canada experience food insecurity at a rate four times the Canadian national average,” Natcher explained. “Fifty-four per cent of Aboriginal households in Canada are considered food insecure.”

The Inuit population in Nunavut has the highest food insecurity rate for any Aboriginal population in a developed country—90 per cent of Inuit children regularly experience conditions of hunger, with as many as 60 per cent often going an entire day without eating, Natcher said.

“The health implications stemming from these conditions include increased rates in anaemia and delayed physical and social development, high prevalence of diabetes, and increasing rates of obesity.”

The report also noted that access to wild foods by Aboriginal peoples can help in significant ways to mitigate these conditions, while providing for the nutritional, social and psychological needs of the Indigenous population.

“We found that those households that have regular access to wild foods are significantly less vulnerable to food insecurity and health related illness. Unfortunately, Aboriginal access to wild foods is not being achieved by all households in the North,” he said.

There are myriad reasons for this, including changing dietary preferences within Aboriginal populations, changes in the physical environment, cost and limited household incomes, changing employment patterns, resource extraction, and climate change.

“While the factors limiting Aboriginal access to wild foods are complex and don’t have simplistic causation, Canada has the resources to fix this problem… But it will take political, public and local will to make the positive changes that are necessary.”

Into the wild

Natcher believes the commercialization of wild food represents a partial solution to food insecurity in the North.

More attention needs to be paid to the localization of country food such as caribou, seal, char, duck, muskox and other northern agriculture, he said. “This could lessen reliance on food from the South,” which is a big part of the food insecurity problem in the North to begin with.

In March 2016, Natcher was asked by the Arctic Council–Sustainable Development Working Group to lead an international research project on the opportunities and constraints to the commercialization of wild foods in the Arctic.

The project will assess the potential for increased production and added value of food from the Arctic, with the overarching aim of improving food security and enhancing the social and economic conditions of communities in the North.

“The top priorities of this project are food security and local economic development,” said Natcher. “At the end of three years we hope to have a plan in place that will lead to more sustainable and culturally appropriate food systems for northern communities that help to lessen their reliance on food from the South.”

Natcher, a cultural anthropologist by training, will collaborate with colleagues in the Colleges of Agriculture and Bioresources, Law, and the Edwards School of Business to address these complex challenges from a multidisciplinary perspective.

“Food producers in the Arctic regions are often faced with challenging environmental conditions, poor or costly infrastructure, limited entrepreneurial capacity, and long distances to export markets. Climate change is also creating additional uncertainties for commercial and wild food production systems,” said Natcher.

Full meal deal

Natcher believes that this project could partly address issues of food insecurity, and also bolster local economic development in some northern communities. “Once we can enhance food production in the North for the North, then we can look at creating links for North to South food production.”

However, Natcher said the group is aware how culture can affect the project’s success and will pay special attention to the unique situations and priorities in different regions of the Arctic.

“It will be necessary to consider whether new and commercially based food-producing markets are compatible with the cultural values of northern Indigenous peoples,” he said. “If they are not, commercial opportunities stand little chance of success—regardless of market demand. This can’t be another project where solutions are devised in the South and imposed in the North.”

Natcher acknowledged that the idea of commercializing wild foods in the Arctic is not new. Others have recognized the potential for making wild foods more readily available in northern commercial outlets. However, Natcher noted that a limitation of these past efforts has been the scale at which the issue has been addressed.

What sets this project apart, he said, “is the level of involvement from the local to the international levels.” This includes all major Arctic Indigenous Peoples’ organizations—Inuit Circumpolar Council, Gwich’in Council International, Arctic Athabaskan Council, Saami Council, Aleut International Association and Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North—and all Arctic member states—Canada, United States, Russia, Kingdom of Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland.

Through this level of involvement Natcher believes that the commercialization of wild foods can help to overcome the serious conditions that many northerners experience in gaining access to healthy, affordable and culturally appropriate foods.

The project is expected to be finished by March 2019.

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