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Rethinking Canada’s northern food systems: A basis for achieving zero hunger

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© Ken MADSEN / WWF-Canada

This article originally appeared in The Circle: Sustainable Development Goals. The Circle shares perspectives from across the Arctic, and the views expressed here are not necessarily those of WWF. See all Circle issues here.

The traditional food systems of Canada’s Arctic Indigenous Peoples have changed considerably over the years. Once reliant almost exclusively on animal fat and protein harvested from the land and sea, Indigenous Peoples now depend on a mix of traditional foods (e.g., fish, caribou, seal) and imports from southern Canada. While the harvest of traditional foods is still important for nutritional, cultural and economic reasons, Indigenous communities increasingly rely on commercially made products. DAVID NATCHER explains.

This new reliance on imported foods has resulted in a food crisis in northern Canada. This crisis is most prominent among Inuit, who have the highest rate of food insecurity for any Indigenous population in a developed country, with Inuit youth being particularly vulnerable. While the factors behind northern food insecurity are complex, the high price of food is often implicated as a contributing factor.

To help reduce the cost of food in the north, the Canadian government runs the Nutrition North Program (NNP), which was introduced in 2011 to make healthy foods more accessible by providing food transportation subsidies to retailers. In 2016, the NNP provided CAD$65 million ($US5.2 million) in subsidies to ship 25.5 million kg of food to northern Canadian communities. This subsidy included CAD$11.3 million ($US9 million) to transport 4.3 million kg of meat, poultry and fish.

While the NNP’s intentions are commendable, the program has yet to overcome a number of challenges. For example, food quality is often compromised because of the long times and distances involved in transporting it; the quality of perishable foods, such as fresh produce, is often affected to the point of being unappealing or unacceptable to consumers. As well, many of the transported foods, such as beef, chicken and pork, are not the kinds of foods that Canada’s northern Indigenous Peoples traditionally eat.

At the same time, food producers operating in northern Canada are exporting more than 75 million kg of fish and other marine products every year to international markets (see map). Across Canada’s eastern Arctic, there are commercial producers of Arctic char, cold-water shrimp, Greenland halibut and several other marine species. In addition, the Yukon has boosted its agricultural production—including vegetables, poultry and livestock—and developed successful aquaculture facilities. The Northwest Territories has also experienced growth in agriculture and poultry production. These industries are producing large volumes of food that are culturally compatible with Indigenous/ local food preferences and have high market value.

But a host of social, economic, logistical and political obstacles make local and regional distribution of these foods challenging. Industries located along the production chain tend to be fragmented and uncoordinated. This has led to an over-reliance on raw exports, bottlenecking of southern distribution points, and limited innovation in primary and secondary product development. The need to adhere to government processing and inspection standards has further limited opportunities for local processing and distribution. As a result, the vast majority of foods produced in northern Canada are exported to other North American, Asian and European markets instead of feeding people in the region.

If Canada is to achieve Zero Hunger (SDG #2) by 2030, it will need to rethink its northern food system. While eliminating imports of commercial foods entirely is neither realistic nor desirable, it is possible to lessen the reliance on them in part by redirecting some portion of current food exports to meet local food needs. Doing so would mean reorienting the food production chain from predominantly north-tosouth to north-to-north distribution.

This could be done by bringing Arctic food producers together with governments, Indigenous communities, universities, research centres, vocational training providers and industry associations with the shared aim of increasing community access to foods produced in the north.
Other strategies could involve business incubation, networking and collaborative research in economics, logistics, biotech development and by-product utilization.

By providing the necessary support to northern food producers, we can recast Canada’s north as a food-producing region where opportunities for economic development and food security are achieved simultaneously.

DAVID NATCHER is a professor and Centennial Research Chair in Arctic Food Security in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of Saskatchewan.

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